Archive for February, 2010

Winning on Abortion: the First Thing or the Only Thing?

February 28, 2010

I believe in the right of a woman to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term. I am not sure it should be the centerpiece of the women’s movement.

There are certain things that are basic to the ability of women to function as free citizens of a free society. One of them is the right to control one’s own reproductive life. Another is freedom from violence. A third is the right to make a living by one’s labor. A fourth is the right to join with other women to pursue these goals. I hesitate to put any one of these ahead of the others. Choosing between them would be like choosing between breathing in and breathing out.

And the organized women’s movement, in its most-publicized manifestations, is beginning to look as if it has chosen one of these goals–abortion rights–at the expense of the others. The women’s movement and the abortion rights movement are not, and should not be, co-extensive, much less synonymous.

There are a number of good reasons for being cautious about identifying the women’s movement with abortion rights. One is that abortion rights is too narrow an approach even to reproductive rights. The right to terminate a pregnancy isn’t nearly as useful to most women as the right not to start one in the first place–the right, that is, to safe, reliable, reversible, accessible contraception. At present, while we may be free to “choose” abortion, our only choice in the area of contraception is between safe contraception that is not reliable, reliable contraception that is not safe, and safe, reliable contraception that is not reversible.

Most sex education programs directed to high school girls in these neighborhoods pound in the lesson that if you have sex, you’re going to have babies. That isn’t what they need. They already know that. What they don’t know is that it’s possible to have sex and not have babies. A large proportion of poor women don’t believe in contraception–not in the sense in which good teetotallers don’t believe in drinking, but in the sense in which most teenagers don’t believe in Santa Claus. They don’t believe contraception is there for them, and mostly they’re right. They don’t trust the pill–which is in fact dangerous for any population as subject to hypertension as Black women–and they can’t persuade their men to use condoms or wait for them to insert diaphragms or foams. Hispanic women use sterilization if they use anything. This is probably related to a mostly-Catholic culture in which it makes more sense to commit one mortal sin–having the operation–and getting it over with, than to commit a new mortal sin every time one takes the pill or puts in a diaphragm. It is also undoubtedly related to medical practice in Puerto Rico, where women have been routinely sterilized without their knowledge or consent, or under heavy pressure from medical personnel in violation of all medical ethics. Sterilization is similar to abortion, in that both make it possible for a woman to choose not to have a particular child, or any more children, but neither really gives her control over the decision to have a child. This isn’t freedom, it’s a stopgap.

Nor are reproductive rights the only freedom a woman needs. Today, homicide is the leading cause of work-related deaths among women, and of deaths among pregnant women. More women die every year from violence at the hands of husbands, lovers, and other family members than ever died from back-alley abortions, even when abortion was illegal and those were the only kind of abortions that were available. Indeed, Erin Pizzey points out that in working-class English neighborhoods, domestic violence against pregnant women is considered “the poor man’s [sic] method of birth control.” Pregnancy increases the risk of domestic violence in any society, probably for the same reasons. The question is, should we be reducing violence against pregnant women by reducing pregnancy, or by reducing violence, even against women who happen not to be pregnant at the moment?

From a purely political point of view, I can see what the abortion rights activists are trying to accomplish–united, effective action against what started out looking like a conservative landslide against a right of women. It is a way, not only of preserving that right, but also of making sure the conservatives know we have the power to do it. That is definitely worth doing. And it makes sense to fight on that front rather than, say, in areas like pay equity where we have no gains yet to be threatened with reversal, or decisions like Frontierro v. Richardson, (the basic sex-discrimination Supreme Court case), where we have made a gain but it has not (unlike Roe v. Wade) been threatened with reversal.

But there are political drawhacks to the Roe fight, too. One is that even though the majority of Americans are in favor of the right to abortion, not very many are actually in favor of abortion. They view it as a necessary evil. Making it the centerpiece of the women’s movement is like making vivisection the main drawing card for medical research. Even those who agree that it is necessary for some other valid purpose don’t consider it a valid end in itself. Most Americans would be a lot more comfortable with a movement that worked at making abortion less necessary, both by improving contraceptive options and access, and by reducing the penalties imposed on motherhood.

