According to Joel Klein’s March 21 Newsweek column, “conservatives” went ballistic at their annual CPAC meeting in Washington because Obama had dared to question the holy doctrine of “American exceptionalism.” Supposedly Obama committed blasphemy when he observed that the British in the nineteenth century and the ancient Greeks thought of themselves as exceptional. We Americans are acting like other nations when we insist we’re unique. Obama’s crime was to have not noticed “our democratic institutions” and human-rights concepts, which have elevated us as moral giants above the rest of the human race.
This is a strange belief for people on the right to hold. For decades American conservatives were arguing that our society is decadent, much like the Roman Empire before it fell apart. Nor were these conservatives (speaking as a leading scholarly authority on this matter) pleased with “democratic” institutions, which they feared would lead to an uncontrollable central government that would confiscate our earnings in the name of equality. The religious right was complaining for decades that American morals were disintegrating and we were becoming the modern age’s Sodom and Gomorrah.
Suddenly we have become good and virtuous because of our uniquely democratic and proudly universal regime. This is an idea FOX viewers have picked up like a bad habit. I hear this gibberish when I make the mistake of watching Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity. We cannot mention history without first proclaiming that we are truly the best because we promote democratic values for everyone everywhere. To demonstrate our goodness, we send armies against those whose values we dislike. The newest opportunity for such constructive engagement is in Libya, where Charles Krauthammer announced on FOX that we must not leave before installing “a democratic, which means decent government.” This may require us to hang around for a while in the North African sand until we can get our exceptionalism to rub off on the Berbers.
But not to worry! A few nights ago on Greta Van Susteren’s show, George W. Bush announced that he and his wife are devoting the remainder of their lives to fighting “for women’s issues” in Muslim countries. The Bushes don’t want to see our troops leave Afghanistan until we can carry out their newest pro-female agenda. Perhaps even more significantly, the conservative movement’s leading intellectual Jonah Goldberg stated the following in his syndicated column on March 31: “Feminism as a ‘movement’ in America is largely played out. The work here is mostly done.”
Goldberg, who celebrates the feminist success as a “conservative” accomplishment (why the hell not?), may have missed such recent earth-shaking events as the mammoth lawsuits launched by over 500,000 female employees against Walmart for promotion discrimination and the one with the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Agency against Yale University for sexual harassment. If only we could bring joyful events like these to Libya by dispatching an American trial lawyer, what a wonderful world this would be!
Goldberg calls for bringing “these fruits” to less enlightened people:
“The good news for those who want to continue the fight for women is that there is plenty of work left to do—abroad.
“The plight of women in other countries is not only dire, it’s central to global poverty and the war on terrorism. Jihadism is largely a male problem. This shouldn’t be a surprise, given that jihadis commit mass murder in pursuit of a virgin bonus in the afterlife.”
OK! Let’s see if I can process this without being a “conservative” intellectual or even a CPAC attendee. Somehow the failure to provide Muslim countries with late-term abortion, gender-free language, sexual-harassment lawsuits, and other “fruits of the feminist success” in our exceptionally exceptional country has led to the nightmare of Third World violence. How so?
Numerous traditional societies maintain strict gender roles but are far from belligerent. Is installing something such as the American feminist movement necessary to render societies peaceful? Where is Goldberg’s evidence? Has the US become less prone to military intervention because of what Goldberg presents (counterfactually) as a conservative success story? If women were obliged to reassume their social roles of the 1950s or 1850s, would this lead to increased American military violence? I couldn’t imagine how.
What Goldberg is saying (with his customary skill as a conservative movement spokesperson) is that sexism leads to sexual repression, and this repression then causes repressed males yearning for female intimacy to turn violent out of frustration or in anticipation of sexual pleasure in an afterlife once they’ve blown themselves up in this world. This is not particularly convincing, since there have been lots of repressed males who do not engage in violent behavior. Most of the repressed males I’ve known have been so geeky that they would go goo-goo if women even noticed them. Orthodox Jews live in a society every bit as gender-separated as the one that Muslims inhabit. Yet these bearded Jews, who avert their eyes when women pass by, do not go around blowing up buildings. Nor are those (usually disintegrated) societies in which young males have abundant sexual opportunities particularly peaceful places. Goldberg should move to Watts or the South Bronx to test my hypothesis. There he could find very violent young males who definitely are not sexually repressed.
Goldberg is not making serious sociological or psychological statements, and one does not have to admire Muslim fundamentalist societies to know that he is talking nonsense. There is a true gulf separating the pre-feminist bourgeois West from the horrors that are inflicted on women in some non-Western societies. The choice is not between savage Third World treatment of women on one side and ranting Western feminists, predatory bureaucrats, grasping ambulance chasers, and fetus-exterminators on the other. There are many other models of gender relations, such as the totally civilized gender distinctions that Goldberg’s heroines overthrew in the 1960s and 1970s. But that is not the current model we are being asked to follow. Those who refuse to emulate the way we are right now are screwed-up or perverse people. If they weren’t, they’d be exactly like us, and whatever we are is a “conservative success story.” Conservatism means being special, and America is special because of all the wonderful political and social causes we’ve featured over the last fifty years and because America as an “experiment” continues to get better and better. Perhaps if I commit all this to memory and learn to say it with a semblance of conviction, I may even get invited to speak at CPAC or the Rachel Maddow Show. What is the difference anyhow? Both are celebrating the same success story.
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