Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Writes and Wrongs of a Matter

Ah, the trials and tribulations of social media.  A few weeks ago - a lifetime in the land of social media - Idris Elba, an internationally celebrated British actor, agreed to be part of a competition to raise money for an African girls’ charity. The sexualised premise of the competition was to win a date with him on Valentine's Day and featured the actor saying to the panting masses, 'I'll let you pound my yams.' 

In far away New Zealand, a white, married, middle class mother wrote a blog post in response to the advert, in the style of ‘a liberal feminist’s version of how a laddish bloke might write about a woman he fancies'  - and a load of folk started running around proclaiming the sky had fallen. 

I only came across Emily Writes' piece (which, it seems, no longer exists) because a gay man on Twitter made a caustic comment about the quality of the writing.  Emily fired back an equally insulting rejoinder and was then supported by some women who piled in and kicked the cyber-shit out of him.

I think it's fair to say that had liberal social media’s bĂȘte blanc -  a cis/het, white, middle class man - written about a black female actor in the way Emily Writes wrote about Idris Elba, he’d have been lucky to come away with his yams intact. But it’s become almost de rigeur these days for women to think that behaving like blokes is sexual liberating.  

The rationale is that it’s ok for women to behave towards men in the same ways that men have behaved towards women because women’s sexuality has been denied, suppressed and deformed within various forms of phallocratic rule for millennia and behaving as men have done is a way of reversing the power polarity and regaining female sexual agency. 

I get a tad annoyed with that, in the same way as I get annoyed with women who think that feminism is simply about ensuring they have legal and economic equality within a social system that is inherently oppressive and exploitative of vast swathes of people.   That was the mindset of the white, middle class British suffragists who, in 1914, stopped agitating for the vote for women in order to support an imperial war in which millions of disenfranchised working class men were sent off to die or be maimed.

I’m a different generation of social activist so I find the whole girls being laddish thing annoying.  Call me old fashioned, but the idea surely is for women to work together and form alliances to create a different and a better way to conduct all the many facets of the business of living - not to simply seek ‘equality’ with their male peers within viciously stratified and exploitative social arrangements that for the most part have been created by, and for men of wealth and power.

But then I’m a grumpy old socialist feminist so I would think that wouldn’t I? 

The first thing I thought when I read Emily’s post was what the hell makes women think that behaving like men behaving badly is making a stand for female equality; the second thing, which arrived hot on the heels of the first, was that she was completely oblivious to the race dimension. 

OK the ad which provoked Emily to write the post invited that sort of response but what Emily forgot is that, in the current hierarchy of oppression, white still trumps all – especially when it’s affluent and educated white women whose only competitors for most privileged creatures on the planet are white, affluent and educated men. So, when a white, educated and affluent woman objectifies and stereotypes a black man – the usual gender dynamic shifts a little on its axis.

It's stating the blindingly obvious that the mismanagement of the complex intersection of all the factors of identity can, and often does, cause all manner of damaging collisions.  Emily was so busy fantasising about having sex with Elba, she drove too fast into that intersection, failed to give way to the right of black people not to be sexually objectified by white people – and crash.

Emily had her bad driving pointed out to her in a post by Lana Lopesi and she publicly apologised for her ‘racism’.  Much self-congratulation ensued on social media  about the actual operation of intersectionality - as opposed to reading about the theory of it -and everyone learned a bit and moved on as better people, less likely to offend. Or so we hope.

Lana Lopesi’s post made some very good points - and some not so good ones. 

Lopesi suggests that it is good for women to publicly sexualise men as a way of regaining sexual agency (I assume she has accounted for factors of age, race, affluence etc) but, just as men cannot publicly sexualise women without reinforcing male privilege and power, white people cannot publicly sexualise black people without reinforcing white privilege and power.  By publicly sexualising Elba as a black man, Emily trapped him in her 'oppressive white gaze' and was therefore guilty of being racist.  

By that logic, had a black man publicly sexualised a white woman, that would be ok because his male privilege would be cancelled out by his lack of privilege as a black man. The knots in the logic tie themselves. 

In support of her argument, Lopesi referred to the twin stereotypes of the hyper-sexualised black woman and the black male rapist.  

Angela Davis writes compellingly about how those potent racist stereotypes were used as calculated instruments of terror, providing the fuel for acts of unspeakable horror perpetrated by white people against black people during the American Jim Crow era, and providing the ideological underpinnings of equally unspeakable acts of judicial murder.