Currently, there is an increasing trend toward casting mother and child as adversaries, especially but not exclusively before birth. The abortion rights movement is only one example of that trend, but it is the most blatant. In fact, until our technology improves to the point where the womb becomes as obsolete as we like to think the breast is, the unborn child’s welfare depends on that of the mother. Even after birth, we have not yet developed child care facilities that can reliably replace the natural mother in more than a minuscule fraction of cases. One of the main reasons children are so disproportionately likely to be poor, undernourished, badly-housed, abused, and neglected is that most of them come attached to women, who lack the power and resources to protect themselves, much less their children, from these conditions.

It follows that, if we really want to improve the lives, and life-chances, of children, the best way to do it is to empower women and enable them to improve their own lives. Reproductive freedom is only one aspect of this improvement. The studies indicate clearly that a wanted child is less likely to be abused, neglected, or poor than one whose mother views its conception as an accident and its birth as a disaster. But they also indicate that the best way to motivate women to demand and exert control over their own reproduction is to offer them improved educational and vocational opportunities. This works even in the Third World; but it has not even been tried in the Fourth World of American inner cities. This is the fight the women’s movement should be waging in this country–one which puts women and their children on the same side, and can put American public opinion unreservedly behind them both.

Red Emma

The Oldest Holocaust

February 22, 2010

I am abashed by the title of this essay. I do not intend to diminish the uniqueness of the slaughter of the Jews of Europe by the Nazis, nor would it be possible if I did. One-third of the then-existing Jewish population was systematically and deliberately destroyed. Despite our efforts, we have not yet managed to comprehend that. Those efforts may be misplaced; it may be no more possible to retain our humanity after comprehending that slaughter than it was for the Nazis to do so after perpetrating it.

That slaughter, as historians have documented, drew both its rationale and many of its tactics from earlier persecutions of the Jews by the mediaeval church. But now the Holocaust is part of the history of all human culture, and available as a model to both prospective murderers and prospective victims. In that context, we are only beginning to explore what it means to say, with all our minds and hearts and strength, “Never again.” I believe that that understanding requires us to look at the universals of the Holocaust as well as the particulars, at the murderous potential that lies at the root of all human history, as well as the designation of a particular people as its victims.

What I have in mind as the most universal exemplar of that potential is a slaughter that has lasted far longer than the slaughter of Jews by non-Jews (and has on occasion been part of it), that has extended over all the earth, in virtually all human cultures, and destroyed immensely larger numbers of human beings (though probably never so large a proportion of existing populations within a given time-span)–the slaughter of female human beings, as such. I am not engaging in historical speculation. I am a lawyer, not a statistician, and I am looking to indictment and mitigation of damages, not to cerebral number games. Moreover, I believe that the patterns of discrimination, persecution, and murder of Jews and women run parallel, and sometimes intersect, so that understanding of either can contribute to control and prevention of the other.

But mostly I am trying to comprehend at an intellectual level what I have been aware of for practical purposes most of my conscious life–the paradox of knowing that I am human and conscious and capable of thought and feeling and moral decision, while also knowing that I and persons like me (i.e., female) are perceived by the culture we live in and by large numbers of people I see and deal with every day, as marginal, or even superfluous appliances/conveniences/ ornaments in the lives of “real” people. The implications of that, carried to their ultimate extension, are murder and the ever-present potential for murder. Obviously, it is easy to brand that perception as paranoid. Like most women and most decent men, I would vastly prefer to think of it that way myself. But I think the numbers are inescapable. The numbers tell us that what, for the purposes of political discourse, we rather innocuously call “sexism”, is not merely a source of inconvenience and unhappiness to its victims; for the majority of female human beings who have ever lived on this earth, it is literally a matter of life and death.

