James Poulos’s Illogic

by Rich Yeselson on February 20, 2012

James Poulos posted a much commented upon essay in The Daily Caller the other day, entitled, “What are Women for?

Poulos has a kind of oracular and circuitous prose style (takes one to know one), and it’s sometimes hard to understand exactly what he’s trying to argue.  And sometimes oracular devolves into just terrible and weird writing as when he intones, “The purpose of lifting the left’s Potemkin skirts is not to score tits for tats.”  Um…I lost him between the skirts, the tits and the tats, and I don’t even want to know where he ended up.

But, allowing for his affectedness, Poulos is actually up to something at once deeply derivative and banal, yet astonishing in the residual, reactionary power he brings to it. For evidence, see this second “response to critics” essay of his.   The argument—once Poulos has dispensed with some pretty tedious “plague on the right and left (but mostly left)” throat clearing—comes down to this: he thinks that women are closer to nature because they are able to give birth, i.e they have a “privileged relationship to the natural world.” And, therefore, “what they are for”, as he argues in the second essay (which is actually the more lucid of the two) is to civilize those who “fill up the world with stuff — machines, weapons, ideologies, and so on — that often objectifies and instrumentalizes people, and often distracts us from its own sterility as regards fruitful human living.” That would be men. After all, as he says in essay one, “a civilization of men, for men, and by men is no civilization at all, a monstrously barbaric, bloody, and brutal enterprise.”

This is a pretty old and very trite argument, of course—men have been saying this should be women’s obligation for a very long time (Didn’t Reagan say almost exactly this without Poulos’s allusions to Rousseau and Heidegger? Something about “we men would all be wearing loin cloths without the women”? ) And, for a very long time, some women have also said this should be women’s obligation. Unfortunately, I’ve even seen examples of this thinking in my daughter’s elementary school—the teachers would sometimes surround one of the high strung boys with a cordon of well-behaved girls so as to “calm” him. But Poulos roasts these old chestnuts until they incinerate:  he’s worried that a culture war over the purpose of women could trigger “…a fundamental crisis of governance that Americans won’t be able to successfully recover from.”

Poulos imagines that reworking Reagan’s cave man rhetoric with enough subordinate clauses means that he has hit upon some cutting edge analysis; He further thinks he has made an “ironic” point on the terms of his political adversaries by employing what he calls the “strain of left feminism that insists an inherently unique female “voice” actually exists. That’s a claim about nature.”
But Poulos doesn’t know anything about the taxonomy of feminism.  The difference feminism of Carol Gilligan (or, if you prefer Holly Near and Chris Williamson) isn’t at all “left feminism”, although he is right to say it makes a “claim about nature”:  The left, including most versions of feminism, makes it stand with history—that which, by definition, contains the possibility of social change (for better or worse) and human agency over time and space.  Poulos wishes to affirm nature—that, which, by definition, is ascertained to be eternally fixed, immune to human agency, over time and space. But by affirming nature, he cannot also affirm even a normative equality between the sexes—only history chronicles equality as an obtainable, and not a static, condition.  Nature begins and ends with women in a state of inequality.

And by including just a bit of boilerplate—a lazy, rhetorical nod to the struggles and aspirations of women—Poulos unintentionally destroys the logical basis of his argument entirely. After giving women their marching orders to tame the “barbaric, brutal, and bloody” world that men have created, Poulos writes that, “Difference doesn’t presume or ordain inequality.” But how can women take on such a mission without becoming, by definition, less equal than men? Is there a corresponding mission that men would have, and thus equalize between the sexes the burdens of nurturing a humane civilization? Well, no, I guess there isn’t because only women have the connectedness to nature via their wombs that, according to Poulos, ratifies their mission. And, as Poulos notes earlier in the second essay, “….the root of the [culture war] battle is over reaching — and enforcing — a consensus about the relationship between what women do and who women are.” (Emphasis added)

Enforce? Who would enforce women’s duty to civilize men? Who else could enforce it except men? Maybe some women—the legatees of Cary Nation—would help the men to enforce this consensus. Does this enforcement happen thru the institutions of civil society or it would be done thru a highly coercive State composed overwhelmingly of men?  Or both?  How else, exactly, do you enforce what Poulos calls women’s unique ability “to help humanity avoid becoming enthralled to the more sterile cultural creations of men.” And since when is a “consensus” enforced anyway?  Once a consensus is reached, enforcement is gratuitous.  To introduce the element of enforcement is to smuggle coercion and thus inequality back into the formulation.

How does that any of this work, therefore, without profoundly abridging the freedom of women to do, well, pretty much have the same life possibilities as men (this is what Poulos calls “what women do” part of the relational equation with “who they are.”) And if that freedom is abridged—“what women do”—and then an attempt is made to “enforce”  (by whom?) a faux consensus in support of that abridgement, then doesn’t that, in fact, “ordain inequality”?  There can be no other conclusion but that the core, natural difference between men and women—the state of nature to which women are closer than men—also defines a form of inequality.  And thus, in Poulos’s inadvertent and confused telling, nature must trump history and the inequality between the sexes becomes a comprehensive and final one, the one that establishes “women’s choices about how to live” once and for all. How could it not? The inequality is linked to women’s connection to the natural world, and that connection—again, their wombs—is trans-historical. Poulos has ushered women to their final destination for all time and place.  Is this the end of history?  For women, it must be.

