Sunday, February 2, 2020

Sauce for the Goose, Sauce for the Gander

The composer, diarist, and critic Ned Rorem was born in Richmond, Indiana, a few months before my father was born in 1923.  At 96 and counting, Rorem has outlived my father by fourteen years.  He was still composing as late as 2010.  I've never been able to get much from Rorem's music, though I keep trying; but his books have given me a lot of pleasure, from the notorious Paris and New York diaries, down to Facing the Night: A Diary (1999-2005) and Musical Writings (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006).

Raised a Quaker, Rorem later became an atheist, but he is still a pacifist, and I was intrigued by these remarks in Facing the Night, dated 13 June 2000 (17):
With those feminists of yore [?] who claimed that men have it better than women, one must agree, but for this crucial disclaimer: Women are not subject to the draft.  The draft eats up young males, whether they will or not, forcing them to learn how to kill their brothers in ignorance of whatever they're fighting for.  Indeed, if their male superiors - inevitably above draft age - find women so dispensable, why not form our armies from exclusively female combatants?
No, "intrigued" is the wrong word; more like "mildly offended."  Rorem is annoyingly glib and simplistic here.  Biologically speaking, men are much more dispensable than women, since human females usually bear only one child at a time, and are tied up by gestation for nine months and by early child care for several years.  Men, by contrast, can inseminate many women in a short time.  A cultural materialist like the anthropologist Marvin Harris could argue that this fact explains the male near-monopoly on military activity.

But that's the least of it.  As I just indicated, men have fiercely maintained war as a male preserve.  A popular rationale is that women are what men are defending by killing each other, either directly by keeping their opponents physically away from them or, more piously by casting women as a holy good, like the Nation itself.  (I don't know if all countries are regarded as feminine, but the US definitely is.)  It's not very convincing.  First, women (and children) have never been exempt from the horrors of war: massacred, enslaved, or raped, they have been regarded as prizes.  (The word "rape" originally meant the carrying away of women, not their forcible use by their captors, though the distinction was notional: soldiers abducted enemy women in order to fuck them.)  This reality is all over the Hebrew Bible (and indeed world literature in general), which regulates the sexual use of female captives from areas where Israel had not been ordered simply to kill every living thing.  There's also the phenomenon of military prostitution: the US military requires the nations in which Our Boys are Protecting Democracy to provide them with comfort women, among other vital services.

Second, like male-homosocial spaces in general, the military has traditionally been regarded as a refuge from women who might nag men to wipe their butts, pick up their underwear, take out the garbage, or refrain from blowing their noses on the floor.  Ironically, perhaps, joining the army is just going from the frying pan to the fire in this respect, from the demands of nagging moms to abusive drill sergeants and endless chickenshit barracks policing.  I suppose that the deadly masochism of the male is a factor here; women express their version of this syndrome through heterosexual marriage.  So I don't take the claim of "defending our women" very seriously: military men and organizations view women as more dispensable even than men.

One reason I like the term and concept of "patriarchy" is that, as someone has defined it, it arranges people of both sexes by their relationship to older men.  Do the Fathers care about the young men they send to war?  Not very much, and they manfully subdue their care in the service of Higher Values like power and profit.  Do they care about the young women they claim to be defending and protecting against the buck Negro, the Mexican, the Hun, the Gook, the Hajji?  Oh, my dear, possibly even less than that.  Male supremacy might be the last survival of feudalism and its forerunners.  But Enlightenment values have not managed to improve things much in this area.

I also noticed that at the time Rorem wrote those words, the United States hadn't had a draft for decades.  (Though, true, young men were and are required to register in case the draft is reinstated.) And of course, increasing numbers of women have been going into combat to defend Our Oil Companies (which really are sacred), where they too can be maimed and killed, or maim and kill others.  Equality, yay!  Maybe I shouldn't expect even a gay man of Rorem's vintage to have a very nuanced grasp of sexual politics, but his view of war and the military also leaves a lot to be desired.

Men have been whining that they have it rough too at least since the advent of Second Wave feminism ("feminists of yore"?).   They tend to ignore the fact that feminists have been vocal about the harm done to men by patriarchy all along, and have tried to engage them in the effort to eradicate sexism.  I suppose the problem is that feminism is run by, y'know, girls, and they want their own show; even collaboration as equals seems unacceptable.  A men's movement against sexism is fine with me, but what we've had always ends up blaming women for men's disadvantages, perhaps because blaming other men is so much scarier.  Dorothy Dinnerstein wrote a lot about this problem in The Mermaid and the Minotaur (Harper, 1976).  I've quoted her before, but today I'll add this observation; rereading it reminds me just why I found Rorem's remarks so faulty.
I have seen on the faces of some men who are on the whole quite likable a certain smile that I confess I find deeply unattractive: a helpless smile of self-congratulation when some female disadvantage is referred to. And I have heard in their voices a tone that (in the context of what women put up with) is equally unattractive: a tone of self-righteous, self-pitying aggrievement when some male disadvantage becomes obvious. This sense of being put upon that many men feel in the fact of evidence that the adult balance of power is not at every point by a safe margin in their favor seems based on the implicit axiom that to make life minimally bearable, to keep their very chins above water, to offset some outrageous burden that they carry, they must at least feel that they are clearly luckier and mightier than women are [215ff].
"Self-righteous, self-pitying aggrievement" says it very exactly.  If I were like many people, I'd call Dinnerstein prophetic; but she was describing a problem of her own time, and much older.  I'm not putting Rorem down, however; I enjoyed Facing the Night very much overall, and it gave me more than just this bit to write about here.