Simultaneously enjoyable and agonizing

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The Power by Naomi Alderman was a simultaneously enjoyable and agonizing bit of feminist literature. Alderman illustrates for readers what it is like to be a woman in today’s world by flipping it on its head and imagining a universe where women are becoming the dominant sex, thanks to the development of a new biological power that renders men’s greater average muscular strength to be irrelevant. Because of its graphic descriptions of some terrible human atrocities, this book is sure to terrify anyone with a reasonably developed sense of humanity. But it will be particularly terrifying to men’s rights activists (MRAs), who are likely to miss the point completely. The point is that all of the terrifying things that are happening to men in this book are things that are currently happening to women all over the world, and yet most of us are just going about our business as if it doesn’t matter. Maybe we should be tearing it all down, as the MRAs in this book try to do.

The bizarro Alderman mirror also introduces some interesting feminist concepts. For example, her story suggests that women are not actually the more innately gentle and kind sex, as has been posited by the ‘benevolent sexists’ who think it helps women to put them on a pedestal. This book takes the position that women have only committed fewer atrocities than men because they have lacked the power to commit as many. As for benevolent sexists, popularizing a narrative in which women are supposed to be better than the typical human actually hurts women. That’s because, once a woman is revealed to be an ordinary flawed human, we perceive it as depravity when we contrast it against our image of what women are supposed to be. We are prevented from having empathy for flawed women, and because they’re all flawed, we have difficulty seeing all women clearly. (This is why we can’t tolerate flawed women, and yet we bend over backwards to regard even the most morally-vacant men as heroes.)

Her story also suggests that the reluctance of people today to believe that there ever could have been a place and time in which there could have been a matriarchal order is more a result of our tendency to look at archeological evidence through the lens of our current culture than it is a fact of history. In truth, several authors have pointed to other evidence:

  • In When God Was a Woman, Stone gives the archeological evidence suggesting that early agricultural societies worshipped a supreme mother goddess and her husband, a male god, was secondary. (Interestingly enough, in some of these societies, the male god was killed for the sins of his people every year and then resurrected by the goddess 3 days later.)
  • In his lectures on myths about the goddesses, Joseph Campbell corroborates many of Stone’s conclusions and points out that the Old Testament is replete with stories about the tension between two societies: the goddess-worshiping agricultural societies and the god-worshiping herding societies. (For example, the myth about Adam and Eve is a story about the agricultural revolution, the adoption of farming, and the evilization of the goddess religion’s symbols and the demotion of their goddess.)
  • In Guns Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond points out how male-supremacist societies came to dominate the earth over the last 2-3 thousand years. The presence of domesticated milk-producing mammals enabled them to wean their children years earlier than societies without them. This resulted in a change in the birth interval that led to the herding societies’ ability to out-breed everyone else and, consequently, to spread their god around the world. (Knowing this, it’s interesting to re-read the Bible’s myth on the agricultural revolution and note the curse that the god will ‘multiply’ Eve’s conception.)

I gave The Power 5 stars on goodreads. It’s true I have a tendency to rate books higher than most of my more critical friends, but I love books and I give a high count of stars to any book that helps me develop a greater understanding of my experience. (That’s ‘education,’ as John Dewey and Tara Westover say.) This book certainly did that. That said, Alderman does a great job of keeping the action moving. She adds her opinions to our culture’s ongoing conversation about male-supremacy without once lapsing into a long and boring treatise about her philosophy (à la Ayn Rand).

A tale of two futures

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This dystopian novel takes place in an alternative historical timeline in the United States (US). When the novel begins, members of the US government have been executed, including the president and all of congress. A new theocracy has taken power and eliminated women’s rights to own property, work for pay, read, fall in love, choose whom they will marry, choose when or if they will have a family, and for many, choose whether or not they will raise the children they give birth to. The main character, formerly a mother, wife, and librarian, is now a reproductive slave. She has been assigned to be a surrogate mother for a childless couple. The husband is a highly placed government official. The wife was formerly a religious conservative activist who preached in support of a return to traditional roles for women. When she got what she thought she wanted, she discovered it also meant that she no longer had a voice or power of any kind.

In the context of current events, the story was terrifying. Ever since election night on November 8th, 2016, we have begun to peer deeper into the hearts of those who seek to take away women’s reproductive rights and those who fight women’s equality. I have begun to suspect that a much more insidious agenda is at play. I no longer believe that those who pursue these policies are motivated by religious fervor about morality. (Though, I suspect that many common citizens have been tricked into championing these policies because of a belief in sexual purity.) I have begun to suspect that there is a movement afoot that is founded on racism and misogyny and the idea that the only people who matter are white men.

Hear me out:

A few years ago, I was flying home from a trip abroad, and I sat next to a gentleman who expressed concern about the anti-immigration sentiment that we had begun to see in many western countries. He believed it is a policy error to place draconian restrictions on immigration; that’s because our economy depends on having a thriving population of able-bodied workers. He pointed out that, given the current declines in birth rates in western societies, immigration is the only solution for maintaining sufficient population growth to continue having a robust economy. I had never looked at it that way before, but since that conversation I have watched the simultaneous assaults on both women’s rights and immigration from a new perspective.