Davis quotes a chilling statistic in her book Women, Race and Class – it is one I have quoted a number of times : of the 454 men executed on the basis of a rape conviction in the USA between 1930 and 1968, 405 were black, i.e.  10% of the population and 90% of the executions for rape for the simple and horrible fact that black men were more likely to be accused of rape, charged with and found guilty of it, and more likely to be sentenced to death for it.

Similar negative stereotypes have existed in other cultures – but the sheer power and spread of American culture has meant that the USA’s vicious dehumanising stereotypes of black people are especially potent.

So – when a woman having a little keyboard fantasy about an attractive black man – in which she breathlessly writes about his 'big hands' (and we all know what that means), claims he’d ‘fuck like a champ’ and ‘throw down like he’s seconds away from a gold medal’, that he’s a ‘grindsman’ and ‘a stud’ –(if she’d bothered to look up the meaning of the former she’d have realised that was a tautology) -  she’s come perilously close to creating the racist stereotype of a black man as a penis with legs.

It is a stereotype that some men play up to and Elba chose to go along with the fundraising idea and chose to overtly sexualise himself. He is also a mature, rich and successful actor, supported, advised and protected by a small army of agents and PR people - so to argue that when a white woman responded to him sexually, he became the hapless black prisoner of an oppressive white gaze, is over-egging the theoretical and political omelette.

However, the truth is that many black men have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of those and other negative stereotypes and that is a fact white people need to always have at the forefront of their political consciousness.

Was Emily being racist?  I knew there’d be people who would think she was and she should have been alert to that possibility but she was on a wee high from indulging in a fantasy that she thought appropriate to share with the world  - not because it was great writing or it was striking a blow for the liberation of women – but because it was fun and it would attract readers. She may be accused of being thoughtless, self-absorbed and enjoying doing what blokes have been allowed to do since time immemorial– but I don't think she was being racist.  

Racism - as a term to denote the operation of an ideology that has been a key underpinning of a viciously destructive and cruelly exploitative social system – is far too important a concept to be used lightly. Applying it indiscriminately risks emptying of political meaning and content. If you call the likes of Emily a racist for publicly lusting after a black man who put his celebrity and his sexuality on a plate and invited the women of the world to partake of it - how do you distinguish between her behaviour and that of a vicious white supremacist? 

Lopesi made the claim that black people have been oppressed for thousands of years which is not true, nor is the oppression of black people or more widely, people of colour, absolute or the same for all of them across the whole of recorded history.  Nor can the experiences of black Americans be extrapolated to all peoples of African extraction and especially not to all people of colour.

Peoples of colour built great civilisations, made great discoveries and they conquered and enslaved other peoples.  Uncomfortable though it might be for those who want to paint a monochrome picture of a white oppression of all people of colour since time immemorial, the history of imperial expansion and colonisation and the oppression and subjugation of conquered peoples and use of them as slaves is not exclusive to Europeans.  The Arabs had a thriving slave trade which was both precursor to and provided expertise for the European trade. The Ottoman empire was based on slavery, a great many of them provided by the Crimean Khanate which enslaved an untold number of people from Russian and the Ukraine and further afield in Europe over the course of centuries. The capacity to be rapacious, oppressive and cruel towards other human beings is not confined to white men however convenient it might be to use them as the scapegoat for the world's ills.

Lopesi also argues there is no such thing as reverse racism ie people of colour cannot be racist although they might be prejudiced – which is different.  It is a fact that in the current world order, the ability to harness racial prejudice to power and use it to disadvantage others lies mostly with peoples of European extraction, and so it has been for several centuries.  However, that will change and the new order will be just as unfairly discriminatory, exploitative and oppressive - unless the structural bases that allow people to harness unfair prejudices to power are changed. 

Prejudice in favour of paler complexions existed in various cultures long before Europeans dreamt up the idea of a hierarchy of races, with them at the top, to justify their enslavement and exploitation of peoples of colour.  A weathered complexion was the mark of a person who laboured in some way or other - only those who had others to labour for them could keep the paler, softer skins they were born with. The seeds of European classificatory racism fell on the fertile soil of ancient class divisions.

Finally, there is another element to this - one which underpins rape culture - and that is the notion that men have uncontrollable sexual urges, that they cannot look at a woman without wanting to have sex with her.

