29 January 2006

It’s The Little Things

A. D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I suppose that if the revelation of a memo revealing Al Qaeda’s plans to attack the United States using domestic airliners, written – and ignored – about one month before the the 11 September 2001 attacks, wasn’t enough to ruin the credibility of the Bush administration, then one might argue quite successfully that all is lost for American politics. Even though it seems so obvious that massive failings in domestic security should be enough to bring down a government, there is ample reason to see why the opposite is true: the country pulls together, addresses the problem(s), and the errors of government are overcome through the can-do attitude for which Americans are known. (In this case, by attacking one enemy and creating a rationale for attacking another.) No matter that the attack against America itself might have been prevented.1 What will bring down this administration, except the inevitability of Constitutionally-imposed term-limits?

Well, the little things might, because in aggregate they paint a picture of a total lack of accountability in our present government. “Little” is relative of course; it hardly describes the failures of the Bush administration for Hurricane Katrina relief. Or the failure of this administration’s energy policy (made all the more galling by President Bush’s recent suggestions that SUV Kings General Motors and Ford Motor Company should make a product that is more relevant for their consumers2). Or how about the recent debacle over the new Medicare and Medicaid drug benefit programs, which have left how many hundreds of thousands (or millions) of people without their medicines? Gosh, if the Medicare program has been so successful, just think what the Bush administration could do to Social Security!

Lefties and libertarians – along with the few true conservatives remaining in the United States – seem to be fretting over the impact Judge Samuel Alito will have when he joins the Supreme Court (as now looks rather inevitable). In particular, people seem worried about his views on presidential executive power and civil liberties, and his apparent tendency to favor the former while scuttling the latter. As a (civil) libertarian myself, I share those concerns. But I wonder whether the bigger danger from this administration is in fact from the cumulative effect of many, many bad policies affecting focused bits of our citizenry – like people in Louisiana, or the elderly, or Muslims, or terminally-ill Oregonians – and not the much-hyped threat of another terrorist attack. Our republic may die a death of a thousand cuts, an attack in which no single, impeachable offense stands out and yet the very fabric of the nation is nonetheless effectively shredded.

This is not to downplay the dangers of future-Justice Alito; a Supreme Court endorsement of executive privilege that permits President Bush – or any other set of executive officers – to withhold details of how the government responded to a terrorist attack is hugely problematic. So too was the last Court’s decision to keep the energy task force details secret or, as Bush is now pushing for, to prevent disclosure of information about how he and his crony-clowns handled Federal aid for Hurricane Katrina victims.

So much for a government of, by, and for “the people.” Congress should be worried about all this, Republican and Democrat alike. It is a direct threat to their power and authority under the Constitution, and ultimately a direct challenge to the authority of the American people. The judiciary should be worried, too. If President Bush thinks he can ignore or reinterpret legislation passed by Congress, what’s to stop him from reinterpreting a decision made by a court – even the Supreme Court – that he doesn’t like? Sadly, though, one gets the impression that the fight for Constitutional independence is already over.

Still, if small disasters are the problem, then maybe small challenges are the solution. In 1773, a group of Bostonians kick-started what would become the Revolutionary War, that freed the Colonies from British dominion ... by throwing tea into the harbor, in protest over unfair taxation. I don’t know what the 21st century version of the Boston Tea Party should be – its focus, location, or participants – but perhaps what the United States really needs is a bunch of citizens equally committed to a common purpose to once again declare the rights of the citizenry as independent from a paternalistic, imbecilic, faux-conservative governmental authority.


I think I may be the only American Jew who isn’t horrified by Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian elections this past week. I believe that the Palestinian support for Hamas owes more to the horrible corruption and mismanagement within the Palestinian Authority, and its once-dominant Fatah movement, than to any mass alignment with Hamas’ hardline Islamism. Yes, yes, there are plenty of reasons why the election is bad news, not least Hamas’ belief that terrorism is an acceptable form of “resistance.” As I have written previously, had the Palestinians adopted non-violent resistance after the 1967 war, the occupation would have long been over. But violence begets violence, so this is what the Palestinians and Israelis have sowed – and reaped – for themselves. Well done, gentlemen.

Nonetheless, there is reason for hope – less that Hamas will transform itself into an acceptable partner, capable of working with the Israelis, and more for what Hamas’ beliefs make possible for Israel. Ariel Sharon may be off the political stage, but the path of unilateral disengagement that he began to clear is one the new Israeli government should continue. Clearly, the occupation must end; Palestinians should be given control over the land of the West Bank, just as they have been given control of (most aspects of) Gaza. Moreover, once the occupation does end, Palestinians should consider declaring a state, unilaterally, and demand recognition from the United Nations.

More to the point, withdrawal gives the Israelis something they have been missing since they captured all this land in the 1967 war: a place on the moral high ground. If the occupation is ended; if Palestinians become responsible for their own health and welfare, instead of having it bound together with that of their occupiers; and if the Palestinians then choose to continue attacking Israel anyway – well, Israel’s right to self defense will no longer be comprised by this morally-clouded 40-year occupation.

This is hardly a grand vision for peace or co-existence. This is about small steps forward. But if you take enough small steps, you will eventually arrive at your destination. No small feat, in this case.

1There was evidence to support claims that Franklin Delano Roosevelt might have thwarted the Pearl Harbor attacks, but again, the same thing happened: politics and war saw a nation united – at least briefly, and at least towards its external antagonists.

2“President Bush said General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. should develop ‘a product that's relevant,’” as quoted in the Wall Street Journal, “Bush Plays Down Bailout Prospects For GM and Ford,” by Christopher Cooper and John D. McKinnon, 26 January 2006

UPDATE - 31 January - Yesterday's New York Times carried a story headlined "Rice Admits U.S. Underestimated Hamas Strength," which goes on to explain ... how our esteemed Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice (and others, as she graciously includes everyone) didn't see that Hamas stood a strong chance of winning the Palestinian elections. Ms. Rice, where have you been for the past few months -- or years? Article after article about the corruption within Fatah, about the incompetence of the Palestinian Authority, about the growing strength of Hamas as a provider of stable social services -- and our appointed chief analyst of global relations cannot even figure out that Hamas might win the election? Or is this just a matter of media relations, a stupid quote taken out of context, and you did not really mean to say "I've asked why nobody saw it coming". "Nobody" in the U.S. government, anyway.

