Sunday, February 19, 2012

Making sandwiches, obvs

Sometimes, a college freshman whose far-right conservatism has not yet been honed into something palatable to mainstream audiences - or who's more contrarian than conservative - will decide that the entire campus wants to hear what he (always he) thinks about the world. Somewhere at the intersection of naive and overconfident (forgivable, for a smart kid used to being a Big Deal in high school) lies a certain type of right-wing writing by the very young. This is by no means what all young conservatives write, and it's not that there aren't left-wing variants. But it's this certain way of not hearing the tone of one's own voice, of mistaking misogyny and racism for courageous anti-PC argumentation. Of thinking, 'Hey, what if I were to say that women aren't as good as men! Now wouldn't that get everyone riled up! It must be that I'm hitting a nerve! Yes, an affirmative-action bake sale sounds like a wonderful idea!'

What's baffling, then, is that James Poulos is not a college freshman. How, given that he's not 17 or 18 and about to get some real-world 'splainin' from a barely-more-informed 19-year-old opinion editor, do we explain the existence of his article, "What Are Women For?," which positively drips of that genre? What, then, are we to make of his response to his critics, one that begins with the cringe-inducing assertion, "The wave of anger and condemnation that has come from some quarters is dramatic evidence that the column’s central contention is right"? I won't generalize from this essay's example and claim it gives us insights into what men are for, but it sure gives me flashbacks to my days as "Viewpoints" editor at the college paper. 

The problem begins with the headline, which is not merely a provocative title chosen perhaps by his editors, but within - and indeed, the gist of - the piece itself. If Poulos had simply asked, "What is gender for?," and concluded that its purpose is for men to invent things, for women to scrub toilets, division of labor and all that, no one would have cared. I mean, no one would have read it. The content is the usual conserva-rant something-or-other, much 'The Liberals are like so' without much substantiation. (For example, was the liberal response to Cynthia Nixon's "choice" quote unsympathetic? Not entirely.) Just... opaque, in a way that really reminds me of those "Viewpoints" days. We are, alas, living in a uniquely decadent age, hell, handbasket, wimmin, etc., etc., except he doesn't spell it out, but that's what's between the lines. If it weren't for the title, the bloggers Ned Resnikoff mentions wouldn't have linked to it, I wouldn't have found it via his blog, and so on.

But Poulos instead asked what women are for, and that question is a mess whatever the conclusion, even if the conclusion were more Grrl Power and less June Cleaver. It takes as a starting point that male is normal, default, while female is different, Other, etc. The mindset that speaks of on the one hand lawyers, and on the other, women lawyers or, for bonus reactionary points, girl lawyers. Even if whatever Poulos was driving at (and more on that in a moment) was all kinds of wonderful, the set-up is so bad that one simply must read on.

The concept is a problem not merely because it's unapologetically (proudly, mistaking-contrarianism-for-insightfulness-ly) sexist, but also because it completely misses that the place of men in American society today is plenty up for discussion. It's something conservatives are even quite worked up about. What is masculinity? What is fatherhood? Why have men, anyway? Do we even need 'em anymoreEven for super-duper-conservatives, gender is not and long hasn't been a "woman" question.

But Poulos begins, all high-culture-like, "In a simpler time Sigmund Freud struggled to understand what women want. Today the significant battle is over what women are for." But it isn't. If anything, the culture wars have for some time now been about men. It's no longer up for debate whether it's a good thing that women work outside the home. The question is whether men are also gainfully employed, or prepared to be stay-at-home dads. To even claim to be discussing "gender" by looking at the role of women - and from the assumption that men are currently involved in Great Work - suggests such a complete aloofness from the broader conversation that, again, it's hard to believe we're reading an established-ish conservative opinion writer.

The conclusion Poulos arrives at is, I suppose, anti-PC and contrarian for insisting on an essentialized womanhood, although it's not entirely clear what the point might be. We have two options: celebrate his courage for saying what virtually no one thinks anymore (because it's wrong; bring on the contrarians who think the earth is flat), or get into a feminist huff and prove his point by not agreeing with him. (I can think of certain advantages to having that level of confidence, but certain disadvantages as well.)

