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Friday, January 4, 2013

Chomsky & Feminism (2006)

Chomsky & Feminism

Meyerding, Jane. Social Anarchism 39 (2006): 21-26,107.
Let's start by admitting that nobody can cover everything. Although Chomsky long has recognized that workers' councils aren't the be-all and end-all when it comes to "the elimination of structures of hierarchy and domination in the state system, the private economy, and much of social life" (Chomsky p. 151), it's clear that feminism has not been at the core of his thinking over the years. There are several obvious reasons why this is so. For one thing, he was born (male) in 1928. And towards the other end of the chronology, his rejection of essentialism put some of the "feminisms" most active in the academy outside his level of tolerance. (Mine, too.) See, for example, his comment about "incomprehensible gibberish" on page 217.
Another reason that may have kept feminism out of Chomsky's mainstream for a while is his (understandable) tendency to focus on "the big picture." Alice Klein (Klein, 2002), an admirer of Chomsky, nevertheless found his combination of "cinemascopic approach" (grounding current events in a broad sweep of time) and "barrage of historical detail soporific. The scale is epic, even as the dates, names, and indictments mount up. And until recently women's lives were not considered historic, much less epic. The division between public and private was also a wall between significance and insignificance, certainly in the eyes of most leftists I knew in the 1960s and early '70s.
I find it intriguing to speculate about the effects on Chomsky (and on everyone else, but, I can't help feeling, "even" on Chomsky) of that pesky "generic male." After all, he read and wrote and heard and steeped in it for the first four or five decades of his life. Not because he was sexist, but because that was the language. casey Miller and Kate Swift's 1977 book Words and Women included some amusing examples of times when the "generic" male revealed itself to be not so inclusive after all. In 1972, Erich Fromm described "man's vital interests" as "life, food, access to females, etc." And you don't even need to start with "mankind" to fall into the trap. A TV commentator (in 1974) said, "People won't give up power. They'll give up anything else first - money, home, wife, children - but not power." My favorite (also from 1974) is a sociologist on the correlates of high status: "Americans of higher status have more years of education, more children attending college, less divorce, lower mortality, better dental care, and less chance of having a fat wife."
It used to be more than possible - in fact, more like inevitable - to write about "man" and "humanity" and "people" without realizing that everything you wrote omitted consideration of that portion of human experience that has (or is seen to have) female gender. Not to mention omitting the relations between that experience and the public and private lives of (diverse) men. How interesting that women's reality could remain to such a degree obscured even as "society" constructed institutions to enforce gender-based social/economic/political roles. Surely that kind of perception gap could not have flourished so long in brilliant minds without the aid of the linguistic device that made male hegemony over human thought and human history seem the most natural thing in the world. The "generic male" made the lie (that "he" included "she") feel gracious as well as true in the mouths of those who used it (which was very nearly everybody, perforce). Not only was the gracious lie useful to men, because it allowed them to ignore "structures of hierarchy" they enjoyed, it was useful to some women, also. It enabled certain (self-selected; some might say "self-constructed") women to enter into the male world of discourse without being perceived as problems. The women could leave (had to leave) their "womanliness" behind and, since "womanliness" was a state of oppression, some women were grateful for the linguistic escape into the "wider world" of the generic, grateful for the illusion of inclusivity even as it chopped their lives in two.
Chomsky did emerge eventually from the fog of false genericism. Recently I talked to a friend who attended an AFSC conference in Boston back in (she thinks) about 1979. Chomsky was paired with feminist historian Elise Boulding before an audience that included feminists. According to my friends memory of the occasion, Chomsky did not seem ready then to admit feminism as a major and necessary contribution to anarchist thinking about the world. As I looked through the Chomsky on Anarchism book for clues to his integration of feminism into his thinking, I realized there was another question to ask. We can assume he was not absolutely prescient. Like the rest of us, he needed the rebirth of feminism in the late 1960s and thereafter to open his awareness to the full effects of sexism. But how much of the change in his writing (in this book, tentatively from 1990 on) reflects a decision (and, with increased understanding, the ability) to include feminist insights, and how much of the change is due to his learning to be more explicit about what his thinking already included?
