Liberalism versus Sex

In the USA, it’s customary to divide the political spectrum into liberal and conservative, where “liberal”= “left” and “conservative”=”right.”  This tends to leave Americans perplexed when they hear people in other countries denouncing hypercapitalist economic policies as neoliberal or ultraliberal.  The easiest way I’ve found of explaining this usage to my countrymen is to mention H. G. Wells.   When Wells visited America in 1906, he remarked that the United States lacked two of the three major political parties that existed almost everywhere in Europe.  One of these was a socialist party.  While there was a socialist movement in the USA in 1906, no socialist party was a leading contender for power in national politics.  The other missing party was a conservative party.  Not only was there no major contender for power in the USA that stood for monarchy, an established church, and the traditional relationship between peasant and aristocracy; there was no constituency in American society that could possibly demand such a platform.  The parties that Wells did find in America would in the UK have been represented by the left and right wings of the Liberal Party:

It is not difficult to show for example, that the two great political parties in America represent only one English political party, the middle-class Liberal Party, the party of industrialism and freedom.  There is no Tory Party to represent the feudal system, and no Labor Party… All Americans are, from the English point of view, Liberals of one sort or another.  (The Future in America: A Search after Realities, pages 73-74)

Liberalism, in all its forms, holds out the promise of a social order based on reason.  Left liberals, including some who call themselves Greens or Social Democrats, want to reform the public sphere so that rational dialogue among individuals will dominate politics, and through politics rational dialogue will provide a meeting ground where a diverse population can live together peacefully.  Right liberals, including some who call themselves Conservatives or Libertarians, want to reform the economic system so that the rational self-interest of individuals will dominate the marketplace, and through the marketplace rational self-interest will generate an free and orderly society.  In either form, liberalism places its faith in the power of reason.

Such a faith can be very comfortable indeed.  Liberals left and right sometimes annoy their opponents by seeming so “terribly at ease in Zion.”  Even the most complacent liberal, however, can hardly fail to notice that some extremely important areas of human life do not seem to invite reason’s governance.  Among the most obvious examples is sexual behavior.  Decades ago, science fiction writer Robert Sheckley imagined what a perfectly rational lover would be like; in his 1957 story “The Language of Love,” Sheckley presented a character named Jefferson Toms who learned how to make love without compromising reason in any way.  Toms discovers why the species that invented this art went extinct when he finds that no potential lover can tolerate his scrupulously accurate endearments.

Of course, Jefferson Toms’ namesake Thomas Jefferson was at once one of the supreme exponents of the liberal tradition and a man who likely followed his sexual urges to betray every principle that tradition exalted.  When they consider sexual behavior, liberals typically speak of “consent.”  That “consent” is a technical term which has little meaning outside the legal processes where it arose becomes clear when we speculate on what may have happened between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.  As Jefferson’s slave, Hemings could not legally consent to enter a sexual relationship with him, or with anyone else.  The law of a liberal society would thus label any sex act in which she participated as rape.  Hemings may indeed have experienced her encounters with Jefferson as rape.  We certainly don’t know enough to defend him in any way.  But surely it must give us pause to realize that our idea of “consent” implies that none of the billions of human beings who have lived as slaves has ever engaged in a wholesome sex act.  A non-liberal Right might claim that this implication reduces the whole liberal project to absurdity, and throws us back to traditional definitions of social roles, rather than individual self-determination, as the proper standard for judging the moral status of any action, sexual or otherwise.

A non-liberal Left might respond differently, but with equal certitude that it had found a fatal flaw in liberalism.  In our own times, Catharine MacKinnon and the late Andrea Dworkin exposed the shallowness of the notions of “consent” that underpin liberal definitions of rightful sexual behavior.*  Those notions imagine a man and a woman facing each other as equals and deciding, by a rational process, whether they will engage in a particular sex act.  At a minimum, an act can be consensual if and only if both parties are consenting to the same thing.  This in fact never happens, nor can it happen in a patriarchal society.  Wherever men as a group are recognized as dominant and women as a group are labeled as submissive, a man will gain power over women and status among other men if he extorts sex from women, while a woman will pay a price for resisting this extortion.  Because of these facts, men and women make such radically different cost/benefit analyses before agreeing to sex that the parties can never be said to have consented to the same thing.  For this reason, Dworkin wanted to excise the word “consent” from rape laws.

(more…)

Funny Times, May 2010

It’s always been my habit to go to ground during the summers, so it isn’t much of a surprise that I’ve fallen behind in my “Periodicals Notes.”  Not that anyone has complained, but I’ll be catching up a bit over the next few days.  First up is May’s Funny Times

There’s an installment of Lloyd Dangle’s Troubletown that I thought was hilarious when it first appeared back in February.  It’s about the political movement known as the “teabaggers,” Americans of a rightward bent who have been vocal about their opposition to the Obama administration.  Dangle is mystified that the teabaggers have been the object of so much publicity.  My favorite line from the comic is “600 people showed up for their convention.  That’s almost as many as the Sheboygan High School science fair!” 

Matt Bors has a good comic about privacy, I was reminded of it by this recent xkcd

Jon Winokur’s “Curmudgeon” compiles quotes about money, including this from Brigid Brophy: “Whenever people say, ‘We mustn’t be sentimental,’ you can take it they are about to do something cruel.  And if they add, ‘We must be realistic,’ they mean they are going to make money out of it.”  Not exactly laugh-out-loud funny, but she does have a point.  So did Mary Gordon, when she wrote: “The use of money is the purest act of faith; no anchorite who has followed a vision into the desert has acted on an idea as far-fetched as our belief that if we put a dollar in a machine we will be drinking a Diet Coke in a minute.”  Andrea Dworkin is a name you don’t expect to encounter in a humor column, but she’s here: “Money talks, but it speaks with a male voice.”  Given Dworkin’s personal history as a woman who was once forced into sex work to escape an abusive partner, I can’t imagine laughing at that line, but I can certainly take it seriously.

Some would say that laughter is the ultimate form of seriousness.  If so, Dave Maleckar’s “Hundred Word Rant” may have hit on a way to take sex work seriously.  Arguing that people who like to cook should not open restaurants, he concludes thus: “You probably like sex, too.  You may be very good at it.  That doesn’t mean you should start doing it for money.”