By Corey Gilkes
February 13, 2015
In the article “Things I Don’t Understand About Feminism” by Shastri Sookdeo, one of the articles he referenced was an interesting one written by one Bill Flax in the prestigious Forbes Magazine. “Interesting” because if these are the kinds of views held by many often considered elite academics – and let’s face it, that IS often the case – then it is important that those who advance counter-narratives be more openly direct in showing these kinds of writings and journals for what they really are: racist, chauvinist, pseudo-intellectual, hubris. This is especially important in my opinion because to a huge extent, many in the Caribbean still see the North Atlantic as the fountainhead for all wisdom and understanding. Reading through some of the newspaper columns and listening to certain talk-shows such as the Power Breakfast Show on Power 102fm or those on i95.5fm, Forbes is clearly one of those highly regarded sources of information.
The article: “Feminism Can’t Divorce Its Debt To Capitalism” read like the hubristic writings of 19th and early 20th century flag-wavers for European imperialist expansionism. Flax early on advises us that “[f]rom the stirring of civilization until the 18th century, mankind enjoyed minimal progress. Despite spurts of advancement and pockets of wealth life was generally stagnant.” This egregious and racist statement – which brings to mind what Dr Glenn Sankatsingh called the ‘abolition of evolution’ and ‘the abolition of history’ in his essay “The Caribbean: Between Envelopment and Development” – is all but lifted verbatim out of propagandistic writings of Rudyard Kipling or Lorthrop Stoddard and other Eurocentric academics and thinkers. Even in 2015 it still forms the basis for much of the discourse concerning aid for “developing” countries (that were often colonies before), reparations, riots in “developed” countries in slums populated by people from the tropical regions, and anti-globalisation protests.
A study of ancient Egypt alone, shows this to be a boldface lie; 3000+ years ago, the Africans of the Nile Valley had already developed and built on even earlier knowledge of medicine, hydraulic engineering, biological psychiatry, and law. The pyramids – which were not built with slave labour as is often stated – and related structures were built in alignment with certain celestial bodies and clusters and this could only be done with an understanding of complex mathematics. They built paved roads, a key feature in commerce, as well as engaged in maritime travel that, along with West African states, took them to the Americas centuries before the Columbian expeditions. Centralised water and garbage collection systems existed there and in Sumer long before the emergence of Europe into history.
This by no means suggests that the ancient cultures and civilisations in Africa, Asia and the Americas were idyllic models of paradise. But it’s flat out racist to ignore all the technological advancements that existed before or dismiss that they ever existed at all. For one thing, as some academics have pointed out, scientific and technological achievements did exist even in the most “primitive” societies once we understand that science at its most basic level is about understanding the relationship between cause and effect. Further, what technological and medical advancements were achieved in these primitive societies were developed based on their NEEDS, VALUES as well as their circumstances.
Very little of this is acknowledged by imperialist writers who, spurred with the colonising exercises of their countries, and looking to assuage some of the guilt brought on by the atrocities committed against the peoples of Africa, Asia and the Americas, advance[d] the idea that the whole world waited in darkness for them to bring the light of civilisation to them. That racist reasoning forms the core of US exceptionalism even now, Obama notwithstanding. But as Dr John Henrik Clarke has demonstrated in numerous lectures, what has often happened was that Europe/Euro-America put out the light of other people’s civilisation. Of course, the history is nowhere near as simplistic as Dr Clarke’s words may lead one to think, but as Flax is showing us very clearly, populist word-bytes are by no means limited to street protests against “de system.”
The idea reflects the usual Eurocentric tendency to ignore the complex civilisations that existed in Africa and Asia (or claim it for themselves using academic gymnastics) when Europeans, as Dr Clarke also used to say, were yet to make their first shoe or live in a house that had a window. But the words in “Capitalism through the Ages: A grand tour” a review in The Economist of te two-volume “The Cambridge History of Capitalism” are particularly important. We read: “The rise of the West seems to have had little to do with local smarts or work ethic. Indeed, some of the earliest capitalist innovations in Italy—like rules on issuing credit—were imported from the Abbasid caliphate, which ruled much of the Middle East from the eighth century to the tenth……Non-Western economies struggled, by contrast, often because of Western Influence……. colonisers saddled Africa with corrupt governments that hindered growth (Where’s Dr Morgan Job, how come he never mentions this?). Farsighted investments were typically neglected in favour of projects dedicated to resource extraction.” In other words, pretty much the same things said by Walter Rodney, Chancellor James Williams, Joseph Inikori, Ivan Van Sertima, John G Jackson, Lloyd Best, Glenn Sankatsingh or George Beckford, to name only a few.
Yet in 2011, we still have the likes of Bill Flax writing such effluence and repeated in 2015 by a Caribbean person no less who himself comes from an ancestry that is itself thousands of years older than anything produced by Europe. But I’ve wasted way too much time on that. I just want to speak about it as it deals with the vexing topic of feminism (which I’ll use in the very broad sense)
This noxious ideas that Western capitalism (and for that matter Russian socialism) was/is some benign model that pulls people out of slums and is of great benefit to women is almost always simplistic propaganda. Marilyn French in “Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals” perhaps put it better when she stated that many of the advances in Western culture simply meant women moved from one state of unfreedom to another. Both capitalist and communalistic economic models can and have been beneficial for women and subject groups, yes. But the problem arises when the thinking that certain groups must be exploited and made to feel inferior is allowed to orient the model. Capitalism most definitely has this as part of its core philosophy.