Even as Poulos inflates women’s “purpose,” he degrades their humanity. Katha Pollitt entitled her brilliant first collection of essays, Reasonable Creatures. The reference is to a quote from the founding text of Western feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of the Rights of Women. In it, Wollstonecraft observes that a few fortunate women have obtained “courage and resolution” as a result of their “masculine education.” (That is to say, the opportunity for formal education that, for the most part, only men had). Still, she wishes not to judge most women by the, as yet, all too rare lives of these fit, though few exceptions. She writes:

In tracing the causes that in my opinion, have degraded woman…I have not laid any great stress upon the example of a few women (Sappho, Eloisa, Mrs. Macaulay, the Empress of Russia, Madame d’Eon, etc). These, and many more, may be reckoned exceptions; and, are not all heroes, as well as heroines, exceptions to general rules? I wish to see women neither heroines nor brutes; but reasonable creatures.

Neither heroines nor brutes—just reasonable creatures, just like men, no more, no less. Wollstonecraft wrote these words in 1790. Perhaps we should consider them as a prod to imagine not a barbaric civilization of men ministered to by superior, yet subordinate, women, but, rather, more simply: a civilization of women and men.

But that’s not Poulos’s goal.  Instead, I am depressed to note that, more than two hundred years after Wollstonecraft wrote her great book, James Poulos thinks that he is respecting women by hoisting them onto a grand pedestal far above the barbarism of men.  The pedestal is incredibly high—so high that the women can never climb down from it.  Poulos must think that the view is great up there.  He must think that it would be unreasonable for these creatures ever to wish to come down.

{ 70 comments }

1

Noted Scholar 02.20.12 at 3:44 pm

This is confounded by the fact that women do better in college. So by the same logic, women exist to go to college and excel.

Ugh. Anyway, I certainly agree with your criticisms.

Cheers,
NS

2

Dave Maier 02.20.12 at 3:52 pm

Thanks for this post – the Poulos essays sound ghastly and depressing, so I will not be checking to see if you have been fair to him. I’m sure others will help us out here…

nitpicks: Blockquote fail toward the end. Also, Cris Williamson spells her name “Cris.”

3

Katherine 02.20.12 at 4:05 pm

And some people have the gall to call us feminists men-haters.

4

derek 02.20.12 at 4:08 pm

and cary nation is i believe “carrie” nation

5

Katherine 02.20.12 at 4:09 pm

Also, good to know that my role as a woman is to be support staff. I’ll immediately stop having my own dreams and aspirations, and start catering only to the destructive whims of men.

What, you say that’s been tried before? And women have striven mightily to escape that paradigm? Why, it’s almost as if that’s a framing that benefits men and subjugates women! Gosh, if only there were an ongoing movement that has discussed ad infinitum the negative effects such structures have on women.

6

marcel 02.20.12 at 4:26 pm

Um…I lost him between the skirts, the tits and the tats, and I don’t even want to know where he ended up.

Yeah, that bit of prose sounds like a big cock-up.

7

marcel 02.20.12 at 4:30 pm

Derek: most of the google hits for Carrie Nation come back with Carry Nation. So a pox on both your houses (i.e. Derek and Rich Y.)!

8

Kieran 02.20.12 at 4:35 pm

Sounds like it’s Inter-Continental Ballistic Modesty all over again.

9

Robert the Red 02.20.12 at 4:40 pm

Logically, the conclusion is that women should be in charge — perhaps they should get 2 votes each, for example.

10

phosphorious 02.20.12 at 4:49 pm

“The purpose of lifting the left’s Potemkin skirts is not to score tits for tats.”

Style fail, Check. Content fail. . . this strikes me as the usual “Feminists are the real sexists, because. . . “

So check there, too.

Two fails in one sentence. Show me a woman who can do THAT!

11

rm 02.20.12 at 4:50 pm

What Katherine said. He restates the Victorian ideal of womanhood and thinks he’s discovered something new and deep.

12

Billikin 02.20.12 at 5:03 pm

The title itself is odious. (I confess I did not see the ambiguity at first.)

13

marcel 02.20.12 at 5:04 pm

Well, Poulos could have cited some interesting and similar anecdotes from primatology. Robert Sapolsky reports that the culture of his baboon troop changed, apparently because females were able to teach better behavior to the males. Similarly, bonobo females have apparently created a fairly pacific society, especially in comparison with that of chimpanzees.

From what Rich Y. has written, however, I doubt that Poulos would want to rely on these examples.

