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I’ve had some thoughtful questions posed in response to my last post on the abolition of the ban on women in combat, so I’d clarify why I don’t believe that “gender-equality” in a war-time military is an unqualified victory.  Indeed, insofar as the ability to be in combat is a “feminist achievement” for some women, it is a defeat for women of color or poorer white women who feel that their only available—or reasonable option is to join the military. These remarks expand on an earlier reply to a commenter.

It is possible to see the lifting of the ban purely as a feminist victory. Principles of most kinds—especially when they are couched as progressive—are more easily interpreted in the best possible light when they are separated from history and context, and not applied to examples.  It’s a classic liberal position, which allows a selective interpretation of the facts in favor of highlighting the “pure” principle. The brilliant effectiveness of liberalism is that it’s based on principles, and indifferent to the applications or details.  Moreover, separating the motives from the facts depoliticizes the policy (and strips it of its ethical content).  That is a great way to make a policy easier to swallow–precisely as those in power would like us to do.  By couching a strategic policy in the cloak of principle, it becomes much easier to co-opt a potentially progressive principle for political profit (P5).

But when we see these principles in conjunction with the way that they can (and often will) be exploited, such programs aren’t unqualified victories. The freedom to do something—without a range of options—can often be transformed into being forced to do something [The same does not necessarily apply to the freedom of speech. In fact, the opposite holds for speech: the freedom to speak is generally not transformed into being forced to speak].

Having said that, I’ll reiterate what some readers missed the last time I wrote it: I’m completely in favor of removing barriers to discrimination: sexual, marital, gender, racial.  Removing barriers to discrimination can lead to more options for some people—in some circumstances, in certain moments.  Removing barriers to discrimination is NOT, however, the equivalent of creating choices for everyone.  The freedom to do something is only a mark of progress when it becomes a legitimate option among several reasonable options.

Lifting the ban is consistent with the classic liberal feminist position, which favors the principle of “gender-equality.” However, the classical liberal feminist position is inherently problematic, since it prioritizes “gender-equality” without attending to economic disparities or racially relevant facts. Policies like allowing women in combat will affect women of color—especially single mothers–disproportionately: they are demographically more likely to have fewer employment options and thereby will be disproportionately inclined to join the Army–with its range of benefits. This is even more the case during difficult economic times. All women (and men) of color have to do is agree to be cannon fodder for an imperial war.

So, a “feminist victory” for those who actually have a range of options and decide that they want to be in combat positions, is not in fact a “feminist victory” for all women. It’s NOT an unqualified victory for many women of color—unless they choose to be in combat, given [and this is key] a range of several or many other reasonable options–such as a civil service equivalent, for example. It is NOT a victory for those who don’t want to be in combat and/OR who can’t challenge their superiors’ decisions to put them in combat positions, or for those who didn’t have many options for employment but are attracted by access to healthcare, childcare, etc. Such a position leaves those already vulnerable to the exigencies of authority, i.e., vulnerable to being exploited by those in power over them.

A non-conscription Army–in a society that suffers radical economic inequality (in wealth, employment, and healthcare)–is a classist institution that will disproportionately exploit the vulnerabilities of men and women of color. By ignoring this context, and the timing of this policy, one can trumpet the ‘victory’ or ‘principle’ without having to consider the implications for those who have to suffer through the exigencies of this policy.

This is similar to the “victory” of same-sex marriage, which can certainly facilitate lesbian and gay couples’ access to health care, living will decisions, adoptions, etc. However, it side-steps crucial implications, like (1) the national absence of health-care and (2) corporations’ decision to deny same-sex benefits to unmarried couples (because now everyone, including same-sex couples can get married–so they are forced to do so in order to have benefits). (3) the immigration policy that prohibits domestic partners from applying for visas to live in the US together regardless of marital status.

It’s a way to discipline citizens & residents into conforming to certain societal norms, while pretending that “progress” has been achieved.

One interlocutor pointed to the possibility that gender-equality had nothing to do with being anti-war.  But the idea that feminist equality should be favored over challenging violence or war is short-sighted–if not selective. Should violence only be challenged when it affects women in domestic violence or rape? Feminism and anti-war positions aren’t necessarily linked for everyone, but that does not mean that they have to be exclusive. Doesn’t violence affect others too? Isn’t part of the principle of feminism–any feminism–that human beings and their sanctity should be prioritized? Especially in the case of imperial wars that take brown and black bodies–not only as feed for army war-machines–but as the targets of drones, guns, bombs? For feminists like myself, feminism and anti-violence are intimately linked–especially, when I consider that the violence that has been disproportionately targeted toward black and brown bodies, male and female–here in the U.S. and internationally—in the last twelve years.

North American feminism is not monolithic–there are enormous variants and strands. But liberal feminism is often a conveniently myopic variety of feminism. It is one that cheers principle often when it won’t affect liberal feminists at all, even as it will affect many others adversely (and not by choice).

So, if it makes you feel good, then by all means, celebrate. But when it comes time to vote in our next election, I will refuse to accept this as a “progressive” achievement on the part of the Democrats.  The idea that it’s about principle is a dubious point at best—because it is a policy embedded in a calculation of timing and strategy–to win votes while costing even more Others their lives.