Monthly Archives: February 2006

The last word on the Mohammed cartoons (mine, at least)

My Globe column and blogpost on the Mohammed cartoons controversy caused quite a bit of displeasure among some commenters, who felt that I was unfairly comparing radical Islamists to Christian fundamentalists (and conservative Catholics) in the West, and specifically in the United States. In fact, I very specifically made a distinction between violent and nonviolent reactions to offensive speech. I agree that violence and threats of violence, which are a fairly common modus operandi for the radical Islamists today, exist only at the margins of Christian fundamentalism and other religious ultraconservatism in the West. (Though one can’t, in my opinion, entirely brush aside such facts as the threats of arson and other violence in 1998 against the New York production of Terence McNally’s play Corpus Christi, and the jubilant reaction from the Catholic League’s William Donohue when the play was temporarily canceled because of these threats.)

My point, which I will reiterate again, is that despite these important differences, there are certain common threads between different kinds of religious ultraconservatism. The backlash against Enlightenment values (tolerance, intellectual diversity, freedom of expression, scientific knowledge) exists not only among radical Islamists — as David Brooks asserted in his New York Times column — but also among Protestant fundamentalists and Catholic traditionalists. What’s more, many American religious conservatives are openly sympathetic to the radical Muslims’ effort to banish speech that offends them from the public square, though not to their violent means.

Is it impermissible or even absurd, as some of my critical commenters seem to imply, to see and analyze common threads and themes in violent and non-violent movements and phenomena? Hardly. No one, for instance, would say that it’s absurd to point out that anti-Semitism exists not only among neo-Nazis and Klansmen but among non-violent people and groups as well. Conservatives have not infrequently drawn parallels between communism and far milder varieties of leftist ideology. I also recall quite a few people on the right pointing out similarities between the Unabomber’s manifesto and mainstream environmentalist ideas, including the ones advanced by Al Gore in Earth in the Balance — even though, as far as I can tell, Al Gore has never mailed anyone a bomb.

Why, then, are such comparisons out of bounds when it comes to religions that reject modernity and intellectual tolerance, and regard criticism as blasphemy?

I might add, too, that some of the commentary on the Muslim response to the cartoons seems to conflated non-violent protests (i.e., peaceful demosntrations, boycotts against The Philadelphia Inquirer after it reprinted the cartoons) with violent ones.

Let me explain, too, why I think this issue is important. I absolutely believe that radical Islamism is a threat to civilization, and that it’s important to take it seriously. But I am also troubled by the fact that in too many cases, the reaction to radical Islamism does take on the form of bigotry against all Muslims. There is always, of course, the incomparable Ann Coulter, whose comments about “ragheads” got a standing ovation the other day at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference; but look at the email that Andrew Sullivan posted on his blog a few days ago, from a “liberal reader”:

“I’m honestly starting to suspect that, before this is over, European nations are going to have exactly four choices in dealing with their entire Moslem populations — for elementary safety’s sake:
(1) Capitulate totally to them and become a Moslem continent.
(2) Intern all of them.
(3) Deport all of them
(4) Throw all of them into the sea.

This sounds a bit shrill even to me — but what the hell else can you do with several tens of millions of potential Branch Davidians?

The whole worldwide situation would be SO much easier to deal with if Pakistan didn’t already have the Bomb. Think how much more interesting it will be when Iran has it, too.”

What I found especially troubling is that Andrew cites this email uncritically, as evidence of “some very hard thinking on the left.”

In the face of such attitudes, I think it’s time for some hard thinking on the right. Yes, modern Islamic radicalism has no exact or even close counterparts in Western Christianity; even Pat Robertson is not seeking the imposition of Biblical law that mandates killing gays and stoning adulteresses. But many conservative Muslims’ problems with an open, tolerant, pluralistic society are not substantially different than many conservative Christians’ and Jews’; and neither is their reaction to the mockery of their faith.

[Edited to add: Please note that the “many conservative Muslims” in the previous paragraph refers not to the violence-preaching (or -practicing) extremists, but to the far more numerous conservative Muslims — in Denmark, for instance, and here in the United States — who have protested the cartoons through non-violent means, whether through peaceful demonstrations or boycotts. As I noted above, the two have often been conflated.]

Commenting on the Mohammed cartoons, the Harvard conservative paper, The Harvard Salient, writes:

It almost goes without saying that similar depictions of Christ, or the pope, or a crucifix would have hardly elicited a response save a handful of letters to the editor. In the 21st century, a violent response would, in any case, be unfathomable.