What was Emily doing but indulging in just that notion, that good sex is the ‘throw down’ - which has become the staple of modern entertainment - people so much in the grip of an uncontrollable sexual urge they frantically rip each other's clothes off, stumbling and fumbling their hormonally driven way to the nearest table, wall, bed or floor.  It accompanies other modern entertainment sexual staples which, more often than not, involve women on their knees or bent over with their buttocks raised. 

Women thinking that two can play that game – that they can recapture their sexual agency and control by being blokeish – is just so wrong-headed. Men created that ideological arena – they created the ‘battle of the sexes’ – they created the phallocracy and they have reaped the bulk of the benefits that have flowed from it. So why enter the phallocracy’s sexual arena? Why not break it down and build an entirely new one?

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Four Ps of the Phallocalypse

If you are very religious you may find elements of what follows, challenging.  If you do not like being challenged - do not read it.

At a point, possibly as long ago as 3500 years, an idiosyncratic little religion popped up in the Middle East, in what we now call the Levant. It was idiosyncratic because it worshipped a single, all-powerful deity - in contrast to other religions in the region which were either animist or polytheistic.

Most polytheistic religions had a more or less balanced collection of deities with distinctly human characteristics - such as a gender.  The Greek pantheon for example may have had a male god in overall charge but he didn't have it all his own way and the attributes and roles of the roughly equal number of classical Greek goddesses and gods indicated a more ancient understanding of the complementarity of, and continuum between the biological sexes.  

Ares was the god of war, violence and bloodshed but Athena was the goddess of wisdom and military strategy; Cupid was the god of love and Artemis was the goddess of the hunt.

The First People of the Book, the Hebrews, arrived at a conception of God that was very useful for a patriarchal society, or one hellbent on becoming patriarchal. Only men could interpret God's word and man was the last Creation and declared favourite of God. Woman was an afterthought who, as a lesser and deeply flawed being, was in need of both protection and correction.  Men were also granted dominion over the rest of God's creation -  which proved to be very useful when claiming the right to exploit the hell out of it.

The Hebrews didn’t develop their religion in isolation - as a people they were squashed between two great polytheistic cultures - Egypt and Babylon.   Like all religions, they developed a set of compelling myths and legends to strengthen community and religious bonds and to explain why contemporary arrangements should or should not exist.  

The Hebrew myths included an enslavement in Egypt, a great escape, 40 days wandering in the desert, a great prophet who received God's commandments, the parting of a sea and the destruction of Pharoah’s army, Joshua’s defeat of the Canaanites, the division of the land among the twelve tribes of Israel which eventually boiled down to the twin kingdoms of Judah in the south, and Israel in the north - or Samaria as it was also known. 

In the way of these things, the machinations of men of power swept back and forth across the region resulting in the destruction of the Judahites' First Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of the ruling elite of Judah to Babylon (in modern day Iraq) where, it seems, many of their descendants lived and flourished for a thousand years. 

Under the rule of the Persian King Cyrus the Great, those of the Judahite elite who wanted to return were allowed to and he even helped them build their Second Temple in Jerusalem. Cyrus was a pretty cool sort of emperor by the standards of the day who operated an early sort of federalist multiculturalism.

Poor old Israel/Samaria though was sacked by the Assyrians who came down on it like a wolf on the fold and I guess the Samaritan elite were either killed or fled or were assimilated. I imagine that the poor people of both Judah and Israel/Smaria did what poor people always do when the elite play their power games - survived as best they could, stayed put and did as they were told, or got the hell out of it until the fighting stopped.

But, no sooner had things settled down in the Levant than a young megalomanic Macedonian set off with a plan to conquer the world. Alexander the Great defeated the mighty Persians and pretty much declared the whole ‘known’ world to be Greek.  

The Judahites flourished under Greek rule and absorbed a load of clever Greek stuff to add to the clever Persian stuff they and the Greeks had already absorbed and everything was going along quite nicely until the ruling Judah elite, the Hasmoneans, decided that they needed to grow their own power base. As the Greek empire started to fray at the edges, they stepped up the pressure on people who’d become ‘too Greek by far’ and forced a Judaic monotheist orthodoxy on them.