That fact is perhaps obscured by the more recently discovered fact that, when allowed to live out her naturally- allotted lifespan, the average woman lives several years longer than the average man. We do not yet know whether the male in this equation is being allowed his naturally-allotted lifespan; we certainly do not know the source of the female advantage. But we do know that the luxury of living out that natural female lifespan has been granted to only a minuscule fraction of the female human beings who have ever inhabited the earth, and perhaps less than one-fifth of those now alive.

“Sexism” may be too general a word for the set of facts we have to deal with. More specifically, I think we must begin with what the religious scholar Rita Gross calls the “androcentric view of humanity”–the presumption that the average human being, made to standard specifications, is male, and that the female is the exceptional, whose existence has meaning only because of the functions she performs for males. Simone de Beauvoir elaborates this outlook brilliantly, on a philosophical-existential level, in The Second Sex.

It has consequences on the bread-and-butter, life-and-death, statistical level, which are rarely given serious consideration by historians or demographers. Those consequences may be most recognizable today in the mass media, where, for instance, on prime-time television, between two-thirds and three-fourths of the characters are male, and almost all the female characters are young, sexually attractive, and unmarried. The ratio of 1 woman to 2, 3, or 4 men is a fairly popular one, and turns up in some surprising places. Until civil rights legislation finally took hold, it was the accepted ratio, set by the admissions office, between male and female students at Harvard, for instance, and between men and women at many other institutions of higher education.

Even such a humane thinker as Paul Goodman uses it, unconsciously (I assume) in his description of the ideal community for raising a (presumably male) child:
“1 nursing mother: matrix of affection and elementary satisfaction.
“1 rival bad-mother (aunt type), for the attachment of rage and nausea.
“1 rival good-mother (big-sister type), desire without tangible satisfaction.
“1 neutral older woman, to bridge the gap to apathy.
“3 or 4 fathers (uncle type): manly identification, threats of maiming; gain of security by learning to play off one against the other. (Teacher, policeman, mother’s mate, mother’s lover.)
“1 older brother: the model to be avoided.
“1 younger brother, the favorite (Abel type): a convenient object for murder.
“1 male sexual friend: projection of narcissism.
“1 male nonsexual friend: the rival.
“1 other friend, either sex: object of selfless devotion.
“2 or 3 other males, roughly contemporary: the gang.
“1 outsider: the scapegoat.
“1 older girl friend, sexually active, to force him to overcome the Oedipus situation.
“1 younger girl friend, for fearless exploration, for playing the father role.
“1 maniac, all is not what it seems.
“1 old person dying.
“1 stranger to the society: infinity of mystery.”
(Empire City, p. 308.) Note that, of the 22 persons total, 11 of those whose gender is specified are male, and 6 are female. Of the others, Goodman almost certainly intends all but the “other friend, either sex” to be male.

What are the bread-and-butter implications of this view? Let us begin at the beginning, that is to say, with infanticide. Certainly the widespread practice of female infanticide among the ancient and otherwise civilized Greeks, Romans, and Chinese is too well-documented to be disputed. (Perhaps our experience with Nazi Germany has finally given us a new perspective on what constitutes “civilization.”) The practice of burying unwanted female infants alive was endemic among pre-Islamic Arabs, and the Koran inveighs against it. [To speak of this as the “beginning” may in fact be somewhat inaccurate; recent developments in prenatal technology have given us the ability to abort fetuses of the “wrong” sex before birth, a discovery of which both the “civilized” Americans and the “less developed” Chinese have taken advantage.]

Surviving birth and infancy is only the first hurdle in what has historically been an obstacle course for the human female.In situations where food is chronically or acutely scarce, in almost all human cultures, it is the adult males who eat first, then women of childbearing age, then boys and old men, and lastly old women and young girls. Those fed last, obviously, starve first, if anyone does. And even if they survive, they are rendered more vulnerable, by malnutrition, to premature death from disease, disability, or accident.

