Friday, September 12, 2008

Sexism and the election

Right now I am very, very ill with what I had hoped would be a 24 hour bug that seems to be going into overtime, so I apologize in advance that there won't be much depth to this post.

In the meantime, I thought I'd let y'all know that Arthur Silber has been on a roll lately about our culture's hostility toward women and the tendency to accept the sorts of attacks on female electoral candidates that would be entirely unacceptable if lobbed at male candidates. Start here, and work your way back for the last several days, and see what Silber has to say vis a vis the attacks on both Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton during the current electoral cycle. I myself find both women to hold horrifyingly awful policy positions, although they certainly are not much (if any) different from those of any of their male counterparts.

His essays this past week got me thinking a bit about how the Colorado Green Party had reacted to Cynthia McKinney's candidacy, including the refusal of some of that state party's leadership to accept her candidacy (and for that matter the candidacy of her running mate, Rosa Clemente). As I had noted previously, much of the rhetoric lobbed at them from the likes of David Chandler had been along the lines of them being "radical" and "unfit to lead." At the time, my main focus was on the racist undercurrents that seemed endemic to the Colorado Green Party, but it also occurs as I reflect a bit more that our culture's on-going fear of and hostility toward women plays a significant role as well.

About that on-going hostility, here's a few lines that should give food for thought:
In the late fourth century, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, was living in an entirely different political world from his Church predecessors. Christianity was no longer a dissident sect but the state religion of Rome. Christians were now free to follow their faith and were officially encouraged to do so. Such a drastic transformation of the social circumstance of Christians required yet another revision of the reading of Genesis. It was Augustine who undertook this new interpretatioin of Adam and Eve, resulting in a viewpoint vastly different from the majority of his Jewish and Christian predecessors. As [Elaine] Pagels notes, what had been read as a tale of the right to quest for human freedom now became an Augustinian story of human bondage. Hitherto, most Jews and Christians had understood from Genesis that God gave humankind the right of moral freedom, and that Adam had misused it and thereby brought death and pain into the world. Augustine, however, was not content with the travails of such an interpretation, and he went a good deal further. He contended that Adam's sin not only caused our mortality but also corrupted our sexuality. If these notions contradicted the notorious sexual conduct of Rome, they indirectly sanctioned the limitations placed on the political freedom of Romanized Christians, a forfeiture that the followers of Jesus paid to Rome for its sanction of religious freedom. It was Augustine who reread Genesis to fit the limitations of Christian freedom within the Roman world. He observed that Adam's sin had not only made sex irreversibly corrupt, but it also cost us our free will, rendering us incapable of genuine political freedom. "Augustine's theory of original sin offered an analysis of human nature that became, for better or worse, the heritage of all subsequent generations of Western Christians and the major influence on their psychological and political thinking." (Pagels)
The conclusion is a must-read:
The conclusion of Oscar Wilde's play, Salome, introduces this essay. Wilde himself tragically knew far too much about the experience of challenging the conventional morality and institutions of power of his time, of living outside the bounds of "acceptable" behavior. Salome is an extraordinary work; in purely literary terms, it is breathtaking. When you have time (it's short and doesn't require a lot), I recommend you read it. Pay special attention to the scene between Salome and Iokanaan. It contains writing of very rare quality. Richard Strauss wrote a spectacularly effective opera using Wilde's full text. If you wish to see a magnificent performance of the Strauss work, I give my highest recommendation to this one. Teresa Stratas is shattering and sublime in the title role.

I chose the conclusion of Salome to highlight this piece for several reasons, only one of which is Wilde's superb imagination and use of language. The last line -- "Kill that woman!" -- captures the final meaning of our culture's loathing of woman, and it captures this all-pervasive attitude in just three terrifying words. But there is a further point that deserves mention, especially as it relates to the political battles that so consume us.

Consider the following aspect of the Salome story, an aspect set into high relief in Wilde's retelling. Herod is a brutal, murderous ruler; his court is noted for its debauchery. Herod is Salome's stepfather -- and he revels in his lust for Salome in front of everyone, including Salome's mother. It is Herod's desire for Salome that leads directly to the play's final moments. Herod wants Salome to dance for him, so that he may enjoy the contemplation of her body more fully. Salome refuses at first, but Herod declares, "whatsoever thou shalt ask of me I will give it thee, even unto the half of my kingdom." Salome extracts a solemn oath from Herod that he will fulfill his promise to give her whatever she demands once she has danced for him; Herod swears, "By my life, by my crown, by my gods." Herod is so consumed by his desire for her that he agrees. Salome shall have "whatsoever thou shalt ask of me..."

