Sunday, August 10, 2008

L'histoire de C, the sequel

I left out a number of points I wanted to make in my post on Noam Chomsky’s porn video (hee, hee, hee!), partly because I forgot them and partly because at 2400 words the damn thing was already pretty long.

For example, as Avedon pointed out, the infamous 1978 Hustler cover image of a woman being fed into a meat grinder was “satirical” (with all the complications attendant on satire, of course). It was accompanied by a quotation from the magazine’s publisher Larry Flynt: “We will no longer hang up women like pieces of meat,” and a fake inspector’s stamp certifying it as the Last All Meat Issue. Har har har. It also turns out that the cover was the brain child of Paul Krassner, who (like George Carlin) I’ve never thought was as cool as he clearly thinks he is.

It’s easy to jeer at ‘humorless’ feminists who can’t see the satire, but I haven’t noticed many males enjoying turn-the-tables feminist comix like Naughty Bits and Hothead Paisan. For that matter, does anyone else remember the male hysteria that Thelma and Louise engendered? It was widely regarded as an extremely violent film, even though as writer Callie Khouri likes to point out, only three people die in it, and two of them are Thelma and Louise. (And those two die offscreen.) Compared to most popular Hollywood product, Thelma and Louise is virtually a pacifist movie. On the other hand, I’ve heard that while most women say that what they fear most from men is violence, most men say that what they fear most from women is laughter. Thelma and Louise, I’ve always believed, was perceived as violent because it laughed at the foolishness of men.

And kiddies, a lot of male foolishness has been displayed in the great porn debates, including the backwash from that Chomsky clip. It does take a little work to bring oneself up to speed on this (or any) issue, but I’ve been following feminism since the 70s, and the feminist sex debates since they began in the early 80s, so I have a head start which I’ll try to share. Relying on the corporate media for information about any serious matter is not going to work. You need to read some, like, print matter, but don’t worry, this stuff is interesting. No, really. Turn off ESPN for a while, lay down the PlayStation controller, and gather round the campfire.

But come to think of it, the core problem isn’t so much the dullness of text, or even the difficulty of finding the relevant material; it’s defensiveness, and probably a failure of empathy. To quote Ellen Willis again, “Humorless is what you are if you do not find the following subjects funny: rape, big breasts, sex with little girls. It carries no imputation of humorlessness if you do not find the following subjects funny: castration, impotence, vaginas with teeth.” I’ve noticed over the years that when I repeat this quotation, women usually laugh delightedly, but men usually look unhappy. (The more so if the men had previously been complaining about “humorless feminists.”)

You may also notice a similarity to the way Noam Chomsky, and other critics of American foreign policy, has been accused of saying that America deserved the 9/11 attacks. When Martin Luther King Jr. said that the United States was the greatest source of violence in the world, he wasn’t calling for some other country to invade us – he was saying that America should be less violent. The reason so many Americans hear criticism of the US as a call for violence against us, I think, is that they are so used to following up criticism of other countries with violence. Plus, of course, reacting in this overwrought way is a convenient way to dodge the real issues: if the only alternative to invading Iran is for terrorists to level the United States, then no American could oppose an invasion of Iran, Q.E.D.

In the same way, many men hear women’s complaints about their attitudes and behavior as attacks on their maleness, to be followed by demands for literal castration of every male. It’s certainly easier than listening to what the women in their lives are saying. If you hear a request for help with the dishes as a demand for the removal of your testicles, of course you’re going to duck your head, clamp your knees together, and turn up the volume on Sunday afternoon football. (If you think I’m exaggerating, look at the comments on the Sex and the City movie that I quoted here. The views expressed aren’t universal, but they’re far from uncommon.)

It’s revealing that a lot of men couldn’t hear what Chomsky was saying about pornography. Even for another male to criticize the imagery of porn was going too far. They mostly reacted in two ways, both well known from reactions to feminist critics of porn: first, they heard his criticism of porn as a demand to ban it; second, they attempted to present themselves as pro-feminist allies of the women who freely chose to perform in pornography, and porn critics as totalitarians who would limit women’s choice.

