To Choose or Not to Choose: a Politics of Choice

by Steven Hill
This article was published in The Humanist
Post-modernism, at its best, stands for multi-culturalism, decentralization of power, and emergence of new foci of power other than the white male heterosexual paradigm. At its worst, post-modernism degenerates into a New Age naivete and shallowness tha t tells us "don't worry, be happy," "we create our own reality," and promotes notions of "free choice" and "liberty" stripped of any analysis of power imbalances or historical context.

A shallow "politics of choice" has crept its way into gender politics, acting as a wedge to slowly pry apart the integrity of the feminist analysis of society. It threatens to turn feminism upside-down on its head, transforming feminism from a liberatio n movement into one that caters to a libertine sensibility pursuing simply the cause of liberty -- the ability to do as one wishes. Best-selling authors like Naomi Wolf and Camille Paglia, as well as MTV feminists and sexual liberals like Madonna and Suz ie Bright, have elevated the cant of free choice and individual liberty to a new plateau, issuing a challenge to the perceived "prudery" of traditional feminists.

Yet these two movements -- one for liberation, the other for liberty -- are very different ones, aiming for very divergent outcomes. Oddly enough, this liberal/libertine feminist philosophy of free choice has more in common with the laissez faire, free market economics of the Clinton, Bush and Reagan Administrations than any civil libertarian or sexual liberal would care to admit. In curious ways, left meets right.

What's wrong with liberty, an inquiring mind might ask? What's wrong with the 'freedom to do as one wishes?' Isn't that one of the great philosophical tenets of this United States democracy?

Of course it is, which should be enough to cause alarm to any justice- and equality-seeking person. In the name of liberty, free choice, and free enterprise, slaves were shipped from Africa, Native Americans were massacred and their land stolen, and wom en and children were held as property of the male head of household. In the name of liberty, as late as 1868 a North Carolina court applied the "rule of thumb" standard, which said that a switch used for beating one's wife must be no wider than the width of one's thumb. "The violence complained of would, without question, have constituted a battery, if the subject had not been the defendant's wife," ruled the court. White male liberty has almost always come at the expense of women and children, and eth nic minorities. White male liberty has usually been the antithesis of women's liberation.

Despite the passage of over a century, as well as the sweat, tears and triumphs of grass roots feminist activism, nineteenth century modalities of liberty still linger into our modern age. Much of our contemporary construct of liberty and free choice sp rings from the 19th century and its tradition of classical liberalism. Central to this tradition was the view that "government governs best that governs least." This laissez-faire attitude saw government interference as the natural enemy, whether in the bedroom or the corporate boardroom. We can see the descendants of classical liberalism today in two disparate groups: free traders and private property rightists like George Bush and Bill Clinton, columnist George Will, and Ron Arnold of the Wise Use M ovement on the one hand; and civil libertarians, pro-pornography advocates, and sexual liberals like Madonna, Camille Paglia, Hugh Hefner, Bob Guccione and the American Civil Liberties Union on the other.

The First Amendment tradition of the latter group builds on the classical liberal view when they equate free speech to maximum individual liberty and define liberty as the absence of government interference. Their paradigm of free speech is an absolutis t one, championing a cause based on the street corner radical, inveighing from her soapbox unhindered by police authorities. Their paradigm is also obsolete, and increasingly conservative, since the impact of individuals like street corner radicals on th e arena of public discourse have been totally eclipsed by the corporate media, cable TV, and the fetishized privacy of the VCR generation. Practically speaking, most people today cannot afford to produce the kind of media that impacts public discourse. The free speech -- the "liberty" -- of corporations like NBC and the New York Times are hardly equal, either in frequency or quantity, to the free speech of most individuals, whether the latter yell at the top of their lungs from a street corner or not.

If history is any indicator, a milieu in which pure liberty reigns results in the strong prevailing over the weak and the wealthy overpowering the poor; men are privileged over women and small underdeveloped countries are at the mercy of larger, indust rial powers. Large newspapers gobble up smaller ones, and strong corporations raid the weak. Pure liberty is "survival of the fittest" and the "law of the jungle" wrapped in a prettier -- a kinder and gentler -- bow. Today, philosophies of liberty and free choice, shorn of any analysis or remedies for power imbalances, leads to such travesties as international free trade agreements where corporations have the "free choice" to pick up and move at will to the Third World, pitting the workers and the heal th and environmental standards of one country against another. They also give a potent, undeserved weapon to the language of discrimination and backlash in the debate over political correctness, as hate speech is defended as simply another choice of free expression. They allow property rightists to claim as their "free economic choice" their right to blacktop a wetlands or clear cut a mountainside they own. They accord corporations the same legal status as private individuals in the areas of speech, pr ess and property rights, despite the great gaps of inequalities between corporations and most individuals. And they lead to shrill claims of reverse discrimination by white men and the melting away of affirmative action programs, as the privileged watch with horror their loss of "liberty," their ability "to do as they wish."