Salome performs for Herod, and then makes her demand: "I would that they presently bring me in a silver charger . . The head of Iokanaan." Herod is deeply shocked, not by the bloody violence involved, for that is commonplace in his world and under his rule, but by the possible religious implications, according to his particular superstitions. This is the same Herod who casually orders murders without end, who brutalizes his subjects in unimaginable ways, who lusts for his stepdaughter in front of her mother, who also happens to be his wife. Herod offers to give Salome many other treasures. But Salome reminds Herod of his oath, and she insists that he fulfill his promise. She will have Iokanaan's head on a silver charger. And she does.

Set aside the particulars of Salome's demand and her actions, and whatever revulsion you may feel. (You might ask yourself why you feel such revulsion, if you do, about fictional events when you do nothing about this, and when you may well vote for one of two men who will continue such horrors. Revulsion is much safer when confined to the imaginary.) Focus on the underlying dynamics in play. To put the issue in other terms, and these are the exact terms you should apply to women in politics today: she beat him at his own game. Herod had set the terms of the contest, and Salome used them for her own ends. She fought on his terms, but she outwitted the man who had set the rules. She humiliated him -- and she got what she wanted.

For Herod -- for most men -- this is intolerable. It is inconceivable to Herod -- just as it is inconceivable to most men -- that the fault or the responsibility should be his. The fault and the responsibility must be Salome's. The fault and the responsibility must always be woman's. In any confrontation between a man and a woman in our culture, there is only one party to be punished: the woman. So it was with Salome, and so it is with Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin.

Kill that woman. That is the motive, and that is the goal. To the extent women are successful, to the extent they threaten men's monopoly on power and control, they must be demeaned, diminished, treated with unending cruelty, and mocked. When all else fails, they must be eliminated. Kill that woman.

So ends our story for today.
As I said, some food for thought, not only among mainstream circles, but also among more legitimate leftist circles. Speaking of the phrase "kill that woman" taken to its ultimate extreme, I usually like to share a story when the opportunity affords itself, in the context of discussing the cultural views of women in the West from the age of Antiquity that continue to haunt us to the present. The following is from Carl Sagan's book Cosmos, and is placed in the context of the eventual destruction of the Library of Alexandria, which ended up being a devastating loss for scientific inquiry in Europe, from which we might arguably still be recovering from. Our story is of Hypatia (Sagan, 1980, pp 335-336):
The last scientist who worked in the Library was a mathematician, astronomer, and the head of the Neoplatonic school of philosophy - an extraordinary range of accomplishments for an individual in any age. Her name was Hypatia. She was born in Alexandria in 370. At a time when women had few options and were treated as property, Hypatia moved freely and unselfconsciously through traditional male domains. By all accounts she was a great beauty. She had many suitors but rejected all offers of marriage. The Alexandria of Hypatia's time - by then long under Roman rule - was a city under grave strain. Slavery had sapped classical civilization of its vitality. The growing Christian Church was consolidating its power and attempting to eradicate pagan influences and culture. Hypatia stood at the epicenter of these mighty social forces. Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, despised her because of her close friendship with the Roman governor, and beacuase she was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified by the early Church with paganism. IN great personal danger, she continued to teach and publish, until, in the year 415, on her way to work seh was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril's parishioners. The dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and, armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint.
It was also a time when Augustine's concept of original sin would have been well-known to Cyril, who no doubt had fed such propaganda to his parishioners. Augustine's thinking certainly had plenty of precedence in other other early Church fathers, such as Turtullian, who had to say the following of women (from a chapter in a book called Secrets of the Code, titled, "Heretics, Women, Magicians, and Mystics", p. 151):
"The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in the age... The guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil's gateway... And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an impure animal, she always deceives."
As I said, food for thought as we try to make some sense of some of the outrages that seem to pass for normal during the 2008 election spectacle.

No comments:

Post a Comment