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.

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Emily Hauser’s Disgusting Indifference to Women of Color

Update I & Update 2: Below

On yesterday’s on-line “HuffPo Live Debate” on supporting Obama, between Daniel Ellsberg, Daily Beast writer Emily Hauser, and Naked Capitalism writer Matt Stoller, Hauser quickly distinguished herself by trying to shame Stoller into shutting up about basic economic facts that pertained to women and illuminated POTUS in a less than sterling light.

It was the usual run of the mill “white women’s” discussion, reminiscent of the pablum that Katha Pollitt was spewing in January of this year. Hauser scolded Matt Stoller for suggesting that anyone might have a serious “deal-breaking” problem with various policies of POTUS/Democrats.

the suggestion that my life and the life of my daughter, and the life of my mother, sister, and friends is more or the less the same under a Republican as it is under a Democrats is so wildly mistaken as to be delusional, frankly.

Here’s Hauser on the most important implications for the “50% of Americans who are women”:

A woman’s right to choice…A women’s right to bodily autonomy. A woman’s right to be a person. And we’ve seen the Democrats working to stem that tide.…But that doesn’t mean that I’ve agreed with everything [Obama’s] done, or everything that’s been done in Congress while [Obama’s] been there, not even by my fellow Democrats… We’re seeing the Democrats working to stem that tide …But I never expect to agree with everything everybody does, least of all of someone who has to be president of all Americans, least of all me and my fondest dreams

She continues:

But as a woman who’s raising my daughter, I tell you what, there’s no comparison that can be made between life in these United States under a potential Romney Presidency and life here under a second term with Obama.

Thank goodness that Emily Hauser has reminded us to focus on what’s important.

Reproductive rights matter. Plenty. But apparently—and this will be news to the Democrats and to a number of American feminists–they’re not the only issue that women—or men–should care about. To hear the Democrats and NOW and many other repro health organizations, the differences between O and R are HUGE—when it comes to women’s issues.  It’s true that O has mild leanings in favor of reproductive rights. But as I’ve written about over and over again on this blog—they’re mild and rather unaggressive in defending those rights. I’m thinking of Sec. of HHS Kathleen Sebelius’ decision to prevent access to OTC contraception despite widespread support; exempting Catholic organizations from providing contraception under Obama Health Insurance Subsidies (let’s just stop calling it Obamacare. It’s NOT healthcare. It’s a subsidy that draws insurance companies into the mix). It doesn’t count as big in O’s favor that he nominated 2 supposedly pro-choice Supreme Court justices (of which the only proof we have that they’ll be pro-choice is that they’re women), one of whom sided in favor of a conservative decision to limit access to reproductive rights. Of the other one, Kagan, very little favorable can be satisfactorily determined on the issue of choice.

Framing the feminist liberatory potential of an Obama win in the second term on the reproductive choice reduces women to (one—narrow—aspect of) their sexuality. It also ignores how many women—poor white women and women of color have either never had easy access to reproductive rights or have had their access slowly eroded well before now.

It is true that Obama supported and pushed through the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which gives women a more flexible statute of limitations to sue for discriminatory wages; it doesn’t actually mandate that women be paid the SAME as men. Thank the good old religion of free markets for that. The Market! The Market! The Market will provide!

I’m going to extend Emily Hauser’s call to remember what’s important. Let me go out on that delusional limb to consider what the past 11 years—including the most recent 4– has brought women who are part of 50% of Americans AND the world.

Women and their well-being have been aggressively under attack by the current and previous POTUSes. Both the Republicans AND Democrats have attacked women’s psychic, physical, and social/economic well-being.  From a global perspective, like the penumbra of the Articles listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the well-being of a woman—any woman— depends on a range of rights that guarantee safety, well-being, keeping her children safe and protected, ensuring her community is intact because, in fact, it is in “the community in which alone the free and full development of [her] personality is possible.” And that includes a “cultural right to self-determination,” as has been suggested by some in the human rights community.

I know that international constitutions and conventions aren’t big in Hauser’s crowd, what with enemy combatants and all. But they’re a whole lot more protective of the interests of humans than American discussions. So I’m going to keep with that premise.

Such a perspective means that One’s Community Matters. That same view includes the right to be part of a continuing community, where a woman’s family, neighbors, friends, and extended relatives are intact, safe, and free of harm—from others and by the state.  When the daily existence of a woman consists of living in fear that her community is slowly being eviscerated, through drones, invasions, assaults, rapes by an invading army, sanctions, and open cultural vilification or outright hatred (as in the case of Islamophobia), then her well-being is no longer intact. Her psychic and physical and social existence is no longer safe from harm.

