Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What's Right?

About a year ago, I asked, "why bother calling yourself 'on the left' when you disagree with much of what the left as it actually exists has to say, and agree with at least as much (or on the issues you find most important) with the right as with the left." This was in response to a Dissent Magazine event where I'd heard various proposals for reforming the left that were, in all practicality, calls for shifts to the right, given what the spectrum looks like these days.

Now I'll join some others in asking the same question of the right. Why call yourself a conservative if what you want to see from conservatism is that which is commonly understood as liberalism? Unlike Amidon and Yglesias, I could accept without too much questioning that Grand New Party is a conservative book. It's far too good of a rebuttal to that New Yorker article on the evils of the right for that to be the case. I suggest reading the article, then the book. That said, a conservatism that is anti-Bush and anti-status quo poses some of the same problems as a liberalism sympathetic to the pro-life movement and to the War on Terror. The purpose of the book is how to rescue the Republican Party and the conclusion is that the party should help the working class; had the book been about how to improve the lot of the working class, would the answer have been, by reviving the Republican party?

Side note: there's a similarity between the way conservatives--the authors and others--discuss the Sexual Revolution and the way liberals, particularly liberal academics, treat the question of women's rights in other cultures. It seems the argument goes something like this: the Pill benefited middle-class and wealthy women, but this same sexual freedom hurt the poor. In other words, it is elitist to call ready access to birth control an unqualified good. Some conservatives practice what they preach and some do not, but this doesn't matter because it's not us who require governmentally-imposed restraint, it's them. Sure, we have no problem with gay marriage, but they, well, to respect them one temper one's enthusiasm for gay rights. Being for gay rights thus comes to be defined as elitist, because elites are leading the fight.

This argument, if I'm getting it right, reminds me of the postcolonialist-left take on women's rights abroad, the argument against which neoconservatives argue with understandable enthusiasm: sure, in the West women demand freedom and define freedom as X, Y, and Z, but if we are to respect other cultures, we must respect their vision of freedom. If women in a given culture must stay indoors, we should explore their freedoms and influence within the indoor sphere, and must consider that men, too, are limited by not being allowed to take part in this sphere. We must consider that women forced to cover themselves head-to-toe are no less free than Western women coerced by the Great Sephora into covering their faces with brightly-colored goop. In other words, it's Orientalist and xenophobic to suggest women's rights, as understood across the political spectrum in America, have an obvious application abroad.

I'm baffled by why those who argue that at home, birth control and legal abortion are absolute goods, are not the same people who argue that feminism, as it's generally understood in these parts, applies to women not just across class, but across national boundaries. Either "sexual freedom" means the same thing everywhere, or it does not. Maybe I just need a more relativistic understanding of relativism, but I'm confused. What am I missing?


Miss Self-Important said...

I'm not sure that the authors would say that ready access to birth control and abortion or sexual liberation generally are really unqualified goods for anyone (well, maybe, Reihan would say that). Their point is not whether it's good or bad in principle and for whom, but rather that its effects have been disproportionately negative for poor women--higher rates of out of wedlock birth, higher rates of single motherhood, more teenage pregnancy, less educational attainment--all these things have contributed to a situation in which poor women stay poor, and so do their children. This social immobility and permanent underclass is the problem for them, not birth control. However, this outcome could imply one of two arguments about the intrinsic good of sexual liberation and for whom, I think.

One argument you might make from this data is that sexual liberation is basically good for everyone, and negative outcomes for lower class women arise primarily from either a failure to implement it fully, either by always preventing or terminating unwed pregnancies or by throwing all our social and economic support behind single motherhood and other familial arrangements which are the result of sexual liberation and are now associated with this poverty trap.

The other implication, and the one that I think the authors accept here, is that sexual liberation has actually been about equally bad for everyone, including middle and upper class women, but that these women have had resources to compensate for the setbacks it might otherwise have caused for them. For example, they had parents who could help raise their children so they can finish school, or, as single mothers, they have more assets in childrearing to fall back on than poor women. In addition, wealthier single mothers are more likely to raise their children in environments where single motherhood is the exception, and their children can free-ride to some extent on the general familial stability of the extended family and the neighborhood.

And finally, as the authors point out, the divorce rate is actually much lower among the educated class than those without college degrees, which suggests, among other things, that "liberation" works itself out somewhat differently among the educated than among those w/o a college education. Judging at least by its behavior, the educated class seems to believe that, whatever you might choose to do before having children, single motherhood is inherently a bad idea (at least for their own children) and not merely an unfairly stigmatized cultural decision.

Phoebe said...

So does this mean you don't agree with the comparison of social-conservative commentators with postmodern-left academics?

It strikes me as a stretch to blame effective, available birth control for out-of-wedlock births, and as patronizing to suggest that only well-to-do women (and men) can figure out how to combine abstinence and birth control in such a way that they only have the kids they intend to. Whatever incidental ill effects one can (indirectly) pin on the Sexual Revolution, the positives (few of which are class-specific) are straightforward enough: women can leave miserable or abusive relationships; potential contributors to science, law, medicine, (and of course French-Jewish studies, the most pressing of all) have doubled; housewives whose husbands leave them can enter the workforce; women can enjoy sex (in a pre-BC age, fear of unwanted pregnancy could impede not just promiscuity but enjoyment within a monogamous relationship or a marriage); and so on. Also, the pre-Pill age was not the era of restraint it's been made out to be, there were just fewer women satisfying men's urges; thus men's diminished interest today in visiting prostitutes. In that sense, the Pill promotes wholesome behavior.

And finally, it could be that the stable marriages one sees among upper-middle-class Americans are as happy and stable as they are not despite the Sexual Revolution but because of it. Perhaps, when both the man and the woman work outside the home, the pair have more to talk about. Maybe it helps, not hinders, relationships for the couple to have premarital sex, rather than for the woman to remain chaste and the man to seek out fun with the local skank, professional or amateur.

X. Trapnel said...

Do you really think this view of 3rd world feminism is really dominant among leftists, leftist academics, or even "postmodern-left academics"? Seriously?

I'm hardly an expert on such matters, but my impression is rather that anti-colonialist leftists seek rather to show that, A, context matters a lot, so understanding just how social practices result in women's subordination requires more than a cursory look; and B, even if that weren't true, attempting to impose the right set of standards through international pressures is often counterproductive.

Everyone participating in this 1997 debate on "Feminism and Multiculturalism," for example, is on The Left, but few of the responses seem to take the position you describe (Sander Gilman may be an exception).