Ladies and gentlemen, if you struggle to understand why and how America's foreign relationships are in such bad shape, or why the war in Iraq is going so poorly, you now have an answer. This from the woman who used to be the nation's foremost intelligence officer!

See: "Rice Admits U.S. Underestimated Hamas Strength," by Steven R. Weisman, The New York Times, 30 January 2006.

21 January 2006

Surrender (No Cheap Trick)

A. D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Feminism & Me, Part III. A review of The Surrender: an erotic memoir, by Toni Bentley, published 2005 by Regan Books/HarperCollins Publishers, New York and The Camera My Mother Gave Me, by Susanna Kaysen, published 2002 by Vintage Books, New York.

I must express great admiration for Toni Bentley, for bravery in the line of authorship – for writing a book about her experiences with anal sex, about a relationship she built around anal sex, and for doing so in a way that addresses almost every single detail a reader might think to question, all in a tidy 205 pages in my paperback edition. Reading the book, I would periodically slip in my bookmark, close the covers, and flip it over to stare at the small black-and-white author photo on the book’s backside. Is that placement intentionally evocative? For a book about anal sex, putting something on the backside seems like it must be (and anyway, most paperbacks don’t have an inside flap, the other logical place for an author photo). Without a doubt, though, the small photo of Bentley is more intriguing, interesting, and provocative than the trying-too-hard photo-painting of a sheer panty-clad woman’s ass that hides just under the book’s cover.

My copy of the book is covered with accolades – that’s not a pun – and notations that it was “A New York Times Notable Book,” and was called a variety of positive, sex-neutral adjectives by the likes of The New York Observer, Vanity Fair, and Entertainment Weekly. (Entertainment Weekly reviewed a memoir about anal sex? Yes, folks, and there’s no going back now.) The Village Voice reviewed it, too – and liked it, of course. However, I must take issue with the pull quote from Jerry Stahl, who apparently said of the book: “Think Story of O with a high IQ and a sense of humor...” Oh, come on; did Stahl read more than the first chapter? The Story of O is about pleasure through, by, and with pain (among other things); The Surrender has pain, physical and emotional, but Bentley is seeking a much broader, less-tortured kind of pleasure than dear old O. Plus, she’s not French, and that has to makes a difference.

I want to recommend this book. I also want to warn that it may not be for the faint of heart or weak of sphincter, and anyone who over-empathizes with characters in books and movies may want to reconsider. The Surrender is funny, almost heartwarming and, as I have said, Bentley leads us through “it” in great detail, down to a lesson in dry-shaving her vagina – which, she assures the reader, is much better than a waxing or a wet shave. (Pages 120-122) I, for one, will have to take her word for it.


I’m not here to poke fun at Bentley, her ass, or her book about her ass and what she likes to do with it. I honestly liked it (the book, I mean). It is, in a bizarre way, a marker of independence and achievement: a not-trying-too-hard-Nancy Friday, non-fruity-Anais Nin, serious, well-written erotic memoir that also does not resort purely to the pain/pleasure dialectic of the Marquis de Sade or Story of O. This is not about a woman getting hurt, or seeking to be hurt, even if sex and love may both involve some pain. Moreover, the author uses no pseudonym, an author photo is included, and this from a woman who has not explicitly made her career out of being explicit. Bentley may wish she was Jenna Jameson or some other porn star, but that isn’t her history, except perhaps in her own fantasies or as expressed through another of her books.

Right there, though, is where the book runs into the first of its very few hurdles, for what it says about Bentley (since she does not position herself as trying to speak for anyone else, except in a few instances where she does so directly). I selected this book for my Feminism & Me reading project because of these nitty-gritty elements rather than the book’s specific focal point; Bentley’s frames of reference are what caught my attention, more than her expressed love of what she often calls “ass-fucking” (e.g., Page 103). Not to mention that critiquing a memoir represents a particular challenge; I cannot really take issue with the subjective nature of Bentley’s experiences so much as how she chooses to express or categorize them. It means trying to be careful about drawing parallels from Bentley to the rest of the world, female or otherwise.

Still... Chapter: “Sex History”; page 23; upon masturbating successfully for the first time, with an improved technique learned after seeing a porn film: “Thus began my long and secret career as an aspiring porn star.” Chapter: “Scanty Panties”; page 47; on the visual effect of a particular pair of crotchless panties: “And it looks absolutely beyond porn queen, like the summit of high art – like a Modigliani by Mondrian.” (I challenge you to match that combination of visual references, which may owe more to alliteration than actual art, but works anyway.) Chapter: “The Unwritten Rules”; page 97; about some of the rules in her relationship with “A-Man,” her ass-focused, ass-fucking beau: “We’ve never been to a movie and don’t plan on going to one, ever. Why would we? We are the movie: the porn that can never be – visually astounding, spontaneously inventive, genitally graphic, and viscerally soul-searing.”

References to how certain things – actions, looks, sexual positions – are very “porn” are dotted throughout The Surrender. Who am I to object? Ok, we’ve established already that I am nobody in relation to Bentley’s own experiences. But still, I must object – and to that last quote in particular. As if the entire frame of reference for a movie that Bentley and her A-Man might attend together must, by default or by nature of their relationship, be a pornographic movie? There’s a logical leap here that is missing. I understand that she and A-Man might not want to go catch the anniversary showing of “Gone With the Wind” or “When Harry Met Sally,” but surely there’s a lot of ground to cover in the world of film before one gets to “The Devil In Miss Jones.” Enough pussy-footing around, enough hinting at back-door problems: I found myself bothered by Bentley’s use of the world of porn as her frame of reference for whatever it is she deems the ne plus ultra of sexiness. I do not object, and am not condemning her; it is what it is. But I found these kinds of references artificial, contrived – as the very industry of pornography itself is; when was the last time you saw a “viscerally soul-searing” piece of pornography? – rather than honest in a manner more in keeping with the openness of rest of the book, a book that tackles a subject most people would deny ever thinking about.