We may note also that improvements in health care in developing countries are likely to affect women somewhat later than men, since many such cultures frown on women being seen, spoken to, examined, and treated by male health workers.

Then there is the routine violence directed by adult males against other members–especially females–of “their” households. Even in relatively advanced cultures like our own, murder of women by their husbands or lovers is commonplace– indeed, most female murder victims in the U.S. and Western Europe die at the hands of husbands or lovers. In more traditional cultures, where the extended family is stronger, fathers and brothers may also be involved (viz., in southern Italy and the Arab countries). Analysts of these facts generally believe that, at least in industrial societies, the current figures represent a decrease from earlier statistics.

Next come the historical massacres. There are no reliable statistics on the number of women executed for witchcraft in western Europe in the 16th-18th centuries. Estimates run in the millions. Likewise, we will never know precisely how many women died of “childbed fever” transmitted by the unsanitary practices of male obstetricians in 18th- and 19th-century Europe, though we may assume that here too we are talking about millions. There are the deaths of un-numbered women worn out by childbearing, and denied access to contraception by family, or poverty, or religion. There are the victims of back-alley abortionists, desperate enough to risk death rather than motherhood in a society that taxes motherhood so heavily, while purporting to revere it so deeply. There are the rape-murder victims and the mostly poor, mostly non-white women murdered in casual street crime. The victims of most “serial killers” are also female.

But the bias of our (mostly male) historians obscures the differential effect of many other historical phenomena on the sexes. For instance, we assume that because men start wars, they are also the majority of war casualties. In fact, war and war- related famine and disease have probably killed far more women and children than adult males in every military conflict in history, with the possible exception of World War I (and even that may underestimate the effects of the Influenza Epidemic) and, in Russia, World War II. Official and religious pronouncements about abstaining from the killing of noncombatants have attracted little serious attention from practicing military leaders, in any war from the Crusades onward. Pre-Christian Rome and Greece never even honored it as a nominal goal. Where one side views the other as “barbarian” or “non-human”, the barbarian women are fair game for almost anything, and their fate will go virtually unnoticed–viz., Native American and Vietnamese women in their respective encounters with GI Joe, and Muslim and Jewish women during the Crusades. The Vietnam War was probably untypical only because it involved some serious attempt to keep accurate statistics on civilian as well as military casualties, in the course of keeping “body counts”–revealing a probably typical ratio of 10 civilian casualties to every military casualty. Obviously, a disproportionate number of civilians in a mobilized society will be female–roughly half of the children and old people, plus all the adult women except the small number who bear arms.

During deliberate genocides, women and girls are disproportionately likely to be victims. Where starvation is one of the tools of genocide, those who routinely eat last die first. Where armed force is used in out-and-out massacres, it is those unarmed and untrained in combat who are most vulnerable. Where forced labor on short rations is a thinly veiled extermination technique, women are likely to succumb first.

So far as can be ascertained, a disproportionate number of the victims of the Nazi Holocaust were women and girls, primarily because: (1) they were less likely to be found fit for labor, and (2) pregnant women and those with small children were virtually automatically gassed.

All of these numbers and ratios probably impress most readers as not very important, as mere background information, unconnected to major historical events, and no more indicative of systematic slaughter than the H1N1 flu. These are not, most people would say, the facts of which a holocaust is made. (Murder of babies before they are named? Millions of women tortured and burned as witches?) And they are the dead past. Civilized, advanced nations don’t do things like that. (Humanitarians may write checks for the needy all day and go home to beat their wives at night, just as the officers at Dachau used to run the ovens all day and listen to Bach and Beethoven at night.) Without even including the slow deaths of poverty and illiteracy, we are talking about millions of human beings, made in the divine image, in every generation.

