• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Is Feminism The New Fascism?

January 2018

George Orwell wrote about our language and its abuse. With a finger atop its pulse, he touched and perceived it in a most keen way. He collected the laggard vital signs and was startled to find a pernicious disease festering below. What he realized was imperceptible to others, but to him, it was manifestly clear: English had descended into an age of decadence, to an era of regress, to a wholly sickly condition from which it couldn’t escape. The language, as he saw it, was suffering the shared fate of those greatest of history’s empires—those European and Asian hegemonies from the Mediterranean Sea to the Hungarian Steppe—who decayed and failed after having indulged themselves to excess from within, and after having succumbed to influence from without. The English language was no different.

In his time, the language had been hijacked by glib propagandists and clever politicians. These two forces, during those rare instances when they weren’t one in the same, were able to combine and suck the English language dry of its life. With rapacity, they imbibed the language’s marrow, sucked up its breath, spoiled its constitution, and left it wilted, anemic, and limp. Weakening it to the point of death, they were then able to re-shape and mold the language into ways that would most readily fill their needs. It was a heist, carried out by linguistic artistry and casuistry, and it changed many of our old definitions—the ones upon which our ancestors agreed—into to trash. Suddenly, they were for naught.

Now, words could be molded, crafted, or contextualized in any way that would optimize their use. To take an example, it happened to that now properly stigmatized marriage of words, Marxist Socialism. This was an ideology, at least in part, to which Orwell adhered throughout most of his life. But the term was corrupted, first by Lenin and then by Stalin, and then later by Mao, Minh, and Castro and Ché, only to be “redeemed” eventually (if one could call it that) by the ill-fated philosophies of people like Trotsky and Luxembourg. As an side, the political banner under which Orwell uneasily stood was Democratic Socialism—a distinction with a difference. His idea of “Democratic” socialism, rather than that which was distinctly “Marxist” was one of a government grounded in collectivization by collective agreement; everyone was unified in wanting the same thing. His was a more benevolent conception at the time, and one antithetical to the prevailing totalitarian regimes of his day.

There, and still today, we see the term Socialism in a state of mire and corruption—perhaps, at least in America, irreparably so—and the same can be said about the term, Fascism. There’s not another word that proves the point more so than this one.

What once referred to an ax begirded by a bundle of sticks (brandished in ancient Rome for its ability to intimidate or wound) has come to mean anything and everything. As such, it now means nothing. It’s been desiccated, expanded, and therefore condemned to living out the rest of its linguistic life as a “skunked” term—or one whose meaning is effectively spoiled. Those who are unaware or otherwise uninterested in the term’s history and its ideological roots have completely extirpated from it all meaning. Instead of referring to a very peculiar, short-lived form of Italian governance during whose existence a small despot ruled with an iron fist, it now means, simply, that which is bad. No longer does the word evoke ideas of autarky, or militancy, or irredentism, or racial supremacy. It’s merely that which we like not. As Orwell observed, the word Fascism “has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies something not desirable”. A far leap indeed from what once the word meant.

I fear that something similar is happening, in our own time and before our eyes, with the word Feminism. It too might find itself in the ever-growing trash heap of skunked terms. It’ll soon sit next to those abused words, among which we count fascism, chauvinism, and awesome; in the past, all meant one thing, and at the present mean nothing. In the case of each, it’s unlikely they’ll be reconciled to their original form. Everyone today is expected to be a feminist, but precious few understand exactly what that association means, nor what its profession entails. There isn’t but one conveniently packaged conception of feminism, but a ladder whose rungs become more confusing with each leap.

The cornerstone, and the place to which all subsequent Feminist movements and derivations return, is what’s known as “First Wave” Feminism. This wave, whose lineage traces itself back to the indefatigable and nourishing well of Mary Wollstonecraft’s thought (she was a British political philosopher and essayist of the later Enlightenment period) is the movement’s most important. With prescient psychological insight, she asserted that “mind has no gender” and that, in the abstract, we are both Adam and Eve. Of course, neurophysiologically and biochemically this isn’t entirely true (in laboratory simulations, for example, a male’s brain tends to react quite differently from that of the female), but on the whole, her revelation couldn’t have been more revolutionary.

It came at a time when Europe was entirely smitten with Rousseauian thought. Jean-Jacques, as the mononymous philosopher was known throughout France (a sign that his preeminence made superfluous the need for a last name) recommended in his book Emile that girls be educated in a way different from the manner in which boys were taught. The best pedagogical approach, in his opinion, would be one that split the sexes into two spheres. Boys on one track, girls on the other; lads equipped for a daring future in civics and industry, lasses for an interminable, well-neigh servile life-sentence in the house. In Rousseau’s ideal world, men would continue their monopoly on matters pertaining to the mind and its cultivation. Females would be excluded from this virile intelligentsia and content themselves with mind-numbingly menial chores.

Wollstonecraft would have none of it. Rousseau might’ve been, in other ways, a man universally acclaimed but on the issue of sex, he couldn’t have been more wrong. Still, though, his was an opinion shared and defended by many paternalistic Frenchmen and Europeans alike. Hers, on the other hand, was a small voice of dissent in this swollen patriarchal sea. She repudiated his ideal of sexist segregation in the world of education in her work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It was a revolutionary and liberating piece, regardless of the derision with which it was received in the stagnant mind of an ancient European paterfamilias. But, the coming years would prove that her philosophy’s time had come. American abolitionists began to take note, utilitarians like John Stuart Mill began writing supportively in response, egalitarians awoke to the self-evident truth that woman is, by birth, on an equal footing with man, and the seeds for the suffrage movement began firmly taking root.

