Monday, 24 February 2014

John Milton, and the necessity of feminist heresy

In 1659, John Milton, the voice and conscience of the English parliamentary revolution, wrote a direct address to the MPs of the Republic, and to the successor of Oliver Cromwell, his son Richard. 

In this essay, Milton warns the government against falling back into tyrannic tendencies, and argues in favour of carrying on the spirit of the revolution even further. In particular, he warned against the misuse of the term 'heresy' and maintained that liberty, and therefore the integrity of society, can only be maintained by ensuring that each individual is free to discuss truth according to their own intelligence. For Milton, the very concept of heresy is neutral, and represents the central value in free expression and speech: that of being exposed to views that offend one's own. 

A Treatise on Civil Power is significant for another reason. Milton's ambivalence for the Cromwellian regime probably found no other outlet, and in the essay we see a radical and revolutionary warning the new government about becoming complacent. Milton, first and foremost, was loyal to his idea of liberty. The right of each human being to determine their own opinions, and the right of the individual to form his or her own relationship with God, and truth. 

Each revolution, however, brings with it a backlash. Each revolution walks a fine line between progress and regression. The test of a revolution is not in how triumphantly it destroys the ancien regime, but how successfully it avoids becoming nothing more than a coup. Revolutions mark a shift in ideas. A coup merely marks a shift in the ruling party, in the nature, but not the reach, of the sovereign. 

Though it is intimately related to the ideology of its times, and concerned chiefly with the relationship between Church and State, the treatise perfectly illustrates the importance of an ongoing dialogue over truth, ideas and authority. 

For Milton, orthodoxy is the enemy. The only truth is that found in a fluid relationship between God's word, and the individual's own soul. This is the central tenet of Protestantism, but it is also a core principle of liberty in general. 

If a revolution, particularly one that lays claim to emancipation, is to last, and to truly achieve it's goals, then it must be a revolution that continues to push its own reach. A revolution can never be an historical artefact, a memory. It has to be continuous, because the empowerment of the individual is never something secured by being enshrined in the system of a state. The best a revolution can do is to ensure the liberty of free expression and thought. The revolution, therefore, must be willing to criticise its own sacred cows. There must be, in a very pointed sense, a built in iconoclasm to any revolution. The very continuance of it, depends on its ability criticise itself. 

The idea is often put to me that what I am talking about in trms of masculinity, doesn't matter, and if it is does, for whatever reason, it is at best a secondary issue. That masculinity is nothing compared to the plight of women, that Patriarchy is our chief enemy when it comes to gender equality, and social emancipation in general is the system of male-dominated values. 

I would hope that it comes as a shock to no one that I am against the latter. Male-dominated values are those values that insist on physical supremacy, the treatment of women as property, and indeed the treatment of all human beings, and the environment, as commodities. Everything is a means to and end. 

How can I not be against this? However, I simply assert that the former does not follow from the latter. That just because we do indeed live in a system of so-called 'male-dominated' values, that women are the only victims. And the reason I get my back up on this issue, and the reason I get angry and even bloody-minded is that when you try to home in on this, a veil of dogmatic hysteria often gets in the way of healthy discussion. 

The dogma being that women are the only political victims, and that men are the oppressors. As a result, any attempt to tease out nuance and counter-examples is seen as revisionist and is often dismissed as some sort of misogyny is disguise. Angry white men complaining about their lives. Just social rejects insisting on their own victimhood. 

Another reason for my aggressive stance on this is that I see myself as trying to counter-act this dismissiveness and dogmatic entrenchment. Not for its own sake, not because I arrogate myself the role of contrarian. 

It's not out of righteousness, despite what some may think. What drives my frustrations is the way that the discussion gets shut down under the guise of legitimacy. There is a dangerous tendency that has grown out the left, which has nothing to do with true liberty, or emancipation. 

This is the policy of 'no platform.' Anything that remotely flies in the face of a consensus is automatically treated as enemy propaganda. I would argue that this is an endemic problem on the left and it is the reason that true left agandas have weakened by the decade. It is also the reason that all revolutions seem to fail and descend into dogma and violence.

To challenge the consensus on gender issues then, is to immediately face misrepresentation and the traducing of your views to secure political entrenchment of those who oppose you. 

Why is it so had for us to confront the notion that men might be part of the oppressed class? Why is it so hard for people to see the bigger picture when it comes to sexual power, misogyny and homophobia? The battle lines are drawn and no one is allowed to re-frame the conflict.

The reason that it is important to challenge the consensus, is not, like I have already said, just for the sake of doing so, but because the consensus actually generates a damaging trend in society, a trend that in fact reaffirms so called 'patriarchal' values, rather than erode them. 

One of the chief values, which has been written about elsewhere here, is the idea that one's emancipation can legitimately come about even at the expense of another's freedom. So, a man in the past was able to scrape together a social dignity through the treatment of women as property and as second class citizens. 