When a woman’s son or spouse or father or brother or cousin or uncle or nephew faces hourly risks of the following: being droned to death; being arrested for unknown reasons; disappearing into the indefinite detention hole for days, months, years at a time; rendered somewhere far away to be tortured; then she can no longer count on the right of cultural self-determination—because her culture is being demolished. Her family is being destroyed. Her community is disappearing. And her ability to determine herself disappears right along with the rest.

Now, I’m not big into sister-talk, but for the last 11 years (and yes, for the innumerate, that includes the last FOUR as well), my daily routine has involved waking up hearing about one or several of the following, and wondering about the women whose lives are shattered through the following policies and practices (and if the details bore you, or you don’t want to be confused with the facts, skip past the blue):

In the United States:

-More than 1 in 5 children live in poverty in 2011. That’s an increase from 1 in 6 children in 2000.

-1.2 million migrants deported in the last 3 years by the Department of Homeland Security (and that’s only in the first three years under a Democratic president).

-46,000 parental deportations of migrants who had US born children (and that’s just from the six month period of Jan-June 2011).

-1 in 9 Black men are in prison. 1 of 3 Black men can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.  These numbers aren’t diminished by the active drug war continued under the current Administration.

-African American & Latino homeowners suffered disproportionately more housing foreclosures than white men or women. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, 17% of Latino homeowners, 11% of African homeowners are at risk for losing their homes. I have not been able to extract the number of women affected, but it’s safe to say black and brown women of color have also been disproportionately affected.

The current Administration did not cause these foreclosures. But according to Neil Barofsky, under Pres. Obama, the Treasury department deliberately and cynically did not use TARP money to help these homeowners despite the express bipartisan intent of the US Congress.

At most, the 49-state mortgage settlement brokered under President Obama will be at most a palliative, if not in fact harmful to these same families.

-Between 800-1000 Muslim men—or more–who are arrested on trumped-up charges made possible by the USA PATRIOT Act (which allows for pre-emptive policing, warrantless surveillance, indefinite detention, interrogation).

-The entrapment, surveillance, and racial profiling of Muslim men in hundreds of mosques under the NYPD and FBI.

-the death of US citizens under the age of 16, like Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi, who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen. Senior Obama Advisor Robert Gibb’s response (at 2:40 in clip) to whether that was a moral move on POTUS’ part was to point out that Al-Aulaqi should have found a “far more responsible father.” Of course.

-A series of laws, designed and passed to allow the maximum, least-documented, aggressive targeting of Muslim men ALONG with maximum immunity for US government officials and security-related employees. There are so many. Just go read Glenn Greenwald. For the last 5 years.

Internationally:

35,000 have perished in Pakistan, where the US is waging a “shadow” war against “terror groups and militants.”These are deaths from direct violence: bombings, gunshot wounds, missile strikes, etc.

-A celebrated DRONE Program targeted towards militants in Pakistan. More than 3000 militants and civilians will have been killed, more than the number of those who died in the US on September 11, 2011. Other countries being droned include Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Philippines. Soon to be added: Mali.

-A celebrated “Secret Kill List,” configured and for the authority of the current POTUS.

-As of yesterday, the Secret Kill list will be expanded into a disposition matrix which will make the War on Terror a permanent part of the lives of men and the other 50% of US inhabitants—an ever-increasing list of name of people to kill—gathered by way of National Counterterrorism Center. Here’s an excellent piece that connects the dots.

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When American feminists tell me about the importance of protecting reproductive rights, do they believe that Black, Latino, undocumented, Iraqi, Afghan, Pakistani women have reproductive rights, too? Or is that one of those areas where we just can’t expect the Dems to protect “my fondest dreams”? Do we have obligations to hold the Dems accountable for active harms to women around the world?

When Emily Hauser tells me that about POTUS and the Dems’ aggressive attempts to “protect” the bodily autonomy of women—in the face of facts that dispute it, such as increased incarceration rates, poverty, unemployment, mortgage foreclosures for Black and Latina women, and increased every-other-kind-of-targeting for well-being of the brown (most often Muslim) women, I have to wonder what she thinks about the following:

Does the imprisonment/solitary confinement/indefinite incarceration of men–who are Muslim, black, Latino, Asian–count as a “gender issue”?

