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Andrea Dworkin on Kate Millett: Sexual Politics

Andrea Dworkin on Kate Millett, part of the New Statesman's Great Thinkers series.

The world was sleeping and Kate Millett woke it up. Betty Friedan had written about the problem that had no name. Kate Millett named it, illustrated it, exposed it, analysed it. In 1970 Kate Millett published the book Sexual Politics. The words were new. What was "sexual politics"? The concept was new. Millett meant to "prove that sex is a status category with political implications". She pointed to male dominance in sex, including intercourse. In challenging the status quo, she maintained: "However muted its present appearance may be, sexual domination obtains nevertheless as perhaps the most pervasive ideology of our culture and provides its most fundamental concept of power."

Thirty-three years later, it is hard to remember or envision the convulsive shock of this new idea. Male-over-female had been seen as a physical inevitability not unlike gravity. Nothing that had to do with sex was open to questions of power, dominance or hierarchy. Social sex roles originated in and were determined by biology or a supernatural divinity. The male was the figure of action, even heroism. He alone was made in God's image. He ruled in religion, marriage and politics as conventionally understood. His sovereign place as head of the family was unchallenged. Millett called this arrangement "patriarchy", which she described as "male shall dominate female, elder male shall dominate younger".

Millett described the "consent" of the female to this male-over-female paradigm as a process of socialisation in which women were constrained to be passive, ignorant, valued if at all for bearing children, a function shared with animals; men were distinguished by the distinctly human characteristics. Women were socialised to accept both the superiority of men and their own inferiority, which was then justified by assertions of male biological superiority: men were physically stronger. Patriarchy itself was seen as inevitably derived from the superior physical strength of the male. Millett went on to hypothesise a civilisation that was pre-patriarchy; if this civilisation existed, she reasoned, then male strength could not be the signature reason for patriarchy.

Millett also attacked gender as such. There were too many varieties of biological phenomena associated with being male or female to reify any simple-minded biological determinism. She saw the constituent parts of gender as socially determined, ideologically reinforced by master-sex dominance.

Millett also described the economics of sexual politics: females worked for no money or less money. She described the ways in which women have always worked but without adequate recompense, which helped keep women under the sway of men. She also described the use of force against women, including the phenomena of compulsory pregnancy and rape. She analysed the role of the state in maintaining the inferiority of women and also the role of legal systems in various societies.

Remarkably, she noted how "references to wife-beating, for example, invariably produce laughter and some embarrassment". Jokes about wife-beating abounded while it was society's position that no such brutality really existed. Millett claimed that hostility towards women was expressed through laughter and "[m]isogynist literature", which she called "the primary vehicle of masculine hostility", being both a "hortatory and comic genre. Of all the artistic forms in patriarchy it is the most frankly propagandistic. Its aim is to reinforce both sexual factions in their status."

Millett's methodology was new. While using anthropology, sociology, economics and history to back her argument, she found the meaning of sexual politics and sexual power in literature. She eschewed prior schools of literary criticism and declared her own criticism a "mutation": "I have operated on the premise that there is room for a criticism which takes into account the larger cultural context in which literature is conceived and produced."

Millett used contemporary literature to demonstrate her notion of "sexual politics". While other critics danced on the graves of dead writers, Millett dug some new graves herself. She especially concentrated on the works of D H Lawrence (dead but widely read as if he were a contemporary), Henry Miller (then living), Norman Mailer (living) and Jean Genet (then living). While she discussed ancient, medieval and Renaissance literature in the west and eastern literature in general as bulwarks of misogynist hierarchy, she opened her book with three sex scenes, one each from Henry Miller's Sexus, Norman Mailer's An American Dream and Jean Genet's The Thief's Journal. She explicated the power dynamics in each sex scene - Genet being contrapuntal because he approached "sexual hierarchy from the oblique angle of homosexual dominance". She used Genet because he dealt with sexual oppression.

