The wealthy and influential white males who compose the Republican base are making themselves a paradox. They want both to not have to pay taxes to support the “dependency” of others, and at the same time to live without fear of opposition or insurrection. Yet they push positions that, rationally considered, would almost necessarily create a large group that, unable to support itself and its children, would like the ancient Roman mob, become a permanent source of unrest. Among those positions obviously are denial of access to abortion and contraception., policies which would result in the birth of unwanted offspring whose parents (without access to health care, education, and food stamps) would find themselves unable to function as parents. Both parents and children would necessarily become part of a permanent underclass, not unlike the ancient Roman plebs, with no means of support and able to sustain themselves only through desperate acts – precisely what the enlightened social policies of the first half of the twentieth century were intended to preclude. That underclass would come in time to amply justify the fears of the wealthy and powerful – hence the paradox.
But these men are not unintelligent. They can only be supporting a position so clearly against their interests if – examined more deeply – it supports choices even more fundamental to their peace of mind, options that provide a psychological bulwark against the fear that they, as powerful white males, are in a lot of trouble: gender terror.
More terrifying to these controlling males than class warfare or tax increases is the threat that they might cease to be men: that the differences between them and women might be obliterated, and that therefore they might no longer be unquestionably entitled to power and control. They are willing to risk creating or enlarging a permanent underclass in order to prevent this cataclysm. And as victims of gender terror, they are driven to engage in incessant and escalating acts of gender terrorism.
For them to feel comfortable, women must never be allowed to achieve full human status. Men must maintain their proper superior status by taking ownership of everything their society values, and denying it to women (and others who would blur the gender line, like gay people). Not only must they keep ownership of the goods (money, property, prestige, good jobs), but also of the goodies, chief among which is the right to sexual expression. Conveniently, both of these needs (keeping gender distinctions absolute; controlling goods and goodies) can be achieved by the same means: denying women the right to express and enjoy their sexuality. A great deal of the conservative social program is a way to achieve those ends.
Abolition of contraception and abortion for the poor
The argument is sometimes made that the so-called “pro-life” position is a sincere expression of the belief in the sanctity of human life. But (as often noted) if this is really true, why does their interest in “human life” stop at birth? Why does it not include considerations of quality of life (health care, good food, and education) for those rescued fetuses? Why were the pro-lifers not out marching in opposition to the war in Iraq, where many thousands of innocent lives (some undoubtedly still fetal) were wantonly destroyed?
And if their aim is to protect conceived life, why do opponents of abortion usually oppose contraception as well, when contraception would prevent the need to destroy “human life”?
So I find it very hard to believe that social conservatives have as their main concern the protection of human life. Rather, their opposition to both abortion and contraception, however their churches twist their arguments, is based on the need for men to maintain control over female sexuality and punish women who dare to have sex that is not controlled by male desires. (Or, actually, even when it is, but that’s another odd paradox: men are punished almost as much as women by outlawing abortion and contraception. But less so the wealthy and influential ones who control the conservative agenda.)
Denial of Access to Health Care, Maternity Leave, Food Stamps, and Education
One thing achieved by these provisions is the denial of the importance of women’s productions (children) to society. Even as the same people provide lip service (on Mother’s Day, anyway) to the wonderfulness of generativity, their policies argue for the opposite: children, like the women who bear them, are without value. Thus, too, those who work with children (predominantly, by no coincidence, women) need to be poorly paid and held in contempt, as conservatives do teachers.
All of these policies come together to protect male privilege: the sense that the work men predominantly do is of value, and therefore those who predominantly do it are of value, and are clearly distinct from those others, whose work is of little value because they are of no value. These policies are, on their face, contradictory and often counter to the interests of those who would make them public policy; but understood at the deeper level I am suggesting, they are coherent and make sense.
As long as women’s bodies and minds belong to those self-defined as full human beings, the latter group can live in a kind of peace and comfort. But the peace and comfort are illusory: women keep pushing at the gates, and men – as long as they demand sole possession of the human condition – are forced to be continually on guard, always in a state of terror: gender terror, which makes them gender terrorists.