Flax argued some points that are quite simplistic, inane, very distorted and came from deeply racist interpretations of human development and it would be great if the academics in our own universities dealt with and deconstruct such rubbish.
“Feminism began with middle class wives striving for women’s suffrage as highlighted by the Seneca Falls Declaration of 1848. In the latter half of the 19th century, many western states enfranchised women and by 1919, the 19th Amendment granted women voting rights nationally.”
Well it’s clear that for him and those who think like him, only Europe and the United States have any history; whatever progressive thing started, started there. Well, I guess I’ll have to admit that I too harbour a similar bias. Only in my case I really don’t care two f***s about what was or wasn’t the reality for Europe and Euro-America. My Caribbean heritage is principally concerned with how people who have African, Asian and pre-Columbian American ancestry see themselves seeing as how civilisations and societies there are much older than anything in Europe. So I know that in many parts of Africa women enjoyed immense power and prestige even in societies that were on the surface patriarchal. For thousands of years, women in Africa were heads of territorial-states and even hunted and fought in combat….with the support of men. Ifi Amadiume, Gloria Thomas-Emeagwali, W I Thompson, Ivan Van Sertima and Barbara Lesko alone have put out enough literature to reinforce that argument.
Furthermore, the granting of women’s right to vote didn’t just come about through the benign, good nature of the capitalist ethic. It came about through years of agitation by, among other groups, the Suffragettes, who helped force changes to be made. In the early 20th century young girls worked and died in sweatshops before safety laws were grudgingly developed. But clearly that is beside the point according to Flax.
“Modern feminism erupted upon Western culture in 1963 with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which smeared suburban households as “comfortable concentration camps.” Friedan was a communist who knew little of housework. Her husband even furnished a maid. Yet she charged that tending the hearth repressed homemakers who would find greater contentment in roles historically filled by men.”
Later down we read:
“To [left-wing feminists’] chagrin, growing numbers of women think mothers should stay home nurturing their young. Is there a higher, more life affirming profession than rearing children? Rather than validating these natural longings, feminists demean wives watching over the household as “letting down the team.” Yet no fortune can replace the blessings of a mother’s love.”
Well clearly all this was written for an American readership because Betty was a communist and as all Americans know, communism is of the devil. So clearly that was the problem right there. I’ll make a mental note never to mention Claudia Jones and Paul Robeson if I’m ever in his presence.
But ahmm, I have a question:
So, according to Flax the Christ, Friedan was a privileged white woman with way too much time on her hands because she had a maid……….AND?! Maybe she was. But does the word ‘solidarity’ mean anything? Is a person in her position not supposed to have empathy? But of course not; US society is rigidly individualistic if not insular. Too many otherwise radical Caribbean thinkers often forget this especially since that ideology has come to be THE default ideology. It sure has taken firm hold in the minds of many Trinbagonians who see in a Dr Kublalsingh or a Hazel Browne just another target on which to deflect some of their defeatist self-contempt.
But anyway, regarding the way the home is decried as a source of women’s oppression, well Friedan was by no means the first to do that at all. Writings of women going back through the 20th century, the journals of middle-class women and male commentators of lower income women in the Caribbean in the 19th century, specifically, their spurning of marriage; analyses of social life of women in ancient Athens, all can easily be held up to prove the point that in the patricentric West, the domestic sphere was a source of oppression, exploitation and dehumanisation for women. Now a case can be made for the home being a place of women’s empowerment and political and economic autonomy (something admittedly many Western-oriented feminists dismiss, but, being grounded in a Western understanding of the world and history, one can’t expect otherwise). But to do so Flax would have to look at *gasp* Africa and how in many pre-colonial societies women ran the household – which they often built themselves – grew food which they used for subsistence as well as to sell and earn independent incomes. They also banded in powerful secret societies like the Sande Society that had veto power in the local political structure.
But this is describing models of autonomous, independent women in a domestic sphere, try that with Western patriarchists and see how soon women get kicked out of those same homes. History teaches us that in Mediaeval Europe when the beguine and the convent – developed by patriarchists to hide away unmarried and widowed women – started to develop commercial activities that generated income, the same patriarchists who developed them moved to close them down or prohibit said activities. Women cannot become independent and autonomous, how it go look?
“Were feminists true to their purported ideals — penetrating previously masculine domains and liberating women from reliance on men — they would adore Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman. As the world actually turns, conservative women find feminists their shrillest critics. But their achievements, unlike Hillary’s, didn’t depend on successful husbands. Whatever you think of Palin and Bachman, such hypocrisy highlights an ulterior agenda.”
