There is a story, told in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, of an American man who received his draft notice from the U.S. military at twenty, after he actively protested the Vietnam War. Before the notice came, “Stupidly,” he recollects, “with a kind of smug removal that I can’t begin to fathom, I assumed that the problems of killing and dying did not fall within my special province.” When confronted with the notice, he felt a “rage in my stomach” that later “burned down to a smoldering self-pity then to numbness.”
He describes having the opportunity to refuse conscription by heading for Canada, by diving from a fishing boat and swimming twenty metres to shore. He didn’t take it. “Intellect had come up against emotion,” he said. “What it came down to, stupidly, was a sense of shame. Hot, stupid shame. I did not want my people to think badly of me.”
In her recounting of this story in Unmaking War Remaking Men, Kathleen Barry writes about this man’s decision as “choosing the demands of masculinity over his humanity. It is a decision that would lead him to take others’ lives, and it would haunt him for years to come.”
Barry says that the smoldering in men who have learned their lives are expendable, becomes the source of rage the military will “tap” to prepare them for combat. The military also “counts on the cowardice”, she says, that is tangled up with this rage that masculinity seals away. The army employs humiliation to reshape trainees’ basic human needs to connect with others, to “produce in them the desire to belong to a team effort to kill.” Those who refuse to shoot know they are leaving the burden with their buddies, Barry says. The reward for the loss of soul that comes with destruction is masculinity: becoming one of the boys.
With these efforts the U.S. military, of course, creates enemies by emasculating men in every territory to which it sends its troops, rendering them incapable of carrying out the duty of protection that men everywhere – husbands, fathers, soldiers – are told is their duty as men. “Violated self determination of a people brings about resistance,” says Barry. Of course. She adds,
When men are made inferior, their condition is reduced to that of women. That is intolerable to most men. Those men in turn force women’s status to lower levels.
Barry is describing a pattern that affects all male socialisation, not just men in the military or under occupation. Militarism affects the socialisation of boys through toys, games and films – but the dynamic of brotherhood based on violation is not limited to the military. From religion to rugby to resistance movements to work, the household and television, this paternalistic masculinity reigns. That we ignore this and ignore the masculinity of violence – because it makes men uncomfortable – provides a big part of the reason for both the chaos and inertia of leftist politics.
There is a passage in Ovid’s Metamorphosis in which Jove reports a trip to visit King Lycáön (pictured in the feature image), that perhaps describes the dynamic we’re caught in. Jove says he descended from the “heights of Olympus” to visit King Lycáön, and “wandered over the earth, a god disguised as a mortal. It would take too long to recount the story of all the wickedness I discovered.” I honestly read this and think of Bill English paying a visit to the Radical Social Centre on Abel Smith street.
I entered the palace of King Lycáön and ventured beneath his inhospitable roof in the twilight hour of nightfall. I gave a sign that a god had come, and the common people turned to their prayers. Lycáön began by mocking their piety; then he said, “Is it a god or a mortal? I’ll settle the matter by using a simple test. There will be no doubt where the truth lies.” His plan was to make a sudden attack in the night… Not content with that, he applied his sword to the throat of a hostage sent from Epírus and under my own protection; and while the man’s flesh still had some warmth, he roasted part of it over the fire and poached the remainder in boiling water…
My lightning of vengeance struck, and the palace collapsed in ruins… Lycáön fled to the country where all was quiet… He was now transformed to a wolf. But he kept some signs of his former self: the grizzled hair and the wild expression, the blazing eyes and the bestial image remained unaltered.
Lycáön’s form became shaped by his rebellion and relationship to the King of the Gods. He became the wolf, the humiliated man, dangerous because every emasculated male hero seeks retribution. I see Lycáön as the kind of wounded male archetype to which leftist politics are most loyal.
Terrorism and gang violence tend to be viewed by leftists as “last resort” lashing out stemming from desperation and poverty. Jarrod Gilbert’s Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand and Robin Morgan‘s The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism both challenge the assumption that these forms of violence are linked per se to poverty. In any case, why is it not female gangs and terrorists making headlines? Women experience more sexual assault and poverty than men do. Yet the masculinity of violence is its most salient feature, and we don’t talk about that so much.
In the 1970s, Aroha Trust was established to help women gain autonomy from gangs. In her record of the trust, Aroha, Pip Desmond writes about how the women who lived in its Aro Valley residence suffered both gang and police intrusions, and considered the police to be another gang. They valued the “protection” their own gangs offered from the police, yet the women at Aroha lobbyed these gangs to insist that the men stop raping them and threatening them with rape.