I agree about the violent response part. But if a major newspaper such as The New York Times ran a cartoon showing, for instance, Jesus shooting up an abortion clinic, I don’t think it’s so farfetched to think that conservative Christian groups could have whipped up a major campaign against the paper, with boycotts, demonstrations, and demands for apologies. In other words, the same kind of response American Muslims had to the publication of the Mohammed cartoons in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Rape, lies, and videotape

Via Jeff Goldstein, a bizarre story (warning: the linked article contains sexually graphic material and some very bad language) with serious implications. An Orange County, California woman, Tamara Anne Mounier, goes to the police and claims she was abducted at gunpoint, gang-raped, and forced to perform degrading sexual acts on tape. A week later, six men are arrested. When they turn the videotape over to the police, it turns out that the sex was entirely consensual; the woman repeatedly laughs, directs the action, berates some of the men for being unable to perform adequately, expresses her enjoyment verbally and vocally, and at one points talks to someone on a cell phone, enthusiastically describing the goings-on.

Apart from the baffling question of what possessed Mounier to go the police with her story and mention the videotape, which she had to know would disprove her claims, there is also the issue of punishment. The most Mounier could have faced for her false accusation, which could have sent the men to prison for life, was a misdemeanor charge resulting in a maximum of six months in jail. In the case she has actually been charged with two felonies because she also defrauded the state victim assistance program out of several thousand dollars. If convicted — so far, oddly enough, Mounier has refused to take a guilty plea — she could go to prison for up to 44 months. (Should the case go to trial, with the videotape as evidence, this is going to be be one time people won’t be wiggling out of jury duty.)

Jeff asks what feminists, including yours truly, think about this. I’ll gladly answer.

In some legal systems, a false accuser faced the same penalty that the accused would have faced if convicted on the false charge. That may be excessive, but the penalties for false accusations — whatever the crime — do need to be tougher. There are legitimate concerns that women who are raped may not come forward if they have to worry that they’ll go to prison for a long time if unable to prove the charge. But no one is talking about punishing accusers whose charges cannot be proven (resulting in the accused going free). If a woman or a man is charged with a felony for falsely accusing someone of a serious crime, the prosecution will have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the person knowingly made a false charge. That’s a tough burden to meet, and it should be. But in those cases where the falsehood of the accusation is clear, the punishment should be fittingly serious.

There is another issue here as well. In response to pernicious myths and stereotypes about women routinely “crying rape” — stereotypes that, among other things, often branded any “unchaste” victim as a lying slut — many feminists have gone to the other extreme of asserting that women don’t lie about rape (or hardly ever lie about rape), and that women in he said/she said sexual assault cases should be given what feminist sociologist Margaret Gordon called “the benefit of belief.” In some cases, the very discussion of false charges of rape has been treated as misogynist hate speech. And while it’s certainly not true that, as some men’s activists claim, all it takes to send a man to prison these days is one word from a woman, the new rape myths — the feminists ones — have taken enough hold to result in some very substantial injustices.

We need a serious, honest, open discussion on false accusations of rape. Being able to accuse someone of rape is a form of power (of course that’s true of any accusation, but a charge of rape packs a unique emotional and legal punch); and it would be naive to expect women never to abuse the power they have, just as it would be naive to expect it of men.

For more on the topic see:

Prosecuting rape allegations (The Y Files, December 4, 2005)

Who says women never lie about rape? (Salon.com, March 10, 1999)

Kobe’s rights: Rape, justice and double standards (Reason, April 2001)

How much should we know about the sex life of Kobe Bryant’s accuser? (Salon.com, March 26, 2004)

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Whose ox is being gored?

Al Gore’s recent U.S.-slamming speech in Saudi Arabia, which is causing quite a stir in the blogosphere, seems almost like a deliberate effort to live up (or down) to the “crazy Al Gore” meme.

According to the Associated Press:

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Former Vice President Al Gore told a mainly Saudi audience on Sunday that the U.S. government committed “terrible abuses” against Arabs after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and that most Americans did not support such treatment.

Gore said Arabs had been “indiscriminately rounded up” and held in “unforgivable” conditions. The former vice president said the Bush administration was playing into al-Qaida’s hands by routinely blocking Saudi visa applications.

“The thoughtless way in which visas are now handled, that is a mistake,” Gore said during the Jiddah Economic Forum. “The worst thing we can possibly do is to cut off the channels of friendship and mutual understanding between Saudi Arabia and the United States.”