According to Sapolsky, baboon females in the Forest Troop were able to make clear to incoming young males that they would gain sexual access much more quickly if they did not behave (if I may anthropomorphize) like assholes, and treated females and juveniles more decently.

My reading as an untrained lay person, is that among bonobos, sex is much like water on Earth, the universal solvent or lubricant (and unlike fresh water, it is not scarce). Furthermore, although bonobos are a sexually dimorphic species, with males larger than females, females form very effective alliances that keep males in line. Teams of females tend to beat the shit out of males that behave (if I may anthropomorphize once again) like assholes. Males generally recognize this, and don’t behave that way. Like that old joke — Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” “Well then, don’t do that. — bonobo males, the smarter ones anyway, don’t do that because it leads to hurt.

So, if Poulos is correct, that the role of human females is to civilize the males, the examples of close primate relatives suggests that for them (human females) to be successful in this task, we’d likely have to restructure our society to allow for even less monogamy (and definitely less purely polygynous behavior) than we see today, and for sex to be largely controlled by human females. Given the close relationship of bonobos to humans, we would also have to give serious consideration to ensuring that females are the dominant sex.

I am male, and while many of our social pathologies incline me to be sympathetic to this solution, my personal stake in it inclines me to look for other, less drastic, solutions. I am skeptical that bestowing on girls and women the role of civilizing males, and constraining them to no other role, has any chance of success absent these other changes.

Let’s look for other solutions less destructive to individual liberty.

14

marcel 02.20.12 at 5:06 pm

I meant to include this link on bonobos in my longwinded discursion on primatology above.

15

Colin Danby 02.20.12 at 5:07 pm

In defense of Carol Gilligan, her 1982 book says (p. 2)

“”The different voice I describe is characterized not by gender but theme. Its association with women is an empirical observation, and it is primarily through women’s voices that I trace its development. But this association is not absolute, and the contrasts between male and female voices are presented here to highlight a distinction between two modes of thought and to focus a problem of interpretation rather than to represent a generalization about either sex.”

And she expands on this theme in her 1993 essay.

Gilligan, Carol. 1982. In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Gilligan, Carol. 1993. Reply to Critics. In An ethic of care, ed. Mary Jeanne Larrabee.
New York, Routledge.

16

Zamfir 02.20.12 at 5:15 pm

Is he paid by page view?

17

Colin Danby 02.20.12 at 5:20 pm

As long as I’m deep in footnotes I can’t resist noting that Jane Collier and Sylvia Yanagisako 25 years ago presented Poulos’ position with much greater clarity than he has, describing the underlying “folk model,” that is, a “symbolically meaningful and institutionally experienced opposition … between the production of people and the production of things.”

In it:

“… the production of people is thought to occur through the process of sexual procreation. Sexual procreation, in turn, is construed as possible because of the biological difference between men and women. The production of material goods, in contrast, is not seen as being about sex, and thus is not necessarily rooted in sexual difference, even when two sexes are involved in it.

“In this folk model, which informs much of the social science writing on reproduction and production, the two categories are construed as fundamentally differentiated spheres of activity that stand in means/end relation to each other. Our experience in our own society is that work in production earns money, and money is the means by which the family can be maintained and, therefore, reproduced. At the same time, the reverse holds: the family and its reproduction of people through love and sexual procreation are the means by which labor – and thus the productive system of society — is reproduced. … In our folk model, we contrast the following pairs, each linked, respectively, to the productive and reproductive spheres:

[first column]

material goods
technology
male or gender neutral
wage work
factory
money

[second column]
people
biology
female or gendered
nonwage work
family
love

Collier, Jane and Sylvia Yanagisako. 1987. “Toward a Unified Analysis of Gender and Kinship,” pp. 14-50 in Collier and Yanagisako, eds., Gender and Kinship: Essays toward a Unified Analysis. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

18

Scott Martens 02.20.12 at 5:24 pm

What is it that the kids say these days? “tl;dr”? (Not Rich’s post but Poulos’ piece in the Daily Caller)

But it’s not true, I did read it. I’ve never head of James Poulos before. Is he somebody?

“Potemkin skirts” – don’t they teach people not to mix metaphors anymore unless you *want* the humorous effect? And I really can’t imagine he would write “What are black people for?” without recognizing the racist implications, but he can write “What women are for?” (Perhaps not, on googling, I find both incoherent and off-putting his weird argument in the Guardian that America’s race problems would go away if people could just use the word “Negro” again.)

Strawman leftists, unreflective sexism, and a style and vocabulary that I can only assume is an unintentional parody of William F. Buckley… this is the kind of thing a liberal arts education is supposed to prevent! I thought Georgetown (where he’s apparently doing a PhD) was a good school!

