Fri May 26th, 2006 at 11:28:25 AM EST
Whither Europa ?
Bless my soul! I had not known before yesterday that, by arguing in defense of the belief that society has far more to gain by trying its best to ignore gender distinctions in all instances where value judgements are to be made about the just bestowal of rights or privileges than it does by interjecting gender as valid factor--deliberately reserving a priori half of the praise , half of the blame, half of the prizes, half of the places, to one sex and the other half to the other sex, I was speaking in direct opposition to now-established European Union policy in some regards.
So there is something in the law of the European Union which mandates gender parity in the composition of certain representative assemblies?
Until yesterday, I was aware of only one such confounded man-made bureaucratic self-imposed straight-jacket of ideological faith--the famous economic pact of « stability » by which Euro member-states engage in wilfull make-believe about [update] current account budget deficits being subject to an economist's and finance minister's using a lion-tamer's whip and chair to keep budgets within fairy-tale limits [and not, as I first had it, about rates of inflation]. Now I see that I underestimated. « The European Union: manufacturers of fine social straight-jackets since... »
It is dangerous to insist that nature or historical facts conform to our favorite prejudices, dangerous to decide first what the facts of the case must mean and then select exclusively those which favor a predetermined and preferred result. That is exactly how the Bush White House came to its present circumstances in Iraq. Bush's advisors had looked at History and drawn from their most beloved and flattering episode of it--the heroic liberation of Europe by the valiant efforts of, according to now-settled American mythology, the U.S. led and inspired Allied forces--the inescapable lesson that tyrants typically fall before the united forces of heavily-armed Good. As a collary to this axiomatic truth, they appended by up-date that in this age of suitcase-bombs and mushroom-clouds, heavily-armed Good's best defense is an eager and preëmptory offense. Such a world-view resigns from the priority objective of avoiding war by use of law, reason and fairness in international politics and substitutes for it the assumption that we are condemned to oppose war by choosing when and where to wage war. This is the logic of the Vietnam War's US soldier who explained to the television news reporter and camera crew, as, behind him, a village's thatched huts were consumed by flames, « We had to destroy the village in order to save it, » brought up to the level of the now-global village.
Although tyrants do fall before greatly superior allied forces, in taking History's lesson from the annals of World War II, the Bush White House's interpreters of History seem to have given too little account to the fact that World War II, though a « victory » in some impoverished and tortured sense of that term, could have very easily turned out quite differently had the alliance not developed so strongly or proven so determined. In other words, History's lesson is perhaps only that sometimes tyrants fall before heavily-armed Good allied in battle.
I suspect that in arbitrarily predetermining the acceptable limit of their member-state's budget deficits, in the belief that wishing can make it so, the European Union's deciders are creating more mischief than they are avoiding. Similarly, I suspect that rather than women coming from Venus and men from Mars, both men and women come from Earth and that we women and men are--our specialized roles in sexual reproduction apart--at some very fundamental level of both biology and psychology, practically indistinguishable.
It is one thing to cherish and celebrate diverse variety in nature for the interest this adds to life's joys and another thing to insist upon a supposed diversity in a doctrinaire manner where that diversity may not in fact exist in just the same way and for just the same reasons that it invites needless mischief to insist upon uniformity out of a doctrinaire prejudice where that uniformity does not in fact exist. Why the distinctions between men and women are somehow inherently more to be insisted on or valued than our commonalities truly escapes my understanding--especially when it seems to me that the commonalities in both importance and in sheer quantity outnumber the points of distinction.
My experience belies the claim that each sex and each « race »--a greatly questionable distinction from the standpoint of biology--and each ethnic group experiences in its own way the commonly-shared pleasures and pains of living. It is easy to claim that they do and much less easy to show that such differences as may seem observable are in fact attributable to something other than the well-known habit of « finding » in « human nature » that which we are predisposed to find.
I have not found any compelling reasons to believe that experiences of human suffering or pleasures are susceptible to racial or sexual or ethnic differences. On the other hand, I have observed that tremendous cruelty can be founded on the belief that there are wide and important differences in how the sexes, races, and ethnics experience the same objective set of circumstances. Or, to place in high relief the dangerous and insidious character of that concept, I'd point out that it is urged that, indeed, there are no such things as objective sets of circumstances which, for all practical purposes, people experience in the same manner regardless of their gender, race or other real or imagined distinctions.