Gore told the largely Saudi audience, many of them educated at U.S. universities, that Arabs in the United States had been “indiscriminately rounded up, often on minor charges of overstaying a visa or not having a green card in proper order, and held in conditions that were just unforgivable.”

“Unfortunately there have been terrible abuses and it’s wrong,” Gore said. “I do want you to know that it does not represent the desires or wishes or feelings of the majority of the citizens of my country.”

Did some of the abuses Gore decries happen? I’m sure they did, though I suspect he makes them sound much more large-scale than they really were. Is it always wrong to criticize your country when abroad? (Assuming, here, that we are talking about a country such as the United States where it is possible to criticize government policies at home, and not, say, the former Soviet Union. Or Saudi Arabia, for that matter.) Actually, I don’t think so — though at the moment, with so much anti-American sentiment already existing in the Arab and Muslim world, it is — to put it charitably — imprudent to inflame those passions in an Arab Muslim country.

But even leaving that aside, Gore’s comments are disgraceful and bizarre for two reasons.

(1) Gore fails to mention the fact that non-Muslims in America, too, are often held in shockingly bad conditions after being arrested for minor immigration violations. This is, admittedly, a fact that does not (in my opinion) flatter our country. But Gore’s version is far worse, particularly when told to a Muslim/Arab audience, because it implies a concerted campaign to mistreat Arabs and Muslims in the United States. And I do think there is a good argument to be made that in the wake of 9/11, there were legitimate reasons for some ethnic/national profiling when looking at people whose presence in America was of questionable legality. I suspect, even, that most Americans — without endorsing anyone’s ill-treatment — would back such profiling.

(2) Gore was speaking in Saudi Arabia, whose human rights record speaks for itself (particularly with regard to the rights of religious minorities). To go before a Saudi audience and complain about human rights violations in the United States is like talking to a known serial rapist and expressing outrage at the actions of an occasional sexual harasser.

Gore should do the decent thing and apologize.

More: It’s worth noting that Gore also decried the Iranian regime:

On Iran, Gore complained of “endemic hyper-corruption” among Tehran’s religious and political elite and asked Arabs to take a stand against Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes but the United States and other Western countries suspect Tehran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.

“Is it only for the West to say this is dangerous?” Gore asked. “We should have more people in this region saying this is dangerous.”


That may be a good point, particularly about the need for other nations in the region to confront the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran (though one might also argue that Saudi Arabia is in its own way no better than Iran). But that’s hardly excuses the totality of Gore’s statement.

On a side note, it’s rather ironic that while many on the left (Michael Moore, for instance) have assailed Bush for being too cozy with the Saudis, Gore assails him for an overly tough policy on Saudi visas.

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Flanagan’s follies

Caitlin Flanagan, the self-styled “anti-feminist” who first made a name for herself in The Atlantic and later started writing for The New Yorker as well, is a writer who provokes strong feelings. I have found some of her work quite interesting and thought-provoking, whether agreeing or disagreeing with her. Flanagan’s 2004 Atlantic essay on Dr. Laura Schlessinger (subscriber-only, I believe) cheers for some of Schlessinger’s unpopular tough-love advice (unpopular with the Atlantic set, at least) but also takes her to task for her slippage into anti-gay bigotry and advocacy of rigid gender roles, as well as her hypocrisy. Her first New Yorker essay, about her mother’s brief attempt to resume her career (published in July 2004 but not available online), was a subtle and thoughtful piece, refreshingly free of ideological preaching.

Flanagan has had some annoying lapses into what sounded to me like a deliberate effort to bait and to push feminist buttons: take, for instance, her comment in The Atlantic that her husband is “head of household” and her later elaboration to The New York Observer that “if my husband pops a button, I sew it back on” — contradicting a statement only a year earlier that she had never been asked to replace a popped button in fourteen years of marriage. But still, I was hoping to find in Flanagan an intelligent, non-stereotypical, non-cliché commentator on gender issues.

But in her latest Atlantic essay, I think, Flanagan jumps the shark.

Flanagan’s subject is oral sex, specifically an alleged oral sex epidemic among teenagers. To this issue, she devotes a sprawling, overblown (sorry!), nearly 9,000-word-long tract, tied to a review of Paul Ruditis’ book The Rainbow Party — a fictional treatment of the urban legend about parties at which girls wearing different color lipstick take turns fellating a boy.

