The neoconservative camp, always eager to wrestle with imaginary positions of their opponents, is now bravely challenging another belief that no one holds, which is that “all cultures are equal.” George Mason University Professor Walter Williams has jumped aboard the “Western values are superior to all others” bandwagon and asks, “Is forcible female genital mutilation, as practiced in nearly 30 sub-Saharan Africa and Middle Eastern countries, a morally equivalent cultural value?” The neoconservative Clarion Project’s Douglas Murray takes the campaign directly to progressives by asking, “How many young girls’ clitorises had to bemutilated while they busily curated their left-wing credentials?”
This arrogant cultural trope is nothing new. The neoconservatives who brought us the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay have promoted the “inequality of cultures” idea throughout the War on Terror to justify militarism, invasion, torture, and systematic violation of international law. Sliding from “culture” to politics to statecraft, their ideological conceit is that “we,” the West, have an enduring tradition of protecting women, while “they,” the Middle Easterners, are so barbaric that they cut the clitorises off of women, and therefore our “culture” should govern their “culture.” But their sudden passion for Middle Eastern women’s rights—indeed, any women’s rights—must be taken with a shaker of salt.
Obviously, not all cultural values are equal in a moral sense. For example, a political culture of militarism and war, the kind that produced hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Iraq War, is inferior to a culture that prefers non-violence, diplomacy and peace, the kind that you might find in, say, Canada. Furthermore, where it occurs, in both Islamic and non-Islamic communities, female genital mutilation is indeed barbaric, savage, and backward and should be condemned as such.
But neoconservative fake-feminists only play the “pro-woman” game when it comes time to bash fanatical Islamists who happen not to be on our side in whatever war the neoconservatives are pushing. Thus, when our side made deals with Afghan tribal warlords who were none-averse to female genital mutilation, the neoconservatives fell silent, for their militarist “realism” always prevails over their rhetorical feminism.
Moreover, the neoconservatives are distinctly anti-woman when it comes time to allow grassroots democracy to flourish in the Mideast. I’ll show you what I mean.
They argue that “they,” the Middle Easterners, mutilate girls’ genitals and that “we,” the Westerners, don’t. What inanity. The West’s insipid, criminal Iraq War mutilated the genitals— not to mention the faces, necks, arms, and legs— of thousands of Iraqi women and girls, all after years of sanctions that killed thousands of Iraqi girls every month. Some may insist that these were necessary means to a righteous, democratic end, but the only meaningful “ends” thus far produced by the Western aggression in Iraq have been unyielding sectarian violence, car bombings and refugee camps. Please forgive me for not jumping up to high-five the feminist “liberators” who created this violent mess.
Ever since the Iranian Revolution, and especially since the induction of pre-Iran War hysteria, neoconservatives have also been fond of bashing Twelver Shiite misogyny as a decidedly backward, anti-Western phenomenon. Yet their beloved CIA, a beacon of Western “democracy building,” helped oust the democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 and enthrone the Shah, a far-from-enlightened dictator whose secret police force, the SAVAK, “tortured and murdered thousands” of political dissidents. Where were their sympathies for brutalized, displaced, and widowed Iranian women when that was happening?
Oh, and while they do the newly fashionable thing of bashing the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s very real chauvinism, it might be worth mentioning that the West has been siding with anti-female Egyptian tyranny ever since 1919 when, amid an anti-colonial struggle which eventually killed 800 Egyptians, Woodrow Wilson backed the British rule in Egypt even as native women “testified that British troops ‘leveled their weapons at us’” and violently suppressed the protests. Fast-forward to less than a decade ago when the United States decided to purchase Egyptian “stability” by propping up Hosni Mubarak’s government during its “systematic arrestand harassment of peaceful political activists” and “lethal” crackdown on both male and female asylum seekers. As we see, the long-standing tradition of Western devotion to democracy and feminism isn’t so pure.
