…[A]s an outside observer…it is my conviction that I live in a society in which the traditional….patriarchal subjection of women has been compounded with an entirely new interiorized discrimination, which was unknown previously.
— David Cayley, Ivan Illich In Conversation
I will not allow the shadow of some brilliant future, of something which is to come, to fall on the concepts with which I try to grasp what is and what has been…I’m not one to dream about a totally degendered population of cyborgs, cybernetic organisms…I stand looking backwards, not forwards to what will happen in the next ten years. I look backwards, to the sad loss of that ….[gender] duality, which is gone. I have no fantasy about it coming back.
The rustic Jew of Eastern Europe is a type completely unknown in the West….many [of whom] have the healthy common sense that one finds in the countryside and that develops wherever a sensible race is immediately subject to the laws of nature.”
— Joseph Roth, The Wandering Jews
When I was 20 years old, and braver in some ways than now, I traveled to Europe with a couple of friends, flying Icelandic, to hitchhike around, see the sights, have an adventure. Our male companion drifted away from us after Paris, where we spent just a couple of days. Our real goal in this otherwise improvisational trip, was Italy, to the north, where my woman companion had relatives, then to Florence where another mutual friend from an entirely different class than ourselves, was studying art. After a few weeks in Florence, we decided to trek on to Greece, and found ourselves in the port of Brindisi, the departure point for passage across the Adriatic. There we were instantly hounded by a gang of young men, asking us repeatedly “Do you speak English?” or “Sprechen sie deutsch?” etc. After several minutes of this annoyance, when we’d been somewhat cornered in a park, my friend spun around on our tormentors and flashed at them, “Do you speak English?” Several of them nodded eagerly. “You are assholes,” she shouted. After that, as memory serves, they left us alone. My admiration for my friend was boundless. I was from the school of polite endurance, of passive American girls who acquiesce, rather than saying “No!” Whether a remnant of my maternal side genteel English class heritage or not I don’t know; the habit did not serve me well in a working class environment where politeness is weakness and passivity could be interpreted as Yes.
What this story speaks of to me is the fact that women possess the capacity to fight (to me it was not coincidental that my friend had been raised as her father’s “son”), and that inasmuch as we have not been so taught, we resort to appeals to authorities to fight for us; we turn to the “patriarchy” to defend us and punish our offenders. By ‘the capacity to fight,’ I do not mean to maim, bully or punish, but simply, to summon from one’s own self the “No Pasaran” that is recognizable to any belligerent. (Recall the scene in Toni Morrison’s Sula, when Sula unnerves the white bullies coming after her and Nel by cutting off the tip of her finger, while Nel remains paralyzed in fright. A “No Pasaran” moment!)
My aim is not to minimize the real insults being exposed in Me Too, but to ask if it’s possible to conceive that we could, in theory, rediscover this spirit of taking no bullshit. Surely even those of us conditioned to niceness have aggression in our nature, (not just passive-aggression), and could in good anti-faschist fashion, stand firm against those who mean us harm instead of after-the-fact seeking damages for an unwitnessed incident. The catch is this capacity to stand up for our own dignity would include all circumstances where it is demeaned, including show-all Rolling Stone magazine covers. Would not this refusal to sacrifice our dignity be a way to prevent “sexual misconduct,” not merely react to it, and to send a less mixed message to the powerful men, most of whom have decency in their nature just as we have aggression in ours?
The social context in which we’ve lost the cultural habit of solidarity with men that binds across this fundamental nature-given difference, is one in which we’ve surrendered our dignity generally in return for membership in the dominant, dehumanizing and destructive neoliberal economic order. Gendered difference disappears, replaced with a survival-of-the-fittest mentality between competing “equals” that has no goal and no loyalty beyond personal survival. Not having been taught to keep the fight local, don’t call in the police; they’re not your friends, in this increasingly unhinged Me Too moment women are calling in the authorities on every man who has hounded us, behaved in a way that made us feel uncomfortable, “forced” us to perform oral sex (without threat of gun or knife), and so on. Every outrage we’ve ever put up with now is fuel for a fury so intense it burns and destroys. How much of this endless sexual war is due to the loss of culture and community that kept us consciously in relation to each other, our personal No Pasaran firmly in place?
Groups of the oppressed – such as the Jews of pre-WWII eastern Europe, or African-Americans, communities that have maintained their culture by necessity, against the onslaughts of imperialist capitalism and structural racism, provide a vision of how this might have been done differently. Dominant history in the west, however, upholds that it was for the best we let go of the old ways, steeped in superstition, religion and the miserable struggle for subsistence as they were. With this bathwater, out went the “baby” – the “common sense” built over centuries in villages and countrysides in Europe and “wherever a sensible race is immediately subject to the laws of nature,” replaced with obedience to the dominant economic order.