19

G. Mcthornbody 02.20.12 at 5:36 pm

http://www.amazon.com/Book-Courtier-Norton-Critical-Editions/dp/0393976068/

Wasn’t this standard reading at some point? Chapter 3 answers Polous well enough. No free copies yet besides this one… http://www.archive.org/stream/bookofcourtierfr00castuoft#page/n7/mode/2up

20

rea 02.20.12 at 5:37 pm

Re: the ambiguously-spelled Ms. Nation, Wikipeida tells us:

Official records say Carrie, which Nation used most of her life; the name Carry was used by her father in the family Bible. Upon beginning her campaign against liquor in the early 20th century, she adopted the name Carry A. Nation mainly for its value as a slogan, and had it registered as a trademark.

21

Red 02.20.12 at 6:08 pm

Aristotle, Politics, Bk I, Chapter 5:
First it is necessary to examine the proper relationship between body and soul as analogous to different types of rule. The soul rules the body as a master rules a slave and the intellect rule the appetites like a king rules a city. It is natural and advantageous for the soul to rule the body. It is better for animals that they be ruled by man, and the relationship of male to female is a relationship of superior to inferior.
A natural slave is one who does not have the full use of reason, because such a person is as different from other men as the body is from the soul. The natural slave perceives reason, but does not have it. It is difficult to tell who a natural slave is, because the beauty of the soul is not easy to see, but for those who are natural slaves, slavery is both advantageous and just.

Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals, I, 2:
Of the generation of animals we must speak as various questions arise in order in the case of each, and we must connect our account with what has been said. For, as we said above, the male and female principles may be put down first and foremost as origins of generation, the former as containing the efficient cause of generation, the latter the material of it.

Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals, Book I, 20:
For there must needs be that which generates and that from which it generates; even if these be one, still they must be distinct in form and their essence must be different; and in those animals that have these powers separate in two sexes the body and nature of the active and the passive sex must also differ. If, then, the male stands for the effective and active, and the female, considered as female, for the passive, it follows that what the female would contribute to the semen of the male would not be semen but material for the semen to work upon.

This suggests that:
1. Aristotle is a better writer than Poulos.
2. Poulos seems not to have read Aristotle (or anything written on this subject in the past 2000 years).
3. We need our ladywriters to weigh in on what ladyparts do or do not do.

22

JW Mason 02.20.12 at 6:28 pm

The soul rules the body as a master rules a slave

This is one of the any passages which it’s impossible to read the same way after reading Graeber’s Debt. For Graeber, this isn’t just a metaphor, it’s exactly constitutive of the idea of a distinct personal soul or self in the first place. Until people needed a language to talk about unilaterally imposing their personal will on someone else, they didn’t know they had one.

When’s that CT discussion happening?

23

bianca steele 02.20.12 at 6:38 pm

There are plenty of ways, I think, to reconcile the idea of “consensus” with the idea of “enforcement.” One way, for example, would be to redefine “consensus” as “science.” Another way would be to define “consensus” as “what white people in rich Northern European nations do.” Neither of these, unfortunately, works well for making sense of James Poulos, from what I’ve read.

(@Colin Danby I can’t see how to use Marxism or production/reproduction discussions for that particular purpose, either, without making a worse mess.)

24

G. Mcthornbody 02.20.12 at 6:39 pm

I read Poulos’ follow up article when the page finally decided to load and I’m not buying it. I think he’s baiting for page traffic a la: http://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2011/08/30/the-science-of-gawkers-nerd-baiting/
It’s a safe bet seeing how many people have opinions on gender. Maybe Poulos could get Roland Martin to comment on what men are good for.

25

Russell Arben Fox 02.20.12 at 6:45 pm

After having read quite a bit of James Poulos over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that he is a character in a Whit Stillman film (or else strongly believes that he is).

26

js. 02.20.12 at 6:45 pm

Oh Jesus. Not this shit again. So women are closer to nature. Hence, their social role must be… to take men away from nature (i.e. civilize them). And men lack this connection to nature. So… minus the civilizing influence of women, men would act in ways that are (in one sense) closer to nature. I know it’s not a new argument, but the equivocation makes my head hurt every single time.

27

bianca steele 02.20.12 at 6:59 pm

@Russell Fox
The one who says “what’s the word for the thing that’s above the subtext?” The one who stands quietly by through Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny’s office catfights? Or the one who stalks quasi-DFW?

28

ezra abrams 02.20.12 at 7:01 pm

B Russell once remarked that to understand the nature of women, who are constrained in Western Society, one must examine the behaviour of Empresses Regnant.
Russell remarks that ER often put their siblings, friends and lovers to death.

I also recall a book I found one day in the library, called shoot the woman first; it was by the ex head of the German national anti terror squad; the title came from the advice he gave to his men when they kicked the door down, cause woman are more dangerous.

When I was a wee nipper, I liked to read tales of arctic exploration; I recall one explorer saying it was not uncommone to find igloos where everyone had starved to death.
If the people in the igloo were all male, the bodies were intact; if a female was present, signs of cannibilism were always present.