When Millett wrote Sexual Politics, Miller, Mailer and Lawrence were the sages of sexual liberation. These writers were primary influences on the generation that came of age in the 1960s. It is hard now to understand the grip these writers had on the imagination. For the left and the burgeoning counter-culture, these were the writers of subversion. In fact, they helped to socialise a generation into believing that force and violence were valued elements of sex. Millett's analysis destroyed their authority.

I cannot think of anyone who accomplished what Kate Millett did, with this one book. It remains the alpha and omega of the women's movement. Everything that feminists have done is foreshadowed, predicted or encouraged by Sexual Politics.

 

Kate Millett

Born 1934 in St Paul, Minnesota. Graduated University of Minnesota, 1956; subsequently worked as a professor of English at Barnard College and as a sculptor. Received PhD from Columbia 1970, and wrote a series of radical feminist books, including political and cultural treatises and autobiography. Made the film Three Lives (1971) and was active in feminist politics, campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment in America and women's rights in Iran. Currently sells Christmas trees from her farm, where she runs an artists' colony. Her key book was Sexual Politics (1970). Re-emerged internationally with The Politics of Cruelty (1994), an investigation of the use of torture across the world. Among more personal works are Sita (1977), about a lesbian love affair, and Mother Millett (2001), the story of her mother's final years.

Andrea Dworkin (1946-2005) was a radical feminist writer known for her work on pornorgraphy, war and sexual intercourse. Her account of being raped in Paris in 1999 was published exclusively by the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Great thinkers of our time - Noam Chomsky

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Political tribes: why democracy is no match for the visceral pull of “us” against “them”

How Donald Trump epitomises and supercharges white American tribalism.

During the Vietnam War, the US thought it was fighting communism. Afterwards, the consensus was that the Vietnamese had been fighting for national independence. But Amy Chua, in her extremely stimulating Political Tribes, suggests an additional factor: many Vietnamese thought they were fighting the country’s Chinese minority.

Ethnic Chinese made up only 1 per cent of Vietnam’s population, yet controlled 70 to 80 per cent of national wealth. They were what Chua calls a “market-dominant minority”. North Vietnam’s leader, Ho Chi Minh, was backed by communist China, but when he attacked “capitalists”, most Vietnamese knew exactly which ethnic group he meant.

After the war, many of Vietnam’s Chinese were either massacred or fled: they made up the great majority of the “Vietnamese boat people” of the late 1970s. The story makes the central point of Chua’s book: American decision-makers, both at home and abroad, have tended to focus on markets and democracy while overlooking tribe. The political salience of tribalism only became unmissable with Donald Trump’s election as US president.

Most people, argues Chua, a law professor at Yale University, don’t simply seek to be free or rich as individuals. They want to thrive within their tribe (usually an ethnic one), often while hurting other tribes. Now, the US risks tottering into the kind of winner-takes-all, tribalised polity that we usually associate with the developing world.

Tribe has always been Chua’s topic. Her 2002 debut, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, anticipated America’s debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nine years later, she hit fame with her Chinese-American how-to memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about how ethnic Chinese parents supposedly raise their children to be workaholic winners. Then The Triple Package, co-written with her equally high-achieving husband, Jed Rubenfeld, sought to explain (not altogether convincingly) why certain tribes (such as Jews, Mormons, or Nigerian Igbo) tend to succeed in the US.

Chua has a gift for simplicity, sticking to her main argument and homing in on what matters. She is a digger of surprising facts, which she presents in clear if artless prose. Her occasional oversimplifications, and her willingness to plunge into areas in which she is not an expert, only increase her influence on public debates.

The chief tension in US history is between the rhetoric of universalism and the reality of white dominance. As Chua says, the US officially thinks of itself as a “supergroup”, which can accept people of all tribes as Americans. Hardly any other big country sees itself this way. Even in very diverse states, one tribe usually dominates – in China, for instance, the Han Chinese. Yet whenever American decision-makers discover another country – generally after invading it – they tend to impose upon it the supergroup logic. They assume that once the country is given markets and democracy (or at least a pro-American dictator) then any pesky tribal issues will soon fade away. The prescription worked brilliantly in post-war Japan and West Germany, but then Japan had always been unusually ethnically homogenous, and Germany had become so through genocide. In the first half of Political Tribes, Chua argues that things went wrong when the US applied the usual prescription to more ethnically complex states such as Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Venezuela.