The essay gets off (pardon the expression) to a promising start, as Flanagan pooh-poohs the notion that nice middle-class American girls have taken to routinely servicing near-strangers and makes light of parental panic on the issue. But then, Flanagan turns around and decides that the blowjob epidemic is real after all:

[T]he axe came down in September. A huge report was issued by the National Center for Health Statistics. It covered the topic of teenage oral sex more extensively than any previous study, and the news was devastating: A quarter of girls aged fifteen had engaged in it, and more than half aged seventeen.

After this, Flanagan embarks on a long Wendy Shalit-style diatribe about how the erosion of traditional protections has left girls vulnerable to predatory sex. Here’s a part of the conclusion (after detours into filthy rap lyrics and a teenage memory of Flanagan’s mother instructing her to never invite a boy up to her room because “he might go to school and tell other boys what your comforter looks like”):

If I were to learn that my children had engaged in oral sex — outside a romantic relationship, and as young adolescents — I would be sad. But I wouldn’t think that they had been damaged by the experience; I wouldn’t think I had failed catastrophically as a mother, or that they would need therapy. Because I don’t have daughters, I have sons.

I am old-fashioned enough to believe that men and boys are not as likely to be wounded, emotionally and spiritually, by early sexual experience, or by sexual experience entered into without romantic commitment, as are women and girls. I think that girls are vulnerable to great damage through the kind of sex in which they are, as individuals, as valueless and unrecognizable as chattel. Society has let its girls down in every possible way. It has refused to assert — or even to acknowledge — that female sexuality is as intricately connected to kindness and trust as it is to gratification and pleasure. It’s in the nature of who we are.

But perhaps the girls themselves understand this essential truth.

As myriad forces were combining to reshape our notions of public decency and propriety, to ridicule the concept that privacy and dignity are valuable and allied qualities of character and that exhibitionism as an end in itself might not be beneficial for a young girl, at the exact moment when girls were encouraged to think of themselves as victims of an oppressive patriarchy and to act on an imperative of default aggression — at this very time a significant number of young girls were beginning to form an entirely new code of sexual ethics and expectations. It was a code in which their own physical pleasure was of no consequence — was in fact so entirely beside the point that their preferred mode of sexual activity was performing unrequited oral sex. The modern girl’s casual willingness to perform oral sex may — as some cool-headed observers of the phenomenon like to propose — be her way of maintaining a post-feminist power in her sexual dealings, by being fully in control of the sexual act and of the pleasure a boy receives from it. Or it may be her desperate attempt to do something that the culture refuses to encourage: to keep her own sexuality — the emotions and the desires, as well as the anatomical real estate itself — private, secret, unviolated. It may not be her technical virginity that she is trying to preserve; it may be her own sexual awakening — which is all she really has left to protect anymore.

We’ve made a world for our girls in which the pornography industry has become increasingly mainstream, in which Planned Parenthood’s response to the oral-sex craze has been to set up a help line, in which the forces of feminism have worked relentlessly to erode the patriarchy — which, despite its manifold evils, held that providing for the sexual safety of young girls was among its primary reasons for existence. And here are America’s girls: experienced beyond their years, lacking any clear message from the adult community about the importance of protecting their modesty, adrift in one of the most explicitly sexualized cultures in the history of the world. Here are America’s girls: on their knees.

Before you bring out the violins, here’s a minor point to ponder. The NCHS study that Flanagan cites for its supposedly devastasting results actually found that girls are just as likely to receive oral sex as they are to give it. (The full data can be found here, but be warned: this is a large PDF file.) In other words, all of Flanagan’s philosophizing is based on a demonstrably false factual premise, and one that she should know to be false. In fact, the study’s finding that oral sex among adolescents is quite likely to be reciprocal was widely discussed, precisely because it contradicts a widely held stereotype. As a Washington Post article put it:

“This is a point of major social transition,” James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a reproductive health organization, said yesterday. “The data are now coming out and roiling the idea that boys are the hunters and young girls are the prey. It absolutely defies the stereotype.”


Of course, the image of teenage girls (and even women) as victims of sex and of predatory male lust is so entrenched that some experts were undeterred. The Post went on to say:

Joe McIllhaney Jr., chairman of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, said the new data confirm trends he has seen as a physician, but he has doubts about some of Wagoner’s conclusions. “I question how much girls enjoy” oral sex, he said.”I’d like to know a whole lot more about the pressure boys put on girls.”


And now here’s Flanagan, continuing to peddle the myth and not even acknowledging the evidence that contradicts it — from a study she herself cites. And all in the service (it’s difficult to avoid cringeworthy puns when writing about this, isn’t it?) of the well-worn conservative shibboleth that women, and girls in particular, have been victimized by sexual liberation and the loss of patriarchal protections.