Does the economic and political detriment to women from having their sons, spouses, brothers, fathers entrapped and arrested–count as “a feminist issue”? By economic and political detriment, I mean the social ostracization, the material effect of the loss of income, the political vulnerability of having a male who is potentially the head of a household.

Does the deportation of hundreds of thousands of men AND women—and the separation of U.S. citizen/children from their parents annually count as an issue that “affects” women? By “affect,” I mean the the psychic, material, social vulnerability to survive, to thrive, to live free of fear and harm.  Does the legal adoption of those children to U.S. citizen parents and the subsequent break-up of families count as a “woman’s” issue?

And before someone tells me that that’s a patriarchal question—that women should be able to make their own decisions and survive independently of “their men,” let me suggest that we look around the US for a quick min: It’s a patriarchal society.

When Emily Hauser insists that she “can’t get everything for free,” I wonder what she thinks of the price black and brown women have to pay for their “reproductive rights.” That price is a hell of a lot more costly than hers: Her family isn’t being decimated through deportations, entrapments, surveillance, and indefinite detentions. There appear to be few male relatives in her life who are being decimated. And if there are, she doesn’t appear to care. Not so for most Muslim women.

To the ridiculous argument offered in that HuffPo Live “Debate” that we must support Obama, even thought he “is doing things that are disillusioning to us,” I agree: It IS disillusioning to have the POTUS take the lead on the extra-legal murders of people he and his staff think are terrorists—without EVER offering evidence. It IS a bit disillusioning to hear about a “disposition matrix.”  It IS disillusioning to wake up every day and hear about NSA, the CIA, the FBI, and the NYPD harassing Muslim men—who are the family members of Muslim women. Interrogating them. Incarcerating them indefinitely and without charges. Running kangaroo courts. Yes. A bit disillusioning. A bit.

When Daniel Ellsberg (and implicitly) Emily Hauser agree that the POTUS is a murderer, but still good on reproductive rights, I can’t help but think that Mr. Ellsberg, Ms. Hauser, just want to vote for Obama and the Democrats, regardless of ANY facts that detract from the ascription of his supposed moral righteousness. Regardless.

What a remarkable feat of hypocrisy, racist-guilt-tripping, and righteous wealthy American myopia to tell Matt Stoller and all the men that he’s supposed to stand in for, that “[he] doesn’t get to have a say on [her]body,” but that Hauser can cheer and clap as she anxiously runs to the polls to vote for a guy and his party who have aggressively, enthusiastically, and eagerly harmed the bodies of the loved ones of many, many US citizens and foreign nationals here and abroad—brown, black, Muslim,–their children, their spouses, their fathers, their brothers?

Emily Hauser’s feminism is the kind of feminism that deprioritizes the multiple dimensions of the well-being of black and brown women, in order to protect one aspect of women’s lives to detriment of so many others.  In light of these facts (which shouldn’t be taken to confuse your ideological commitments), I’d describe Hauser’s voting advice as telling Women of Color to “please f*ck off.”

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Update I: I initially omitted the following facts because they happened before 2008. But because they are related to international women’s reproductive rights, I think they bear mentioning as part of the list of atrocities that the US has waged. Dem or Repub or 3rd party, it’s still our collective government waging the assault–and many Democrats voted to go into Iraq, as we know.

Iraqi women have suffered severe reproductive problems and have had children with birth defects as a result of years of cluster bombs: 1 of 2 children born in Falluja has birth defects. That’s 50%. One in Two. Between 2007-2010, 1 in 6 births ended in miscarriage.

Tens of thousands of Afghan women live on soil poisoned by depleted uranium (which has a half-life of 4.5 billion years), resulting in an 18-fold increase in the rate of cancer from 500 cases in 2004 to over 9000 cases in 2009? The damage to their reproductive systems is untold.

Update II (Oct. 27, 2012): In her column, “Not Voting for Obama,” Margaret Kimberley of the Black Agenda Report has another analysis of the harms wrought by the current Democratic Administration.  As she says:

If Democrats also believe in wars of aggression and bail outs and subservience to finance capital, Republicans are only left with abortion and gay marriage as issues to differentiate themselves.”

This conclusion, says Kimberly, has been brought on by progressives themselves:

“It is a lack of progressive activism which has precipitated this crisis. In the absence of strong and coordinated opposition to Democratic Party duplicity, progressives meekly go along with whatever bad deals are presented to them and then recoil in fear every four years when they are told that the barbarians are at the gate. Republicans only help make the case for this complicity with openly racist and misogynistic policies.”