Then, along came the Romans who’d developed this weird notion of a republic. They were polytheists from a cultural backwater who - against all the odds - founded the greatest empire the world had seen. They spread out from their city state in modern day Italy and conquered everything - by force or cunning or very often, a combination of both.  The Romans first recognised the Hasmoneans but after some rebellions, they finished them off, joined a load of bits and pieces together to form the Roman province of Judea, and installed a puppet king- the infamous Herod.

And so we get to the Second People of the Book. 

After a bit of imperial arging and barging, a man was born in the Roman province of Judea who became what was seen as a political agitator and rebel by the Romans and their local administrators, a heretic by the orthodox Jews, and at first as a prophet then latterly as the Son of God, by his followers.  

Jesus questioned some - but by no means all - of the current arrangements of the time - and he established a religious/political sect which at first was suppressed by everyone.  The problem was that Jesus not only questioned the local rulers and religious orthodoxies and practices, he also challenged imperial power - so they killed him. 

They hadn’t factored in the power of martyrdom and the new religion of Christianity founded by Jesus' followers - against all the odds - grew and spread. Its adherents were persecuted by the Romans - probably not as much as was claimed subsequently but they did give them a hard time.

Then the damnedest thing happened - the Romans started to convert to the new religion. At first these Christian converts were persecuted but eventually the Roman elite booted the pantheon of gods and goddesses (which they'd inherited pretty much intact from the Greeks) into touch because they thought - whoa - this all-powerful omniscient god has a lot going for HIM - especially if you go back to the original source material which totally legitimates the subjugation of both women AND the natural world - so let's go Christian!  

And they did, and they set a pattern for pretty much the next 1700 years by arguing about interpretations of the one God thing and killing those they labelled as heretics and heathens in various really nasty ways. 

The Roman empire had got so big it was impossible to manage so they split into Western and Eastern sectors - with one headquarters in Rome and another in what used to be called Byzantium and was renamed Constantinople when Constantine moved his court there. With that, the great city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) became the main centre of the Christian world. 

Rome was eventually lost to what pro-Roman historians told the world were barbarian hordes who fought dirty - but by that time most of the Roman elite had legged it to Constantinople. 

Imperial rule was reimposed in the Western provinces for a time by the Eastern Empire but, by the 5th century CE the Western Roman empire had disintegrated into a multiplicity of kingdoms, princedoms and dukedoms of western and southern Europe and the Iberian peninsula. These were united only by being Roman Catholics - co-religionists under the spiritual guidance of the Bishop of Rome who often was not based in Rome as when it became too dodgy a place to store all the papal loot, they'd move to various other places such as Perugia and Avignon.

The history of the papacy is the history of the power plays that surged back and forth across Europe in the lead up to, and after the fall of the Western Roman empire.

Religious ideology held together what became known as the Holy Roman Empire once it was no longer possible to hold it by force. The title of Holy Roman Emperor was conferred on Charlemagne, leader of confederation of Germanic tribes, by the Pope in 800. The title  and its religious/secular power base sat at the heart of European political and religious machinations and manoeuvrings and is why the German nobility married into the royal houses of the whole of Europe.   

Religious lore as interpreted by the Pope, who was God’s number one guy on earth, over-rode local secular law.  Kings and Princes and Dukes who did not do what the Holy Mother Church told them to do or who didn’t pay their earthly dues - could be excommunicated by the Pope - a sort of spiritual decapitation.  Papal power and the power of the Emperor sat in tension with each other, sometimes resulting in the Emperor holding the Pope captive, or sacking him and appointing more malleable bishops.

Around 1000 CE the schism between the two branches of Christianity was pretty well entrenched.  The first unholy crusades had started with a call by Pope Urban for Western Christians to help the Byzantine empire against the incursions of the Turks - some say with the hope of reuniting the two branches of Christianity against the common enemy of Islam but, as the Crusaders often pillaged and murdered and refused to return the Byzantine lands they’d liberated, and eventually sacked Constantinople, that was never going to happen and the schism was widened and deepened.  

As it gained strength, the Roman Catholic church encouraged and condoned forced conversions and persecutions of people who would not convert or who challenged the status quo - and they did this on a scale and with a ferocity that made what the Romans had done to Christians look benign.  

Western Christianity continued to develop its militant muscles, the Byzantine empire crumbled and fell to the Ottomans in 1453 - and Eastern Orthodox Christianity retreated. 