Bentley wants her liberation as a woman to be total, not to mention crystal clear to the reader:

Besides, pussies have just been through too much. Give them a rest. They are old news – tired, betrayed, overused, reused, abused – have been overly publicized, politicized, and redeemed. ... Pussies are now too politically correct. The ass is where it’s at: the playground for anarchists, iconoclasts, artists, explorers, little boys, horny men, and women desperate to relinquish, even temporarily, the power that has been so hard won and cruelly awarded by the feminist movement. Ass-fucking realigns the balance for a woman with too much power – and a man with too little. (I think this explains the prevalence of butt-fucking in heterosexual porn: masses of men, refugees from feminism, watching, hard and ever-hopeful.) (Page 84)

I have unpacked this paragraph over and over again in my mind since first reading it, and I still wind up with the same cluster of circular-logic conclusions: feminism has politicized “regular” sex; ass-fucking is transgressive; ass-fucking is so normal that it’s highly prevalent in pornography; pornography is normal’ and porn and porno styles, as previously noted, are sexy. Bentley wants to have it both ways: she wants the whole anal act to be transgressive – because it makes the story compelling, and it’s what binds it all together, and it’s a rejection of all that over-blown feminist malarkey. Plus, it sells books. And yet at the same time, we readers need to believe that it’s all somewhat normal, because if we place Bentley in the role of O (to take one example), she’ll have a harder time getting, and keeping, the sympathy of most readers.

At times, I wished that I had Ariel Levy around, to talk through The Surrender with me. Is Bentley a liberated woman, or a Female Chauvinist Pig – or a liberated woman in Pig’s clothing? Bentley is not above a little hard-won objectification of her own, and not just of herself. Her not-quite-love story falls apart, as one might have expected from the first, at the sight of another woman’s ass (or, whatever). The existence of The Other Woman (a/k/a “mousy brunette”) is no surprise to Bentley, but when A-Man winds up having to start thinking about choices, Bentley starts to wonder about Mousy Brunette: “I also became inordinately, insanely fixated on the size of her ass. It was, after all, twice mine, if not more ... maybe two and half times [sic] mine ... If A-Man so loved my tight ass, how could he love that wide one, too?” (Page 179) Putting aside the obvious fact that Mousy Brunette’s ass-interior might rival Bentley’s for strength and sexy-turpitude – its overall size notwithstanding – it is a disappointing end indeed to find that Bentley calls the whole deal off because of this.

She’s got courage, our author, even though she denies having it (Page 194). For me, though, the jury is still out on where all this truly leads, whether there is a bigger lesson one can draw here. Bentley’s courage is manifest not in her ability to end a relationship that was so clearly on the shoals anyway; rather, it is her fearless assessment of the situation, bottom to bottom: liberated enough to know what she wants, what she likes, and to start asking for it (broadly defined) from whatever men she sees, following 298 ass-fucks from the A-Man. Nor is she a sucker to the Politically Correct feminist nonsense that tries to deny biology or human nature; “It was us women asking for information that we didn’t really want that precipitated the events that followed” (Page 175) she noted, as her relationship with A-Man started to fall apart. How apt, and refreshingly honest. We all make mistakes. So, if Bentley finds pornography “sexy” or a helpful frame of reference for how to dress up her vagina or keep her heels on during sex, well, more power to her, no? As much as someone would surely deny it, isn’t this what feminism was really all about: the freedom to make choices? And even, if one wants, to surrender.


There is one more issue to confront in Bentley’s memoir: her language. I made reference above to how she chooses to “dress up her vagina,” but what’s interesting is that “vagina” is not Bentley’s word-of-choice for hers. Bentley has a “pussy,” and no matter whether it’s bald or hairy, clean, wet, excited, or ignored, that’s her word for it.

What does the language we use say about us? What difference does it make to call ones vagina a vagina or a pussy? I tend to stay away from the academic world of linguistic analysis because it strives so hard for a largely elusive objectivity. I also typically subscribe to the George Carlin view that “There are no bad words. [Just] Bad Thoughts. Bad Intentions.” (See George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words.) What if a person grew up being taught to call their vagina a pussy” (a scenario bizarrely easy to imagine)? Perhaps Bentley was one such woman. And what if that is truly the word she became most comfortable with, before she was even old enough to be aware of its broader social usage and connotations?

Enough with the questions. Susanna Kaysen’s The Camera My Mother Gave Me affirmed for me the hollowness of Bentley’s exterior bravado – “pussy” this and “porno” that; it starts to read like an act. Maybe it is a reflection of Female Chauvinist Pig behavior, or a manifestation of it. Perhaps porn images really are integral to how Bentley sees herself, and her vagina, but I suspect that it is an attempt to use what she must consider sexy common parlance, language that is responsive to the Female Chauvinist Pig-driven environment in which we live. A world where a vagina is what a gynecologist looks at – but a pussy, well, a pussy has fun.

Kaysen’s memoir chronicles a pain that developed in her vagina, and the problems it caused for her vagina, for the rest of her body, for her psyche, and for her relationships, as well as her attempts to treat it through one doctor and one intervention after another. Much like the relative merits of dry-shaving versus waxing one’s vagina, I can only go so far in comprehending what Kaysen must have felt, and felt like, throughout this ordeal. Yet even without the corresponding anatomy, it is a moving story because it is so utterly human.