True emancipation, as with true liberty, can only be a universal truth. If it comes for one class at the expense of another, then it lacks the integrity to hold society together. Thus, it is no emancipation at all. This was the argument that finally put an end to slavery, and it was thousands of years overdue. 

Feminism, the true feminism, to which we are all greatly indebted, and continue to be indebted to, is simply the idea that women must be as free as men to determine themselves and their political experience. It is equality. And by equality, we mean the sense that women just as much as men must be allowed to live their lives as if they were ends in themselves, and not the property and resources of others. Anyone who has a problem with that is an imperialist and a fascist in waiting, and must be challenged. Suffice to say, however, that this view is all but wiped out. It's unsustainable, as much as racial imperialism is. 

What I have termed 'post-feminism' however, is the misuse of the female emancipation movement to reaffirm this patriarchal value simply replacing the ruling class with women. 

Now, there are often two ways of responding to me when I speak about this phenomenon. One is to say, 'well, men have had it all for so long, why shouldn't women take some of the power back?' 
The other is, simply to deny that post-feminism exists. The idea that female empowerment is abused to sell products, the idea that masculinity is denigrated and maligned to preserve a very lucrative ideology around female vulnerability and victimisation, is at best an exaggeration, and nothing, NOTHING compared to the centuries of damage and abuse women have suffered at the hands of men. 

The first response, I actually find easier to accept than the second. The first one is understandable, and all revolutions require a period of backlash. The second response I find worrying, though it is the most common. One of the most worrying things about it is that it is often men who express this view. 

One of the difficulties I have of course, is pointing to post-feminism, outlining it and identifying its features. 
The only way that it can be done is to take it example by example, one cultural meme at a time. It's not a movement, it's not, I grant, a social superstructure. 

Post-feminism, is what happens to feminism when money and commercial values get involved. 

It is useful to use the example of racial empowerment in America. One of the most powerful aspects of black emancipation in the states has been Hip Hop culture. Essentially grass roots, it is collective art form, that gives the primacy of voice, to those otherwise silenced by social conformity. In this sense, we could say that the heritage of Hip Hop was the civil rights movement in the 1960s. 

However, a look at Hip Hop now shows a culture drastically removed from these roots. The values of power and sexual dominance are the very same values that the civil rights movement fought long and hard to challenge. Materialism, corporate imperialism, the treatment of human life as cheap, and to say nothing of misogyny, homophobia and diversity. 

What emerged as an artistic emancipation movement, has in fact become a commercial system to reinforce archaic and essentially patriarchal values, but to do it in the name of black freedom. Freedom and emancipation for African Americans, then, has become nothing more than the right to participate and rise to the top in, a system of values once only employed by white people. 

In the same way, post-feminism is the mistaken belief that putting women in positions of power normally associated with men, giving them roles in corporate business, and selling them products by appealing to the basest and most abusive ideals of sexual power, is somehow equal to true emancipation. 
Is it possible to understand my anger at this? Am I way of track here? 

The most recent example of this contradiction and hypocrisy would be the puerile antics of Miley Cyrus. Don't get me wrong, she's free to do whatever she wants. I am no conservative, and there's nothing wrong with shock and awe as an artistic tool. But it is clear that this woman, like Madonna and Britney Spears before her, believes that she is displaying a political emancipation of her sexuality. 

In reality, she is really offering up her sexuality and her femininity as a product, one that can be used to sell more products and to drive a corporate machine that cares not a damn about emancipation or the liberation of anyone, never mind women.  
Can there be anything more 'patriarchal' than corporate values? 

I would suggest that the resistance to the belief in something called 'post-feminism' comes out of a niggling fear on the part of most people in modern culture, that they have been sold a lie. That the post-sixties revolution has been bastardised and corrupted into nothing more than narcissistic and violently conservative values, under the guise of liberation.

A debate on how men are, and have been for centuries, oppressed and abused, and have had their spirits and their agencies destroyed, all in the name of a narrow-minded system of values and power-based ideology, is very threatening. It is very dangerous. 

To take true feminism to its logical conclusion would be to see that men must, in order to survive, treat their lives as expendable means to a higher end. The value of human life, which is at the roots of the very abuses of Patriarchy we have been talking about as feminists, emerge out of the treatment of men as commodities. 

Post-feminism, not only uses female emancipation to sell products, it also allows us to pat ourselves on the pack for all that has been gained in the feminist movement, without challenging the root causes of sexual abuse, domestic violence and misogyny. It serves only to entrench the battle-lines between the sexes, rather than challenge the foundations of the culture which breeds this insidious and destructive culture in the first place.

If the revolution is to live out its creed, then dissent must be integrated into it. To criticise feminism is not call for a reactionary movement. On the contrary, to criticise a revolution is to deepen it, further its reach, and ensure that it does not fall back into dogma and orthodoxy. This is the eternal challenge of the left, but it is not the most urgent challenge of feminism. 

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