And so we come to the Third People of the Book who had entered the ideological arena in 610 in Mecca (modern day Saudi Arabia), when a 40 year old man, Muhammad of Mecca, had a revelation.  God spoke to him and revealed how He wanted His people to worship Him and to behave - reinforcing the words He had handed down to His earlier prophets and countering what was perceived as the idolatry of the polytheists of Mecca and the Christians - who had developed the notion of a Holy Trinity to explain God's relationship with his son who was born of woman, the cult of Mary and other such beliefs and practices which Muhammad saw as a move away from the pure monotheism of Abraham and Moses. He emphasised the omniscience and omnipotence of a Creator that is so unknowable it is impossible for humans to imagine or to depict - hence the Islamic proscription on any images of God.  

Muhammad and his followers were persecuted by the Meccans so they travelled 200 miles to Medina to set up their own base.  They were attacked by the Meccans and by a confederation of Arab tribes but they prevailed and eventually Muhammed united the Arab tribes and they all converted to Islam. 

The religious polity that Muhammad established became a caliphate after he died - and under various leaders it set off on its own proselytising path and colonised and conquered surrounding Persian and Byzantine lands. Like the Christians, islam mostly adhered to a policy of militant proselytism - convert or die.

Disputes over leadership led to Islam also developing a schism - between Sunni and Shia - which remains a defining feature of of the reliigon today. 

Islam spread into Northern India via the Delhi sultanate and the Mughal dynasty;  into south-eastern Europe via the Ottoman Empire and into sub-Saharan Africa, central Asia, the Malay peninsula and China via trade.

This new religion declared its god was the one true god, omnipotent and omnisicent and that the Christians were wrong about Jesus being the son of god - he was a man and another Prophet, like their founding Prophet Muhammed and like Moses and Abraham before him.  But, they of course maintain that their prophet is the true and the final word of God. End of story.

The situation of women and ordinary people in Islam is often defended as being an improvement on their status within the polytheistic religions of the region which Islam supplanted - but we need to remember that it is the victors who write history and those victors were and still are, men.

Like its brother religions - Islam has a core ideology that places woman as secondary to man and both as subservient to a God as conceptualised by men who varying numbers of centuries ago, recorded and interpreted the words of men who claimed to speak for God.  

Unlike Judaism and Christianity, Islam allowed polygamy for rich men who could afford multiple wives and, like them, it promoted a powerful cult of female obedience and chastity - breaches of which were harshly punished in the real world as well as promising damnation in the next. Like them it was obsessed with female chastity prior to and within marriage, as the only absolute guarantee of paternity and it devised many ideological and physical means of binding women into a chaste and obedient life.  Although all of them also demanded high standards of men, the punishments for the breach of those standards were different and often less onerous. And not much changes. 

All of the monotheist religions claim they are the one true religion; their god is the one true god; that god is neither male nor female and the use of the male pronoun to describe god is just a 'literary convention'. Yet they all encode the essential subjugation of woman to man; they all started out with only men holding religious office and their contemporary power base is still overwhelmingly male and in the case of Islam, almost exclusively so. 

Despite their protestations that God - being omnipotent, omniscient and unknowable - has no gender, none of these religions created sacred pronouns that could be used only to describe God, that carried no connotations of gender and with that, of human form. The default masculine form was used- with a capital letter to denote that it is God that is being referred to. 

Even Islam, which does not allow any pictorial representation of God or even of Muhammad, could not step outside its phallocentric world view and take the logical step of creating a sacred pronoun for use when talking about the unknowable Almighty. If the scholarly men who were the guardians of their faith had genuinely believed that God was beyond knowing - how insulting to God to not have created a sacred pronoun.  

The fact that the default pronoun was male was because it was men who wielded religious and secular power and they created God in their image.   Religious lore and secular law were so entwined and interdependent, and the vested interests were so powerful and entrenched, there was no impetus for change.  Besides, doing so might have given women ideas and God forbid that women might start to challenge men’s privileged place at both the earthly and the celestial tables.

Descent in the male line, transmission of property and title through the male line and the consolidation of male power via the first born son - all were key structural bases  for the subjugation of women that is a common feature of all the monotheist religions.  

The four Ps of the phallocracy - patrilocality, patrilineality, primogeniture and patriarchy are also the four Ps of monotheism.  Monotheism's God was created by men and for men within social relationships that were already strongly phallocentric.  Monotheism has enabled the creation and perpetuation of a global phallocracy - and look what a fine mess that’s got us into.