And, unlike the dangers of combat and the hunt, to which males as such are regularly exposed, the hazards which threaten the lives of women carry with them no glory or honor. Nobody gives medals to the women who have risked death in childbirth to preserve the family and the human race. There is no tomb of the Unknown Civilian. Stalingrad is a staple of Soviet fiction, and Custer’s Last Stand has been the subject of innumerable books, movies and plays praising the heroism of either Custer or the Dakota who defeated him (depending on the author’s point of view.) But nobody writes ballads of the heroism of the women who starved in the siege of Leningrad, or the Native American women who were raped and murdered at Sand Creek.

What can we do with this awareness? How can we deal with the fact that the most crucial task of feminism is not equal pay, maybe not even making the streets of American cities safe for middle-class white women, but making people everywhere aware that female human beings have the same right to life as their brothers, fathers, husbands, lovers, and sons? Until we are seen as full-fledged human beings whose lives and deaths are as significant as those of men, and whose struggles for life are as heroic as any man-to-man battles, nothing else we demand–or win–will mean much.

And, as long as 53% of the human race is seen as “incidental” to real humanity, it is that much easier to consign other “lower orders” to the same expendability–non-whites; poor people; people with deformities, disabilities, and chronic diseases; old people; people with the “wrong” religion, or the “wrong” sexual practices. The distance between our easy and unconscious acceptance of a four-to-one male-to-female ratio, and the Nazi vision of a tall, well-built, blond, blue-eyed warrior race is shorter than we like to think–and all too easily bridged.


Lies, Hypocrisy, and Other Good Things

February 18, 2010

We have just finished celebrating the birthdays of George (“I cannot tell a lie”) Washington and Honest Abe Lincoln. Perversely, this spurs me to wonder if perhaps truth-telling is overrated. The Bible, BTW, does not endorse it wholeheartedly. Some biblical religions do, some don’t. I don’t claim to know enough about Islam to deal with this issue. But our current cultural and legal valuation of truthfulness is at best self-contradictory and at worst outright hypocritical. It is now, in many places, a crime to inflate one’s resume (though not, apparently, to lie to a job applicant during an interview.) Using a pseudonym now borders on illegal. The law has not yet dealt with telling a date you’ll call when you have no intention of doing so, or giving an over-eager suitor a fake phone number (I used to use Dial-a-Prayer.) But it’s only a matter of time.

Okay, once a history major, always a history major. Here’s what the Bible (the Jewish scriptures, to be exact) says about truthfulness:

In Genesis XVIII, 12-13, after G-d tells Sarah that she (at the age of 90) will bear a child, Sarah responds pretty much the way most women would: “At my age I’m going to roll in the hay again? And my husband is no spring chicken either.” But when G-d recounts this conversation to her husband, Abraham, He diplomatically leaves out the part about Abraham’s age. (From this the rabbis deduce that, if even the Holy One will lie to preserve peace in the family, it is permissible, and may in some situations be mandatory.)

In Exodus I, 15 – 20, Pharoah orders the Hebrew midwives “When you bring the Hebrew women to birth, you shall look at the [baby’s] genitals; if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, then she can live.” But the midwives feared G-d and did not do what the King of Egypt ordered them, but kept the babies alive. And the King of Egypt sent for the midwives and said to them “Why have you done this thing and let the boys live?” And the midwives said to Pharaoh “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are like animals, and by the time the midwife gets there, they’ve already given birth.” And G-d, we are explicitly told, dealt well with the midwives. Clearly, the biblical Author approves of their conduct.

Similarly we have the lies told by Rahab to protect the Israelite spies hiding in her house in Joshua II, 1-4, and by Michal to protect her fleeing husband David from the wrath of her father Saul. The upshot seems to be that lying is permissible in a good cause, the cause favored by the Holy One. Whereas Leviticus XIX, 16 tells us not to “go up and down as a talebearer among your people,” regardless of whether the “tales” in question are true or false. Truth told for a bad purpose is wrong; lies told for a good purpose may be praiseworthy.

