Thursday, June 9, 2011

Hurt feelings and bruised egos

I was listening to National Public Radio the other day when I heard a commentator named Jacki Lyden express dismay that Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul told an interviewer at some British convention that “no woman could ever be his literary match.” He seemed (at least to mainly female listeners) to be dismissive of Jane Austen’s work, claiming that he couldn’t share her “sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world.” Lyden expressed shock at the “misogynistic” tendencies of this author she claims to have venerated in a past life; Lyden is a writer herself, so we should know that this is also about bruised egos (I must confess that Lyden is one of thousands of such superstars-in-their-own-minds I’ve never heard of). I will first say, however, that it is more than a little presumptuous to say that NO woman could ever be his literary match; frankly I have to confess that while I’ve heard of him, I have no familiarity with Naipaul work, so I wouldn’t know. What I do know is that I don’t feel the lesser because of it. On the other hand, if you would have to ask if Shakespeare would receive the same reaction if he was around today to make such a statement; who then would be the presumptuous one? In regard to Austen and other female British writers of the 19th century, you have to admit it would be a less interesting world without Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein; they certainly made great movies and television mini-series. Nevertheless, to say that one doesn’t share Austen’s “sentimental sense of the world” is not a criticism, but an observation; looking out at the world today, is it hard to be sentimental about anything, unless you can afford it.

I have to confess that outside one or two historical works, I’ve never read any book written by a woman, not due to prejudice but because they never seem to author anything within the sphere of my interests; a large quantity works by women seem to have appeal only to those who are supposed to “understand” its narrow and often self-serving personal politics. Self-empowerment and “spiritual” tomes? I say get a life. The novels and historical works I prefer to read address some grand or universal moral question, and the novels of this stripe tend to be the recognized classics; I have no patience for the petty and personal, which I find dishonest and hypocritical. I confess that when I was younger I liked reading action/thriller fiction, but over time I outgrew childish pleasures; there was the real world to contend with.

I can’t read books about serial victimization and simplistic black-and-white conclusions that infuses so much literature (fiction or non) written by women. It’s bone-dull and untruthful. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to say that? It is the truth. I won’t read a biography of Thomas Becket that paints a picture of a “saint,” whose struggle with Henry II was about based on purely religious motivations. That would not only be a dull story, and it would be a false one: Becket, who spent most of his life engaged in worldly interests, was less concerned with doing God’s work than in refusing to be Henry’s pliant tool—the lust for power, independent of the crown, was Becket’s principal concern. The tragedy was that there was no compromise from either side. Even a story seemingly as cut-and-dry as the Dreyfus Affair is not without some measure of ambiguity; the French generals who seemed incomprehensibly set on being blind to justice were not bad men. Having been initially convinced of Dreyfus’ guilt, they believed the “honor” of the army was at stake, particularly given the still fresh memory of its humiliating defeat at the hands of Bismarck’s Prussia.

What is the “alternative?” Books like Kate Millett’s tome on the Sylvia Likens murder, which I recently discussed? Women reviewers on Amazon may think her “stream of consciousness” victimology musings are “truth,” but that only goes to show that she (and they) cannot be trusted with dispassionate elucidation of facts. Millett practically claimed have an out-of-body understanding of Likens’ experience and yet also sought to justify Gertrude Baniszewski’s horrifying actions. I may not be female, but I can say I have (slightly) greater understanding of the situation than Millett ever would. I remember arriving at school one morning when I encountered a teacher on a staircase; she expressed concern about where those welts around my neck came from; I told her that the school bus I was on had an accident, and I had gotten a whiplash. I was sent to a hospital and given a neck brace; the “amusing” part of this story was that it was all a lie, which I was prone to engage in because I never experienced any positive result from the truth until after I left home. I’ll leave the context of this story to the imagination.

The same distrust holds for any account of the life of Margaret Sanger, the patron “saint” of the abortion movement; the truth is that she was no “saint”—she was a racist and class bigot who saw abortion as a means to keep the “undesirable” population to a minimum; philosophically, she was even more extreme than the Nazis, whose euthanasia policy targeted those allegedly with mental and physical handicaps—while Sanger would target the presumably healthy offspring of racial minorities, the poor and supposedly inferior European “races.” I’ve already talked about Winnie Mandela, who is being feted in opera and film as some sort of “saint” as well. The truth was that she turned from symbol of the anti-Apartheid movement to a greedy, power-mad megalomaniac with a tendency to violence—the exact opposite of what her former husband would become. It all comes down to a matter of trust; it is alright to have a bias, but it must be tempered with the recognition of facts that might offer a different conclusion. This is true not just of non-fiction, but fiction as well; Voltaire’s Candide may have had a “pure” soul, but Voltaire was too cynical of the reality of human nature to allow for a dishonest caricature. More than once, the “sweet-tempered” Candide engaged in what could charitably be referred to as simple murder.