Wollstonecraft thrust upon us this first, germinal wave of Feminism. In America, it blossomed, slowly but deeply into what would become our nation’s first basic enumeration of voting and legal rights for all—regardless of sex. Thence, the movement headed back to France, where it would spend a few fruitful years in one of modern philosophy’s most prodigious of minds. That belonged to none other than Simone de Beauvoir.

She was born into privilege, but not so much as to disincline her toward work. Her family draped itself in aristocratic pretensions, but she bristled against this vapid bourgeois life. Ethics, existentialism, and eventually, feminism, were the gems that would adorn her life and dazzle her intellectual curiosity. With her lapidary skill, she chiseled into the Feminist movement what I consider its most important book.

Her work, The Second Sex, was a new force with which the world was made to reckon. With unparalleled philosophical zeal, she took it upon herself to analyze everyone from the Hellenist pre-Socratics to the misogynist Schopenhauer. From Greek to German, then to now, the investigation of women’s role was an endless thing. She bounced from Hecuba and Pandora and Electra to Eve and Aristotle and Hegel to Freud and always back to Jean-Paul Sartre. She tracked the matrilineal fall and the patriarchal rise. Her work was incisive, panoptic, unrelenting, and boundlessly smart. In her, it’s my steadfast belief that feminism reached its apotheosis.

She stood, though, during Feminism’s interregnum. The first wave had awoken everyone with a splash, but it receded. Beauvoir filled the gap for a while, but it wasn’t long before a new wave spilled forth. It swelled in her wake and would soon douse society for the better part of three decades beginning in 1960.

Compared with the first wave, the second was less concrete, more abstract; less provincial, more universal; less Lockean more Marxian. The striving was for sexual license, the demand for reproductive rights, and the ultimate, consuming struggle for social equality. Led by the likes of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, the Second Wave had the temerity to question woman’s pre-ordained station in life. Was she, like her mother and grandmother before, fated for a life of alienation in the house? Was she to endure a life of immanence and stasis under a boorish man’s thumb? Not if these women had anything to say about it—and in the first-person accounts of Friedan and Steinem, they did. Women had begun reclaiming that most innate proprietary right (mainly, their bodies) and encroaching upon those historically male-dominated careers. A right to an abortion was considered inalienable and they began seeking and earning leadership positions in business, finance, politics, and academia. The momentum, it seemed, was building.

If the Second Wave was, as we now think it to have been, a socially-significant deluge of change, the third was an imperceptible mist. It was a trough to the Second Wave’s peak. It was ambiguous, brief, and in many ways, impotent. It abandoned the communal message of universal solidarity that the Second Wave embraced and instead urged its followers to look within. There, searching in their own souls, the Third Wave feminists found their Geist but something lacked. They were missing their predecessor’s rigor, specificity, and irrepressible force. Unlike their Second-Wave mothers and aunts, the feminists of the Third Wave embraced a return to effeminacy. They did so by re-acquainting themselves with the tell-tale accoutrements of male oppression: rosy-red lipstick, liberally displayed décolletage, and heretically pumped-up high heels shoes. They had liberated themselves to sexual license, often gratuitously, and were beginning to bend the mores of gender and of sex by merging the societal with the biological.

Every new generation has a tendency to respond with contempt to that from which their own sprang. Each century looks upon the last with frigidity, as if it could never compete. But the Third Wave offered little in the way of an ideological replacement for its Second Wave forbearers. The Second Wave’s momentum had stumbled, and in the Fourth (and at present, final) Wave, Feminists hope it can be retrieved and carried forth once again. This wave, youthful though it may be, has a list of grievances and poised, mature complaints. In some ways, it has a chance to compensate for the inert Third Wave by resurrecting the Second Wave’s spirit. Its gripes, from its most pressing to its least, include but certainly aren’t limited to sexual abuse (and the seriousness with which it’s prosecuted), unequal pay for equivalent work, and unrealistic expectations for the feminine physique (and the consequences of not conforming to what’s become a nearly emaciated womanly ideal).

With all that said, though, the Fourth Wave does risk becoming another forgettable flash in the long struggle for gender equality, much like the Third did. When examined under a discerning, disinterested economic lens, the gender pay gap appears to be overstated at best and spurious at worst. It’s a sober yet empirical point that economists like Thomas Sowell, philosophers like Christina Hoff Sommers, and psychologists like Jordan Peterson regularly and convincingly make. They attribute the perceived disparity to many things (including absence for child-rearing and agreeableness while negotiating) but the accidental endowment of one’s genitalia seems to bear little on one’s take-home pay. And as for the intrepid #MeToo movement, it is showing the early signs of its overreach. The libertine has been put on high-alert and his days of ignoring the consequences are through; in this, the movement has been a success. But it looks now to be pushing its position a bit too far. Innocuous, consensual one night stands are becoming opportunities for character assaults and public shaming, which has rendered confused all past notions of fleeting intimacy and hasty love.

It’s because of the term’s evolution that—when asked if I am, in fact, a Feminist—I have to pause and think. I’d like immediately to say yes…I am and unequivocally a feminist of the noblest type, but to be intellectually careful, I must first ask myself a few questions: To which subset do I belong? Where does my allegiance lay? If by accepting one wave, do I agree to be subsumed by them all and if by rejecting another, am I excluded from the other three? You see, it’s no easy task to define this Feminism of the modern day, and because of this, it’s tough to adhere to it with one’s wholehearted support. For a term and a movement that requires clarification, it’s only become more obfuscated as the years have passed by. It’s in this way that I see all of the foreboding signs of Fascism in Feminism. Fascism turned into a generally useless but reviled word. It did so when we threw caution and definition to the breeze. Ultimately, it came to mean something far different from its original intent. I fear Feminism will tumble down this same slope. It too, like Fascism, will become a skunked and useless term.

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