The Land of Smiling Children

scan

“Komm ins Land der lachelnden Kinder,” “Come to the land of smiling children,” intones a voiceover to the tune of Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” at the beginning of a popular German YouTube video. The video is a montage of some of the most grotesque elements of American culture: a smiling JonBenét Ramsey in full beauty-queen regalia, children using firearms, police beatings and shootings of unarmed citizens, celebrations of conspicuous consumption and contempt for the environment juxtaposed with videos of street people combing trash cans, an execution chamber, a row of Klansmen, and, finally, a man accidentally shooting himself in the leg.

“Alles Spitze in Amerika!” “Everything’s great in America,” the refrain announces over and over again as one horrific scene after another assaults the viewer. The video, “Ein Lied für die USA,” or “A Song for the USA” begins and ends with someone accidentally shooting himself. One could argue that it’s heavy handed, but it makes a devastating point: We are destroying ourselves.

We have arguably always lacked the veneer of civility that typically characterizes older cultures, and yet it seems that public discourse has recently taken a particularly savage turn. The left is as responsible for that as the right. Trump didn’t become “evil” until he ran for office. Before that, he was merely a buffoon. Now, suddenly, he’s “Hitler” and his supporters are uniformly denounced as “racists” and “fascists.” Don’t get me wrong, Trump was not my candidate. He’s not who I want to see in the White House, but he’s not Hitler. Obama said himself that Trump’s a pragmatist, not an ideologue. Democrats dismissed well-reasoned arguments against Clinton’s candidacy, or her positions on various issues, not with similarly well-reasoned counter arguments, but with charges of “mansplaining.” Nothing shuts down dialogue so quickly as hurling invectives at your opponents. British comedian Tom Walker makes this point brilliantly in the viral video of his alter ego U.K. newsman Jonathan Pie’s commentary on the election.

A recent case in point is the infamous Christmas-Eve tweet of academic George Ciccariello-Maher: “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.” The tweet was characterized by Mike King in “George Ciccariello-Maher vs. the White Power Alt-Right” as “inflammatory.” The point, Ciccariello-Maher explained in The Huffington Post, was to “mock” people who believe in the concept of “white genocide.”

King writes that “the anti-racist message and satirical intent [of Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet] is clear to anyone familiar with the term [white genocide] and its longstanding usage within the political culture of neo-Nazis and other white supremacists in the U.S.” Fair enough, but was it reasonable of Ciccariello-Maher to assume that all of his 10,000 plus Twitter followers would understand the term in this way? Was it reasonable of him to assume that everyone to whom his tweet would be retweeted would have a similarly sophisticated understanding of the term and hence grasp the satire?

King calls Ciccariello-Maher a “vibrant anti-racist voice.” Ciccariello-Maher’s Christmas Eve tweet was apparently not his only inflammatory one, at least not according to the conservative websites that have expressed outrage over it. Unfortunately, I can’t check that because only confirmed followers now have access to Ciccariello-Maher’s Twitter feed.

Inflammatory rhetoric goes over well with many college students. It gets them excited about “scholarship” because it makes it seem “sexy” in this culture where sex and violence are inexorably intertwined. It goes over well with young people who are already sympathetic to the cause it purportedly serves. Unfortunately, it tends not to go over well with anyone else.

Demonizing people who disagree with you isn’t very effective at persuading them that you’re correct. It can, in fact, even push people who are on the fence over to the other side because it is ugly. It evinces the same lack of respect for the basic humanity of one’s opponent no matter which side in an argument does it. It’s a kind of bullying and engaging in it further erodes what semblance of civility we have left in this country.

King refers to the “outrage” of “white victim politics” as “contrived.” No doubt some of it is. But, sadly, there are legions of white people in this country for whom the outrage, even if misguided, is genuine. The situation of working-class white people is not so different from the situation of working-class men described so well in Susan Faludi’s books Backlash and Stiffed. Nearly everyone is losing ground economically. There is no rising tide now to float all boats. Nearly everyone is sinking, but instead of banding together to effect positive economic change, we have begun drowning one another in savage efforts to stay afloat.