Might Chomsky really have meant to be inclusive all along? For example, when in 1969 (p. 73) he praised as "one of the most historical revolutions diat history records" a village in 1937 Spain where elected officials "acted as heads of a family," maybe he already knew that, despite that remarkable achievement, a critique of hierarchy within the family still remained to be made. Maybe he was aware that women's issues (such as the subordination of women in specific public and private ways) were not part of the "concern for human relations and the ideal of a just society" that he admires. It's just that he never got around to saying so. Almost nobody did. We do not need to discount past accomplishments on the grounds that they didn't know back then what we know now. On the other hand, analysis of the historical events is more useful when we acknowledge what was omitted in the past that must be attended to this time around. Repetition of past failures, no matter how admirable, is not the blueprint for success.
When it comes to Chomsky's view of his own feminism, we have direct comments from his 1996 interview with Adam Jones (Jones, 1996). Jones quotes a former student of Chomsky's as telling Mother Jones "a couple of years ago" that "Chomsky thinks he is a feminist, but at heart he's an old-fashioned patriarch. Of course, he's a very good person. He has just never really understood what the feminist movement is about." Asked to respond to that description of himself, Chomsky said, "Well, I'm in no position to evaluate it. That's for others to do. But yeah, I think the feminist movement is probably the most important development to come out of the Sixties, in terms of its actual impact on values and perceptions. How has it affected me? Hard to say. It probably has, but probably not as much as it should have." When asked whether he had heard similar criticism before, he said: "Yeah, in fact it's a criticism I've been hearing for years, from friends and others. And I think there's probably some validity to it."
Okay, so in this area we might describe Chomsky as a slow learner. Does it matter? My answer: Yes and No.
The "yes" part of it has to do with what feminism does for anarchist thinking. To begin with, feminism makes women and the institutions (social, political, economic, cultural) that constrain women's lives visible, and thus brings analyses into closer correspondence with reality. That's a project Chomsky must support; see, for example, his contribution to Z Papers' Rationality/Science discussion (1995), as well as his use and interpretation of Enlightenment philosophies throughout Chomsky on Anarchism.
In 1990, Chomsky described how hierarchy protects itself by veiling itself in "mystery" (p. 159). By 2004, he uses "the women's movement" (p. 222, 224) as a "striking" example of how activists can remove that veil and "get people to understand that they are Living under conditions of oppression and domination." His prime instance is his own grandmother. "It's a matter of raising consciousness among very decent people," he says (p. 229), and among those very decent people we can count Chomsky himself, as regards feminism and its insights. That's number two.
A third, and crucial, thing feminism brings to anarchism relates to the fact that, in Kathryn Pyne Adelson's words (2002), "There is no purity of heart." By that she means, we are in large part products of the societies in which we live. The social (and political and economic and cultural) structures of domination and violence do not stop outside the doors of our houses, nor even outside the surface of our selves. Describing Martha Ackelsberg's view of grassroots activism, "Some Thoughts on Anarcha-Feminism" (2002) notes: "This is how we learn effective strategy; this is how we learn to fight back. Revolutionary knowledge can't be taught, and it can't be force-fed. It 'does not precede experience, it flows from it.'" Feminism brings that necessary learning-by-doing into the parts of our lives that otherwise are excluded from consideration when we look for and attempt to uproot the "structures of hierarchy and domination" that make injustice the basis of society's day-to-day, year-to-year, century-to-century functioning. Without feminism, we almost inevitably retain a cherished (because familiar and therefore in a sense comfortable, even as it chains us) inner chamber where the habits of hierarchy can take refuge - and we can take refuge there as well, escaping now and then to our private world where analysis and challenge are left with the muddy boots outside the door.
In case it's not clear, I will mention that I am not referring here only to relations between women and men. Feminism illuminates many ways in which both sexes are tied in to economic structures, for example, as an analysis of the oftreviled "bourgeois feminism" can show. The split between the "personal" and the "political" is not just between inside and outside the house or the family unit. It includes, among other things, all the "personal" decisions about economic behavior that are dictated (in disguised form) by "cultural" institutions catering to political and economic hierarchies. The situation of most people in the U.S. differs wildly from that of most people in the world, which is why much of U.S. feminist writing often seems "bourgeois" and self-indulgent, focused on the petty instead of the portentous. Although it is true that the concerns of women in Afghanistan to whom Chomsky urges us to listen (Chomsky, 2001) are urgent in a way that "cultural" concerns of U.S. feminists are not, it does not follow that careful (anarchism-oriented) feminist analysis of either situation will have nothing to offer the other. We all, wherever we are, have a lot to learn about how the daily, "personal" aspects of our lives can be disentangled from the "structures of hierarchy and domination" that masquerade as "normal" and "natural" expressions of our own human natures.
