It Isn’t Just the Principle That Matters: Liberalism, Feminism, and Equality

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.

Progress: Cheering Feminists Who Kill

Revised (1/25/13, 7:38 am).

Leon Panetta’s announcement, overturning a 19-year ban on allowing women to join small-group combat units in the military, heralded some predictable responses from liberals and feminists: “How great! Let there be no inequality between men and women anywhere.” Some veterans tried to point to the legitimacy of this new permission by pointing to their newfound realization that women were just as capable as men in combat roles.

My generation assumed women’s capabilities—in all areas—were equivalent to those of men, so the veterans’ realizations were hardly earth-shattering. Generally, I’m in agreement with removing gendered and racial barriers to inequality and discrimination: in education and all other opportunities.  Moreover, there are genuine benefits to the DoD’s official position.  For women who are already in the army and serving de facto in combat-vulnerable positions, e.g., if they are attacked while serving in maintenance units (remember Pfc. Jessica Lynch?), ambulance units or escorting convoys, they can finally be compensated, promoted, and rewarded for the work that they have already been doing for years.

But I can hardly join in the feminist shouts of victory. Many have already understood the irony of this new “freedom”: women will now be officially allowed to join a war-time military that has been involved in several long-standing deadly wars, notably all over the Middle East. President Obama’s 2nd inaugural reality-bending notwithstanding, there is little evidence that a decade of war has ended, except in terms of troop withdrawal from Iraq.  As we know, that withdrawal is being done according to a timeline set under the Bush Administration, which the Obama Administration was unsuccessful in renegotiating. Never mind that a significant presence of non-combat U.S. troops private contractors will still remain in Iraq.

The war has gone underground or been expanded through remote-controlled drones directed towards regions with whom the US is not officially at war. War-like threats have also increased through the expansion of military bases all over sub-Saharan Africa. To boot, the US is now “assisting” France in invading Mali. These wars, it should go without saying, are targeted toward large swaths of the world’s brown and black populations.

There is a remarkable shallowness to the notion of “feminist progress.” We have heard various sources, including director Katherine Bigelow, exhorting the wonderful feminist dimensions of Zero Dark Thirty, which shows Jessica Chastain as Maya, the CIA operative and supporter of torture. As feminist scholar and professor Zillah Eisenstein points out,

This film is not to be made seemingly progressive or feminist because it presents a female CIA agent as central to the demise of Osama. Nor should any of us think that it is “good” that Maya is female, or that several females had an important hand in the murder of Osama. There is nothing feminist in revenge.

While I disagree with Eisenstein on this—sometimes revenge can be a feminist act, —there is typically nothing feminist in committing bodily, emotional, or psychic harm to any other person.

Harm to others violates the principle of the innate dignity of human beings.  Seeking physical retribution without using court and legal procedures violates due process, which is a US constitutional principle, but which should be a standard of human rights upon which states and individuals should be able to depend.

Still, I find it puzzling that there is something in the ethos of our age that suggests that “feminism” can be ascribed to women and policies supporting the most destructive of actions—from Maya, to Secretaries of State Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton as advocates of violence military actions in the name of defending American security.

Last night, Jon Stewart and MIT drone expert Missy Cummings had this bizarre, if enthusiastic, interchange about the coolness of drones.  In the midst of it, Cummings pointed to her feminist credentials as one of the first female fighter pilots. Sounds great. Until one realizes that being a fighter pilot means that one is being trained…to engage in combat…to kill. It is a progress of a certain sort to realize that women can kill as easily and emotionlessly as men. Just as, I suppose, it is progress for an African American president to exceed a white president in his ability to promote secrecy, violence, absence of transparency, and endorse human rights violations.

What does it mean to talk about feminist progress when defined as enabling women to participate combatively in the colonizing project? To fight aggressively in the name of creating a world-wide imperialist presence? To join an institution whose policies for 11 years have involved, as Wikileaks has shown us, the shooting, maiming, and plundering of black and brown men, women, and children in the name of “U.S. freedom and security”?

There are other dimensions of this “feminist” policy to consider here as well: Why is this decision being taken now? It comes in the aftermath of another achievement for which the Obama Administration is being given full credit: the end of a 18 year “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy initiated under another neoliberal Democratic president.  Both of these policies augment the already-aggressive practice of recruiting poor or working-class whites and minorities–with more female and/or lesbian/gay/bisexual soldiers–for the US Army.

The timing of Panetta’s announcement is hardly coincidental: in the context of an improving economy, it is difficult and precarious to maintain a steady supply of troops in an all-volunteer army to service a global war that is more unpopular than ever among Americans (not to mention the folks that the U.S. is targeting—but perhaps that was obvious). The supply chain, as it were, is dying and new food sources need to be found.

The U.S. Armed Services, as a federal employer, provides a broad range of remarkable benefits to government employees: health care (not to be confused with Obamacare, which is a health-insurance scheme); child-care, housing, lodging, skilled training, and other forms of subsidized or free education.  It is neither hard to understand nor sympathize with the men and women who see the US Army as an employer of last resort in the face of a failing economy. But addendums such as the dissolution of DADT and “women in combat” will help erase any remaining barriers and supply a steady stream of—male, female, black, brown, working-class, gay, and patriotic—bodies to the war-feeding machine.

There is only one remaining obstacle. The Department of Defense hopes, with any luck, that said obstacle will soon be overcome with the passage of the DREAM Act. This act will offer young undocumented migrants the Faustian opportunity to enroll in college (one that they can somehow afford or which will subsidize them) or participate in American wars against other black and brown people around the world, in return for the miraculous chance to become “legal” residents of the United States.

3 cheers for Feminist Progress.