Part of what ensures this is Kaysen’s use of language; not once does she refer to her vagina by any other words. The word “pussy” is used a handful of times, by her boyfriend (e.g., Pages 44, 49); an Italian friend refers to “la Passera,” or “the sparrow,” an Italian term of endearment, Kaysen tells us (Page 26). Otherwise, what we’re talking about as the nexus of the author’s pain and pleasure is her vagina. Perhaps, in the real-life version of the many conversations with friends and doctors that Kaysen recounts, she used the word less frequently or employed a euphemism of some sort; but I doubt it. The language in this book is spare, direct, uncomplicated and uncluttered.

It is not hard to image a tribute to anal sex written by Kaysen; she makes a convincing case for herself as a very sexual being. It would be dramatically different, though: despite Kaysen’s pain, and Bentley’s passionate devotion to her most private parts, Kaysen is the one who seems more in touch with herself, her body, and her womanhood. I will conclude with a quote from The Camera My Mother Gave Me that makes the point quite well:

I wanted my vagina back.

I wanted unpredictability, upset, waywardness. I wanted the world to regain the other dimension that only the vagina can perceive. Because the vagina is the organ that looks to the future. The vagina is potential. It’s not emptiness, it’s possibility, and possibility was exactly what was missing from my life. (Page 127)

14 January 2006

Women Aren’t Commodities

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Feminism & Me, Part II. A review of Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, by Ariel Levy, published 2005 by Free Press, New York.

My familiarity with the video phenomenon known as “Girls Gone Wild” is limited to the advertisements one sees late at night on television networks like “Spike TV.” Reading Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs is both an inducement to go out and buy some of these videos – under the rubric of “research,” you understand – and an effective affirmation of what one assumes about the women who participate in their creation. The dominant themes are youthfulness, beauty, drunkenness, bi-curiosity, and regret (not necessarily in that order), all in service of male titillation, and under the guise of an assertion of liberty by those females who participate as well as those who watch.

So begins Levy’s book, as she follows a “Girls Gone Wild” crew around on location in Florida, interviewing the filmmakers and their subjects, and capturing the themes enumerated above while dwelling, in the end, on the presence of regret and what it means for the idea of women’s liberation and equality. Female Chauvinist Pigs is an entertaining read, fun and serious in turn, wittily-written, and definitely frightening for what it says about our culture and how we perceive and treat women and girls. Levy’s thesis is stated directly in her introduction, when she defines Female Chauvinist Pigs (FCPs) as “women who make sex objects of other women and of ourselves.” (Page 4) The book proceeds to show how this kind of behavior (and the faux-feminist philosophy from which it stems) is not so much the next phase of women’s liberation as a tangential path to that long-term goal, a misunderstanding of the ideas of “liberation” and “equality.”

At its most effective, Female Chauvinist Pigs takes snippets of our culture and dissects them, throwing back in our face assumptions about women’s decisions to expose themselves, both metaphorically and not. Levy interviewed a broad range of people – feminists, pornographers, and feminist pornographers; women, girls acting like women, and women who call themselves “womyn” – and teases apart their actions and statements, and exploring the different definitions that underline some of the words they use. Throughout the book she tries to distinguish between “sex,” “sexuality,” and “sexiness,” in a way that acknowledges individual differences and desires while rejecting the implicit cultural assumptions that a woman needs to be sexy, or that there is anything wrong with being sexy, or that to be sexy requires (essentially) exposure. For example, after an interview with Playboy’s Christie Hefner (and others at the magazine), and after looking at a Playboy “pictorial” featuring American Olympic athletes, Levy expresses regret that women (or at least, those women) are not yet “ready to think of ‘sexy’ and ‘athletic’ as mutually inclusive,” thus the “spread” of these women on these pages. She pounds home her point about FCPs and expresses dismay that, with Christie Hefner at the helm, such treatments are women “doing this to ourselves.” (Page 44) A similar point is made about Sheila Nevins, the head of documentary programming for HBO and the executive producer of a show called “G-String Divas.” (Page 91)

One of the strongest chapters of the book is titled “The Future That Never Happened,” in which Levy explores the evolution of the feminist movement from its early days through the heyday era in the 1970s – and the impact of feminism on the subsequent creation of the FCP. Two characters feature most strongly here: feminist theorist, author and icon Susan Brownmiller, and, in notable contrast, author Erica Jong, whom Levy calls “one of the most famous sex-positive feminists.” (Pages 75-76) Unquestionably Jong emerges victorious from this virtual battle, as Levy makes the case for how Brownmiller’s uncompromising (Page 46) expression of feminism, its role, and the role of women – her Utopian vision of women in the world – slowly but surely squeezes all the joy from the very idea of sex and sexuality.

For Levy, it seems, the fact that the radical wing of feminism gained and retained control of the feminist revolution meant that for subsequent generations of women overt, seemingly-in-their-control expressions of sex and sexuality felt liberating and thrilling in its own right. Contrast that with Jong’s more realistic and grounded assessment: “The women who buy the idea that flaunting your breasts in sequins is power – I mean, I’m all for that stuff – but let’s not get so far into the tits and ass that we don’t notice how far we haven’t come. Let’s not confuse that with real power.” (Page 76) That, in a nutshell, is the mistake of the FCP.

Later, Levy moves on to the dazed-and-confused sexuality of today’s teenagers, raised within and confronted by a society that is split between two competing imperatives, one capitalist and the other moral. Arguably, those two do not have to be at odds; but Christian rock sales initiatives aside, they seem to be competing for the soul of the FCP and their younger “Pigs in Training” (also one of Levy’s chapters; Page 139). The capitalist goals are to sell products, an image, a style and a way of life, something to which teens are typically susceptible. The moral goals are driven by the increasing power of religious conservatives, who have (among other things) taken control of the American sex-education agenda and backed it into its unhealthy abstinence-only corner – a framework for looking at sex and sexuality that is as much of a Utopian fantasy as the goals of the radical feminists. Addressing the conflicting messages to teens, Levy writes:

If you process this information through the average adolescent mental computer, you end up with a printout that reads something like this: Girls have to be hot. Girls who aren’t hot probably need breast implants. Once a girl is hot, she should always be as close to naked as possible all the time. Guys should like it. Don’t have sex. (Page 158)

If that isn’t an effective teaser for Female Chauvinist Pigs, I don’t know what is.