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More on those cartoon wars

Is everyone tired of the Mohammed cartoons story? Too bad, because that’s the topic of my newest Boston Globe column.

AS THE DANISH cartoons satirizing Mohammed continue to cause violent protests throughout the Muslim world, and Western newspapers grapple with the issue of whether to publish the offending cartoons, many people are asking what this incident says about the ability of Islam, at least in its current state, to coexist with modern democratic civilization and its cherished freedoms. That is a legitimate question, and we should not be deterred from asking it by either political correctness or intimidation. But the tension between traditional religion and modernity, between piety and freedom, are not limited to Islam alone — though Islamic radicalism today represents a uniquely deadly form of this tension.

In a New York Times column, David Brooks contrasts the Islamic extremists’ attitudes with ours: The West, with its ”legacy of Socrates and the agora” and its ”progressive and rational” mindset, is open to a multiplicity of arguments, perspectives, and ”unpleasant facts,” while radical Muslims cling to ”pre-Enlightenment” dogmatism and shrink from the ”chaos of our conversation.”

Yet Brooks overlooks the fact that a large segment of the population in the West, and especially in the United States, rejects the progressive, rational mindset and embraces pre-Enlightenment values as well. Fundamentalist Christians, traditionalist Catholics and ultra-Orthodox Jews do not, with very few exceptions, call for violence in response to heresy; that is a key distinction. But they too often equate criticism (let alone mockery) of their beliefs with ”religious bigotry” or ”hate speech.” And they, too, often seek not simply to protest but to shut down offensive speech.

In 1998, when a Broadway theater announced the production of Terrence McNally’s play ”Corpus Christi,” depicting a gay Jesus-like character, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights launched a letter-writing campaign against it. There were also threats of violence and arson, which at one point swayed the theater to cancel the play. The Catholic League reacted with jubilation, and while formally deploring the threats it also warned that if another theater picked up ”Corpus Christi,” it would ”wage a war that no one will forget.” (The theater eventually revived the production.)

Interestingly, the head of the Catholic League, William Donohue, recently applauded the decision of most American newspapers not to publish the Mohammed cartoons and lamented only that his group’s protests against offensive material have been less successful. Many of the same newspapers that decided — quite wrongly, in my view — not to reproduce the cartoons even as part of a news story about the reaction to them have run photos of controversial works of art considered sacrilegious by Christians, and defended the display of those works in tax-funded museums.

Donohue makes an important point when he says that this double standard reflects fear of violence by Islamic extremists, and that caving in to such intimidation is a deplorable message to send. But he, too, agrees that freedom of the press should take a back seat to respect for what is sacred to believers. Respect is of course a fine thing, but where does one draw the line between insult and criticism or questioning? A few years ago, the charge of ”Christian bashing” was leveled at the ABC show ”Nothing Sacred,” which questioned Catholic doctrine on birth control and priestly celibacy.

Others from the Christian right, such as Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition, have echoed the notion that the media should show the same deference to conservative Christians that they show to Muslims. And a few have openly voiced sympathy even with violent manifestations of Islamic extremism. Pat Buchanan recently wrote:

”When Bush speaks of freedom as God’s gift to humanity, does he mean the First Amendment freedom . . . of Salman Rushdie to publish ‘The Satanic Verses,’ a book considered blasphemous to the Islamic faith? If the Islamic world rejects this notion of freedom . . . why are they wrong?”

The truth is that modernity with its ”chaos of conversation,” its chaos of lifestyles, its attitude that there is nothing more sacred than freedom of expression, is profoundly threatening to many religious traditionalists of different faiths. (Last year, quite a few American conservatives applauded Pope Benedict XVI’s assault on ”the dictatorship of relativism.”) At the present moment, for a variety of historical and cultural reasons, radical fundamentalism holds a particular sway in the Muslim world, where it is wedded to political violence in ways that have no parallel in other religions. To ignore this difference and this danger would be foolish. But it is also unwise to ignore the religious backlash against modernity right here in the West, and its own tensions with individual freedom.