Those of you who listen to NPRs clic and clack (humor automotive show out of boston) heard last weeks Valentine special – full of jokes like, when I married her, I knew her last name was Wright, I just didn’t know her first name was Always.
Or, one xmas eve, the perfect man and perfect wife are driving home in a snowstorm. Slam – they hit something: they have killed Santa Claus !!
Question: who was driving the car ?
Answer: The woman – everyone knows the perfect man and santa are imaginary

29

JW Mason 02.20.12 at 7:01 pm

Wow, Kieran’s piece on Leon Kass (linked @8) just blows the doors off. Is it just me, or was the Internet better in 2005?

30

Meredith 02.20.12 at 7:10 pm

As long as Aristotle and folk models are being cited, we may as well cite Hesiod’s Theogony, which tracks male strategies for limiting Gaia’s unbounded impetus for procreation — for producing more and more stuff (sky, sea, mountains, gods, monsters, whatever) — strategies that rely heavily on usurping females’ control over reproduction (Kronos swallowing his children by Rhea, Zeus swallowing Metis and giving birth himself to Athena…). One could go on (Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days are amazing texts) — and many scholars have gone on, at fascinating length and depth, since at least the 1970′s. If only Poulos were interested in reading any actual scholarship. His ideas about “feminism” seem to be formed out of cable-TV cant.

A lot in Hesiod’s thinking, btw, can be related to the development of an agricultural economy in a world of gift-giving and exchange and of temple repositories (cf. Graeber).

I haven’t even mentioned Pandora, the “manufactured maiden” and first “bride.”

And thanks to Colin Danby on Carol Gilligan. I do worry that feminist studies reaches too small an audience these days because we no longer (or seldom) teach classic texts like Gilligan’s or, say, Ortner or Bamberger, much less the French feminists of the 1980′s. Gender and Queer Studies have sort of taken over, which from one point of view is all well and good, but from another, means that as an undergraduate, someone like a James Poulos is less likely to be exposed to feminist thinking a person like him might actually pay some attention to in his college-aged youth.

31

Felix 02.20.12 at 7:28 pm

Wow, thanks for this thoughtful essay.

To grasp onto what is apparently Pouloss’ main point: anyone who thinks (most) women’s biological ability to give birth proves our connection to nature has no fucking idea what goes on in modern delivery suites. The connection between birth and nature is as distant now as that from our theoretical masculine fore-bearers’ wooden spears to modern drone warfare. Also not sure why birth is more “natural” than killing, which is surely part of the “nature” of any meat-eating animal. And not even going to touch the idiotic gender essentialism about who knows how to nurture vs. who is a barely controllable beast.

32

Nine 02.20.12 at 7:42 pm

Sweet jeebus, that is embarassingly bad prose … he’s going to have to live this one down !

Also – “…a fundamental crisis of governance that Americans won’t be able to successfully recover from.”

I’m pretty confident in predicting that nothing of the sort is likely at all.

33

Nine 02.20.12 at 7:43 pm

“After having read quite a bit of James Poulos over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that he is a character in a Whit Stillman film”

C’mon, Stillman’s characters are actually quite witty.

34

Barry 02.20.12 at 8:02 pm

Katherine 02.20.12 at 4:05 pm

” And some people have the gall to call us feminists men-haters.”

You have to look very hard to find any right-wing accusations which aren’t simply Freudian projection.

35

Carl 02.20.12 at 9:01 pm

Historically, societies in which people have known their places have tended to work fine. Enforcement has always been required, usually via culture. When we get around to equal places for men and women, it will work fine. Enforcement will be required, probably via culture.

36

JohnR 02.20.12 at 9:21 pm

“But Poulos doesn’t know anything about the taxonomy of feminism”

It’s too simple to make the obvious comment, but luckily I’m a very simple man, so: Poulos (from what little I’ve been able to slog through – like wading through a river of knee-deep, fermenting molasses), doesn’t know anything about much of anything. I think the best commentary on his writing is a paraphrase of sorts: “what oft was thought, but always much better expressed”. There are many of us afflicted with PWS (pompous writing syndrome), but most of us have some shreds of self-awareness and a little more pride than ego. I’d feel embarrassed about asking payment for sludge like that, and I’m almost impossible to embarrass these days.
I’m impressed that you were able to force your way through it, and give it a measured critique – you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

37

geo 02.20.12 at 9:24 pm

In her preface to the second edition of Vindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft writes: “Let there be then no coercion established in society, and the common law of gravity prevailing, the sexes will fall into their proper places.” In the 1790s, “proper” meant not only, as today, “correct” or “apt,” but also “own” or “distinctive.” It strongly connoted difference. Wollstonecraft thought that motherhood and domesticity were inevitably most (though not all) women’s distinctive sphere but that this in no way justified the inferior legal, educational, and civic treatment to which they were then universally subjected. She was hardly a difference feminist, but she was not a no-difference feminist either.