Still, as much as Female Chauvinist Pigs is an enjoyable and compelling read, it is hard to escape discomfort at what is, in the end, a perspective as lacking in nuance as the very one Levy attacks. First are the differences in biology, and what that means in psychological terms. Levy does accept and acknowledge that men seem to find visual (sexual) stimuli more interesting than women, and her view on sex and sexuality seems generally healthy: that what consenting adults choose to do is, naturally and healthily, their business. Levy also tries to address the feminist movement’s failure to reconcile adequately people’s fundamental value of and interest in sex and sexuality, and to accept these as healthy; the uncompromising positions of Brownmiller and others, Levy implies, further lead to the movement’s fragmentation and the subsequent arrival of the FCP.

However, there is more to it – more that goes unexpressed in Female Chauvinist Pigs. If nothing else, the differing biological imperatives and views of men and women keeps the world interesting by providing a never-ending supply of sexual tension – and there is nothing implicitly wrong with sexual tension. Yes, humanity needs to continue moving to a healthy view of sex and sexuality – a view that can accommodate people making choices for themselves – and away from the unhealthy and inhumane, i.e., sexual trafficking in humans, or homophobia, or chauvinism. But there also needs to be more effort to locate, and support, the sex-positive middle-ground. Are women who buy sex toys from other women, toys that they may use by themselves or with others (male or female), buying into a broadly-degrading culture, or are they practicing their individual rights within that broader culture? Can’t the culture accommodate such individual choices without necessarily seeing them as detrimental to the larger women’s “cause”?

This feeds into another mistaken feminist theory: that male “enslavement” of women is predicated on male domination of the culture through brute force – and that for women, the path to victory is to reject this sexuality-driven servitude and, as Levy quotes feminist Jacqui Ceballos, “Women! Use your brains, not your bodies!” (Page 88) If only it were that simple. Anyone who has ever spent any time in the American corporate world knows that there can be a wide range within the behavior of men, and it is not based on any single stereotype. Some men lead, and others do not; some men lead through evident intellect, while others reveal forceful personalities, and still others use their physical attributes to attract and hold positions of power; some men even use all of these qualities at the same time. Nor is this just a recent phenomenon: look at how men are presented in movies from the 1930s or 1940s, well before the arrival of the so-called “metrosexual,” where they flirt, may be handsome or brainy, and seek victory through any avenue. Or the heroes of ancient epics, such as Odysseus, who exhibited brains, brawn, and beauty, and to some extent used all of these in an effort to achieve his goals.

Of course feminism in its radical-utopian form was doomed by its rejection of sex and sexuality as legitimate elements of womanhood, components that women could display, deploy as assets, and even enjoy. In declaring bodies off-limits, feminism simultaneously took away one weapon in the female arsenal while making the prohibited aspects of the body all that more alluring. While Levy addresses some of this, her argument would have benefited from being more explicit about it – and more accommodating of the idea that not all women who flaunt themselves (in whatever fashion) are FCPs by default.

Similarly, there is a very obvious Nietzschean analogy in this feminist project, a women-driven “transvaluation of values”: an attempt to redefine the “you’re good, we’re bad” construct, and to shift the focus from women-as-inferior onto men (and their all-consuming sex drive). Its failure is the result of this same biological imperative: many men like sex, but so do many women, and that fact cannot be changed by mere philosophy. As Levy points out, the Christian morality play that has pushed the abstinence-only sex-ed framework is a tough sell in the face of very natural, enduring, and powerful teenage hormones. But, again, looking beyond the terrors of pubescence at the world of grown women, not every woman who elects to buy “sexy” shoes, or to flirt with the person cleaning the pool, or actually likes looking at not-necessarily-artsy pictures of naked women is, implicitly, placing herself into the category of a Female Chauvinist Pig.

Finally, the biggest problem with Female Chauvinist Pigs is Levy’s inability or refusal to accommodate mistakes and the idea that people can learn from them. Her first chapter is highly effective and compelling, but when she interviews the tipsy young women who flirted, kissed, and flashed for the “Girls Gone Wild” cameras, their subsequent regret is characterized more in dramatic, end-of-life terms than mere end-of-innocence realizations. Most of us make mistakes, drunken or otherwise, sexual or otherwise. What characterizes our humanity as well as our intellect is our ability to learn from these mistakes, to avoid making the same poor decisions over and over again if we realize we are not happy with our actions.

Clearly, flashing for “Girls Gone Wild” is not for every woman. Clearly, “Girls Gone Wild” is hardly value-neutral; just because women freely agree to participate does not necessarily mean that the videos are not exploitative. And clearly, a society where the values of “Girls Gone Wild” dominate is probably not a healthy one. That said, society will never eliminate the FCP and her ilk entirely; such types have surely been around since the dawn of time, since the first cave-woman set out to steal her neighbor’s man by hiking upwards the bottom of her fur dress. As a society, we should teach women and girls how to make intelligent, independent decisions about their lives (and the same is true for boys and men), and to find the sex-and-sexuality path that truly makes them comfortable and happy. The health of women writ large will ultimately be improved most by striving for a community with such a broad and inclusive set of strengths and perspectives that it can accommodate and absorb even the occasional Female Chauvinist Pig.

12 January 2006

Alito: Entering Day 4

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

First, the award for "Most Obvious Headline and Lede" goes to The New York Times, which yesterday afternoon had the following running on the paper's homepage:

In 3rd Day of Hearings, Alito Draws Criticism and Praise
The panel's Republicans praised Judge Alito's credentials and integrity, while Democrats asked sharp questions.