In Afghanistan in the 1980s, American funding helped create the Taliban. In 2001, the US identified the Taliban as an anti-democratic, demonic force that had to be eradicated. That wasn’t totally wrong, but the Taliban was also a resistance movement of ethnic Pashtuns, who feared that their fragmented collection of tribes and clans was losing control of Afghanistan. The US toppled the Taliban in 75 days. Then it installed a new Afghan regime, which (though the Americans don’t seem to have dwelled on the fact) consisted mostly of ethnic Tajiks. Nearly 17 years later, the Afghan war is the longest-running in American history. Trump has sent more troops, while saying: “We don’t want to talk with the Taliban. There may be a time but it’s going to be a long time.”

In Iraq, too, the US initially ignored tribal divides. Peter Galbraith, in The End of Iraq, tells the famous anecdote of the three Iraqi-Americans who were invited to watch the Super Bowl with George W Bush in January 2003. This was two months before Bush invaded Iraq, yet the visitors soon realised the president wasn’t familiar with the distinction between Shia and Sunni. When they tried to explain it, Bush allegedly blurted out: “I thought the Iraqis were Muslims!” The story would have been hard to credit, were it not for everything the Americans did after the invasion.

In countries with sharp ethnic divides, democracy often just makes these worse. When there’s suddenly a free election, the largest tribe – in Iraq, the Shia – tends to grab power and punish smaller tribes. Islamic State was created largely by disaffected Sunni Iraqi military officers. In Myanmar, too, more democracy seems to have led to greater persecution of the Rohingya. Western countries (not only the US) misread Aung San Suu Kyi as a democratic hero; she is in fact a tribal leader.

While democracy can hurt small tribes, the other American prescription, free markets, can alienate big tribes if a country has a market-dominant minority – and it usually does. When Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela 20 years ago, the US understood him as a communist stooge. In fact, the brown-skinned Chávez was backed by most of Venezuela’s non-white majority, who were sick of a white elite controlling the economy. But when Chua pointed this out in her first book, many white Venezuelans insisted that they were colour-blind, and that racism didn’t exist in their gloriously miscegenated country. She got death threats.

At times in Political Tribes, Chua overstates her argument. Whatever the country, her moral is always the same, “the blindness [to tribal identities] has been the Achilles’ heel of US foreign policy”. This is broadly convincing but surely exaggerated. Even for the average half-awake layperson, two days in Latin America is enough to establish the centrality of race. Surely American policymakers couldn’t have missed it? But Chua – a canny marketer – makes her points strongly. 

After her tour of American blunders abroad, in the second half of the book she comes home. By now, the reader is primed to see the US as just another messed-up tribal society. Other writers have made this argument over the past two years, but Chua does a better job than most of explaining how the country got there.

We’ve heard a lot since 2016 about how the white working class voted for Trump in a scream of post-industrial economic pain. That is partly the case, but it doesn’t explain why vast majorities of whites in all income groups (and most white women) voted for Trump. He was the candidate of whiteness. Many of his voters were upset by the browning of their country. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act abolished the old racist quotas favouring immigrants from white countries. Non-whites arrived and, shockingly, demanded rights.

Perhaps the biggest social change in the West since the 1960s is that ethnic minorities, women, gay people and now transgender people have stood up and said that there are no such thing as second-class humans. Some on the American left have taken their claims to extremes. They ditched Martin Luther King’s dream of a country in which people wouldn’t be judged on “the colour of their skin” (which was also Obama’s ideal); instead they revel in the unique identity and unmatched victimhood of their own subgroup. Chua describes how the acronym LGBTQ has spawned variants including GLBT, LGBTI and LGBTQQIAAP, as “identity groups quarrelled about who should be included and who should come first”.