The left does not tend to look at state, gang or terrorist violence from any kind of solid female vantage point. Labour’s Rob McCann runs White Ribbon, which recognises male violence through the lens of rugged male pride. We even refer to “child poverty” erasing the sexual politics of poverty and economic violence against women. The left’s views on gangs and terrorism too, are often built out of empathy with Lycáöns demoralised by the state. Many gangs are actually named after that state of establishment rejection: the Outcasts, the Mongrel Mob.
In her book Demon Lover, Robin Morgan views the relationship between terrorism and the state as fraternal:
What happens when we realise that far from being a threat to the state, terrorism is the means by which men under patriarchy judge one another fit to succeed?
Terrorism reinforces the state. If the terrorists fail, the current State is all the stronger for having put them down. If they succeed, then today’s terrorists become tomorrow’s statesmen (busily decrying terrorism).
Gilbert notes the respect that gangs and police often show one another, beyond the enmity and baiting. The masculinity of terrorism means that bonds of brotherhood can exist even between sworn enemies. Feminist writers like Morgan, Cynthia Enloe and Andrea Dworkin contend that the fact this goes unspoken is part of what alienates women from politics. “For many women,” wrote Gena Corea in 1979, “it does not matter who wins the various battles of domination going on over their heads… men will still beat women.”
No Pride in Prisons, originally named Petty and Vindictive, is an activist group that very much allies itself with Lycáöns. It advocates for prison abolition, and the removal of the sex offender register, yet it has no visible analysis or plan to address male violence. It promotes the shifting of the 19 male inmates in New Zealand prisons who identify as “trans” into already overflowing women’s prisons, much more than it ever draws attention to the plight of indigenous female prisoners, the fastest growing prison population. In their view, male inmates who identify as women are the most vulnerable… woman inmates.
Plenty of women in New Zealand are under pressure not to tell police when they are raped, since the police are the “army of the rich”, and to seek justice from them is to betray the leftist cause – or the Lycáön. The work of No Pride in Prisons is contributing to this pressure in activist circles.
Women have also been historically alienated from other forms of activism, including union activism. Unionists have typically insisted on drawing on a class analysis that allows for discussions of sex and race – within limits. Unions may fight capitalist exploitation, but they will not, for instance, challenge the commodification of women under patriarchy. Cybèle Locke’s history of unionism in New Zealand, Workers in the Margins, discusses how a pivotal 1985 report trashing the unemployed workers union
indicated that some trade unionists were stuck in a ‘1951 mindset’ – an understanding of trade unionists as white males organising on principles of working class solidarity without taking racism and sexism seriously. This mindset meant that they refused to treat leaders of the unemployed movement – especially women and Maori – as equals and wanted to control the unemployed movement.
When women brought feminism and Māori brought nationalism to unions, they were accused of “resorting to divisively separatist tactics”. This is ironic, considering that a “bottom up” politics should be informed by indigenous and feminist analyses, since these two groups are most alienated under capitalism. Yet, women have had to participate in unions largely on the understanding that working class solidarity was threatened by anything that was not white and was not male. The union struggle places working class men on the right side of history, and Māori and women threatened that ideal by questioning white society and masculinity. Wherever women and Māori found unionism a vehicle for politicisation, the handbrake was up.
The unions (like Bernie Sanders now) will discuss equal pay, which is perhaps why “feminists have refused to face the fact that equal pay for equal work is impossible as long as men rule women,” writes Andrea Dworkin. This is a tokenism when not couched in a broader feminist analysis, and a sentence to tread water. “Right wing women have refused to forget it,” Dworkin says. What needs to be recognised is that “The sex labour of women must be maintained; and systematic low wages for sex-neutral work effectively force women to sell sex to survive.”
As Barry suggests in Unmaking War Remaking Men, protecting men from humiliation by not raising the issue of sexual inequality actually does men no favours. Imagine being the one to suggest that our drafted Vietnam protester need not lose face by diving from his fishing boat to swim to Canada and escape fighting in war. Protecting the male ego in this way actually serves to lock men into a toxic masculinity. “You fear being belittled, ridiculed, humiliated if you do not hold up your part,” writes Barry, discussing how men learn to destroy rather than to lose face by conceding their humanity.
If social transformation really means “all hands on deck”, then facing masculinity and its enforcers is a task that men simply cannot be shielded from.
