The Dartmouth Observer
Monday, September 02, 2002
The Sixties (and the Early Seventies) and Thoughts on Feminism
In an earlier post remanding both Richard Goldstein and Karsten Barde, I spoke of the sixties and early seventies. I find it somewhat amusing and altogether confusing those self-labeled progressives would be stuck in the sixties. But I digress. Consider the claim of the sixties and tell me whether we should romanticize (thought sexualize might be more apt) it.
Existentialism became very popular in America during the sixties. It was existentialism that popularized the phrase: Be of good cheer-- the World has overcome us! which is a blatant and irreverent rip-off of the biblical phrase uttered by Jesus Christ to His disciples: Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the World." Existentialism made man out to be a "useless passion" in the words of Sartre and led Albert Camus to declare that the only serious question left for philosophers was the question of suicide.
The Sixties also popularized the phrases: "Do your own thing!" and "Tell it like it is!" On the one hand, there was a massive revolt against traditional values and a call to radical subjectivism. On the other hand there was a summoning to objective truth telling suggesting that that there is a thing such as a knowable objective reality (which has been in doubt, at least for the Old Left, since Said magnum Opus:Oreintalism. The contradiction of Sixties-Seventies Culture runs deeper: at the same time counterculture was denying classical personal ethics by embracing the sexual revolution and the drug culture, they were screaming (in the same sense as the Dartmouth article "Students Demand Asian Studies") for a lofty social ethic with respect to civil rights, world peace, and ecological balance. They wanted a world with love including "free love" with no private responsibility; a world without killing, except for unborn babies, and a world where the environment was pure of toxic substances, except for the ones they used on themselves.
Nor was this Rousseauian (in the sense that Eros flows from sex and not vice versa) sex ethic without contradiction itself. The Sexual Revolution was undermined by feminism after the Revolution destroyed the customs that made understandable gender relations possible. The SR pretended to be about freedom whereas feminism marched under equality. For a while they marched hand in glove but as Tocqueville predicted, the differences between freedom and equality pitted one against the other which is still no more readily apparent that in the debate over pornography. One only need to read Catherine Mackinnon's Only Words to begin to understand the antipathy between Old Feminism and pornography. (This does not apply to the later postmodern schools of feminism with Judith Butler and her omnipotent cultural sphere being one of many critiques of the earlier feminist position.) This politics of sexual revolution did to the booming of cosmetics industry, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the undemocratic nature of free sex, which forms an aristocracy of the beautiful and the rich, was glossed over.
However, feminism was, and still is to this feminist, liberation from nature rather than from convention or society. As a result, it is a more serious, less eroticized project that requires not the nullification of cultural norms but political and judicial activism. Feminism does see the position of women in sociological and philosophical terms and declares that biology should not equate with determinism. Science's conquest of nature, and the economic reshaping of the norms of dependency within the family (which means in plain English that the economy allowed for more that one bread-winning in the family and thus gave women options outside the kitchen) awoke the feminist longing for the unlimited, the unconstrained. However, as a feminist, I will fight to keep the movement from succumbing to the fate of many other movements that seek abstract justice: using force to refashion human being to secure that justice.
The Sexual Revolution allowed women to be removed from the tyranny of men in sexual relations and thus de-mystify sex. The Sexual Revolution allowed for sex to get its day in the sun before the depressant of feminism had to remind women (and men) that sexual instant gratification had to be delayed to overcome male dominance, machismo, phallocracy, and patriarchy. Coupled with a little French ideas of structures of power and domination, feminism has become a power philosophic weapon to reorient the legal system, restore liberalism to its mission (gathered from its fledging days as an understudy of Judeo-Christian philosophy) of individualism rights based on the dignity of man, and to curb the Bacchanalian excesses of making love, not war.
Thus, unrestrained male sexual activity, no longer restrained by the Puritanism of Christian morality, is condemned because it culminates in sexism and thereby objectifies women. This leads to a culture of rape. Women are raped by their husbands and strangers, harassed in the academy and in the workplace. (It seems the sexual revolution is to blame for frat basements then.) Therefore, modesty, honor and virtue, old Christian morals, are the new standards of feminism. Under the pre-Sixties puritanical morality modesty was the virtue that restrained the powerful sexual desires of men and women. Now, armed with the law, us feminists can force the gross impurities of the SR back into a retreat. Whereas the SR wanted men and women together physically and carnally, feminism demands that they live apart in equality and peace. Modesty is an empty shell without the source of its power, biblical morality, but this old skeletal warrior now has the power of the law and an academy of feminist ready to restore the moralistic theocratic ancien regime in the name of new gods. Perhaps this is why modesty is the first thing to go in Plato's Republic.
Students and lovers of the Sixties are usually unwilling to deal with the battles of the age wanting to have their cake, eat it too, and usually whimper about being for change while claiming the name progressive for themselves. The innocuous generality of being "for change" and "progressive" is a sleight of hand that makes me quite sick because it is yet another technique that buries the specifics of the argument to make the undefendable defendable. Since even the staunchest conservatives advocate change: Milton Friedman's The Tyranny of the Status Quo is an example of this. Even "making of difference" is suspect as Hitler "made a difference."
Feeling like I have just wrote a volume of the value of silence or an encyclopedia on a value of brevity, I ask this of those who claim to be continuing the legacy of the Sixties by paraphrasing a popular Chuckie Cheese commercial "Just what do you stand for?"