I am not, as some have implicitly or explicitly done, equating the Taliban or the Al Qaeda with the Christian Coalition or the American Family Association. They don’t have similar goals or similar means. (The Christian Reconstructionists who do have a Talibanesque theocreatic agenda don’t wield any political influence to speak of.) But I do think that it’s ludicrous to deny that ther are forces in the West, in America in particular — and, sadly, in David Brooks’s own political camp — that do represent a traditionalist backlash against the Enlightenment. (The left, of course, has its own anti-Enlightenment faction, but that’s not the point here.) To equate Jerry Falwell and Osama Bin Laden would be an absurd exercise in moral equivalency; but Brooks goes to the other extreme of exaggerated Western self-congratulation.

I agree, too, that many of the people lamenting the offensiveness of the Mohammed cartoons have had little to say not only about the steady stream of Nazi-style Jew-baiting cartoons in the Arab world, but even about anti-Israel cartoons in the European press that have had a clearly anti-Semitic tint. At the same time, there is no denying that some of the response to the cartoon controversy has had an anti-Muslim (not just anti-extremist) tint. For a good response, see this column by Steve Chapman.

Writes Chapman:

To assume that Muslims in Europe universally aspire to rule by ayatollahs is like assuming that Christians in the United States would all love to see Pat Robertson elected president.

It’s true that vicious extremism does occasionally emerge — as when a Dutch filmmaker who publicly disparaged Islam was murdered by a radical Muslim in 2004. But the killer is hardly typical of his co-religionists on the continent.

In Denmark, local Muslims responded to the cartoons in law-abiding ways — gathering petitions, talking to the newspaper editor, filing a criminal complaint, marching peacefully in Copenhagen. Only when the issue got attention in the Middle East did mayhem erupt. Even then, it occurred in only a few places, not all across the Muslim world.

There is no reason to believe that Muslims in Europe favor the torching of embassies. The head of one of Germany’s biggest Islamic groups denounced what he called “an incensed and thoughtless mob,” and said, “We abhor such actions.”

There is no doubt, though, that Europe has a Muslim problem, stemming from its reluctance to embrace immigrants as full citizens. …

If Europe wants to remain a free and tolerant place, the answer is not to treat Muslims as a dangerous alien presence. It’s to get busy turning them into Europeans.

Oh, and that criminal complaint filed by Danish Muslims against the cartoons? As Chapman notes, the law that enabled them to do that was not passed in deference to Muslim sensibilities:

Well, it turns out that some parts of Europe already ban the sort of blasphemy at issue here — under laws written to protect Christian sensibilities. Denmark, as it happens, provides up to four months in jail for anyone “who publicly offends or insults a religion.” In Germany, reports the broadcast outlet Deutsche Welle, one magazine has been sued eight times under an anti-blasphemy law enacted in 1871.

The danger, I gather, is that Europe’s Muslims will be just as intolerant of criticism of their faith as Europe’s Christians used to be of theirs. That would certainly be a bad thing. But to assume that more Muslims will inevitably turn France or Germany into a turbaned theocracy brings to mind the bumper sticker that says, “I get all the exercise I need jumping to conclusions.”

A popular exercise, that.

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A jihad against Denmark: predicted in 1931!

A Russian friend has tipped me off to an extraordinary passage in the 1931 Russian novel, The Golden Calf, by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov. The book, a sequel to the much-better known The Twelve Chairs (made into a 1970 Mel Brooks movie), deals with the adventures of a charming con man named Ostap Bender; at one point, Bender and a fellow crook have to travel through a Central Asian desert on camels, and then ….

For seven days, the camels trudged through the desert carrying the newly minted sheiks. Early in the journey, Ostap was having the time of his life. …. He called himself Lawrence of Arabia.

“I’m a dynamite emir!” he shouted, swaying on the camel’s high back. “If we don’t get some decent food in two days, I’m going to start a rebellion among some tribes. I swear! I am going to apoint myself a representative of the Prophet and declare a holy war — jihad. Against Denmark, for instance. Why were the Danes so mean to their Prince Hamlet? In the current political environment, even the League of Nations will have to find that a satisfactory pretext for war. As God is my witness, I’ll buy a million’s worth of rifles from the British — they love selling weapons to tribesmen — and then, off to Denmark we go! Germany will have to let us through, by way of reparations. Can you imagine the tribesmen storming into Copenhagen? With me leading the way, riding a white camel?”

A jihad against Denmark. A joke, of course. But it’s uncanny, you must admit. And, as another friend of mine comments, full of other contemporary references: Replace “the British” with “the U.S. and/or the Soviet Union,” the League of Nations with the U.N., and “reparations” with “post-colonial white guilt,” and it all fits.

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The Friedan legacy

My take on Betty Friedan, at Reason Express.