The rabbis of the post-biblical and talmudic era had a slightly different, and more varied, take on this issue. For instance, someone who is seriously tempted to commit a scandalous sin (probably something to do with lust) is advised to “go away where he is not known, let him put on black clothes, don a black cloak, and do the black deed that his heart desires, rather than profane the name of Heaven openly.” (Moed Katan 17a–(R. Ilai))

On the other hand, they also urge those aspiring to virtue to quote correctly (Meg. 16a), to engage in commerce honestly (Makkot 24a), and not to speak one thing with the mouth and another with the heart (Baba Metzia 49a). We are also told that any scholar whose inside is not like his outside is no scholar (Yoma 72b)

These inconsistencies make more sense in the light of anthropological analysis, such as that of Jane Jacobs (Systems of Survival), who tells us that “deception for the sake of the task” is generally accepted or even praised in warrior/nomadic cultures (viz, the Trojan horse) but really frowned on in mercantile cultures. So we get the Jacob cycle, which is a battle of the pastoral tricksters, and then in the Holiness Code, Lev. XIX: 35-36, we get all kinds of stuff about honesty in weights and measures which the rabbis expand into general business honesty. Post-biblical Jewish culture, of course, is entirely mercantile, so this is the tradition that gets carried on, at least partly because nobody legislates against what nobody does.

A couple of digressions: rabbinical mercantile ethics require honesty not only about what is actually being bought and sold, but about possible gains and losses from a transaction. Modern theories of negotiation, however, presume that compromise is possible only if the possible gains don’t get into the picture.

And what about that ultimate bastion of warrior culture, West Point, and its minutely onerous honor code? . The code forbids cadets to “lie or cheat or tolerate those who do.” It has been in effect officially since the 1920s, and unofficially since the founding of West Point in 1802. What would Jane Jacobs say about this? In absence of any comment from her on the subject, I venture to suggest that it is not meant to outlast graduation and commissioning. Either it is a really pervasive form of hazing, or a form of verbal discipline equivalent to the physical discipline of the “brace” posture. Among the West Point and Annapolis alumni who subscribed to the honor code were Dwight D. Eisenhower, who later engaged in elaborate and successful deception about D-Day, and a much less successful lie about U-2 spy plane flights over the USSR; Maxwell Taylor, who collaborated in years of multi-layered deceit of the American people about the military activities he was carrying on in Southeast Asia on their money and in their name; and world-class perjurer Oliver North.

Anyway, getting back to religious views of truth and lies, Christian views on the subject vary from the Jesuit (“mental reservation” is sometimes justifiable) to the Kantian (it is never ever permissible to lie, no matter how noble the purpose.) The Jesuit approach begins with whether there is an obligation to tell the truth about a particular subject to a particular person. If someone demands from you information to which they have no right, and will not take “none of your business” for an answer, you have the right to use “mental reservation”–that is, to tell part of the truth and withhold the rest, “reserving” it silently in your mind. The classic example is of the person approached by a mugger and asked, “Do you have any money?” The person has every right to respond “No,” with the unvoiced addition, “Not for you, anyway.”

But Sir Walter Scott, writing only a few years later than the Jesuits, in
The Heart of Midlothian
, depicts a young Scottish working woman, Jeannie Deans, who walks from Lothian to London to plead with the Queen for her sister’s life. Along the way, she is accosted by Bad Guys (p. 284). “Stand and deliver,” one of them tells her. “I have but very little money, gentlemen….,but if you’re resolved to have it, to be sure you must have it.” The brigand responds “This won’t do…. We’ll have every farthing you have got, or we will strip you to the skin….” But his colleague points out “No, no Tom, this is one of the precious sisters, and we’ll take her word for once without putting her to the stripping proof. Hark ye, my lass, if you’ll look up to heaven and say this is the last penny you have about ye, …we’ll let you pass.” In other words, her religion (presumably hard-line Calvinist Protestantism, the ultimate mercantile religion) forbids her to lie, even to robbers, so they will believe her if she tells them she has no money. This is, by the way, a very minor plot excursion in the novel; the issue never comes up again, and Scott does not consider it especially important.

Enough of historical scholarship. What about US law over the last 40 years or so? (more…)