Friday, September 5, 2008

Malthusian Gender Economics

So I have this bad habit of overestimating fundamentalists.

I’m guessing it’s because my personal experience with them was borne out of time spent with a more moderate branch thereof. Yeah, they were fundamentalists in the strictest sense of the word, but they weren’t the raving lunatic fringe variety.

I followed a link almost immediately after writing my Sarah Palin post and ended up on a comments thread for Touchstone Magazine. And there I found out that Palin’s place as veep candidate is not a sign of a woman being in her proper place, but a sign of the times. Specifically the times when there are no good, strong leaders among men and women have to step above and beyond their god-given duty and take the mantle of leadership.

Sadly, this is not a joke. In fact, as I recall, the lingo was plenty there in my moderate brand of evangelical fundamentalism. It was actually that very language that was one of the key questions I kept coming back to in my journey away from the religion of my youth. That ended up being one of the key places where I said, “Why do we have to keep living in a world built on bronze-age values just because a self-referentially authoritative book says so?”

Since I can, since this pisses me off, and since it’s actually a clear and present issue, let me see if I can walk those who haven’t had to deal with such stupidity through the morass of traditional morality (fundamentalist Christian version). Beware, it’s double-thinky.

Anyway, here’s the general thinking: god made man to be the head of the household and woman to be number two. This is the natural order of things because god says so. And how do we know god says so? It’s in the Bible. Right there from god creating man first in Genesis through Paul saying women shouldn’t be given authority over men or allowed to speak in church, it’s all over the Bible. Except for the places where women do really cool or useful things, at which point they are held up as exemplary women of the Bible.

It’s interesting, however, to take a note of how the exemplary women did things.

Deborah: judge, called her general Barak a wimp, he went out and killed a bunch of Philistines in response.

Jael: killed Philistine General Sisera with a tent peg through the skull after promising to hide him.

Rahab: prostitute from Jericho, hid some spies, specifically Joshua and Caleb.

Ruth: Moabite, married Israelite, got abandoned, stayed with her stepmother, eventually got the attention of another guy by dolling herself up, waiting until he got drunk and crawling in to his bed.

Esther: child bride of a Persian king. Said Persian king was tricked in to letting his subjects kill all the Jews. Esther got all dolled up and went to the king to get him to make up for that bit of stupidity.

(Side note: Western civilization utilizes two main sources of information on the Persians: the Greek historians and the Bible. Both of these source sets basically paint the Persians as being utter fools, incapable of telling their ass from a hole in the ground. Nothing could be further than the truth. No one as incompetent as the Biblical/Greek Persian kings could possibly have held together one of the world’s largest and most successful empires for three centuries. For that matter, the conqueror of the Persians, Alexander the Great, admired them and was often accused – correctly, too -- of becoming too Persian. Xenophon also rather liked them and held up both Cyrus the Great and Cyrus the Failed Usurper as exemplars of kingliness. I’m feeling the need to write about this at length at some later point in time.)

Mary Magdalene: young, unmarried, followed Jesus around. Church tradition later turned her in to a reformed prostitute in spite of the complete lack of Biblical evidence (basically, there was an unnamed prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. She was later conflated with M-Squared).

The message, then, is that women can be remembered as great if they attach themselves to the proper man. Well, except for Jael, but she drove a tent peg through a dude’s skull, which is pretty friggin’ cool. Also, she never did anything else. And there was kind of a sense of, “Hey, why don’t you come on in to my tent there, big guy,” in her conversation with Sisera.

Meanwhile, and this is the lesson we get from Deborah, Ruth, and Esther is that they had to step up and do their thing when the men around them failed. Barak was a wimp. Ruth’s husband abandoned his family in a time of famine. Esther was married to an idiot king who could be duped by a bunch of idiot courtiers. But in this failure of male leadership, these women stepped up and…got men to do the things men are supposed to do, anyway, presumably by having sex with them, although that’s never explicitly said.

Which is how the selection of Sarah Palin as the Vice Presidential candidate can be taken as a sign of the failure of male leadership. Now, there are any number of reasons to dislike the selection, but this isn’t one of them. Although, on some level, if this keeps enough of the base the Republicans are aiming for at home, then, hey, let’s let them think it for another month or two. The last thing I want to see is this allowing Sarah Palin to vault past Olympia Snowe and Kay Bailey Hutchinson in the Republican hierarchy. It seems like the sort of thing that would only lead to bad times.