If there was a modern-day feminist matriarch, it was Betty Friedan. She looked the part, in her later years: a grande dame never conventionally beautiful but strikingly majestic, a lioness in winter with a grizzled mane.

Friedan, who died last week at 85, was widely credited with—or blamed for, depending on one’s point of view—launching the modern women’s movement with her 1963 best-seller, The Feminine Mystique, in which she challenged the 1950s ideal of female fulfillment through marriage, motherhood and suburban domesticity. A woman of paradox, she often found herself on the losing side in the ideological disputes within the movement she helped create; and the loss was as much the movement’s as hers. As American feminism marks the passing of its founding mother, it also finds itself looking for direction, and still grappling with some of the dilemmas Friedan faced more than 40 years ago.

Since the revelation a few years ago (in the 1999 book, Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique, by historian Daniel Horowitz), that the pre–Feminine Mystique Friedan was not the apolitical housewife and writer she made herself out to be but a journalist with a background in far-left labor union activism, some of Friedan’s conservative critics have tried to paint her as a radical intent on subverting the American family and society. But actually, the radicalism of The Feminine Mystique was in many ways surprisingly un-radical. Friedan sought to change women’s roles and bring them out of the private domestic sphere, but she wanted to integrate them into the mainstream of the public sphere, not to revolutionize it.

The vision of a good life that emerges from her book is saturated with a very traditional Western and American humanism that, in some ways, harkens back to the 19th century. She celebrated the “unique human capacity…to live one’s life by purposes stretching into the future—to live not at the mercy of the world, but as builder and designer of that world” (a capacity that, she argued, “occupation: housewife” did not truly fulfill with its endlessly repetitive domestic tasks), and urged women to join men in “the battle with the world.”

The Feminine Mystique has its rhetorical excesses, most notably the outrageous metaphor of the suburban home as a “comfortable concentration camp” (on the grounds that it, too, reduces its inhabitants to purely biological living). But one thing it never did was pit men against women as enemies or victimizers, or fall into a “women good, men bad” trap. If anything, Friedan tended to view men as victims of domineering wives who, frustrated in their own ambitions, had to seek status and identity through their husbands and treated a man as an “object of contempt” if he couldn’t meet those needs. Women’s “wasted energy,” she wrote, was bound to be “destructive to their husbands, to their children, and to themselves.”

Recent scholarship has challenged the notion that that modern liberal feminism sprang fully armed from The Feminine Mystique like Athena from the head of Zeus. Horowitz argues that many of its ideas were being widely discussed by the time of its publication, even in the very same magazines that Friedan blasted for promoting the happy housewife myth. (While Friedan claimed that she had to uphold the ideology of domesticity in her own writings for those magazines, Horowitz showed that most of her articles celebrated independent women with achievements outside the home.) Nonetheless, there is little doubt that Friedan’s best-selling book helped channel and focus the already simmering female discontent, and in that sense she played a vital role.

A co-founder of the National Organization for Women, Friedan later found herself sidelined. Part of this had to do with her abrasive personality. As Judith Hennessee records in her warts-and-all 1999 biography, Betty Friedan: Her Life, Friedan saw herself as the alpha female of the feminist movement and had a tendency to be hostile and paranoid toward anyone who could threaten that status—she even accused Gloria Steinem of being a CIA plant—as well as rude and bullying toward subordinates. But there were ideological conflicts as well, with Friedan in opposition to the movement’s growing radicalism.

Friedan was appalled by activists who wanted to pattern feminism on what she called “obsolete ideologies of class warfare,” activists who saw the family as inherently oppressive. She deplored men-are-evil rhetoric and the obsession with male violence against women. (Interestingly, Friedan’s own marriage, which ended in 1969, was marked by recurring violence—though, by all accounts, she was at least as much aggressor as victim.) Friedan’s initial antipathy to the movement’s embrace of lesbian rights has been rightly seen as having a homophobic tint (particularly in view of a cringeworthy passage in The Feminine Mystique in which she decried the rise of male homosexuality in America and blamed it on frustrated housewives smothering their sons). However, it also needs to be seen in the context of the 1970s advocacy of lesbian separatism as a political revolt against men.

In the end, Friedan was marginalized if not ostracized by the feminist movement; by 1991, Susan Faludi was proclaiming her a part of the “backlash” because of her insistence that marriage and motherhood are essential to most women’s happiness. But, partly because of that, feminism itself ended up being marginalized by American culture.