Sheila Jeffreys writes about the impact of emasculation on male homosexuals in Unpacking Queer Politics. She writes about how the normalisation of sadomasochism and self-harm in anti-establishment circles – which Audre Lorde also challenged – stems from gay male culture. Sadomasochism, Jeffreys says, “needs to be understood both as a practice that affirms masculinity for gay men who feel they have been shut out of masculine status and as a practice of self-mutilation which arises from abuse and oppression.”
Gay men are “feminized” in a culture that insists, as Catherine MacKinnon puts it, “man fucks woman; subject verb object”. To avoid this humiliation, a culture has developed within the gay movement in which sadomasochism, endurance, dominance and control shape sexuality. Jeffreys says the cutting and piercing industries of the 1990s have their origins here, in a culture that is changing mainstream understandings of sex.
Queer politics is shaped by affinity with Lycáöns. So the LGBT movement champions marriage, even though the institution has always been challenged by lesbian feminists as both homophobic and sexist. It promotes transgenderism, ignoring critics who also call it sexist, and gay eugenics. It promotes breast binding, in spite of feminists recognising this as the sanctioned mutilation of women’s bodies. Most recently, the left seems to have relaxed its positions on militarism, in its confused responses to president Trump’s announcement that transgender individuals may no longer enlist in the U.S. military.
Through a feminist lens, the U.S. military is one of the most patriarchal, masculine institutions in the world, and any male who opts to enlist is simply not gender non-conforming. The techniques of medical and surgical sterilisation that transactivists lobby for, too, have been developed as part of eugenics programmes, for instance by Nazi doctors. In feeling compelled to respond to Trump’s announcement, many leftists would have been initially stumped, bumping right up against the hypocrisy of opposing militarism whilst supporting eugenics.
Not naming male violence – what Caitlin Roper calls “the worst problem in the world” – or seeking any kind of female lens or vantage point to look critically at social problems, leads to many such political inconsistencies. It seems that leftists will simply promote anything that a Lycáön says he wants or needs – regardless of whether the demands of all of these men are actually compatible or not.
The left will promote transgenderism, even though it reinforces the sex stereotypes that homosexual men suffer from. It will not bother to critique the church wherever homosexual men want to marry there, but will challenge it vehemently wherever anyone suggests restricting men’s access to women in prostitution. “Christian bigot!” is a common accusation leftists level at abolitionist women, to defend the rights of sex buyers who are not abusers, but just “sad and lonely” men in need of human connection.
The most frequent request johns make in brothels is for the “youngest girl”, and the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective distributes instructions to women on tolerating anal rape. Is raping a young girl anally really the antidote to loneliness that aids real human connection? And what about the fact that most johns are partnered? Our refusal to look at these questions from a feminist perspective in favour of the lonely Lycáön is leading to the promotion of practices like anal sex in prostitution, pornography, girls’ magazines and even government funded Safe Schools programmes.
When women resist this, we must be Christian bigots. Funny then, that if in solidarity with women living under Muslim laws we question the burqa, we are met with cries of “Islamophobia”. Arab men are discriminated because of racist “jihadist” stereotypes escalating in a context of ongoing state / terrorist violence. So now, Islam can no longer be challenged. Religious freedom is suddenly paramount – even though religious freedom could never be compatible with crushing critiques of religion. So Islam, prostitution, marriage and transgenderism are all defended ferociously as varieties of freedom, for contradictory reasons. This makes no sense. We need to be asking how men are using these institutions, and using them at women’s expense.
It used to be considered a woman’s “choice” to enter the sex trade, to service lonely Lycáöns. Enlisting in the military was another matter, because the military is imperialist and destructive. Now, since Trump’s announcement that transgender people are no longer allowed to enlist – suddenly, military enlistment is just a “choice”, too. The military is the welfare state of the poor, it is said. It’s the only way they can get access to healthcare and education.
Finally, we are seeing the same arguments applied to the patriarchal institution that is the sex trade, also applied to the patriarchal institution that is the U.S. army. And what did it take to make militarism a matter of “choice”? The left needing to save face for otherwise humiliated men. That loyalty is how all of these inconsistencies and blind spots are explained. It is also why I am being asked by liberals, more and more, to empathise with pedophiles. “Read up on child sexuality,” they say. They don’t mean, read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and rage. They mean, read texts by white males who lobby to have pedophilia recognised as a misunderstood sexual orientation, and then wax philosophical about the benefits of child sex dolls.