One day, into the bookshop where I worked, came a young high-school or university student in search of a novel to read in fulfillment of a class assignment. I would like to find a novel to read for a class assignment and I can choose any sort of novel I like, she explained. So, how can I help you?, I asked. I want to find a novel by an author I can relate to, was the gist of her reply. She wanted, in short, a novel written by a young-ish woman of her own race--which at this point I can't recall with certainty--and, as nearly as possible, her other life-circumstances; and this was because, she explained to me, she'd more readily understand the author's point of view in that way. The point then, was to choose something as nearly like herself as possible, and avoid what would be strange to her experience. I could help by pointing out those novelists to her.
Informing and underlying her notions about novelists and their work seems to be the same belief that various identifiable groups of people have their own manner of experiencing what are otherwise roughly the same circumstances--which are made special to them because they are supposed to be somehow « different » from others in the same circumstances.
By this logic, you'd be led to expect that, for example, the best evocation of the life and experience of an adolescent young man--the most finely drawn and truest to life--would be looked for among the work of male novelists. With due regard for literary styles and passing fashions of taste, we'd nonetheless be likeliest to find that women draw the most exquisite portraits in prose and poetry of women, and men of men according to this view literature. And yet, to follow the example cited above, if you asked me to show you my idea of the finest, most exquisite evocation of a young man in his coming into adolescence in English literature, I would hand you a copy of Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns. For it is her portrait of the young Will Tweedy which is, in my opinion, the most brilliant evocation of a young adolescent boy so far to be found in English, not something by Twain or Dickens or any other male writer I've ever read--including the superb Philip Roth who represents for me nearly the nec plus ultra in contemporary American fiction.
Philip Roth is, by the way, another fine example of my point. Apart from our both being men, there are few similarities in his formative experiences and mine. By the logic of my bookshop customer assumptions about writers and their readers, Roth's writing should come from experiences which are quite alien to my point of view and thus I should not expect this child of a 1930s American east-coast Jewish family to have much to say which should resonate deeply in me. And yet, his writing does just that.
Happily, there's no need--at least from my point of view--for an « either one or the other » in choosing what to read. We can obviously read both and many, provided, that is, that we haven't predetermined that there are some authors who, by virtue of their circumstances of gender, class, race or other identifiable characteristics, simply cannot have as much meaning to us as those writers whose circumstances more nearly resemble our own.
While I « value » diversity in people's tastes and desires, in the richness of their experiences, and in the traits which distinguish individuals, these fascinating differences ought not be made the basis of the rights and privileges they are entitled a priori to enjoy nor their opportunities to enter into a fair and open competition of talents. My point is that, in making much of the importance of diversity, we risk failing to give our basic commonalities--which are great and vitally important--their due regard.
In our present world circumstances, I estimate that the danger that we shall take too little account of how we are different is nowhere near as great as the danger that we shall take too little account of how we are the same and where and how and why those commonalities are to be recognized and understood and vindicated. Both deserve to guarded against. This is all the more true where rights or privileges are concerned. There are certain rights which are of no use unless they can be vindicated by collectivities, others which are in essence individual in nature. Still other rights can be vindicated by both groups and individuals and are seriously harmed if one of these or the other is denied or curtailed.
Currently and for some years now, the forces of social disintegration have been significantly stronger than the tendencies toward integration. This does not appear to be on the wane. On the contrary, there is reason to believe that disintegrative forces are going to continue to advance to the detriment of various socially valuable rights and privileges which can only be enjoyed collectively.
But to over-emphasize either the individual or the collective aspects of liberty is harmful to liberty. Both require and deserve our protection. An intolerant and rigidly-enforced conformity in personal morals is a threat to freedom; a reckless abandonment of common interests in some supposed defense of individual diversity is also on its side a threat to liberties. Not only are we not obliged to submit to a false choice between one of these tendencies or the other, we are instead obliged for all of our sakes not to fall into the error of supposing that we must choose.
Individual diversity and common interests collectively are both, and for their respective purposes and reasons, vital to a society which aspires to live in anything that resembles meaningful freedom.