Before I turn to why I respond "No" (as well as Yes) to the question Does it matter (that Chomsky is slow to integrate feminism into his thinking), a very brief divergence into "Why." Why has he been so slow? In a 2001 interview for Madre, Chomsky was asked why it seemed so hard for people in the U.S. to understand the effects of U.S. policies around the world. His response: "Well, there is a principle of human affairs that goes back millennia, which is that you don't look in the mirror." It can take a while for any of us to find the mirror that truly reflects rumor herself, once we have admitted, in principle, that looking is the right thing to do. For most of us, and probably for Chomsky, too. there is reluctance to look into certain mirrors - not necessarily because what we would see is "evil." The reluctance may be due more to lack of interest than to fear of self-exposure. None die less, perhaps only a feminist mirror can reflect those important parts of us that we have been taught to consider "personal" and therefore not appropriate for political analysis.
The reasons I think it doesn't matter (much) that Chomsky doesn't put feminism at the center of his thinking are two: He isn't all we've got, and, in the words of Alice Klein, "we need this guy."
Nobody (as far as I know) is limited to a diet of Chomsky-only. Is there any one person in the world with whom you agree about absolutely everything? If so, I do not envy you. Most of us, I assume, agree and disagree with those we find most compatible, as well as those with whom the disagreements outweigh the areas of concord. We don't expect any one person to know or convey everything about anything, much less everything about everything. If Chomsky can help me learn about the world (and he can), it remains my own responsibility to seek out other sources to complement what I get from him. We can expect him (and other anarchist thinkers) to learn from feminism, though if we have read more than a page or two of his writing, we won't expect him to spend time on feminist works that do not meet his criteria for rationality. But there is no reason to expect him, given his demographics and training, to niorph into a leading anarcha-feminist. (Amusing to contemplate, though, isn't it?) Chomsky certainly does not claim to know it all. In fact, he goes out of his way to emphasize that none of us knows it all:
There surely will have to be plenty of experimentation - we don't know enough about human beings and societies, their needs and limitations. There is just too much we don't know, so a lot of alternatives should be tried, (p. 238)
There is no way of ranking [issues]; there is no first step. (p. 240)
I do things I think are important, you do things you think are important, they do what they think is important, they can all be means for achieving more or less the same ends. They can assist one another, achievements in one domain can assist diose in others. But who am I to say what the first step is? (p. 241)
Chomsky is a wonderful resource. The volume and richness of his work is a treasure. No need to expect perfection from him any more than we expect it of ourselves.
Works Cited
Alice Klein, "Bless his soul: Old-fashioned leftism aside, we need this guy," NOW Magazine Online Edition, Vol. 22, No. 11, 2002 (http://www.nowtoronto.com/issues/2002-1114/news_story.php)
Casey Miller and Kate Swift, Words and Women: New Language in New Times. Anchor Books, 1977.
Adam Jones, http://adamjones.freeservers.com/chomsky.htm. Originally published as "Chomsky Fights the Power" in The Gleaner (Langara College), 7 March 1996.
Z Papers Special Issue, Rationality/Science, 1995. http://www.chomsky.info/articles.htm
Kathryn Pyne Adelson quoted in "Some Thoughts on Anarcha-Feminism," http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~audreylv/afem.htm (June 2002)
Martha Ackelsberg quoted in "Some Thoughts on Anarcha-Feminism," http://darlcwing.uoregon.edu/~audreylv/afem.htm (June 2002)
Noam Chomsky, "The World After Sept. 11," Z Net, Dec. 2001, http://www.zmag.org/chomskyafter911.htm
Madre interview with Chomsky by Yifat Susskind, Aug. 2001 , http://www.madre.org/articles/chomsky-0801.html

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