No kidding!

Second, a blogger by the name of Subcomandante Bob submitted a comment in reference to my Alito entry from yesterday -- but the Blogger comment system seems to have eaten it. So, I thought I'd repost his comment, which was a reference to his own (entertaining) web site report on the hearings. He wrote:

More on the Alito hearings at National Nitwit, America's number one source for disinformation

Keep watching those hearings, folks. It's democracy in reaction.

11 January 2006

Alito: Entering Day 3

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

As we enter the third day of Judge Samuel Alito's confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate, the challenge for anyone concerned about Alito's Constitutional views is figuring out where to direct all the negative energy. I have an answer.

First, let's recap. Two things seem very clear at this point:

1) Judge Alito is not Judge Bork. He may hold equally radical views, but Alito is not going to give himself away in the manner Bork once did.

2) Judge Alito is smart. He knows how to handle himself in front of this Senate committee, and in front of the cameras, and he has been careful to assert an image of modesty and deliberation, while also answering questions -- such as about the importance of judicial precedent -- in ways that allow comfortable intellectual wiggle room. (Alito implied that sometimes precedents must be overturned, in order to achieve a "true" understanding of the Constitution; he cited the Brown v. Board of Education decision overturning Plessy v. Ferguson's Constitutional endorsement of racial discrimination. It makes the point about judicial precedent more difficult to argue.)

That the hearings have not shown themselves to be the spectacle that surrounded the Bork or Thomas hearings does not mean that we shouldn't watch -- or that they should not take place. Despite the back-slapping and grandstanding of some Republican Senators, these hearings are an important component of our democratic and political process, and Senators on both sides of the aisle should take this opportunity to grill -- yes, grill; press as hard as they can -- on Judge Alito's views on issues that the Senators consider important to themselves and their constituencies.

BUT, Senators of both parties should also quit grumbling in public about these proceedings and about Judge Alito. The Republicans know perfectly well that this "advise and consent" role is critical, since they took up the aggressor mantle themselves during hearings under the Clinton administration. For the GOP Senators to pass on the opportunity to assert their Constitutionally-appointed position in this case is shameful. Surely, not every position Judge Alito has taken is one the Republicans support. And quit complaining about the very reasonable questions asked by your Democratic colleagues; it adds nothing to the public conversation about Alito's qualifications.

The "quit grumbling" message is even more important for the Democrats. Face it, Senators: unless someone comes up with a Bork-style smoking gun, Judge Alito will be voted onto the Supreme Court by the Senate. To waste your committee time -- and your national airtime -- stating over and over and over again that Judge Alito is replacing the "moderate" Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (a recent Democratic hero) is pointless. We all know that the Supreme Court doesn't work that way; there are no assigned seats, no seats designated for particular types of believers. Asserting that point ad nauseum is not going to prevent Alito's confirmation, nor will it push him towards moderation once on the Court.

Instead, for Democrats, the best way to fight the impact and influence of future Supreme Court Justice Alito is through ideas and effective policies. These are things that are sadly lacking. Instead of harping on and on about the same set of issues -- abortion, affirmative action -- that many Americans clearly have mixed feelings about, why not evolve those positions to meet more contemporary American needs and realities. The U.S. of 2006 is not the U.S. of 1946; the role of women and minorities is different, and better; different and better does not mean we should be complacent, but it may mean that a change in political philosophy is necessary. The same is true for Social Security, health care, domestic security, and the Iraq war: new thinking is needed on all of these issues, issues in which the Republican-lead Congress, and a Republican President, have very clearly failed. Yet the Democrats have failed, too, missing every opportunity to provide any governance ideas that move away from the ground established under the Roosevelt or Johnson administrations and towards the 21st Century.

Based on what I have read about Judge Samuel Alito, and his answers during these hearings thus far, I have strong concerns. But as I think every Senator on the Judiciary committee has noted, the Supreme Court is only one of three branches of American government. It's time for Congress to step up, and the time is long overdue for the Democrats to lead that process.

08 January 2006

Feminism & Me

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I have a love-hate relationship with feminism – the theory, not the practice.

Maybe, as a man, my thoughts on the subject are irrelevant; maybe it does not matter, and never has, whether men generally support feminism. But I do not believe that; fundamentally, the goals of feminism – equality for women – cannot be achieved without men, without me, without the participation of the other 49% of the global population. Women’s rights are, and should be, an issue for men, too. Strong, healthy, vibrant, expressive women are critical to sustaining human life in its healthiest form; this is not about brains or beauty, it is about a basic right to fair and equal co-existence. Men should be more afraid of repressed women than liberated ones.

So right there is one of my biggest problems with feminism-the-theory: its name. A movement predicated on equality for women must fail from the start when it refers to itself in a manner that is as exclusionary as the chauvinism it seeks to fight. This is one of my oldest complaints; I used to argue the point with (female) friends in high school, wondering aloud why “equalism” wouldn’t have been a better term (something implicitly acknowledged in the naming of the failed “Equal Rights Amendment”; it may have been about women, but calling it the “Women’s Rights Amendment” would have been a non-starter). Decades later, I have yet to hear a reasonable answer to the question.

Like it or not, however, the point seems nearly moot. Who cares what a movement is called when you simply have to live with it? And so, what is “it” anyway? Living in New York City in this day and age means contending with the realities of two kinds of feminism – sex-based feminism and intellect-based feminism – neither of which, on its own, seems very productive for achieving the long-term goal of real equality for women. Nor do these two feminisms look likely to meet and make peace any time soon, which is a shame because their enmity for each other is the gap anti-feminist men (and women) continue to exploit.


I am talking about the pervasive culture of sex – not sexuality, but sex – that is focused almost exclusively on and around women: magazines (especially their covers), display mannequins, billboards and ads, music videos, books, celebrity news, and more. Skin – glistening, glowing, voluptuous, female skin – is displayed literally everywhere. We are not inured to it. Rather, it has affected us so deeply we cannot even tell any more that it does affect us. Yet how could it not?