Still, many members of the former second class have successfully stormed the first-class cabin. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants – for centuries, the US’s proverbial first-class humans – are now under-represented at elite universities, in the music charts, and even on the Supreme Court, which was entirely Catholic and Jewish until the Catholic-turned-Episcopalian Neil Gorsuch took his seat last year. Meanwhile, non-whites such as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates have claimed a right to retell the national story – helping shift it from Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” to an account of genocide and slavery.

Just as Iraqi Sunnis lost power after Saddam Hussein fell, American whites now fear decline. True, they remain dominant compared with blacks or Hispanics. They are richer, live longer, and have a police force whose self-understood mission seems to be lethal control of black men. But whites are no longer unquestionably first-class Americans.

Even so, says Chua, most of Trump’s 63 million voters are not white nationalists. If you take “white nationalism” to mean that all non-whites should be killed or expelled from the US, only 4 per cent of Americans admit to supporting it, according to an NPR/PBS Marist poll last August. In another survey for the Pew Foundation, even 56 per cent of Republicans said it was “neither good nor bad” that non-whites will become the American majority in the next 25 to 50 years.

Rather, when Chua tries to explain what racial arrangement most Trump voters want, she describes a video in which the Trumpist TV host Tomi Lahren lays into the black American football player Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled in protest at the national anthem. Lahren delivers a lecture on the “patriots” who died for the flag, and concludes: “Colin, if this country disgusts you so much, leave. I guarantee there are thousands and thousands of people around the world that would gladly take your spot.” This video has had 66 million views. Parsing Lahren, Chua argues that Trumpist whites want minorities to be grateful, to know their place, to buy the white narrative of a good America, and not to imagine they are first-class citizens.

Trump now articulates that position daily. He both epitomises and supercharges American tribalism. With him in charge, all other American groups – blacks, women, Mexicans, gays, ad infinitum – feel even more threatened than his base does. Meanwhile, below the radar, new American groups keep spawning. Chua catalogues them diligently: the millions of followers of the “prosperity gospel”, who think Jesus will make them rich; the mostly white, armed “sovereign citizens”, who think they would have been rich but for the federal government’s elaborate scam to rip them off; fans of World Wrestling Entertainment, who aren’t very interested in the reality-fiction distinction, and who embraced Trump years before he went into politics; mostly Hispanic followers of quasi-Catholic “narco-saint” cults, and so on.

Politically, the US seems to have reached the point that the future president John Adams feared in 1780: “A division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our constitution.” Meanwhile, the American patriotism vaunted by Lahren is waning. Trump’s own rhetoric is often caustically anti-American. “In these conditions,” warns Chua, “democracy devolves into zero-sum group competition – pure political tribalism”.

Chua’s conclusion – dripping with optimism about America, in 20th-century, high-patriotic style – doesn’t sound credible. She describes individual Americans who have reached across the tribal divides, and offers some cheerful vignettes from Yale: “I’ve seen a former Navy SEAL and a human rights activist bond over Trivial Pursuit.” She points out that the US is doomed if the left simply writes off the country as inherently racist since its foundation, and the right keeps dreaming of a white Christmas. If American tribes are to continue their common project, they will have to believe that the US can one day attain its promised universalism. Only non-Americans have the luxury of dismissing this as sentimental claptrap. She closes with lines from the black poet Langston Hughes:

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath –

America will be!

Chua admits that her extolling of individual outreach can seem like “a Band-Aid for bullet wounds”. An equally plausible scenario for the US is that Trump loses the 2020 election, condemns the vote as rigged and urges his followers to fight it, unleashing a low-level civil war (possibly while boarding a plane to Moscow to escape money-laundering charges). Then, the Iraq war will have finally come home. l

Simon Kuper writes for the Financial Times. His books include “Football Against the Enemy” (Orion)

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
Amy Chua
Bloomsbury, 293pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Great thinkers of our time - Noam Chomsky