The line at the beginning of “Ein Lied für die USA,” “Come to the land of smiling children” is an allusion to “Das Land der Lächelns,” or “The Land of Smiles,” a romantic operetta by Franz Lehár. The title is an ironical reference to the purported Chinese custom of smiling even when one is unhappy. One doesn’t need to know that, however, in order to recognize the irony in the video.

We are a nation of desperately unhappy people. Though racism still exists, most working white people have little direct experience of it. They look around even as they are sinking and see affirmative action for everyone but themselves. Compounding their sense of injustice is what sometimes appears to be contempt on the part of the liberal elite for their plight.

Enter George Ciccariello-Maher. I don’t mean to suggest that Ciccariello-Maher is really indifferent to the plight of white working class people. It is not so hard to see, however, why many might think he was. Ciccariello-Maher is righteously angry about racism, so he lashes out at those he views as racist. But is that going to reduce racism? He purports to be a socialist, but his is not the rhetoric of Tolstoy or Gandhi. Rather than serving to make clear to all working people that their interests are in fact allied, messages such as the one delivered by Ciccariello-Maher’s Christmas Eve tweet drive deep divisions among them––which ultimately serves the interests of the wealthy few who control this country.

I agree with Ciccariello-Maher and his supporters who argue that that a commitment to free speech is more important now than ever. There is another commitment, however, that is also important: the commitment to decency and civility. Without that, free speech will simply fan flames of anger and outrage that will end up consuming us all.

The problem is, you can’t legislate a commitment to decency and civility. Drexel is right to stand by Ciccariello-Maher’s right to express his views in whatever way he sees fit. There’s no formula for determining what’s offensive and what isn’t. That’s why we need vigorous defenses of free speech. I’m offended, for example, when Richard Dawkins makes public pronouncements that effectively associate religious belief with feeblemindedness. The prospect of censorship based on taste is even more frightening to me, however, than is the specter of inflammatory rhetoric and the damage it can do.

I’m not comfortable giving anyone the right to curtail speech based on his or her subjective conception of what is offensive. Neither am I comfortable, however, with granting the unrestricted right of free speech to people who are not only indifferent to whether their speech gives offense, but whose rhetoric is deliberately designed to inflame. Rights, philosophers tell us, bring obligations. The right to free speech brings with it the obligation not to abuse it. The right to free speech is believed to rest on the foundation of the inherent rationality and dignity of all human beings. It is necessary to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to be heard. But when it is abused, it creates a din that drowns out many of the voices it was designed to protect.

Plato thought the freedoms associated with democracy would ultimately destroy it. I explain to my students, however, that that is because there are no other values in Plato’s democracy than freedom. Democracy, I argue, combined with a commitment to humanistic values, with respect for the dignity of individuals, of all individuals, can work.

No progress will be made by spewing venom at one another in the name of free speech. On the contrary. When we use speech as a weapon rather rather than as an appeal to reason it is all too easy to injure ourselves with it.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the 2 January 2017 issue of Counterpunch. The illustration is by Marie Schubert. It comes from a book by S. Weir Newmayer and Edwin C. Broome entitled Health Habits (American Book Company, 1928) from The Health and Happiness Series .  I am indebted to Gui Rochat for the reference to Franz Lehár’s “The Land of Smiles,” and to Catherine Goetze for correcting the errors in the German.)

Two Archetypes

Portrait caricatureI’m a transvestite–I think. I like to wear pants. When I was in grad school I even used to wear ties. No one else did, not even the professors, let alone the male grad students. Just me. I liked them. They seemed like me. I like spare, streamlined clothing. I like utilitarian things: pants and shirts and serviceable shoes. I’m not entirely lacking style. I’ve been told, actually, that I have good taste. It’s rather masculine taste though. I don’t like ruffles, don’t like frills, don’t like high heels, don’t paint my nails. I don’t “do” my hair. I can’t be bothered. I just wash it, you know, and let it dry naturally.