Yes, we should condemn FGM and misogyny whenever it occurs at anyone’s hands in any culture. That’s not the dispute here. The dispute is whether or not the military interventions championed by the neoconservatives have proven more conducive to women’s empowerment than feminist and human rights struggles. Though it may be noise to pseudo-feminist militarists’ ears, the answer, resoundingly, is no.
This week, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette ran a story about the negative impact many churches are experiencing because of their positions on social issues— particularly gay marriage, contraceptives, and abortion rights. Young people are especially turned off. Of course, young people have been leaving the church for many years; this is not news. Most of young people I know really do not see the point in going to or belonging to a church. But what is news is that a lot of middle aged adults have dropped out of church as well. Like their children, they have come to view church as a pointless exercise; or worse, they view it as a negative influence. That is not to say these folks are not spiritual, but they view the church as more of a political institution than a spiritual one, and they view politics as bad.
Here in Pittsburgh one of the recurring issues has been whether the Catholic Church should have to pay for contraceptives for its employees. As in many cities, the Church here owns businesses such as hospitals and universities. When the ACA required all medical insurance plans to include reproductive health services, Bishop Zubic cried foul, and has continued to do so ever since. He stated plainly that religious organizations should not have to pay for services that violate their ethical code. He went so far as to say that President Obama was waging a war on the Church. Many church lay members have stood with him. The unfair requirement to use Church money for abortion would seem to be a valid complaint, except that it’s NOT the Church’s money! From the very beginning, this argument has been misrepresented and as a consequence the worker comes out on the short end.
When a person accepts employment there is a contract, whether written or implied, that she will give x number of hours of labor in exchange for certain compensation. That compensation is often a mix of salary and benefits. What she does with her compensation is her decision. The employer doesn’t say, “Betty, we agree to pay you $500 per week but you are not allowed to buy alcohol, cigarettes, or movie tickets.” It is generally understood that Betty can spend her pay as she likes because it’s HER money. Likewise, her benefits belong to her. If she gets a 401k, she can pick the investment she wants, because it’s HER money. And lastly, Betty should be able to use her health care benefits the way she chooses, because it’s HER money. She earned those benefits; they belong to her. It is not the Church’s money, it’s Betty’s.
There was a time when the Church was more friendly to the working class, although we note that the Vatican has routinely and continuously expressed support for workers in their struggles with their capitalist masters. So perhaps I should be more specifically pointing to the American Catholic leadership. We recall fondly Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. Where is today’s Day? Where is today’s Monsignor Charles Owen Rice, co-founder of the Catholic Radical Alliance? Rice was our labor priest here in Pittsburgh. He helped form the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists. But today’s Catholic leadership seems more aligned with the likes of Tom Monaghan, billionaire former owner of Domino’s Pizza. Monaghan is politically very conservative and he has a lot of money to give to the right Catholic charities. He even built and owns an entire town in Florida where merchants are prohibited from selling contraceptives. This seems to be the new model of the Church— if we can’t convince our members to follow our ethical code, let’s have the government do it for us. In this regard, the Church is not different from other right wing churches who want government to enforce morality. There are very wealthy right wingers out there who will give buckets of money to churches who will preach the Right gospel. Rather than trying to retain or grow their membership, the Church has opted to look for pots of money. I’m not saying it would be easy to stem the tide of people quitting church. People today don’t seem to want to join any organization, make any commitment. They especially don’t want to join political organizations. But, it would have been easy for Bishop Zubic to have told his parishioners, “Look, we pay our employees benefits. We don’t dictate how they use them.” But that’s not what is happening. Perhaps, as the Church is doing its business analysis it’s seeing that having a few very wealthy members is a better deal than a million poor members. That path will eventually turn the Church into a wealthy think tank with no churches. This is similar to what another Pittsburgh institution did. Mellon Bank decided it didn’t actually need banks, just a big office building. So it closed ALL of its branches! And they are doing very well today, partnering with BNY to serve a small but wealthy group of customers. If that’s where the Church wants to go, so be it. But the working person on the street is struggling today and she could use some old-time Catholic rabble rousing.