I’m not sure what Hillary would have to say about that. As I recall she was an intelligent women in her own right. Be that as it may, I fail to be impressed by his argument given that regardless of whether the person is a woman, or of African or Asian descent, they are still functioning in a political structure that remains patricentic and imperialistic (and Hillary, by the way, is most certainly an upholder of that). I certainly fail to see how the f*** anyone would hold up such a consummate dunce as Sarah Palin. The less said about that idiot the better.
“Feminism ostensibly focused on promoting women, but in practice attacked the traditional family through the sexual revolution, abortion on demand and no-fault divorce. None of which elevates women.”
Ahm, the word I hear used to describe that last sentence is I believe mansplaining. But when you come from a place where you feel a deep sense of entitlement, such words won’t have much of a sting. That aside, I’d like someone to explain to me how does one promote women in an environment where for hundreds of years they were considered chattels and perpetual children, where they were the sexual property of select groups of men, WITHOUT confronting the institutions, sexual mores and religious teachings that reflect that? Furthermore, the sexual revolution and abortion on demand he speaks about (and let’s admit it, that IS what this has always been about since the ancient Sumerians) was once very much an ordinary part of life in many pre-patricentric societies; women could divorce at will, could abort pregnancies or practice contraception. One of the oldest known contraceptives was developed in Ancient Egypt during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut. Basically it’s about a woman planning her family and career, education opportunities….irrelevant shit like that.
And what exactly is this “traditional family” spoken of anyway? People really need to start calling out the bullshit people like Flax trot out and demand they substantiate their claims. Elizabeth Caroline Powell’s brilliant paper “The Political Use of “Family Values” Rhetoric” which examines the clever use of the term “traditional family” and “family values” to convey and reinforce the egregious idea that the only legitimate family structure was the male-headed nuclear family, is a must read. So too the works of Dr Stephanie Coontz who dispels the myth that the nuclear family as we know it today is traditional at all.
“Feminists “deconstruct” literature, scouring it for supposed sexism”
………because since the Greek Hesiod to now we men all know women are simply, innately, naturally unable to speak the truth and the default (white) male is the personification of honour and truth as he has always been soooo……..
“A chauvinist culture didn’t determine women would bear children and breastfeed.”
No, but it did determine that these qualities barred women from critical decision making in political and economic institutions. Priestly ones too (how’s that ordination of women in the Catholic Church coming along? And did the one who was ordained in the Church of England get unanimous support? Just asking)
“Men of industry and science made the world advance, but women made it more pleasant during the ascent. A time tested division of labor.”
But anthropologists can point to women who do manual labour; that much of the earliest discoveries in science, astronomy, medicine were made by women. Of course much of this was in ancient Africa so there’s that subhuman thing about people with dark skin to contend with.
He then goes on to point out that “As capitalism endured growing pains, early factories were not the bastions of comfort and ergonomics workers know today. Labor was difficult and often dangerous. Hours were demanding. Conveniences were rare……But the markets marched onward. Modern workplaces improved…….”
Three words Flax: Trade. Union. Agitation.
“Everything objectively measurable, from our bodies and physical attributes; to hormones and even how our brains are wired; to reproductive roles, all show irrefutably that men and women were designed differently. Experience confirms. Denying nature exacerbates gender conflict and confuses impressionable girls regarding the meaning of femininity.”
Interesting observation. History is a funny thing, often it’s not what the person says but what they do NOT say should be what one should be paying attention to. The question is not about gender differences, the question is HOW those differences are identified and valued. In many ancient societies in Africa and Asia, looking at the ways these societies were structured, it’s evident that the ancients understood gender differences. In patricentric Eurasia, those differences – identified on the basis of aggression and physical strength – were given a top-down hierarchy and that is how it remains to this day.
“While it’s obvious but less easily proven that boy’s superior math scores or women’s maternal instinct and tendencies for compassion are innate, it is silly to degrade traditional roles as oppressive.”
Should one even engage with this kind of chauvinistic stupidity? What better case can one make for the existence of male privilege (and I would argue a select group of males if we look at this from a multi-tiered system of exploitation)?
“As housework became less consuming and workplaces became more appealing wives opted back in.”
Hold on, I thought women were supposed to be mothers and housewives? Which is it Flax? Also, when did women OPT back into the workforce? The primary reason women were LET INTO the workforce was because of those huge European civil wars aka World Wars I and II that drained manpower. Were it not for Europe and Euro-America engaging in those orgies of blood over the lands and mineral resources of brown and darker people, who knows how things would have turned out. Furthermore, the reality of ever-expanding capitalism meant that if both parties didn’t go out to work, they’d be hard pressed to have the home and family Flax bleats about. So here we have again women being pushed out to work to help make ends meet and then they are condemned for doing so.
All in all the entire article could be summed up in one word: f***ries. But I thought I might offer some arguments as well. Filth like this is reflective of a very large cross-section of people even here in the Caribbean, many of whom occupy key positions in corporate boardrooms, parliamentary buildings and places of worship (the Unholy Trinity). It is left up to a learned and vocal grassroots to provide the counter-narratives to this kind of thing. Feminist, womanist and other progressive ideologies leave much to be desired but they are nonetheless critical in bringing about balanced, equitable and less destructive societies. We need to hear more of their voices, if only to piss off the Flaxes of the world.