Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Playing the Game

Laura Kipnis is an interesting writer.  I've read a couple of her books, so when I found her latest, Men (Metropolitan, 2014), at the library, I looked through it.  I was most interested in the chapter called "The Manly Man," a partial transcript of her debate with Harvey Mansfield, the author of a book on Manliness that excited a lot of comment when it was published in 2006.  Martha Nussbaum patiently detailed Mansfield's faults as a serious thinker in the review I just linked to, so I never bothered to read the book myself.  Mansfield's performance in "The Manly Man" just confirms Nussbaum's critique.

I was particularly struck by this part:
[Mansfield]: ... isn’t it true that women, when they abandon the double standard in sexual morality – and that, by the way, is the only standard – are simply unhappier?  Because once you abandon that, you abandon any standard at all.

[Kipnis]  Well, mutual pleasure is one standard.

[Mansfield] All right, okay -- I agree with that.  But it’s not a moral standard.

[Kipnis]  We probably disagree about that.

[Mansfield]  All right.  But once you play the man’s game, aren’t you pretty likely to lose? You’re going onto their ground when you try to compete with men in brashness.  I think it’s still the case that women like to be asked out, rather than asking out [113-4].
When men “play the man’s game,” they’re pretty likely to lose too.  Mansfield's kind of manliness is competitive, with men climbing toward the top of the heap over the bodies of those they've defeated, and since no one stays young and strong forever, even the winner ultimately is defeated and replaced.  And no matter how long he stays on top, he always must be ready to defend his place against the next challenger.  That would be pathetic (that is, not tragic) if it were the only way to be a man, but it's not.  The trouble lies with men like Mansfield, who keep insisting that the way of the Warrior is the only way, and any male who doesn't want to compete isn't really a man.

But, and this is more important I think, for women the double standard and patriarchal marriage are playing "the man’s game." Since Mansfield believes that males are naturally promiscuous and females aren't, he must accept the existence of "public women," women who have no one owner but can be rented or ravished.  He must also pretend that even women who play the man's game by accepting the double standard can never really escape it, even when married; remember that until recently, because of feminism, married women had no recourse if their husbands forced sex on them.  Once a woman had given her consent, she could never take it back, and a woman once polluted by even marital penetration was polluted forever.

Let me back up what I'm saying about marriage and "the man's game."   Well over thirty years ago, the radical feminist Joanna Russ wrote:
Every women’s studies teacher, for example, knows the female student who comes into her office and announces defiantly that she’s going to get married – the world is still full of girls who think that heterosexual alliances with men represent a form of rebellion against sexless Mommy. How do these young women imagine their mothers ended up where they were? Yet the hope persists that heterosexual activity (a little wilder than stuffy Mom’s) will provide access to the men’s freer, wider world. Mother’s function as the forewoman who polices Daughter’s sexuality, in many American families, gives some color to this notion – that an alliance with men is an alliance against Mother – and yet these girls must have at least the suspicion that Mom made the same bargain. And surely they know that heterosexual alliance can’t confer membership in the men’s world but only a place (Mother’s place, in fact) on the sidelines. But they don’t. And so they end up married, leading the same life as Mother, or – if unlucky – a worse one with less bargaining power. And their daughters repeat the process.*
Mansfield adds, after the passage I quoted above, that "Women and men are just happier married," but even if that were true (which it isn't), it would only prove that married women were less unhappy because they're not out in the jungle of untrammeled male violence.  It's true that married men are happier than unmarried men, but I've never felt that anyone has the right to demand service from another, at the expense of her happiness, in order to gain his own.  That's not complementarity or symbiosis, it's parasitism.

Those who want to justify the ownership of women by men try to cast it as "men taking care of women", but as one writer noted, "Mostly I see women bumping buggies down the steps at train stations while no one helps," and in reality it is men who demand that women take care of them, providing material and emotional and sexual service in return for their dubious "protection."  Mansfield is delusional, and if he weren't saying what so many men want to hear, it would be hard to believe that he gets a platform for his babbling.  Kipnis goes far too easily on him; I wonder if she bothered to prepare for this appearance by acquainting herself with Mansfield's ideas -- reading Nussbaum's review would have been sufficient.