My, shall we say “masculine” aesthetic is not something I’d given much thought to until the last couple of years. Several times, in my adult life, I’ve caught a glimpse of myself reflected in a store window and been shocked by the image that confronted me. Why that’s me, I’ve thought to myself, that small woman is me. This will sound strange, but I was surprised to see that I was a small woman. I realized then that I actually had some kind of mental image of myself as a medium-sized man. I’m not seriously mentally ill or anything. I know I’m a woman. I’m not shocked when I look at myself in the mirror in the morning. I do sometimes wear dresses and I always wear makeup, though not very much because, like my hair, I can’t be bothered to spend too much time on it. Still, I rise in the morning and perform the ablutions appropriate to a person of my sex. But then I forget. I get caught up in the things that must be done in the day, and in thought. I forget what I look like. It’s then, I think, that I must unconsciously slip into the masculine image that I have of myself. It fits my job, I guess. There aren’t too many women in philosophy and there are few female academics in any discipline who have what my dean once described as my “pit bull” quality.

It’s how I was brought up, I think. My father is actually a terrible sexist. The thing is, he didn’t have any sons. If he’d had even one son, he’d have raised his daughters differently. He didn’t have any sons though, so he raised us, at least to some extent, the way he’d have raised sons if he’d had them and me more even than my two sisters because I am more similar in temperament to my father than they are. Yes, I was sort of the de facto son. My husband is always remarking that I am “the man” and he is “the woman” in our relationship, not in the sense of the Nicolsons, but in the sense of character traits that are usually thought of as gender specific, things such as my not liking to ask for directions or being generally uncommunicative as opposed to his insisting on asking for directions and talking often about his feelings. He has more friends than I do too. It’s not that I don’t have friends. I’m fortunate to have many good friends. I don’t feel any compulsion to see them all the time though unlike my husband who begins to muse audibly about whether he might have offended a particular friend if a week goes by without his hearing from him or her. That’s another thing, he has more female friends, good friends, than I do. I have some of course, but according to one, not enough. “You need more women friends,” she said. I hadn’t thought about it until then, but most of my friends are actually men.

As I explained, however, I’m no Vita Sackville-West. I’ve never been sexually attracted to women. I’ve always liked men. Still, I realized recently that from the time I was very young, if I were attracted to a boy, and then later a man, I would fantasize about impressing him with how strong and tough I was. Many of my romantic fantasies involved rescue, which, I suppose, is not that unusual for a woman, except that I was always the one doing the rescuing. Yes, I was always rescuing the man I loved from some deadly peril through my extraordinary courage and cunning. I know that sounds strange, but there it is. I’ve been fortunate too, despite my bizarrely masculine character traits, to have had several deeply satisfying romantic relationship with fairly typically masculine men (in which company I would include my former-football-captain husband, despite his frequent protestations that he is “the woman” in our relationship).

I’m small and delicate looking. I’m sure it never occurred to any of the men I’ve been involved with that I had such a masculine self-conception. Though my husband thinks I frighten people whom I argue with and will issue subtle cues if he senses the dinner conversation going in the direction of a confrontation.

I’m not telling you all these things about myself out of some sort of confessional impulse. I’ve something larger in mind. Ever since I figured out why I was always so shocked to be unexpectedly confronted with the fact that I was a woman, which is to say, ever since realized that I actually had somewhere in the depths of my psyche, an image of myself as a man, I’ve been intrigued by this fact about myself. I’ve tried to figure out how it came about, whether it was nature or nurture, marveled that it clearly had no relation whatever to my sexuality. I identify with what Jung called “the animus” the masculine half of human nature that everyone has. Everyone, according to Jung, has a masculine side and a feminine side (though I doubt he would like the term “side”) that he refers to as “the animus” and “anima” respectively.