We need to fix the game of manhood.
Our society’s exclusive image of the ‘real man’ leaves us with a disgruntled majority of boys who view the coveted prizes of masculinity as out of reach. Although most boys are bound to feel painfully inferior at one point or another, our game is particularly skewed against certain boys, like those with physical, developmental, and mental disabilities.
Young disabled men often begin to feel distanced from manhood when the social emphasis on gender kicks in during adolescence. Boys are frequently taught that athleticism belongs to the able-bodied and that sexual attractiveness, portrayed in everything from clothing catalogues to violent, misogynistic pornography, too belongs to aggressive, physically dominant, able-bodied men. “Charm” also tends to follow able-bodied guys without psychological abnormalities, those whose looks, interests and proclivities are considered “normal.”
And we double down on this arrangement, first, by blindly prizing assimilation, and then “integration,” as the antidotes to disabled boys’ hardships. Even when our boys don’t like sports and suck at them, we urge them to go out for the baseball team. We tell them to change their cinematic, musical, and literary interests simply to fit in. When that doesn’t work, educators try forcing friendships between able-bodied and disabled students, which ultimately doesn’t work either.
That’s only half of our failed approach though. Without offering our boys long-term opportunities to cultivate the interests and talents that can give them real self-confidence as young men, we simply send them off to counselors and therapists to be told that they “don’t have to be like other boys.” It’s a valuable message but an incomplete one nonetheless.
For years, as both a student and co-teacher, I cringed at many disabled (and otherwise excluded) boys’ affected efforts to fit in socially. Indignant about their inability to measure up to their ingrained conceptions of manhood, these boys would, for example, act like chauvinistic players. On one occasion, a camp friend of mine put on his ‘man face’ and broadcasted to a large group of guys that he likes to “use and lose” women, even though, in reality, he had never kissed a girl. Clearly, after numerous rejections, he was searing with resentment and, in a last-ditch effort to prove his manliness to himself and other boys, veiled his insecurity with ugly chauvinism.
Such affectations of masculinity were not always girl-oriented though. I remember one of my middle school students, a so-called “nerd” with a developmental disability, striking up a conversation about the NFL with some peers during recess. After five minutes, the other boys laughed him off when it became clear that this young man had no idea what he was discussing.
Alas, when other outcast boys pulled this kind of stunt, by acting up in class or pretending to love typical ‘boy things,’ they were usually called out for “trying too hard” or “being annoying.” Sometimes, their parents—usually their fathers—would push them to participate in stereotypical “male” activities, like videogames and roughhousing. But no matter how persistently these boys tried to be “real” guys, they usually couldn’t rid themselves of that fundamental differentness, that less-than-boyishness, that disabled-ness in the eyes of the boys who they were trying to impress.
Conscientious teachers would pick up on this social ostracism and, with the best of intentions, try to integrate ostracized students into groups of able-bodied, gleeful, popular kids. They would concoct project workgroups and assign class seats with the obvious purpose of bringing together students from different social circles. In grade school, they would encourage popular kids to hang out with unpopular kids during recess. Content with simply having done something, the teachers would then wash their hands of this unsettling business and declare: “Job well done!”
Sadly, they missed the mark entirely.
John Calmore’s critical understanding of racially integrative housing reforms in recent decades provides the necessary framework for understanding ability-based integration in school: “the ‘integration imperative’ legitimates the emphasis on desegregation rather than on simple nonsegregation and free choice as to where to live,” and, in this case, where and with whom to play and study. As a co-teacher, I wanted students of all abilities to be in the same classes, but I didn’t think that kids of different social groups should be forced to sit near each other, work together or play together, especially when these integrative arrangements left disabled students feeling even more isolated than before.