Back to the NPR story, Lyden complains that Naipaul dismissed a book by his former publisher as evidence that women have a "narrow view of the world, since she is inevitably not a complete master of the house." Since when is it “misogynist” to simply re-state what feminists and women’s studies departments have been saying for years? Haven’t we been told again and again, ad nauseam, that we live in a “patriarchal” society that oppresses women? If it were not “true,” then the radicals would have nothing to talk about. I wouldn’t say that women writers having a narrow us-against-them view of the world that does not take into account that women are far from morally and ethically pure is necessarily bad from a commercial point of view, if women like reading that kind of thing. But it does mean it is a narrow, one-sided perspective where it is difficult to discover truth. If the New York Review of Books recognizes this, then so be it. Lyden quoted a female writer critical of the alleged “misogyny” of the Review who said "Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything." I tried for several minutes to deduce logic from that statement, but was forced to abandon the project. The first two statements have not been true for a very long time, and because they are not true, the third statement can just as easily—perhaps more so—be applied to books written by women, which in fact account for the majority of books being published each year. Filling the alleged “knowledge gap” in the female experience while ignoring contextual considerations and facts that hinder a preconceived conclusion doesn’t “prove” anything, either—except the “hubris” of that author.

For quite a long time, the term “misogyny” has thrown around a lot. Sometimes it is applied when a man makes a statement that is taken as a negative stereotype (positive stereotypes are, of course, heartily approved of). But more often they are used to ward off uncomfortable facts. The other day there was blurb in the Seattle Times sports page about some question and answer session with a women’s soccer player named Hope Solo. The accompanying photo showed a blonde woman striking a haughty, tough guy pose. Nothing wrong with that—it’s a typical athlete pose. The problem was that it struck too close to an uncomfortable truth. In a match against Brazil several years ago, the coach of the U.S. soccer team decided to use Brianna Scurry as the goalkeeper instead of Solo; Scurry was the older, more experienced player who had had success in prior years. What was Solo’s reaction? She sulked, gave-off bad vibes, refused to support the team and sat by herself like any selfish prima donna. Her juvenile, destructive behavior negatively affected psychologically the team, which lost the match. It is worth noting that Scurry is black; one wonders if the arrogant Solo—whose actions mirrored her name to the detriment of the team—would have taken it better if she was white. How did the Times report the story? It portrayed Solo as a "victim" who went through an "ordeal." Her behavior could be explained by her “competitiveness,” not her belief in her racial superiority. Outside commentators were, however, less generous, since it was clear that her conduct was the very definition of unsportsmanlike.

Is it “misogynistic” as well to point out such things as how feminist columnist Bonnie Erbe urged Barack Obama—after he had essentially locked-up the Democratic nomination—to step aside in favor of her preferred candidate because “whites wouldn’t vote for him?” Does she mean white women like Harriet Christian, of “inadequate black man” infamy? How about the USA Today reporter who did not ask Eleanor Smeal to explain her “racism against white women” comment? How come it’s the Southern Poverty Law Center that has to tell us about Laine Lawless? Back in 2006, the Center reported how this former “high priestess” of a lesbian outfit called the “Sisterhood of the Moon,” and present anti-immigrant fanatic, was providing “advice” to local neo-Nazis on how to terrorize and harass “Mexican” children. The Center recently offered an update on her activities, including a photo of her burning a Mexican flag; despite her denials, she still has neo-Nazi connections, recently attended a talk by Holocaust denier David Irving, and is one of the few people still defending Shawna Forde. Forde—a Washington native who was active in an unstable way in the anti-immigrant Minuteman movement—was sentenced to death earlier this year after her conviction in the home invasion murder of a Latino man and his 9-year-old daughter. Curiously, the Seattle Times—which frequently publishes stories designed to inflame passions against Latinos—printed nothing about this latest “twist.”

There is nothing I despise worse than hypocrisy, and I won’t let hypocrites to dissuade me from being troubled by it, regardless who is guilty of it. As long as the purveyors of this hypocrisy are not only encouraged but applauded for their “truth,” I will continue at take the opportunity to every now and again to poke at the narcissism and conceit of it all.

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