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.

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The Nation magazine’s first issues of 2010

1 February: The first issue to go to press after the earthquake in Haiti includes some recommendations for those who would like to find a good relief organization to give money.  The first organization I looked up when I heard about the quake was one I’d first read of in the pages of The Nation, MADRE.  In her year-end lists of groups that deserve financial support and elsewhere, Nation columnist Katha Pollitt has made mention of this organization, which supports groups around the world.  Most of MADRE’s partner groups are initiatives in poor countries, started and led by citizens of those countries, that prioritize the needs of women and girls.  MADRE’s Haitian partner is Partners in Health, which runs a network of clinics called Zanmi Lasante; they’re on the list.  The magazine’s website includes several more pleas for Haiti; see here and here

In the same issue, Robin Einhorn attacks Gordon Wood’s recent book about the early federal period of the United States, arguing that Wood shows a “remarkably naive sense of politics” that allows him to keep the South at the margins of his story and free white male Northerners at the center of it.  Even as he puts the focus on a rapidly industrializing region, Einhorn argues, Wood shows an uncritical admiration on for the agrarian politics of Thomas Jefferson and his party.  Einhorn grants that Wood’s chapter on the politics of slavery is excellent, but says that confining the topic to a single chapter, quarantined from the rest of the book, is profoundly misleading.  In the end, Einhorn declares that Wood has succeeded in thinking like Thomas Jefferson, but that this is no unmixed virtue:

If Jefferson had known nearly as much about his society as Wood does, Empire of Liberty is the book he would have written. It is no coincidence that the title is Jefferson’s, a phrase encapsulating his brand of velvet-gloved imperialism. Wood seems to know that there was an iron fist lurking inside, but he identifies with an audience that treasures the national fantasy of egalitarian triumph that Jefferson represents. Like Jefferson, Wood nods to the evil of slavery and the violence of westward expansion. Unlike Jefferson, he realizes that there was something undesirable about the way men treated women. But Wood’s focus remains squarely on the subculture of white men–especially in the North–who energetically pursued their liberty and happiness in the “republicanized” world of postrevolutionary America. 

25 January: Alexander Cockburn is disappointed with R. Crumb’s version of the Book of Genesis.  In Cockburn’s view, Crumb does not thoroughly deflate monotheism, but produces a more or less reverent text.  “If a conclusive disresepcting of Genesis was required, wouldn’t you think R. Crumb was the man for the job?… But the overall effect is more solemn than satirical.”  Cockburn is also disappointed that Crumb depicts the characters of the book as recognizably Jewish (in fact stereotypically Jewish, “hairy” and “with big noses,”) missing an opportunity to make the point that “There never was a Jewish people, only a Jewish religion” (a line Cockburn quotes from Israeli journalist Tom Segev) and that Zionism is therefore an illegitimate enterprise.  Indeed at one point Cockburn claims to have “wondered whether Crumb, a Catholic long ago, had converted to Zionism.” 

I agree with Cockburn about a lot of things, but when he turns to Judaism and the Jews I sometimes suspect him of being a bit cracked.  Not that I want to wave the flag for Zionism, but it doesn’t seem especially reasonable to expect a graphic novel, even when that graphic novel is R. Crumb’s adaptation of Genesis, to achieve everything he demanded of it.   

11 January: A piece about the Polaroid camera and the pictures it took includes this:

Polaroid’s “now” having been driven into the past, it has become ripe for nostalgia. Found Magazine, launched in 2001, was well ahead of the Polaroid nostalgia wave and spun off a whole book of Found Polaroids in 2006, when the end of the road was already in sight. But for its author, Jason Bitner, the medium had always been “instant nostalgia–framed and faded, a picture that already looked decades old.”

The same issue includes an essay about Thelonious Monk that ends with this anecdote:

Monk liked to wear a formidable ring bearing his name when he played, an encumbrance that no pianist in his right mind would want to burden a hand with. While he was flashing his ring for the world to see, from his own perspective he saw something else. “KNOW” said the ring, more or less, to the audience. “MONK” was the reply when he saw it himself.

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