With Me Too’s focus where it is, on man’s injury to woman, the capitalist for-profit system can wash its hands. Eyes glued to salacious details are off the oppressive economic order that has over time erased our cultures, communities and is set to destroy all life on the planet. Are we to see these as mild offenses, compared to the victimization caused by “sexual misconduct” that apparently now includes the fumblings and miscues of dating and “hooking up?” Eyes are off the puppeteers that pit us against each other in the competitive scramble for the ‘goods’ offered, goods that do not include the good of genuine individual identity – ( i.e., the ` struggle of the individual with his/her own daemon, not the Ayn Randian struggle of the capitalist titan against the others) – nor the good of human community in which each can be recognized for his/her best self, nor the good of a world in which our country does not need to depend upon the suffering of other people in other lands and on the destruction of the earth, for its own materialist well-being.
Eyes are off the fascism discernible in this mood of furious vengeance that casts the offender as a special category of monster, tosses aside due process, innocence until proven guilty, and ruins the alleged offender’s reputation for life. More than likely, the fury expressed in Me Too is really directed at the Big Honcho Abuser himself, who of course is untouched by all this. Others will be lynched for his crimes! No one seems to see, as Ivan Illich pointed out and was attacked for it, in the capitalist economic order, women will always be the second sex. At some level, women know this, and the knowledge, when we believe there’s no alternative, creates a terrible resentment. But an alternative exists, and women ought to go for it. We can be our full woman selves, free of resentment, victims no longer, when we withdraw our membership in the dominant order and serve the better dream, utopian and far-fetched as that may be. The dream wherein little girls can grow up to be women and little boys can grow up to be men, not into careerists scrambling over each other to achieve the “goods” this system has to offer. Instead of pitting ourselves fruitlessly in the quest for equality-under-capitalism, gaining the status of equal rats in the rat race for “success,” we (women) can free ourselves to embrace fully our loser status in that system!
The rule of equality has not brought freedom from discrimination, anymore than legal emancipation did for European Jews in the 18th century. In fact, it has created more resentment and bitterness than existed before. It has not brought a mutual respect between equals (if that is the goal) because it cannot. Freedom can only be obtained anarchistically by individuals willing to follow their inner “greatness,” the gift of the sovereign imagination. Only individuals who are actively repairing and restoring the humanity sacrificed over generations to the prospering and maintenance of industrial capitalism can be freely themselves; harmony can be realized only among people who are individual dignities first.
The outsized annihilating anger driving the Me Too movement comes from an abandonment of the indigenous psyche. No longer forced to do so, we do it voluntarily, in obeisance to ignorance and fear. If instead we practiced the art of womanliness, even surreptitiously but defiantly, growing our plants, mixing our potions, practicing our white magic, away from the watchful keepers of the norms, we would not be rageful furies, but mending, healing mothers of the new culture. To continue to refuse the inward direction we’re called to from deep humanity, we can only be forces for divisiveness, weakening the whole, refusing our bond with our brothers, scaring our sons into being good boys with powerful neuroses.
The fact that once women had our own sphere but lost it, in part due to horrendous persecutions of women in earlier times, and also to the surrender to modernity and the lure of “equality,” (and to just plain forgetting), makes me interested in looking backward for ideas of the alternative, better, human world, rather than to the future where cyborgian, free market-directed evolution is taking us. In the world in which women have our sphere, imagination-based but real, and men theirs, cruelty will not disappear, but the need for interdependence will cause us to seek peace and reconciliation, not war and enmity, and not the banal peace of life in capitalist society as it self- destructs.
In light of this, I’m prepared to say that oppression may not be the worst fate that can befall a human being if we are talking about the preservation of humanity itself – which we ought to be talking about. The worst is the delusional belief that I am (and ought to be) spared the suffering of cruelty; for this exceptionalist belief signals unconsciousness and death of the imagination.
In The Wandering Jews, a book that looked back to the same richly human indigenous world that was the ground for Ivan Illich’s critique of degenderized modernity, Joseph Roth clearly mourns the loss of that world, the Jews’ giving up of themselves, “shedding their sad beauty,” in order to become, in the West, “ordinary little middle class people.”
Neither Roth nor Illich held any illusions about the possibility of turning backward, nor necessarily did they believe that would be a good thing to do. It would be good to mourn what we have lost, and to be motivated to return to our larger humanity, not by returning to shtetls and plows, but by anchoring ourselves in our Otherness. The distinctively individual identity that is each person’s to defend, is creative and naturally poetic, naturally reconciling with community, and naturally contrary to the economic order.