Poulos is an ass; so is Ross Douthat; so are most social conservatives. But the necessity of promoting restraint, humility, self-sacrifice, devotedness, mercy, and compassion – the virtues traditionally entrained by women’s maternal and domestic responsibilities – is no less under current conditions of predatory competitive anarchy than in any previous era, and arguably more. What Wollstonecraft would object to is enforcing the domestic responsibilities (and virtues) on women exclusively, or legally preventing them from being any less predatory and competitive than men. By all means let us wreck or rescue the world together, on equal terms.

38

geo 02.20.12 at 9:28 pm

Sorry, in the penultimate sentence “any less” should be “just as.”

39

Greg 02.20.12 at 9:30 pm

JWM #29: Quite. Kids these days; the Club was better before it allowed women and coloreds to join; etc. Also: Sturgeon’s law combined with growth, and survivorship bias.

Rich’s post, Noted Scholar’s #1, and Kieran’s blast from the past, taken together, provoke the question: Remind me, what do women need men for, again? Surely it can’t be just for entertainment, despite Poulos’s attempt to make it so.

40

john c. halasz 02.20.12 at 10:10 pm

“And since when is a “consensus” enforced anyway? Once a consensus is reached, enforcement is gratuitous. To introduce the element of enforcement is to smuggle coercion and thus inequality back into the formulation.”

Other commenters have already noted this above, but that line is a piece of liberalism’s unthought.

41

js. 02.20.12 at 10:24 pm

geo:

Wollstonecraft thought that motherhood and domesticity were inevitably most (though not all) women’s distinctive sphere [...]

This is actually far from obvious I think. There are of course passages that suggest this, but there are also passages that suggest something quite different—see in particular the discussion towards the end of chap. 9 where MW is directly arguing for an active role for women in civic and public life. And the fact that Rousseau is the explicit target throughout strongly suggests that she wouldn’t accept a “separate spheres” thesis in even a moderately robust sense. (Sorry a bit OT.)

42

Tedra Osell 02.20.12 at 11:00 pm

My pissy comment on FB was that we should just turn the question around and ask what are men for? Clearly they are for (1) sperm; (2) fighting. Since fighting is bad, sperm is extractable and plentiful, let’s just solve all of society’s problems by establishing a committee of women to decide which men make the best sperm providers, cull all the others (humanely, of course), and keep the breeding stock in some kind of safe captivity where they can’t fight.

43

Anderson 02.20.12 at 11:33 pm

Himmler had some very similar ideas about women, as I was just reading in Longerich’s biography. My copy’s at home alas.

44

Anderson 02.20.12 at 11:34 pm

and keep the breeding stock in some kind of safe captivity where they can’t fight

So long as there’s a good library, I’m in.

45

Sufferin' Succotash 02.20.12 at 11:35 pm

“The purpose of lifting the left’s Potemkin skirts is not to score tits for tats.”

It’s writing like this that prompted Orwell ‘s essay “Politics and the English Language”, which should be required reading for anyone who wants to avoid writing like this.

46

MNP 02.21.12 at 12:12 am

He should have gone all the way. Women’s duty is to civilize men but that job is never done. Therefore, logically what follows is: Matriarchy!

47

geo 02.21.12 at 12:13 am

js@41: Yes, certainly she wouldn’t accept separate spheres if they were enforced by any legal exclusion, or even the indirect coercion of economic dependence. Women should be given the same general education as men, should have the same opportunity to acquire special training, professional work, and public office, and should be economically independent even as wives and mothers.

All that said, she still thought most women would freely choose to be mothers and homemakers for at least part of their lives. The question this raises (and which I suspect Poulos, in his hopelessly inept way, is also trying to raise) is: does their experience in that sphere cultivate virtues and elicit sensitivities (“restraint, humility, self-sacrifice, devotedness, mercy, and compassion,” to quote myself above) that are unlikely to be learned first-hand anywhere else, and that are vitally necessary as a counterbalance to the traits and dispositions — aggressiveness, self-assurance, ambition, single-mindedness — cultivated, often to a pathological degree, in the world of work, at least under conditions of competition and artificial scarcity?

Most contemporary social conservatives are undoubtedly dicks and dumbbells. But that doesn’t mean that the questions they’re raising are completely without merit.

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raorao 02.21.12 at 12:31 am

I, for one, think it wholly rational for a conservative thinker embrace difference feminism, since the movement has been one wave behind feminism at every turn. When liberals moved to fighting de facto inequalities in the 1960s, conservatives just got around to agree that de jure inequality was a bad thing. And when liberals began questioning difference feminism and promoting movement diversity in the 1990′s, conservatives came to terms with modern rape laws, reformed custody and divorce laws, and women in the workplace.

So it’s not a surprise that now conservative thinkers are embracing ecofeminism, right about 30 years after mainstream feminism rejected it. Basically, give it a few decades and we’ll see our fair share of Riot Grrrl conservatives.

49

Frank Ashe 02.21.12 at 12:56 am

What are women for? To beat the shit out of any males who act like assholes. Sounds like Poulos wants to be a bonobo.