When teachers entirely re-configured classes in this way, disabled students were often separated from the couple friends they had and were forced to work with peers who detested these teacher-imposed social structures as much as they did. Usually, the less popular students were less confident, and their dissatisfaction was only made worse when they were forced into intimate situations with other students who seemed unenthusiastic about working with them. As a result, students in different social circles constantly complained that yearlong workgroups took them away from their friends.
At the end of it all, many disabled boys were, and still are, directed to a counselor or teacher to talk through their social difficulties. Having that adult backup is certainly helpful, but it isn’t enough for most boys. Right after putting them in social situations in which they are forced to worry about what others think of them, we, in a bizarre reversal of course, tell our boys with physical and psychological abnormalities that they actually shouldn’t worry about what others think of them, that the kids who don’t give them the time of day “aren’t worth it anyway,” and that if they simply maintain a positive attitude, everything will be OK.
Unfortunately, after all of the mixed messages, feel-good therapy sessions and naive integrative measures, many boys with disabilities aren’t OK. In fact, a lot of them are hurting pretty badly. The physically disabled are often troubled by the fear of their physical limitations in an able-bodied society, children with learning disabilities are still “more likely to have negative perceptions of the self, their environment and the future,” young men with intellectual disabilities are at an increased risk of depression, and children with severe disabilities are prone to display “irritability, anger or screaming, self-injurious and aggressive behavior.”
Young men with disabilities neither are nor should be convinced that they can be happy without social lives and fulfilling hobbies. I have found that if there is anything in the flawed model of masculinity that we ought to keep—and are anyway forced to keep—it’s the natural human longing for confidence, love, and enjoyable work (as Freud taught us). Guys don’t need to play COD, hang out with the cool kids, look like movie stars, have vision, be neurotypical, or be able to walk in order to be “real men,” but we all need passions, for passions give us the productive energies that make us attractive to ourselves and others.
Our emphasis, then, has to move away from the broken assimilation-integration paradigm. No boy has actually ever boosted his self-esteem by taking on false interests and false credentials in order to fit the “man” mold, and the top-down friendship model has rarely worked. If we are serious about giving disabled students equally gratifying social lives, then we should stop forcing them into uncomfortable situations and instead focus on giving them opportunities to self-actualize among those with similar interests.
Educators can spur this process by establishing in-school outlets for isolated children to pursue their goals. For example, when a teacher discovers that a shy, excluded student is a budding musician, the teacher should give him music-oriented assignments that can help cultivate his abilities. If no such opportunity exists in the classroom, the teacher should refer him to an extracurricular musical band. Ideally, the boy would eventually gain enough confidence to present his work to the class and discuss it with his peers openly and confidently. The social integration would thus come after the boy has achieved the self-esteem associated with meeting a personal goal.
Guardians should also resist the temptation to force their boys to participate in activities simply because the activities are typically male. Eventually, the dissonance between the boys’ true interests and his parents’ interests will surface, and the boys will only be further destabilized. Guardians, like teachers, should instead encourage boys to pursue their true passions.
As for the rest of us, let’s remember that a man need not look or think a certain way to retain his masculinity, that if he finds purpose and esteem in a less-than-expected lifestyle for a guy in the 21st century, he nonetheless deserves our support and validation as an ever-elusive ‘real man.’
You may be reading this because you are a subscriber to this blog and have received an email notice. Although our postings here are certainly informative and worthwhile, much of the SDUSA chatter takes place on a Yahoo group also named Socialist_Currents. Look for our torch logo if you are interested in joining the conversation.
The conversation this past week has been about Kshama Sawant. Ms. Sawant is a member of the Socialist Alternative Party; she is a software engineer who immigrated from India. She was recently elected to the Seattle City Council. What are we to glean from the fact that voters in a major American city have elected not just a Socialist, but indeed a Trotskyist, to City Council? Opinions within our ranks vary from “it’s time to embrace the S word instead of running from it”, to “the rise of a Socialist Labor third party is on the horizon”, to “our current course remains the correct course”.