I will instead take a third route, let's call it a textual analysis approach. What is his argument? What, class, do we make of this passage?
Ironically, one of the best places to look for a way out of the impasse is the strain of left feminism that insists an inherently unique female “voice” actually exists. That’s a claim about nature. Much good would come from a broader recognition that women have a privileged relationship with the natural world. That’s a relationship which must receive its social due — if masculinity in its inherent and imitative varieties (including imitation by quasi-feminized males of quasi-masculinized females!) is not to conquer the world.
-"Ironically," OK, with him so far - it's ironic that the author of a conserva-rant is directing readers to liberals, feminists.

-What "strain," though, is he referring to? Specific authors? Publications? Scholars? Activists? Maybe such a "strain" exists, but the wording is such that one is meant to understand that if only one were informed, were in the know, the relevant authors and school would be obvious. It's not obvious to me.

-Poulos's message is that social decay comes down to our refusal to acknowledge that "women have a privileged relationship with the natural world." Sounds serious! But what on earth does this mean. Women are more 'earthy'? Women require Tampax? Women enjoy the natural bacteria found in yogurt? Women shun artifice? Women prefer to live in the country? Unclear, or more likely, intentionally opaque and ambiguous. It's a way of saying 'wimmin makes the babies' but sounding sophisticated. I think. It's my best guess, but I'm too busy rolling around in the mud to be sure. (OK, from his follow-up - "Relative to men, women have a naturally privileged relationship with the process of creating and recreating human life." - this assumption is confirmed, although that doesn't change its absence from the original article.) So let's proceed to the next sentence.

-What the "social due" bit is, my best guess is, if we are to assume "nature"=baby-making, Poulos wants society-or-the-government to limit contraception-and-or-abortion-and-or-choices-women-might-make-that-don't-involve-being-pregnant-whenever-possible. Maybe? Or to celebrate fecundity? Which means what, in policy or even abstract terms? It's tough to argue against Poulos's demand that women be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, because if that's the best possible interpretation of what he might be driving at, it's not spelled out.

From the response-to-critics installment, I think Poulos is being courageous and telling it like it is by letting us know that women, and not men, are capable of giving birth. In which case perhaps I had it all wrong - this isn't Contrarian College Freshman, it's incredulous seventh grader after first day of health class.

But it isn't. What it is is a demand for what either are or are not incredibly frightening policy changes directed at embracing the female reproductive capacity. The opacity is meant to read as Thoughtful Conservative, but is ultimately more unsettling than if there were an actual agenda, actually spelled out.


Anonymous said...

The reference about a distinct female 'voice' was almost certainly referring to Carol Gilligan's ('In a Different Voice') work.

Anonymous said...

(Not that I disagree with anything in your post.)

Phoebe said...

Good to know. But gosh. A lack of familiarity with an unnamed work that came out in 1982 precludes comprehension of the central argument.

Britta said...

I find the title and premise slightly hilarious, because the default sex in biology is female. Asexual organisms are referred to as 'sister,' 'daughter' and 'mother' organisms/cells depending on relationships, because the definition of female is something which can reproduce, and so by default any species of living organisms needs/must be female(s), however males are optional and only exist for sexually reproducing species. (Why men, in that sense, is a question taken up by evolutionary biologists.) Of course, didn't read the article but it appears this isn't the tack he's taking though.

David Schraub said...

The "by responding, you have proven my point" is one of my all-time favorite argument constructions. It also makes an appearance quite commonly in allegations about the all-powerful Zionist Lobby -- if they're silent, they concede the point, and if they retort, they prove the point.

Phoebe said...


I really think the "lawyer" vs. "woman lawyer" distinction best gets at what Poulos's starting point is with that question.


Yes. That actually jumped out at me more than the "woman" question. It's the idea that anything idiotic one puts on the Internet that gets bashed is by definition 'hitting a nerve' and thus 'telling an important but difficult truth.' It's also a classic bigot's rallying cry - an anti-Semite gains traction by showing that 'the Zionists' are angry at hearing the difficult truths about how awful they are, and a misogynist gets points if he can claim that 'the feminists' are his antagonists.