As you all know, yesterday an 88-year-old white man walked into the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., armed with a rifle and presumably delusions of heroism. It’s hard to identify with any certainty what the immediate “cause” for the shooting, but this was a person who had a long-standing history of feeling that Jews were at the heart of the evils in this world. He succeeded in shooting and killing an African American security guard before being shot in the head by a second guard.
You know, one of the things that men in power have done over the ages is turn us all into abstractions, archetypes of good and evil instead of living breathing human beings doing what we can, and women have largely suffered for that. So I can’t easily inflict that on others. But there are days when the symbolic implications of real-life events are impossible to escape. One of those days was last November 5th. Another was yesterday. Another was last Sunday, when George Tiller was shot. Life is not a movie, or a book, or even a war to be won, but goddamned if it doesn’t feel that way on days like these.
I still think it’s important that we remember that we are not what these people are about, particularly when it comes to the terms of engagement.
People (often conservatives, but centrists too) frequently accuse movements for social change of being interested in tyranny. In the context of feminism, this criticism arises usually from men who accuse feminists of simply wanting to rule men. We just want to turn the tables, they say. We’re just as mean as they are. We are using rape and sexual harassment law to make them scared of being alone in the same room with us. We think a vagina is qualification enough for the highest office in the land. Feminism, these people say, is nothing more than a theory of female supremacy.
Set your fury at this thicket of mischaracterization aside for a moment and there is, at the core of it, something very profoundly sad about people who view the world this way. Their view is that one class of people dominating another is nothing other than the natural order of things. They have had power for so long they cannot imagine any way to wield it other than to keep those deemed less worthy in thrall. They have no concept of feeling that there must be something more than this. Oh, they pay it lip service, their “idealism,” talking about the Constitution and the eventual spread of freedom around the world, but how crazily depressing it is to think that to these people this looks like freedom. This is what patriarchy hath wrought.
The misogynists are, of course, not alone in this. The white supremacists and anti-Semites and hell, neo-cons of this world (hello Samuel P. Huntington!) are in the vice-grip of this worldview too. They imagine their enemies have taken power from them with an appetite for revenge, and they use conjecture and conspiracy theory to illustrate the ways in which they believe this to be so.
I don’t know about you, but the reason I got into feminism and social activism generally is because I have always thought there is some chance, small though it may be, that we could change some/most/all of this. And by, change, I never meant a transfer of power. I never mean to put new people in charge in the same way the old ones were. I am not a Marxist because, in my view of the history of the Soviet experience, here was hard evidence that revolutionaries cannot be autocrats without turning into mirror images of their predecessors. As much as I do not like being dominated, I have little to no interest in inflicting the experience on others. In one of her many moments of great clarity, Catharine MacKinnon has pointed out that feminism “aspires to better” than the freedom to exercise tyranny.
Understand me here: I know that I cannot vault myself out of power. But I think I can – and you can, and Barack Obama can, and hell, even James van Brunn could have, had he realized it – wield power in a way that is different. We can conceptualize a world where the lines between weak and strong are diffuse and occasionally even indiscernable. It takes quite a bit of imagination and faith to do that, but it is there.
But you won’t hear any clichéd paeans to the rule of law from me, either, as Jill at Feministe made the other day. On the subject of law and legal institutions, I am not a centrist. These are men’s laws, written by them to protect what they already had by way of social power; they are not for the marginalized and the oppressed, and they do very little to affirmatively build a free society. Even judges admit this – read up on the notion of “prior restraint” in First Amendment law. And so I do not, and never will, conceive of this world – one in which it is hard to muster much surprise at shootings of people with whom one disagrees – as a “free” one. I do not like this status quo, and pretending that it is one in which people are free and equal before the law but for the actions of a few lunatics is nothing short of a lie.
You will hear, in the blog comments and the lunchroom conversations among leftists, some calls to quash these radical right wing elements by force. And there is an appeal in that. MLK, Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, was right, of course, when he said that, “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” But just like King did, it’s time for us to draw a line in the sand between fomenting tension over inequalities in this society and fomenting violence. I know what side King, MacKinnon and I are on. I know what side James von Brunn is on.
And when you want to lash out at these crazy motherfuckers, when they are walking into crowds of innocents with their illegally obtained rifles, when they are spewing bile and screaming and waving their hateful signs, when they are making websites about their hate of you, especially then, you have to ask yourself: is this the change you want to see in the world? Whose side are you on?