A paradigm case of both reactions is this video response to the Chomsky clip. brainpolice2 begins by lamenting that he can’t understand why Chomsky is “considered by some to be the leading spokesman for anarchism” when he “favors gun control and banning pornography. … What am I missing here, guys?” Well, for a start, brainpolice2 is missing that Chomsky doesn’t favor banning pornography. That error throws off the rest of his, um, argument.

I understand the intentions, y’know, in the feminism thing going on. But this is an authoritarian kind of feminism we’re dealing with here, and it also seems to me that … it’s … what’s the word? Not patronizing, but uh… Chomsky, in the name of helping the women, is telling them what to do. Okay, and that’s what some people don’t seem to be understanding here. Y’know, you make out the women to be victims -- in the name of helping the victim you’re forcing them to not do what they want to do. And that doesn’t make any sense. Helping people by prohibiting them from doing what they want to do doesn’t make much sense to me. It’s like saying, “Oh, I want to help the illegal immigrants, so let’s … uh… stop them from getting a job.” I mean, it doesn’t make any sense. Under this thin veneer of helping people, you’re violating their rights and going against their will. [giggles] It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

Now, even in that heavily edited original clip, Chomsky didn’t tell women what to do. He can be faulted for assuming that all women who work in pornography are humiliated and degraded by the job, and for his confusion about where the degradation lies, but even so he doesn’t advocate coercion, not even against their employers. Since brainpolice2 ignores the analogies Chomsky drew to sweatshop labor (and in fact he makes a confused analogy of his own to “illegal immigrants”), I have to suppose that he would also see anti-sweatshop activism and regulation as telling poor people they can’t work fifteen-hour-days in hellish conditions if they want to. People who work in the US porn industry may not come from such dire straits; I know that some women have put themselves through college, even graduate school, by working in porn or strip bars. Still the question has be asked, quoting Ellen Willis quoting Rosalind Petchesky: Why do we choose what we choose? What would we choose if we had a real choice?

brainpolice2 ignores who’s running things. Sweatshop labor occurs where the state has already intervened on behalf of corporate capital to limit choices: by driving farmers and other rural dwellers off common land so that living in urban slums and breathing cotton dust in a garment factory has become preferable to starvation. (Of course there are usually other choices as well – petty crime, prostitution, and the like.) They may well make more money in the US than in Mexico, but then you have to ask why conditions are so bad in Mexico, and the answer again is historical and political. Similar conditions prevailed in England when it first industrialized, and they can be found in China and other countries now. Employers like illegal immigrant workers, who have less recourse under abuse: they can be threatened with deportation if they object to inhumane hours, environmental conditions, or pay, and they can be paid in cash, so annoyances like unemployment insurance or Social Security can be evaded. (It doesn’t always work that way, of course. Immanuel Ness’s excellent book Immigrants, unions, and the new U.S. labor market [Temple, 2005] details how some illegal immigrants in New York City managed to resist and unionize despite these threats. Laura María Agustín’s Sex at the Margins [Zed, 2007] discusses migration for work, especially as it affects the sex trade.)

brainpolice2 imagines the porn industry as “women [asking] for money to have sex with people on camera … [or] selling pictures of themselves naked, pictures of themselves having sex, or videotapes of it.” (Again, he keeps dragging legality into it, though legality was not Chomsky’s subject.) True, the Internet has enabled more porn performers to start their own businesses, selling their own images online; but the industry as a whole still involves people being hired by others to display themselves before cameras. Even online, success is measured in moving from performing to direction, and in being able to hire others to do the work. That’s a reminder that, though sex for pleasure is fun, sex for money is work; otherwise these performers wouldn’t want to get out of performing into production. Women who appear in Hustler, to return to Chomsky’s example, are not “selling pictures of themselves” – Larry Flynt is selling pictures of them. Whether this is any more exploitative than other ways in which performers are used by corporations is a complex question, but brainpolice2 hasn’t reached the point where it can be addressed, so I’ll leave it aside here.