I am talking about a culture that not only allows but actually encourages young women – formerly known as girls – to present themselves publicly in a way that emphasizes their sex, their gender, even as their sexuality is still very much in development. Come on, don’t kid yourself: sweatpants that have the word “Juicy” written across the ass really are about something very specific, and that “something” is not the fact that “Juicy” has become a successful brand.

I am talking about a set of cultural standards for men and boys that has only marginally shifted in the last few decades. Witness the recent news that Morgan Stanley fired several employees for taking clients to a strip club.1 The shocker should not be that Morgan Stanley sacked these guys, the shocker should be that such clichéd behavior is happening in the first place!

I am talking about a culture that still views men, and male sex and sexuality as more dangerous and more dirty than that of women. A shirtless guy, maybe a Calvin Klein ad of a man in tight briefs, is about all we can tolerate; the public scope of male nudity is minimal by comparison to women. And when was the last time you saw a guy wearing an article of clothing that said “Juicy”? What is the male equivalent? There isn’t one.2


I am talking about a culture that still has not resolved the conflict between beauty and brains, between sex and sexuality, between freely-made individual choices and group-wide exploitation – all because it continues to see these issues in terms of a conflict.

Original feminist theory was predicated on that conflict, that women were being exploited for their gender, their sex, for their ability to satisfy male desire, receive sperm, bear and raise children, cook and clean. Female brains had to fight to be used outside of the home, and feminism as a theory and a movement was about leading and winning that fight ... in denial of the fact that these things are negative only when viewed as the sum total of female capabilities. Of course women should be free to choose not to do those things! Women should be free to pursue whatever dreams and goals they want! But to deny that men may find women attractive – for legitimate, and indeed valuable, biological reasons – is pointless; to deny that women may find men attractive for the same reason is equally pointless. So too with women to women, or men to men. And to deny that these attractions are healthy, not to mention necessary to sustain the human race, is absurd; sex is about more than procreation, but procreation is hardly a minor issue, even in an age of in-vitro fertilization.

The absurdity of feminism is summed up in the famous statement “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” It’s funny, but it isn’t true – any more than any one of us needs anyone else, ever.


I cannot solve all these problems, but I can keep exploring them. And so I will, through a series of book reviews over the coming weeks, that look at the role and presentation of women in our society. A few notes to start:

  • Books have been chosen because they are: recent (within the last two or three years); written by women; and popular, which is to say, something close to being a best-seller. By default that also means they are not likely to be very scholarly. Indeed, that is very much the point: I have chosen books that almost any reader could pick up and read for themselves, but that would still, hopefully, have some intellectual challenge and stimulation to them. I have also tried to mix up books that look outward (e.g., analyze our culture) and books that look inward (e.g., memoirs), to vary the perspective.

  • I will review and (attempt to) analyze the books according to the following criteria:

    • How does the book present sex and sexuality, sex versus sexuality?

    • How does the book address body image?

    • How does the book present feminism, the theory and the practice?

    • Is the author open to diverse or divergent points of view?

    • What does the book say about women’s obligations in society, in relation to feminism?

    • What does the book say about men’s obligations in society, in relation to feminism?

Next week: review number one with a look at female chauvinism...

1“Morgan Stanley Fires Male Staffers For Strip-Club Trip,” by Randall Smith, The Wall Street Journal, 5 January 2006.

2Would I be happier of men and boys were as exploited as women? Of course not – but that’s not really the question, or the point.

02 January 2006

The Glib Factor, Segment 16

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

President George W. Bush and his minions are gung-ho for Executive branch power. But Mr. Bush won’t always be in office...

Washington, DC – 2 September, 2013 – Unassociated Press – It is a quiet Labor Day weekend in the nation’s capital, with Congress on recess, schools anxiously preparing to open on Tuesday, and children out enjoying the beautiful weather of late-summer Washington. And now that the United States has entered the ninth month of its newest presidency, it seems a good opportunity to take stock. We must admit to ourselves that if we were writing this in 2006, we would never have said any of it would have been possible! Two “firsts” in American presidential history, back to back, radically shifting our perspective of ourselves. So, ready to revisit the last nine months – and the last five years, too? Let’s go!

November 2008. Powered by Vice President Dick Cheney’s drive for not-entirely-behind-the-scenes power (with a power-boost from his new artificial heart, installed in 2007 after New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd cut out the remaining square millimeter of Cheney’s natural heart), the people of the U.S. elected their first African-American President, Alan Keyes. The Keyes-Cheney ticket was bolstered by their public acceptance of the mantel of executive power established by President George W. Bush, and by Keyes’ insistence that the ancient Mesopotamians (now modern-day Iraqis) were, in fact, Christians.

February 2010. It was a rough ride for President Keyes just to get to this point in his term. Somewhere in the previous twelve months, Americans decided they did not approve of some of the major Keyes-Cheney initiatives. Those included:

  • The Executive Order referred to as “Meals First, Mammon Second,” which made it illegal for any married woman to work a second job unless her husband certified that all family meals were accounted for. Since no man could swear to the existence of future meals, the effect was to force women back into the home, permanently. Congress investigated the origins of this Executive Order, but House Speaker Tom Delay could find no Constitutional prohibitions on such actions. The Executive Order only applied to U.S. citizens, thus ensuring that immigrant women could continue to serve as domestic help for American households.

  • National “Take Back The Night” Month, which imposed a nation-wide 8pm curfew for the month of August 2009. As President Keyes said at the time, “This historic act of Congress will ensure that all of our families, without exception, engage in togetherness and bonding. Only by spending time together can Americans build the strong families demanded by God and necessary for the salvation of the Union.” Support for the act bolstered by heavy lobbying by the Association of Television Networks, which out-spent the Restauranteurs & Bars Group by 2 to 1.