Max Harris has recently noted the way leftists are “muddling through”. “Around the world, progressive-minded people are struggling to articulate an end-goal for politics,” writes Harris with Philip McKibbin in their essay on the Politics of Love. Well, yes. Harris and McKibbin’s essay title is inspired by a disillusionment with what Bernie Sanders calls “establishment politics” and a desire for a more values-based alternative. The left is in disarray, people are disengaging, how do we rile them up again?
Our politics are a hot mess. To resolve this, we carry on tinkering, and we hunger for more charismatic leaders, more vision and values, more eloquent idealism, more “hearts and minds” aspiration. Presumably, we have exhausted the language of community and sustainability, diversity and inclusion, change and hope, then. These have become “establishment politics”. These values have been neoliberalised and numb, so we are back on the prowl.
Surely people want to vote for health, welfare, housing, workers’ rights, child poverty and stopping climate change though? We are the good guys, that is a given. So the question we asks ourselves seems to be, how do we unite and inspire more people, more broadly, without actually radically altering the content of our politics?
Well, that’s one way to do it.
The other is with the injection of more zeal. “Community” was yesterday – now, let’s talk about “love”. Surely though, where more moral fervour is injected into an otherwise stagnant politics, that only adds new levels of righteous indignance to political discussions. Isn’t zeal already making politics so loaded that it is threatening freedom of speech? If it is a matter not just of “inclusion” or justice, but love to support the welcoming of males into women’s bathrooms, then it is a matter of hate not to. So girls who simply assert that girls are female, and girls’ bathrooms are for females, are suddenly bigots who need to learn how to “love”. The bullying of girls and women escalates through accusations of hate, bigotry, fascism, and all number of “phobias”.
It is no coincidence that all this serves to shore up the very practices of male dominance that leftists do not want to look at: prostitution, eugenics, pedophilia, criminal violence, patriarchal doctrine. It does this by making up in tone what our politics lack in content.
I have all the time in the world for a loving feminist politics – but who examines the positions leftist golden boys hold on women? Who cares that Jeremy Corbyn is pro-sex trade, or that Justin Trudeau has sold out women in Canada by instituting “trans rights”, ignoring feminist critiques? A friend of mine who works in a rape crisis centre in Vancouver is not allowed to record the statement “he raped me” without confirming with the perpetrator that he indeed prefers male pronouns. This is not a joke.
The Brave New World and Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale were not wanting for value laden politics. The dystopian world of 1984 has a Ministry of Love (and a MiniPlenty, MiniPeace and MiniTruth). It is painful to read precisely because of the irony of patriarchal states employing rhetoric based on human values to attach people to methods of social organisation that commodify those very things. In the Handmaid’s Tale, women are designated as wives, prostitutes at Jezebel’s, infertile Aunts and Marthas, fertile handmaids used to spare wives from pregnancy and labour, and Econowives who perform all these roles for men of lower standing. There is no lack of idealism in this society – and it’s not idealism we lack in ours. What we lack is an analysis that understands that women – half the human population – are materially and politically real.
In Right Wing Women, Andrea Dworkin writes about how conservative women respond to leftist politics: “a woman acquiesces to male authority in order to gain some protection from male violence”, she says, and the conservative Right “promises to put enforceable restraints on male aggression.” Fifty per cent of white women voted for Trump in 2016. “So the woman hangs on… to the very persons, institutions, and values that demean her, degrade her, glorify her powerlessness, insist upon constraining and paralyzing the most honest expressions of her will and being. She becomes a lackey.”
Are left wing women any different?
Metiria Turei has asked the left to “band together”. She’s not alone in making the request. Unity does not mean though, that we should embellish our patriarchal politics with more value-laden rhetoric; it means we need to develop an analysis that takes women and women’s oppression seriously. To speak of “love” means we cannot be institutionalising prostitution. Challenging capitalists means we can’t be accepting the commodification of human relationships. Sexism is not anti-establishment. Religious freedom is not compatible with pathologising women who question religion, marriage or prostitution. Pedophiles do not need support and empathy – victims do. Protesting militarism means protesting eugenics – and transgenderism is a eugenics movement.
Our mate Lycáön – the man whose form was shaped in the fires of state terrorism – has human rights. He also has responsibilities, and recognising that women are human is one of those. Let’s stop covering up how afraid we are to shame this man, whether out of sympathy or fear of retribution, in the name of his rights. That is called “men’s rights activism”, and it takes place at the expense of women and girls.
Let’s develop a politics that fully recognises women’s existence, that has a female vantage point – and that therefore actually makes sense, and gives us a shot at real transformation and an end to violence.
Then we can talk about unity.