But I've written about this before.  What I want to do now is bring in what I've been saying about human nature.  Mansfield presumably believes that his standards of morality and manhood are based in the nature of the human species as a whole.  But as he admits, human nature is various:
How I define manliness is “confidence in a situation of risk.”  Women have confidence, too, but they don’t seek out risk the way men do.  Or, better to say, the way some men do [112].
This is absurd.  Women "seek out risk" every time they allow a pregnancy to continue to term -- and, I'd add, when they enter into relationships with men who are manly by Mansfield's criterion.  The fantasy that "real" men don't hit women is just that, a fantasy; it had to be bolstered for centuries by covering up male violence against women, and by explaining it away when it couldn't be covered up.  Mansfield might try to evade this by calling such violence "a corrupt or perverted manliness" (119), but that won't work.  As long as men conspire not merely to cover up their violence against women but to justify it (look at the role it plays in the Hebrew Bible, for example, ascribed to Yahweh himself), it must be recognized as part of official Manliness.

Mansfield has to do some fancy footwork to explain away more general male violence:
So you look at the manliness of the Islamic hijackers, it takes a certain manliness – a corrupt or perverted manliness – to fly airplanes into buildings and kill people.  Versus the manliness of the New York Police and firefighters who went up the stairs of those buildings, knowing that they probably wouldn’t come back down (119).
This is a desperately false comparison: the real counterpart to the 9/11 hijackers would not be police and firefighters but US troops invading, bombing, and looting Iraq and Afghanistan, or American helicopter crews gleefully massacring civilians from the air.  Mansfield knows this, too, for he speaks of "the decline or decadence of Europe," which he ascribes to "all the womanliness in their policies" (119)  He doesn't expand on which policies he means, but I think it's clear in context that Europe isn't warlike enough to suit him.  War fever has to be cultivated, however, usually dishonestly; most people aren't normally that eager to go to war. A few ideally manly leaders must work hard to get them to go along with it.

Since Mansfield concedes that not all males meet his standards, we're in Mary Midgley's world where "human nature" refers to the supposed natures of individuals.  Men like Mansfield tend to worry that Homo sapiens may not be up to evolutionary snuff, because the species isn't manly enough anymore.  If men don't go to war, cultivate blood sports, and keep women barefoot and pregnant, the human race will die out.  But this misunderstands natural selection.  If the violence of certain men becomes an evolutionary liability, they have no claim, no natural right, to demand that they escape culling by Mom Nature.  Yet they do, presenting themselves as the "fittest" who must survive -- according to their fantasy of what evolution means -- and whine that "men" are an endangered species.  They don't own the future of the species, however; no one does.  And no doubt there are also women whose natures are compatible with theirs, so they won't really have to do without mates.  If there aren't enough of them, too bad.  Nor is the majority obligated to help them reproduce themselves.  Mansfield just wants his pet conceptions to be the platonic ideal of humanity and manliness. There's no reason to let him have his way.

It's debatable whether humanity's evolutionary success so far has much if anything to do with "manliness" as Mansfield conceives it.  It's likely that cooperation and the use of intelligence rather than brute force are the chief reason why vast numbers of human beings infest this planet.  Or maybe not; no one really knows.  But just because any given trait was successful in the past doesn't mean it will be successful tomorrow.  Noam Chomsky says that Ernst Mayr, "the grand old man of American biology ... basically argued ... that intelligence is a lethal mutation."  Even if our intelligence enabled us to spread like a radioactive virus all over the earth, there's no guarantee it won't kill us off, and sooner rather than later.  It might be a trait that Natural Selection is going to weed out. The same could be true of Mansfield's "manliness," if it did play any role in human evolution.  It wouldn't be a great loss.  It might even be the real lethal mutation.

* From her review of Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur (Harper, 1976), reprinted in The Country You Have Never Seen (University of Liverpool Press, 2007), page 162