Without a doubt, the political winds are changing. Polling in the past 5 years has demonstrated that young people have realized that they are pretty well screwed economically for the next 20 years or so. Which in fact means that they’re pretty well screwed for the duration. Pensions? That something your grandfather had. Paid vacation and sick days? That’s something your parents had. Hopes of upwards mobility? Forget about it. Safety net? Yeh, that’s called living in your parents’ basement. And it doesn’t matter whether these young people are Republicans or Democrats. They all know the situation they’re in.
It would be easy enough for us to blame Republicans, but the fact is the Democrats have been complicit. The Clinton strategy was to move the DP toward the right and capture the center. That’s where most of the voters are. This would supposedly ensure that the DP would hold power in Washington for decades. Give Wall Street whatever they want, and give the voters a liberal agenda on social issues. While 9/11 derailed that plan, the new millennium has proven both the conservative and liberal agendas to be failures. The under-30 crowd is not happy with where the “limousine liberals” have taken them.
The electoral implications of this shift were described in an excellent essay by Peter Beinart in September (before Sawant’s election) in The Rise of the New New Left
And just this weekend by Zach Goldfarb in the Washington Post in More Liberal, Populist Movement
Beinart’s piece was more on target because it focused on the economic issues and particularly on Elizabeth Warren’s attack on Wall Street. While Goldfarb also points to Warren, he errs by confusing liberalism and leftism. This has always been a common error, but not one that a political journalist should make. Both writers refrain from labeling anti-Wall Street positions as socialist, instead using the terms populist and liberal. Clearly there is still reticence to using the S word.
What lessons should SDUSA be taking away from this? It is our clearly stated strategy that we mainly work within the Democratic Party to push our economic and civil liberties agendas. We have no interest in splitting the left vote when it comes to electing a president; after all, the president nominates Supreme Court justices and we have seen the criticality of that power. However, there are many other election battles other than the presidency. There are congressional elections, state office elections, and municipal elections. During the past 20 years the Left has lost many battles in Congress over Social Security, unfair trade agreements, and wars. In our states we have seen union busting from our governors and state legislatures. We have seen voting rights jeopardized in over a dozen states. There is entirely too much focus on the presidential election. The presidential election makes good press in Washington, but it’s in the legislatures where laws are passed and budgets are approved. Therefore, does it make sense for us to “trickle down” our election strategy to state-wide elections? Absolutely. In state-wide elections it is still very difficult to run a third party candidate. In my home state of Pennsylvania, election laws are so rigged against third parties that it is practically impossible. In places like PA it is still necessary for us to maintain the strategy of working inside the DP and pulling it to the left as best we can. If there is truly a socialist or social democratic groundswell, then we should be able to nominate and elect leftist candidates inside the DP. If they have the votes there is no reason for them to run away from the term socialist. And it’s the same is for municipal elections. While small parties can have isolated victories like Kshama Sawant had in Seattle, that’s not a successful strategy for most of us. I do not expect SDUSA to change its strategy of running Social Democratic candidates within the Democratic Party.
While I support the SD electoral policy, I admit that my vision is skewed because I live in Pennsylvania. As noted above, PA is a party machine state. In PA, only 12% of the voters are registered Independent. These voters do not participate in the Republican or Democratic primaries. They can not therefore help pull the Democratic Party to the left in the primaries. In theory, the Independent voters could field a leftist candidate who could knock off a neo-lib Democrat in the general election— except that there aren’t enough Independents to pull that off. Yet. This was not the case for Sawant. In Washington, 40% of the voters are Independent and not tied to a party. This might indicate that our electoral strategies should vary from state to state. We should carefully monitor the rise of the Independent voter. But again I come back to the basic premise of our strategy: run as a Social Democrat where you can; run as a Democrat where you must. Still sound philosophy. Your thoughtful comments are always appreciated.