Philobiblon: Patriarchy comes out of the closet

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Patriarchy comes out of the closet

There's a fascinating insight into the mindset of the patriarchy, or at least of one of its defenders, in Foreign Policy this month. Phillip Longman's argument in a nutshell is that only the rule of the fathers will ensure that large numbers of children are born. Therefore we must have a full on, father-knows-best-and-rules-all (probably with a heavy leather belt), patriarchy.

Throughout the broad sweep of human history, there are many examples of people, or classes of people, who chose to avoid the costs of parenthood. Indeed, falling fertility is a recurring tendency of human civilization. Why then did humans not become extinct long ago? The short answer is patriarchy.
Patriarchy does not simply mean that men rule. Indeed, it is a particular value system that not only requires men to marry but to marry a woman of proper station. It competes with many other male visions of the good life, and for that reason alone is prone to come in cycles.

The fallacies are obvious. One is that Earth can continue to support an infinitely increasing population, until, presumably, each person has just enough space to stand. That's so obviously ridiculous -- when the world's ecosystems are already showing severe signs of collapse -- that it hardly requires a response.

But let's for a moment follow his social Darwinism, and consider the claim that societies that outbreed other societies will eventually come to rule them, which seems thus far to have done India and China little good. What has finally started to lift them is education, training, investment in people -- things that are only possible with relatively small families. For what is needed today is clearly a skilled, educated workforce.

Longman manages to provide no evidence for his claim that sheer numbers are important, beyond suggesting that America's problems in Iraq come because it hasn't got enough people for the military. (Not that they don't want to join the military because it suddenly looks like a lousy career option, to be fighting an unwinnable, unpopular war.) Although he does manage to drag the fall of the Roman Empire, always a conservative classic, even though it undermines his own argument: "What was once the Roman Empire remained populated. Only the composition of the population changed."

But, Longman claims, since children always turned out like their parents (how then did we get to such a "parlous" state of affairs?) the patriarchy is going to win anyway, so everything's all right, since every citizen will soon believe in a "patriarchal God [who] commands family members to suppress their individualism and submit to father."

One of the other (many) faults in his argument? Oh, yes, that the West is not still a patriarchy - a place ruled by men. Funnily enough, women are still astonishingly thin on the ground in positions of real power in governments, in businesses, in pretty well anywhere at all. Funnily enough, the only states that might have a reasonable claim to have grown beyond patriarchy are the Scandinavian countries. And they - with excellent parental pay and conditions, childcare etc, are the states getting closest to replacement rates of reproduction.

Perhaps the answer is not to grow the patriarchy, but to genuinely get rid of it, if you do in fact want to encourage women to have children?


Blogger clanger said...

I've always felt that left-wingers can, if pushed to extremes, tend towards benevolent eccentricity and increased tea consumption, whilst right-wingers tend towards dangerous, loony, barnpot nuttery. Mr. Longman's verbal outpourings serve to support this hypothesis.

In purely quantative terms, Natalie, as you so rightly say, there are too many people already.

I suspect this can be turned into one of those clever equations that none of us understand (they did one for happiness some time ago), where T is the amount of time we are fertile, J is the amount of joy to be derived from sexual congress (furtive, marital, or other), and I is the inevitable conclusion as a derivative of fh(c), the forgetfulness of humanity in the purchase, storage, and use of condoms in the three basic states of the human condition, viz. tired, horny, and pissed.

3/20/2006 03:25:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for alerting us to this tendentious nonsense, Natalie. Such an article has been brewing for a long time, really, I have been waiting for these arguments for quite a while now. Panic about falling birth rates can be eased by removing control over reproductive function from us (in this context the relentless challenge to abortion rights in the US becomes even more chilling), a mere twinkling of an eye after the Pill was made freely available. It is quite dismal that, yet again, we are being denied full personhood by being defined as mere incubators. The "new fatherhood" propaganda also has its sinister side (the Fathers for Justice high jinks never having given rise to even a flicker of a smile on my lips, I don't see them as eccentrics, but as dangerous fanatics desperate to regain control over women's wombs) as do all those images of developing foetuses in the womb and scare stories about viable embryos being dumped in bins down alleyways. The fact is that not every woman's idea of the epitome of bliss is to be found in soiled nappies and gurgling infants. Sadly, chronic underfunding from government means that no adequate childcare facilities are available for those women who do want to take the motherhood plunge, which means that we are forced to sacrifice too much autonomy for the "privilege". When I hear buffoons like Godfrey Bloom trumpeting that any employer who would recruit a woman of childbearing age needs his head examined it reminds me of just how far away from genuine equality we still are. Moreover, we inhabit a consumer society in which we are encouraged to focus on ourselves, to seek pleasure to keep the economy afloat and, apart from those ads targeted at the tender new generation of future brand-loyal credit-card holders, freedom is held up as the highest virtue, as freedom is equated with choice, that highest of goods. Offspring do tend to put a spanner in the works, they are inconvenient, they have needs, they demand attention, etc. So we are tugged back and forth by incompatible impulses, on the one hand reassured that we should live for the moment and pamper ourselves, then castigated for being selfish bitches only too happy to let the nation teeter on the brink of extinction. Religion drained me of too much energy and too many years. I feel fortunate to have extricated myself from its baleful influence. The hallmark of Western civilisation is purportedly the separation of church and state. It seems as if this stance is in serious danger of being undermined. The prospect of a continued revival of the fortunes of mysticism and obfuscation conjured up by human beings to justify oppression of women (the rule of the patriarch predicated on a "divine" and hence unchallengeable decree concerning women's inherent and insurmountable inferiority, uncleanness and sinfulness) makes my skin creep. So the fulminating wrath of a non-existent being traditionally depicted in the image of those who seek to impose his/their will is to be reinvoked to make us fall into line. It makes me want to re-read Gilead, that most brilliant and blood-curdling evocation of a future where such fundamentalists seize power. Let's face it, compulsion (baby farms?) is the only way lunatics like the author of the article is ever going to ensure that we all meekly comply. If we are to be equal we need to be able to compete with men on the same terms. The only shred of comfort I can derive from the fact that what I had assumed was a reputable journal (I don't read it myself) has given column space to such drivel, is that certain men feel under threat. Perhaps we are beginning to make an impact, but there is absolutely no room for complacency. I am expecting to have to take to the streets to defend our rights before long. All the gains we have made in the last hundred years or so, all the financial and intellectual resources we can muster have to be employed to ward off this threat.

3/20/2006 07:44:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Exactly! It's the existence of the patriarchy that makes it difficult for women to have children and enjoy careers.

3/20/2006 11:31:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I think you should work on that equation Clanger. Put out a press release at a quiet time of year - say between Christmas and New Year, and I can guarantee you wall-to-wall newspaper coverage...

3/20/2006 09:29:00 pm  
Blogger clanger said...

But I already have a carpet...


3/21/2006 03:16:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

But you then could afford to buy one of "cloth of gold" - all the appearances fees... :-@

3/21/2006 09:56:00 am  

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