A few years ago I met Gloria Steinem, Vice’s newest board member, at a Valentine’s Day party. She was very nice and cool and fun to talk to and was wearing a huge belt. I don’t really remember the specifics of our conversation, but she said one thing that stuck with me: that all the ills of the world are caused by violence against women.
She also recommended a book called Sex and World Peace, which I will now recommend to you. The book, written by four academics, convincingly argues Steinem’s point: that the security and prosperity of nations is directly tied to how those nations treat women. On a more theoretical level, the book conveys the bleak reality that, because the most influential political scientists have been men, even the best-intentioned ones have contributed to the continued subjugation of women worldwide.
The political scientist Samuel Huntington, for example, wrote in his landmark 1993 book Clash of Civilizations that geopolitical conflict would emerge from warring religious identities. But the authors of Sex and World Peace argue, in what they call “a major shift from the conventional understanding,” that such conflict is not found along religious or cultural lines, but gender ones. If women are not safe, a nation is not safe (by their metrics, the U.S. is a country in which women have “medium-level physical security”). Disaster is inevitable.
Anyway. I am loath to relitigate the presidential election, but this is my column and I can do what I want! A very difficult thing about the election and, more specifically, the rise of the socialist left, was watching the men of those movements dominate the terms of acceptable progressive political discourse. A particular piece by Hamilton Nolan at Gawker from late 2015 left me dumbfounded. Nolan, in his blunt way, argued that in the run-up to the election, only two issues mattered: economic inequality and climate change. “The important things should be prioritized. The hardest things should be done first. Economic inequality and climate change are our most important problems, and our hardest ones,” he wrote.
All the ills of the world are caused by violence against women.
At the time, I was working at a women’s magazine. My days were spent editing stories about disappearing abortion rights and shitty childcare policies and women whose partners beat the shit out of them. I had left two jobs in a row after “clashing” with male bosses. I had ended one ill-conceived relationship and was in the midst of another. I was in denial about my own sexual assault. It was not a good time, and my point here is: It was difficult for me in that moment to even imagine caring about the future or well-being of the rest of the world when that world continually refused to prioritize the existence of women. The world of women literally didn’t exist to those who took upon themselves the task of deciding what mattered.
I can’t blame Hamilton for his myopic swagger; he’s a product of a political system that has encouraged and facilitated that way of being for men. Until about eight weeks ago, men could treat women very badly and it literally did not matter for them. Men could rape women at work without the cognizance that what they were doing was wrong. Men could touch women’s bodies without permission. Men could expose themselves to women without permission. This behavior wasn’t only tolerated, it was rewarded. When you live in a constant state of vulnerability — knowing that at any time a man could humiliate you, or torpedo your life — a progressivism that skews to male interests is insufficiently radical.
Some have characterized the current pan-partisan reckoning around sexual assault as too extreme, as a witch hunt. I agree that it is extreme, but in the best possible way. My hope is that it leads to a change in conventional thinking: Those who have been used to seeing the world in a certain, absolute way are now being forced to see it in another, or risk drowning in denial.
Progressive politics must adapt to this shift. Here I will provide you with another reading recommendation: Hannah Arendt’s 1966 essay about the Polish socialist theorist Rosa Luxemburg, who was murdered in 1919. An avowed anti-Leninst, Luxemburg founded the Communist Party of Germany with Karl Liebknecht in 1918. She was a fervent anti-capitalist, but also rejected oppression, even in the cause of a socialist state. Men did not like her: As Jacqueline Rose wrote in the London Review of Books in 2011, “The misogyny her presence provoked would become legendary.”
Those who have been used to seeing the world in a certain, absolute way are now being forced to see it in another.
Deviating from Marx, Luxemburg theorized that capitalism “fed on outside factors, and its automatic collapse could occur, if at all, only when the whole surface of the earth was conquered and had been devoured.” This did not endear her to other Marxists, Lenin in particular, who interpreted Luxemburg’s theory as non-Marxist, calling it a “fundamental error.” However, Arendt explained, the real problem with Luxemburg’s analysis was that it was too reasonable: “what was an error in abstract Marxian theory was an eminently sound analysis of things as they really were.”
Luxemburg was 47 when she was murdered by right-wing paramilitaries employed by Germany’s Social Democratic government while she and Liebknecht were attempting to seize power. Her body was thrown into a canal, not to be found for five months. Luxemburg retains a cult of fans, especially in Germany, but her posthumous star pales in comparison to those of the men in her field, and perhaps even those of the living ones, consumed as they are by the issues they are certain matter.
There is a passage in Arendt’s piece that haunts me. “It was precisely success — success even in her own world of revolutionaries — which was withheld from Rosa Luxemburg in life, death, and after death. Can it be that the failure of all her efforts as far as official recognition is concerned is somehow connected with the dismal failure of revolution in our century? Will history look different if seen through the prism of her life and work?” The answer to both questions is yes.
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