Gender terrorism is what men must do to retain the illusion of superiority and control, and especially the sense that the sharp line dividing them from women exists. Women must be kept in their place, in order to keep them out of men’s place. If the laws enacted by the powerful cannot do this by themselves, less favored males will contribute to gender terrorism in other ways. The epidemics of male murder of women, of male imprisonment of women (cases like those of Jaycee Dugard, as well as a couple of more recent ones, not to mention those we never hear about), and of rape are obvious examples. One can also mention the equally endemic (not epidemic) use of sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based intimidation, especially prevalent in traditionally male institutions like the military. Also on this to-do list is the very peculiar and pervasive media discourse that has flourished around Hillary Rodham Clinton for the last quarter century.
The Hillary Discourse
As I argued in The Language War, the Clintons have always been eroders of the gender line in the sand. He displays many of the traits the culture stereotypically ascribes to women (weight problems; lack of discipline; empathy); she, on the other hand, is focused, more angular, disciplined: more on the male side of the ledger. I think that is one reason (of course there are others) why conservatives were so desperate to evict the couple from the White House. The Presidency, these people feel, is the rightful possession of white men. Hence, too, their relentless opposition to Barack Obama.
But as horrible to them as the occupation of the White House by someone of color certainly is, more horrible still would be ownership by someone on the other side of the Great Gender Divide. If the U.S. presidency is the most powerful position in the world, and the president is the possessor of ultimate symbolic power, then a woman’s possession of that office would strike terror into gender terrorists in a scary fashion: in the name of all women she was crossing the line in a most visible way. Now men had nothing left that made them symbolically supreme: a woman would control the symbolic locus of power and influence.
When the possibility first arose in a serious way in 2008, the amount of interest aroused by Clinton’s candidacy was extraordinary, and so, alongside, was the amount of virulent misogyny. Male commentators couldn’t resist repeated references to her “cleavage,” and to her propensity for “weeping.” They (including her principal primary opponent) kept remarking on her dubious “likeability.” They savaged her hair, her clothes, her campaign strategy. Nonetheless, she almost won: very scary indeed.
And now, in 2014, here she comes again. In fact, she has not declared her candidacy, though everyone’s assumption is that she will. And two years before even the official first stirrings of the presidential election, her every move, every syllable is being scrutinized. Republicans are gearing up to swiftboat her on Benghazi; According to an article by Michael Tomasky in the March 6 New York Review of Books, Democrats are desperately scrounging to find someone else…anyone else to run. (Joe Biden? Howard Dean? Bernie Sanders? People the Dems would normally not consider for a moment…but ….) This may be the one thing that both sides can agree on: Not Hillary!
Especially unusual is the fact that this whole anti-Hillary discourse is flourishing so very early in the game, almost three years before the general election of 2016. No one else is under the same sort of microscopic inspection. Yes, once she declares (if she does), and once the primary season is under way, this prurience will be normal. But the fact that it has started up so early, and so specifically attached to one unannounced potential candidate, is suggestive.
I do not know how to think about it. I believe absolutely that the country, and the world, need a woman in this position if anything important is to change, and change it must. I also believe (as much as I admire Elizabeth Warren and other liberal women who might possibly also run) that Clinton is the only woman with a chance of winning, precisely because (aside from gender issues) she is so unthreateningly centrist. Liberals have to get over the idea that a true liberal could win election to the presidency, and still less govern from the left. I suspect that the liberal opposition to Clinton is in part derived from a desire to derail her candidacy and allow a male nominee. So from both sides, the Clinton discourse represents just one more irrational expression of gender terror. I worry specifically that, if HRC should be the Democratic candidate, and even more if she wins the election, misogyny will burst out in ways that we thought had been abolished for a century. Fear will bring out the worst in a whole lot of men, and many women as well (as we saw in 2008). Perhaps it is necessary for misogyny to come into this kind of odious display before it can be dealt with and abolished forever, and in that case, women will need to bear up and fight as best we can.
But I’m not looking forward to 2016.