50

Harry 02.21.12 at 1:31 am

footnote to geo’s comments: isn’t it right in general that people who are more talented and capable should turn their efforts, to come extent, to the benefit of those who are less talented and less capable? If it turns out that women are, on average, more talented and capable (not at all an absurd conjecture in my opinion; and note that the claim is not that the more NATURALLY talented and capable should do this, just those who turn out, in their particular environment, to be more talented and capable), then, on average, they will carry greater obligations.

I couldn’t be bothered to read the Poulos, mark you, my eyes glazed over pretty quickly; if you want to be read you should either write more straightforwardly or manifestly have something really interesting to say (or, as in geo’s case in my experience, do both).

51

herr doktor bimler 02.21.12 at 1:46 am

Apparently “objectifying and instrumentalizing people” is a BAD BAD THING. That is why women should be objectified and instrumentalized into the task of preventing it.

52

Barry Brenesal 02.21.12 at 2:09 am

Rich, my Ukrainian grandmother used to tell me, “Never argue with a drooling fool. You’ll never convince him, and you’ll only get covered with drool.” I would add to that only that it’s not worth even writing about a fool’s arguments. They’re a waste of space, and the drool is still in them.

53

Spurious 02.21.12 at 2:10 am

SEK’s response from the other day may not have been as insightful as this one, but it was a hell of a lot of fun. (Also, check out Charlie Sweatpants’ epic comment about halfway down the thread. Funny gives birth to funnier, sometimes.)

54

chris 02.21.12 at 3:34 am

Historically, societies in which people have known their places have tended to work fine.

…at least, for people lucky enough to be pegs of the same shape as the hole they are predestined to be pounded into regardless.

What about societies where people can try a bunch of different places until they find one that fits them?

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js. 02.21.12 at 5:17 am

geo:

does their experience in that sphere cultivate virtues and elicit sensitivities (“restraint, humility, self-sacrifice, devotedness, mercy, and compassion,” to quote myself above) that are unlikely to be learned first-hand anywhere else, and that are vitally necessary as a counterbalance to the traits and dispositions — aggressiveness, self-assurance, ambition, single-mindedness — cultivated, often to a pathological degree, in the world of work, at least under conditions of competition and artificial scarcity?

Rather than getting into the finer points of Wollstonecraft interpretation (where we may continue to disagree), wanted to say that I totally agree with this. And it occurred to me that Woolf’s discussion of the “Society of Outsiders” in Three Guineas is quite germane here. Her argument is precisely that there are gender differences (whether a result of “nature”—she does mention the “maternal instinct”—or history), and women can most effectively influence the direction of society, and so also the behavior of men, by relying on what’s particular in their gender experiences. Of course, Woolf’s immediate concern is war and patriotism, but the argument can be easily extended.

So yes, there’s a good thought somewhere in the vague vicinity of whatever planet this Poulos entity is beaming in from. Unfortunately, this good thought seems to have passed him by entirely. Your point, though, is very well taken.

56

Niall McAuley 02.21.12 at 9:25 am

Greg @ #39 Remind me, what do women need men for, again?

Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.

57

Jeffrey Kramer 02.21.12 at 12:02 pm

It’s writing like this that prompted Orwell ‘s essay “Politics and the English Language”, which should be required reading for anyone who wants to avoid writing like this. [SS @45]

Once you start having “required reading,” you’re on a slippery slope towards playing Russian Roulette with the state of nature.

58

Katherine 02.21.12 at 12:22 pm

Instead of separate spheres, I’d prefer to go with a Venn Diagram, with much overlap.

59

Josh Jasper 02.21.12 at 12:39 pm

The Daily Caller? What’s next? Criticism of the science as presented in The Huffington Post?

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Barry 02.21.12 at 1:36 pm

Carl: ” Historically, societies in which people have known their places have tended to work fine. “

This is pundit-level assertion without proof.

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Scott Martens 02.21.12 at 1:51 pm

barry@60: I’m sure some form of the “No True Scotsman” argument can be made to fit. Every society which didn’t work was one where people didn’t really know their place. The proof: They didn’t work.

62

norbizness 02.21.12 at 1:51 pm

Thank goodness, the 500th debunking of a nonsense column in a shit publication to end all 500th debunkings of nonsense columns in shit publications.

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M 02.21.12 at 2:34 pm

footnote to geo’s comments: isn’t it right in general that people who are more talented and capable should turn their efforts, to come extent, to the benefit of those who are less talented and less capable? If it turns out that women are, on average, more talented and capable (not at all an absurd conjecture in my opinion; and note that the claim is not that the more NATURALLY talented and capable should do this, just those who turn out, in their particular environment, to be more talented and capable), then, on average, they will carry greater obligations.

Surely women are not, in aggregate and in actually existing historical formations, more capable? (Let’s leave aside the question of talent, “naturally talented” being a pleonasm.) If they were they’d be running things (or to put it another way, if they ran things they would be rather more capable.) Of course many especially capable and Spider Man-obliged people also happen to be women; no denying that.

This seems to be one of those rules honored more in the breach, though.