  • The overturning of domestic violence laws in January 2010 by the Supreme Court, after effective arguments by the U.S. Solicitor General, and following a rise in wife-beating and child abuse after the August 2009 national curfew. In his majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, simply, “Thy will be done, thy Kingdom come.”

April 2011. A New York Times/FoxNews national poll of 1,273 households found that Americans continued to approve of the scope of executive power established under the Bush-Cheney administration, but that the Keyes-Cheney use of this power was “off-target” and “avoiding American priorities.” Overall ratings for President Keyes were steady at 22%, the lowest ever seen; Vice President Cheney continued to have high approval ratings of 55%, but pollsters believed this was an expression of sympathy for the “Veep In A Bubble,” protected from infection and insulated from unpopular viewpoints. A remarkable 63% of voters called themselves “conservative,” while 48% admited that they would vote for “the ‘right’ Democrat” if one came along.

July 2012. At the Democratic Convention held in Houston, Texas, Senator Hillary Clinton secured the party’s nomination for the upcoming presidential contest, and chose Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank as her running-mate. Initial, post-convention polls showed Clinton-Frank leading the Keyes-Cheney ticket by 7 points. Key platform proposals included a heavy use of executive power to, as Senator Clinton put it, “pick up the many accomplishments Bill began – and finish them off!”

September 2012. While campaigning for Keyes-Cheney, former President George W. Bush, at a campaign stop in southern Indiana, referred to “President Dick,” and mentioned the good work of the Klan in enforcing “family values” throughout the region. The Clinton-Frank lead widened to 12 points in the polls after President Keyes is forced to admit that what Bush said “is sorta true, in a Christian way.”

November 2012. The Clinton-Frank ticket won the popular vote by 4%, and took home a commanding lead in the Electoral College, making Hillary Clinton the nation’s first woman president, and Barney Frank America’s first (openly) gay Vice President. The Democrats also dominated in Congressional races, and returned to a majority in both houses after more than a decade out of power. The Democrats’ legislative victories are believed to hinge, in part, on the revelation that a certain lobbyist with deep ties to almost every elected GOP member ... turned out to be former Senator Strom Thurmond’s “love child” from a Jewish nanny, thus calling into question whether the Republicans deserved to run Congress after all.

January 2013. At her inauguration, President Clinton was sworn in by Justice Ginsburg (filling in for Chief Justice John Roberts who called in sick). In her address to the nation, President Clinton’s speech included the following text:

I want to thank President Keyes for his service to our country. During his historic term as our first African-American President, Alan Keyes upheld the rights and privileges of a strong Executive power like a man, battling the courts to ensure that he could lead the nation with a firm hand and an iron heart-and-lung machine. My victory is not a repudiation of that power, merely a reflection on its use, and I pledge to you today that, with the support of Vice President Frank, we shall continue to lead this great nation forward with the clean “sweep” of ideas and imagination that only a woman can provide. But as you know, I am no ordinary woman, and our new Vice President is no ordinary man.

September 2013. And here we are, nine months in. How does the nation feel about President Clinton now? Many positive indicators remain:

  • Attorney General Joe Lieberman’s Preventative Domestic Privacy Initiative was warmly received across the country, except in New York and California. Powered by a highly-classified pair of super-computers run in conjunction with the National Security Agency and the Visa and Mastercard Purchasing (VAMP) systems, Lieberman’s Justice Department has taken privacy to new levels by ensuring that Americans can only buy or borrow items from a pre-approved list – thus brilliantly eliminating the need for retro-active surveillance. In an unpopular move, even New York’s Times Square Business Improvement District endorsed the program.

  • HillaryCare and HillaryCaid were (finally!) launched, nearly 20 years after first failing to gain steam under her husband Bill Clinton’s administration. The pair of entitlement programs were created by Executive Order and then secondarily endorsed by Congress with a resolution proclaiming it to be “consistent with the goals, desires, and aspirations of this body’s original legislation passed under the Johnson Administration.” The hallmarks of the program include the nationalization of the American pharmaceutical industry, to ensure better access to medicine, and the Doctors And Medical Nurses Draft (DAMN Draft), requiring all second-born children to enter the medical profession, to ensure a steady supply of affordable health-care practitioners.

  • First-born children who opt to become trial lawyers receive free graduate school tuition, under Clinton’s Lawyers Are Untouchable Gurus & Heroes (LAUGH) Act, passed by Congress using money previously allocated to Pell Grants.

  • Following the recommendations of a Blue Ribbon panel lead by Vice President Barney Frank, President Clinton signs an Executive Order creating a national, Value Added Tax of 45% on all non-food consumer sales nation-wide. House Minority Leader Jenna Bush and Senate Minority Leader Mary Cheney both protest, but back down after Clinton threatens to order the National Archives to release documents from the Bush-Cheney presidency.

  • The conclusion of the Iraq war may have cemented the Clinton-Frank place in the history books, when the last of the American troops were brought home and the Coalition Provisional Authority (which took over, again, for the failed Iraqi government in 2011) finally handed over power to the newly-installed Hamas-lead Palestinian Authority. Clinton determined that Iraqis were not, as President Keyes once said, Christians but were, in fact, Palestinians.

As New York Times columnist Bill O’Reilly recently fulminated, in his own reflections on the beginnings of the Clinton-Frank term, “The problem with the Clinton Presidency is that it looks no different from the Clinton Presidency! Americans have exchanged the good, Christian values of Bush, Cheney, and Keyes for the conservatively-liberal values of conservativeness – and yet the liberals have retained all the powers that generations of Republicans spent decades building in the post-Vietnam era. We fought long and hard to win back the rights that every President and Attorney General and police officer and spy in this nation deserves – and now it’s back in their hands. And worst of all, the liberals have not only learned how to use such power, but how to abuse it with the same grace, sweep, and unapologetic clap-trap our guys once offered. It is a national travesty.”

For once, Mr. O’Reilly was right.