And then he gets personal:

Another reason why I don’t buy into the whole radical feminism thing is that it’s really not accurate – entirely accurate in its description of the relationship between men and women in the modern age. While they might have some points in their favor for their premise that women are on the downside, you can’t ignore the fact that some women manipulate men to get what they want, okay? And I don’t know, I’ve experienced this first hand, I’ve been manipulated by women to get – so that they could get what they want. And I was very humble in this situation, okay? I was not trying to use them for sex or anything of that sort. I was being very humble, okay? And this chick was clearly fucking manipulating me, and I allowed it to occur for quite a long time.

If this is our boy’s idea of political analysis, he’s hardly in a position to complain about Chomsky or about feminists. To offer an extreme analogy: slaves also learn to manipulate their owners, to bow and scrape, to slack off, and so forth. Would brainpolice2 want to argue that slaves oppress their owners as much as their owners oppress them? Maybe:

And if you’re going to hold a world view that’s just, “Oh the women are the oppressed and the men are the oppressors,” it’s just a false dichotomy. It’s like, women can be oppressors too and the men can be oppressed too. Stop breaking everything up into these false dichotomies between the workers and the owners, and the men and women, and black and white … You are the one creating divisions, you’re the one increasing tensions when you take such a radically stupid world view that pits every single identity group against the other., It is entirely irrational, you have to view people as individuals, you can’t just say “Men versus women, oh the men are so evil, they’re oppressing women,” no, sometimes it’s the other way around.

There’s one other moment I can’t resist bringing up. About a third of the way through, brainpolice2’s cat meows offscreen, and he snaps at it: “Damn you, fucking cat! Why are you always meowing when I’m trying to make a fucking video?” Cats aren’t people, but I bet he’d behave just as humbly if his girlfriend came in to ask what he wanted for dinner, or to remind him to take out the garbage. Not only women, but cats too can be oppressors.

Maybe it’s unfair to pick on this guy, but his arguments and opinions – and ignorance -- are so common that quoting him saves me the trouble of quoting a range of Chomsky’s other critics: all their errors are conveniently united in a single six and a half minute video clip! To move into the world of cultural professionals, though, the auteurist film critic Andrew Sarris wrote that the 1972 porn-crossover classic Deep Throat “figured in the seesawing feminist attitudes toward pornography -- liberating women, according to the likes of Camille Paglia, or enslaving them, according to Ellen Willis and company.” Now, Sarris used to write for the Village Voice, where much of Willis’s feminist writings also appeared, so he should know that Willis was a prominent anti-censorship feminist. She wrote critiques of Andrea Dworkin and other feminists whose conservative views she disagreed with, and if she ever claimed that pornography enslaves women, I never saw it. She did, admittedly, pan Deep Throat (the review can be found in her collection Beginning to See the Light, Knopf, 1981), saying that “movies like Throat don’t turn me on, which is, after all, what they are supposed to do” (page 73).

Those who want to know something about this debate might try reading Willis’s writings on feminism and sex from Beginning to See the Light and No More Nice Girls (Wesleyan, 1992), or collections like Powers of Desire (Monthly Review Press, 1982), Pleasure and Danger (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), Sex Exposed (Rutgers, 1993). Yes, some of these are rather hefty volumes, but you don’t have to read them cover to cover – just browse around in them. You should, however, also read some anti-porn literature, such as Take Back the Night (Morrow, 1980), Susan Griffin’s Pornography and Silence (Harper, 1981), and Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women (Putnam, 1981). Yes, these are all older books, but they defined the debate that is reflected, however inadequately, in discussions today. (And they contain some surprises – I hadn’t realized, until I looked at Take Back the Night just now, that the libertarian feminist Wendy Kaminer was once a member of Women Against Pornography. You’d never guess it now.) If you read a good sampling of these, you’ll be better informed about the pornography controversy than Noam Chomsky!