64

dilbert dogbert 02.21.12 at 3:23 pm

““The purpose of lifting the left’s Potemkin skirts is not to score tits for tats.” Um…I lost him between the skirts, the tits and the tats, and I don’t even want to know where he ended up.”

I read Shirts for Skirts and LMFHO. Some call this a “word salad” I prefer “word smoothy”.

65

Uncle Kvetch 02.21.12 at 4:03 pm

The Daily Caller? What’s next? Criticism of the science as presented in The Huffington Post?

Thank goodness, the 500th debunking of a nonsense column in a shit publication to end all 500th debunkings of nonsense columns in shit publications.

Truly — what gives here? With Poulos there’s no justification of “Well, he is in the NY Times and a great many otherwise-intelligent people take him seriously, so…” as there is with a Douthat or a Brooks or a Friedman. His essay (and the site that posted it) deserve nothing better than the point-and-laugh treatment (which any number of other blogs have already provided, and quite well at that).

66

David Fishman 02.21.12 at 7:07 pm

Thank you for your enlightening analysis of an apparently overtly sexist and misogynistic editorial. As a regular reader of Huffington Post, I never read “The Daily Caller” and your critique makes me even less likely to have any such appetite. Its founder, Tucker Carlson, was proud a few years ago to receive a lapdance from one of the female dancers when he appeared on “Dancing with the Stars,” so this sexist pseudo-essay you critique fits right at home with that masculocentric mentality. Women exist for the purposes they personally deem appropriate unto themselves, just as any other individual, not for men’s whims to be satisfied, and certainly not to “be fruitful and multiply.” I have absolutely no tolerance for literal interpretation of the Bible, as this is an inherently destructive and often bigoted mentality that encourages sexism, speciesism and misothery in general. Male sexist attitudes toward women and girls is derived from fear that their own masculinity may not measure up to patriarchal standards, so they feel compelled to denigrate women’s dignity to compensate for their own low self-esteem. This is the modern equivalent of that Sigmund Freud would call “penis envy,” except that he confused the genders by applying this concept to women instead of men. George Carlin correctly assessed this phenomenon when he explained why men go to war, parallel to why men build guns, knives, bombs, bullets, rockets, missiles, arrows and other weaponry. It’s no accident that all of these deliberate instruments of death are shaped like phallic symbols. They reflect the sexual tensions and chauvinistic fears of their most virulent defenders, as embodied in organizations such as the National Rifle Association and its apologists.

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deryk 02.21.12 at 7:38 pm

“James Poulos thinks that he is respecting women by hoisting them onto a grand pedestal far above the barbarism of men. “

Indeed. I seem to recall that Richard Aldington in his remarkable WWI novel Death of a Hero, describes a man placing a woman on a pedestal “and making a footstool of it.”

68

Harry 02.21.12 at 9:38 pm

M — they live longer, are healthier, in most societies they do most of the work that matters, in the absence of quite determined discrimination they seem to outperform boys academically (on average)… I’m not making the ‘more capable’ claim, just saying it is not absurd, and if true it raises the conundrum I identify (not entirely sure what a conundrum is, to be honest, but I think its what I mean)

69

PHB 02.22.12 at 2:02 pm

Attacking Poulos for his misogyny seems rather too narrow given his misanthropy.

The idea that people are ‘for’ anything in the sense of having a defined purpose is deeply reactionary and offensive. I find it an irritating enough trope in the hands of the Darwinian determinists who fail to grasp that the fundamental mechanism of evolution is randomness and while form can emerge from chaos, purpose cannot.

Now granted, there is a double meaning there. But Poulos clearly intends both meanings. In the conservative world, if a thing has an effect it becomes a purpose.

For the reactionary like Poulos, the idea of purpose is central to their philosophy. Specifically, the purpose of everyone and everything is to serve their own selfish little needs. Hence libertarianism, an essentially reactionary creed which assumes that in the absence of government a world essentially the same as the current one in every respect except that the Galtian uber-mensch will be free of all constraints of society and law. Libertopia will continue to function rather than dissolve into chaos because the purpose of the others is to make it so.

Conservatism is at root a creed of abject cowards. They cannot imagine a world that is other than it is. Any change can only be for the worse. And so Thatcher spends her political life decrying the evils of the communist system and ends it begging Gorbachev to prevent the collapse of communism in East Germany. Equally, the reactionary response to the Arab Spring: Lord give them freedom, but not just yet.

What Poulos is saying is that if women stopped behaving according to the ‘purpose’ he assigned to them, well something might change and that would be bad.

It doesn’t have to be a good argument. The target audience is Conservatives after all.

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LFC 02.22.12 at 5:06 pm

I read the first Poulos essay, not the second. Rarely have I read anything more stupid and infelicitous. (He doesn’t even quote directly the mystery-of-life passage that I think he refers to from Planned Parenthood v. Casey, preferring to cloak his idiocies in the mists of allusive faux-erudition.)

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