I smoked a pipe briefly in college and my male friends thought that was cool. I had a masculine nickname too. “Max,” they called me. One of my friends had decided the name “Marilyn” didn’t fit me and that I therefore needed a nickname. She hit on “Max” because my last name was “Piety” and Max Carter, the college chaplain, was the most pious man anyone knew. So there I was, a pipe-smoking girl named Max who went about in what was generally androgynous attire. And yet I was popular with the young men at my college.

I doubt very much though that a purse-carrying lipstick-wearing young man with a moniker of, say, Debbie, would have enjoyed a similar degree of popularity with the opposite sex. I suppose I’ve been aware of this sort of inequity for a long time without really having very strong feelings about it. I guess it seemed natural to me, somehow, that women were allowed a wider berth in terms of what was considered an appropriate expression of their gender than were men. It’s only recently that I have begun to feel this disparity is tragically unfair.

It started, I think, the evening I told my husband about my strange experience of being surprised when I caught an unexpected glimpse of myself in a window or a mirror and saw that I was small woman rather than a medium-sized man. “I have a friend,” he said slowly, “who is a transvestite.” This friend, he explained, did not actually go out dressed up as a woman. He just went around his apartment sometimes in women’s clothes. They’d been friends for years, my husband continued, before his friend had actually “confessed” his predilection for women’s clothes. He was ashamed of it, fearful that people would condemn him. There were only a few people who knew this fact about him, people he was very close to, people he knew well enough to feel confident they wouldn’t condemn him. I could tell my husband was sad, that he felt bad for his friend, bad that his friend was ashamed of something that was so harmless, so innocent, something that a woman, that his wife, could do with impunity was something that he lived in constant fear might be discovered.

That’s when I started to think how tragic is the disparity in the flexibility, or whatever you want to call it, of gender roles. Women can play at being men all they want, but men are made to feel ashamed if they even fantasize about playing at being women, let alone–God forbid–actually try it.

Where do our archetypes of the masculine and the feminine come from? Who dictates them? There was a time when men wore laces and velvets, gaudy jewelry and even makeup. When did that become shameful and why? I wondered briefly whether we really needed these archetypes. Couldn’t we just speak of “character traits,” I asked myself, without having to assign them a gender? Don’t the categories of “masculine” and “feminine” represent a false dichotomy? Can’t everything just be “human” I mused?

But the longer I tried to entertain such a possibility the harder it became to form any firm conception of it. Maybe we need these two most basic of archetypes. We are a classifying species, after all. Gender it seems is itself an archetype and one that I’m beginning to suspect we can’t do without. I’m okay with that, my concern is that there are many men who are perhaps not okay with it because the archetype of masculinity is so much narrower than that of femininity, so while a woman can wear pants in public, a man cannot do the same with a dress. I think that’s wrong. Not only is it horribly unfair, its destructive.

Susan Faludi explains in her book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, that while there have been steady gains in women’s rights over the years, studies show that most Americans, men and women, still expect men to be the main bread winners. Women’s freedoms are increasing, yet men are apparently still expected by nearly everyone to exceed women’s accomplishments both personally and professionally. Faludi postulates very persuasively that this inequity is one of the main causes of continuing sexism. I mean, how fair is that? Men and women are increasingly placed in competition with one another. Men enter this competition, however, in metaphorical straightjackets and yet are still expected by nearly everyone to win and condemned as “un-masculine,” or as “failures” (which in our culture are roughly synonymous) if they don’t. The mind boggles at the amount of resentment that would naturally be created by that kind of inequity.

Maybe we need gender archetypes, but if we do, then I think we also need to allow everyone an equal degree of experimentation with them and maybe that means the archetypes themselves are due for some adjustments. Maybe its time we brought the laces and velvets back into the masculine archetype. Plato talks in book V of the Republic about how the differences between men and women are really what philosophers refer to as “accidental” rather than “essential.” Some women are more “spirited” than some men. Some men are more “appetitive” than some women. The only thing that is important according to Plato is that individuals are assigned to positions or tasks that are appropriate to their individual personalities. I like that. It seems just.