Anyway, as I’ve said, the issue of the treatment of women by my fellow church folks was one of the big sticking points that ultimately helped me out the door. I just plain didn’t get it. I grew up with a mother and sister who didn’t take crap from anyone and didn’t wait around to see what the men around them were doing. I’d been in corporate America working in teams and departments led by women and didn’t see them as being incapable or somehow worse than a man in a similar position. Some of the women I’ve worked for have been better than others, but I could say the same thing about men I’ve worked for.

The problem is the language and the attitude.

A woman in leadership is a sign of a lack of leadership from men.

Think about that. This is zero-sum thinking. It says that there is a finite amount of leadership out there, say 100 Arbitrary Leadership Units. So if a woman takes a leadership position of, say 5 ALU, that means that men now only have 95 ALU.

It is completely inconceivable that, say, we’re now dealing with a total of 105 ALU by adding the talent of that woman leader to the existing pie. Nope. Not possible. She’s only taking away from men’s god-given leadership pie.

This is Malthusian Gender Economics at its finest. See, Malthus basically believed that there was a finite amount of food and land out there and eventually we’d over-run our capabilities and people would die. He was right in short-run situations, say famines or situations where population explosions far outstrip technological advances in food production. He’s wrong in cases of long-term growth and innovation (well, the line might curve back around and a far point on the graph, but we haven’t gotten there yet). We don’t cut the pie in to smaller and smaller pieces; we consistently find ways to make bigger pies.

So I will defend Sarah Palin from anyone who wants to tell me she can’t or shouldn’t win because of her gender. But I will agree with anyone who wants to tell me she can’t or shouldn’t win because her political stances are abhorrent.

Just throwing that out there…

Oh, in addition: The call from the Palin end of the spectrum in the presence of a career oriented woman generally is, "Shouldn't that woman be at home taking care of the kids?" Compare and contrast with Obama's constant call over the course of the election for fathers to be more involved in the lives of their children. There is one part of the responsibility and authority pie that cannot be increased. No matter how post-Malthusian we get, there are only 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week, 365 days in a year (well, at least according to the Gregorian calendar. The metric calendar of the French Revolution said differently. But it was still governed by the same natural cycles). In order for women to have more opportunity outside of the home, men do have to take more responsibility inside the home than they traditionally have. But, really, is that such a bad thing? At least, is that really such a bad thing if you're not trying to pedal some crap about how the man makes the money while the woman stays at home because that's how god says it should be?


Tayi said...

Your point about women being "allowed" into leadership (according to fundamentalists anyway) only when men fail at leadership is interesting. I get the idea, though, that this is only acceptable because Palin is up for Vice President. She's the number two, still under the authority of a man like a proper woman ought to be. I think the fundamentalists would be much less accepting of her if she was somehow a candidate for President.

I mean, compare it to a church- I guess I don't know how it was in the church you grew up in, but in the church I used to attend, there were women in positions of authority. The pastor's wife, for example, might be in charge of the whole Sunday School program including the men teaching boys' classes, but it was OK because she was still under the authority of the pastor, who is of course male. Women are allowed to work, and even organize and direct things, as long as final authority and all credit for success ends up in the hands of a man.

Its to your credit that this fact of fundamentalist life motivated you to leave. I'm a woman, and still people don't understand when I mention that the sexism inherent in Christianity caused me a great deal of distress when I was young.

big a said...

"I'm a woman, and still people don't understand when I mention that the sexism inherent in Christianity caused me a great deal of distress when I was young."

Ironically, many folks who can't understand that statement are the same ones who believe we should bring "enlightenment" to female-opressive regimes such as the Taliban.

(Note: I'm not say that Christian sexism is worse than groups like the Taliban, but I am saying that both idealogies employ obviously identifiable degrees of the same B.S.)

Tayi said...

In all fairness, even though I was the one in distress at the time, I didn't realize that much of the problem could be boiled down to sexism until I had got away from the church and had an opportunity to get my head straight. I just knew that I didn't fit into the rules for behavior (and more importantly, the rules for how to be) no matter how hard I tried. A woman who is close enough to 'feminine' to be able to conform successfully may not have the same experience.

There are plenty of women who think that the limitations placed on them are some kind of blessing. I'm enough of a radical feminist to think that this kind of subtle mental manipulation is just as horrible as overt, legally coercive sexism like you find under the Taliban. Its harder to fight, too, when women are convinced they're better off with a man taking care of them.