In 2006, it is increasingly clear that Friedan was right about one thing: the central issue of feminism should have always been the work-family balance. It is an issue that women confront again today, as debates rage about educated professional women “opting out” to raise children. Friedan didn’t necessarily have the right answers—she was, to the end of her life, a fan of institutional, government-subsidized day care—but she raised, at least, the right questions. Dated though it is in many ways, The Feminine Mystique deserves to be read today as an eloquent reminder of the dangers of defining female identity through home and motherhood.

Friedan was highly critical of Freud’s views on women, but she embraced his view that love and work are the two basic elements of a fully human life, and passionately believed that women’s lives should have both of those elements. In that, she was right. And perhaps, after all the battles between gender warmongers and latter-day champions of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan’s vision of feminism as an equal partnership between men and women is the one that will endure.

A few additional reflections. I had two occasions to meet Friedan in person. In 1995, we were together on C-Span’s Washington Journal show, discussing the day’s news; though generally genial and friendly, Friedan made one comment that struck me as quite rude, and a cheap shot to boot. (Ironically, when I popped my tape of the program in the VCR the other day and randomly fast-forwarded, that was the exact spot on which I hit “play.”) When we were discussing welfare reform and I said that it would be good idea to allow more experimentaion by the states, Friedan shot back, “You haven’t been in this country long enough to know that the states won’t do certain things unless the federal government makes them.” By that time I had been in the U.S. for 15 years, hardly a new arrival fresh off the proverbial boat.

Several years later Friedan was a keynote speaker at a conference of the Women’s Freedom Network, a “dissident feminist” group I had helped launch. The WFN was explicitly identified as being in opposition to establishment feminism (as well as traditionalist, Phyllis Schlafly-style anti-feminism), so in a way it took guts, and true intellectual independence, for Friedan to agree to attend and speak. I have to report that the conference organizers experienced firsthand, when working out Friedan’s travel arrangements, some of the primadonna-ish ways chronicled by her unsparing biographer Judith Hennessee. Yet in her appearance at the event, she was gracious, warm, and charismatic.

Is Friedan’s legacy compromised or even discredited by the revelation that she shaded the truth about herself in The Feminine Mystique, downplaying both her past political radicalism and her professional activities? A reader responding to my Reason.com article yesterday suggested that Friedan was feminism’s James Frey. In fact, as Alan Wolfe argued in this 1999 essay in The Atlantic, Friedan’s self-presentation as a trapped suburban housewife just like the ones in her target audience had a lot to do with her book’s appeal. But at the same time, Friedan did not not exactly make things up. (As Judith Shulevitz noted in her reply to Wolfe, Friedan had, in fact, been a victim of sex discrimination: the union newspaper where she had worked fired her after she got pregnant a second time.) And her case does not really stand or fall on the total accuracy of her depiction of her own experiences. The Feminine Mystique was not a memoir.

Friedan’s depiction of the culture was not wholly accurate, either. The ideology of domesticity was not — as one would sometimes think reading The Feminine Mystique — enforced with a quasi-Stalinist rigor. Some years ago while doing research for my book, Ceasefire, I came across a library book published in 1960, titled College for Coeds. While hardly feminist, it decried the notion that “girls must choose between marriage and a career” and described working women in glowing terms as “acquiring a sense of fulfillment” and realizing “their importance as individuals.”

And yet the larger picture holds. Friedan wrote in a culture in which, when Sandra Day O’Connor graduated third in her class at Stanford Law School, she could get no job offers from law firms except for secretarial jobs; in which, when the future Elizabeth Dole told her mother she was going to law school, her mother was so distressed she became physically ill.

To some extent, Friedan glamorized careers. (Her New York Times obituary featured a quote from The Feminine Mystique in which a college-educated housewife complains that very little of what she does during the day is “really necessary or important”; but surely, quite a few professionals could describe their jobs the same way.) And while she asserted, in a 1963 interview, that her slogan was not “Women of the world unite — you have nothing to lose but your men,” but “You have nothing to lose but your vacuum cleaners,” she seemed to give little thought to the question of who, come the revolution, would do the vacuuming. (The Feminine Mystique never mentions any changes in men’s family roles, and sometimes Friedan seems to assume that women would have no problem balancing work and home if they just used their time more efficiently.) While she addressed many of those issues in her subsequent work, her proposed solutions were too one-size-fits all and too government-oriented.

Does this diminish Friedan’s stature as a visionary? Not to me. She forcefully asserted that women’s humanity transcends their biology; and she just as forcefully asserted that women’s bonds with men, and with children, transcend patriarchy. And that’s enough.

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