In Guns Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond talks about how food-producing societies were able to conquer non-food-producing societies because food production resulted in several advantages, including for one, greater population densities. In part, this was attributable to the fact that hunter-gatherer societies had to carry their young as they migrated, which meant that their lifestyle could not support a birth interval much shorter than every 4 years. (He says they achieved this birth interval by way of things like lactational amenorrhea, infanticide, and abortion. He also included abstinence on the list, but I am personally skeptical for reasons I will point out in a minute.) Nonetheless, he shows that food-producing societies were able to shorten the birth interval to every 2 years. The resultant increase in population densities for food-producing societies led to many advantages, including military might and economic strength. Western societies were the beneficiaries of these advantages until about the 1960’s.

Since the 1960’s we have had cultural changes that have lengthened the birth interval in spite of the fact that we are a food-producing society. One important cultural change was the discovery of the birth control pill, which enabled women to begin to have control over whether and when they would reproduce, even while also being sexually active. (Although Jared Diamond cites sexual abstinence as a birth control method in hunter-gatherer societies, I find it difficult to believe that women ever had so much social power that they could choose when and if they would have sex. In my mind, that’s why women in western societies did not begin to have longer birth intervals until they had the capacity to do so without restricting sexual activity.)

It’s possible that other cultural factors also contributed to the lengthened birth interval, including that there was also an increased emphasis on educating women beyond secondary school and a greater recognition that women had the capacity to perform well in the workplace and make important contributions to the economy. However, this leads to a chicken-egg conundrum, as we can’t know whether the longer birth interval contributed to these things or whether these things contributed to a longer birth interval. Regardless, these forces were cyclically reinforcing one another, and this was the course of history.

Of course, women’s entry into the workplace led to a short-lived economic boom, which we saw over a few subsequent decades, including the 1980’s and 1990’s. The 50% of the population that had previously been shut out of the economy could now work for pay, contributing to greater productivity and increased demand. However, that boom was necessarily limited because, while women were seeking educations and pursuing careers, they were also delaying childbirth and choosing to have smaller families. Consequently, there has been insufficient population growth to sustain a robust economy.

Of course, as a result of these cultural changes, we have now begun to see the economy decline in some parts of the country. We have also seen increasing numbers of men’s rights activists blaming women (especially feminists) for all their problems. Because after all, if women were not free to enjoy the same range of life choice options that men have always enjoyed, or if women would only have chosen to remain exclusively in the traditional childbearing-housewife role, we would not have seen a declining birth rate and America would still be great.

Two sets of policies to address this problem have since emerged:

One set of policies seeks to reverse the trends that led to declining birthrates. For example, passing laws that limit women’s reproductive freedom will result in a return to the days when women had no control over their reproductive lives, shortening the birth interval, and bringing us a bunch of new babies. Refusing to pass laws in support of equal pay will result in wage stagnation for women, and a resulting decrease in economic incentives for women to work outside the home. With fewer incentives to work for pay, women will focus more on their role inside the home, bringing us a bunch of new babies.

If you can get past the idea that taking women’s choices away so that they will have more babies is essentially making them into reproductive slaves, then you might favor this set of policies. If you believe that women somehow don’t deserve to have the freedom to make those choices for themselves, then you might favor this set of policies. If you believe that reproductive capacity is a gift from God while birth control is a tool of Satan, then you might favor this set of policies. If you can convince yourself that women are less intelligent, weaker, less resilient, less reliable, less capable, less deserving of autonomy and independence, that birth control makes them fat and ugly, that they don’t have good brains for math and science, then this all goes down a lot smoother. You might even be able to convince yourself that it isn’t evil.

A different sent of policies, rather than seeking to reverse the trend, seeks to ride the waves of disruption that result from allowing people the freedom to choose their own paths. For example, progressive tax policies; universal pre-K; high-quality, government-subsidized childcare; family-leave policies; increasing years of public education; and increasing the minimum wage are all policies that would minimize the burden of children on families. These could enable families to space their children closer together. Similarly, accepting increased numbers of immigrants also increases the number of able-bodied contributing members of the workforce. Taken together, these types of policies may grow the population sufficient to maintain a robust economy. And certainly, to anyone who values human rights, these solutions are preferred over taking away the choices of others.

It is a solution that embraces our humanity, instead of our depravity.

I am someone who comes from a religious tradition that teaches that the US is a “promised land” to which nobody comes except by the hand of God. Over the last decade of knowing and working with refugees and immigrants, what I have observed about them only reaffirms that belief. They are some of the strongest and most resilient people on the planet. They are people who have faced the worst conditions and who tenaciously persevered, pressing forward in hope toward a new future far away from the places they have known their whole lives. They have succeeded against odds that would have killed me.

Current political forces are pushing hard to take away women’s reproductive rights and to limit immigration so we can grow a population of, presumably, white babies. We hear fear-based rhetoric about how all these nonwhites are coming to take over our country and how, in just a few years, whites will be a minority. Personally, I wonder what difference it makes what color we are in 50 years, so long as we are still governed by an inspired constitution that champions a belief in the equality of all humans, so long as we still embrace principles of democracy, truth, justice, and the right of all people to pursue happiness. If we keep our country white but lose our humanity, what good is it?

One set of policies embraces our humanity. The other set of policies brings hate, fear, and a loss of liberty. What set of policies do you want to support?