Into this modern milieu steps the feminist politics of choice. The pro-choice movement illustrates the tensions between liberty and liberation, and oddly enough may have paved the way for much of the current feminist balkanization. In the defense of ab ortion, there have been two explicit rationales: one recognizing the sovereignty of a woman over her own body -- her own corporeal liberty -- and the other defending abortion as a woman's civil right to economic and political equality, which unwanted pre gnancies and forced motherhood would infringe upon -- a manifesto for liberation. The alliance of these two rationales represents a genuine overlap of interest between women's liberation and liberty -- so rare for women in a male-dominated society -- sin ce the right to control one's own body is the most fundamental liberty and the most liberating of all rights.

But the legal right that was codified in Roe v. Wade was simply a civil libertarian one for privacy, without any mention of equality. Since Roe v. Wade, the defense of abortion has been popularized as a civil libertarian right to privacy and choice, and civil libertarian organizations like the ACLU and the Playboy Foundation have been highly visible in promoting this aspect of the women's liberation agenda. Paradoxically, this right is the same one that men cite as the basis of their right to buy porno graphy, even to hang that pornography in the workplace (recently defended by the ACLU); it was also the basis of the husband's earlier right to rule his home, wife and children as his private fiefdom.

Feminist activist Nikki Craft was rudely reminded in 1987 of the difference between a woman's civil right to equality and liberation versus the civil libertarian right to privacy and liberty when she was the plaintiff in a Cape Cod lawsuit defending hers and other women's right to go shirt-free like men at a public beach. A host of civil libertarians -- including ACLU lawyers, the Naturist Society and other members of the nudist/naturist movement -- joined and substantially funded the lawsuit until Ms. Craft insisted that the legal defense be based upon a woman's equal right to go shirt-free rather than a civil libertarian right to First Amendment expression. The civil libertarian funders balked and attempted strong arm tactics. Finally, only hours be fore a high court ruling, Craft and eleven other feminists withdrew from the lawsuit, rather than let themselves be party to setting a legal precedent of civil libertarian values that, in their view, were so often misused by the likes of pornographers and naturist pedophiles against women and children.

At no time in recent memory has the philosophy of choice and liberty divided women and their allies so much as that brand currently espoused by woman like Madonna, Camille Paglia, and even feminist author Naomi Wolf. After brilliantly dissecting and sla ying the "beauty myth" in her groundbreaking book by the same name, Ms. Wolf goes on to envision a new way forward, indeed a "third wave" of feminism. But this "third wave" incorporates a curious concept of choice. According to Wolf:

"The real issue has nothing to do with whether woman wear makeup or don't, gain weight or lose it, have surgery or shun it, dress up or down, make our clothing and faces and bodies into works of art or ignore adornment altogether. The real problem is ou r lack of choice...A woman wins by giving herself and other women do whatever we choose in following -- or ignoring -- our own aesthetic."

In her book, and even more so on the college lecture and talk show circuit, Ms. Wolf speaks favorably for (and even demonstrates with her own fashionable appearance) a new feminist ethic in which woman reclaim a self-defined glamour "as merely a demonstr ation of the human capacity for being enchanted." In other words, as she slays the old "beauty myth" with one hand, Wolf offers a newer improved version to her audience, with the following condition: if women freely choose to dress and paint themselves like the old "beauty myth," then that's OK. The obvious corollary to this confusing distinction is that, if a woman freely chooses to diet in order to maintain a fashionably thin body or to have breast-enhancing surgery or to wear back breaking and semi- crippling high heels or to spend her time and hard-earned money remaking her clothes, face and body into a "self-defined" work of art that hews to the standards imposed by the old "beauty myth," then that is a feminist position and a part of the new "thir d wave." Sadly, these third wave feminists are role models for girls and young women, and the gaunt specter of emaciated females -- now as young as eight years old according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) -- purging, bingeing and starving themselves seems not to affect Wolf's celebration of glamour and choice. Third wave feminism never addresses the issue of how much free choice is actually involved in imitation, whether of adults, peers, People, Teen or Cosmopolitan. Are we to believe that eight year olds also might be acting out a of "third wave" free choice?

Wolf's convolution of choice as it is applied to the beauty myth makes a feminist critique of bodily appearance, the politics of body size, and fat discrimination virtually impossible, which is odd since that is ostensibly what much of Wolf's thesis is a ll about. In the feminist third wave according to Wolf, any beauty myth behavior may be defended and any critique and analysis of it may be countered by simply waving aloft the banner of "free choice." From a feminist standpoint, her superficial -- shal l we say cosmetic? -- politics of choice is ultimately disempowering.

Camille Paglia takes this shallow politics of choice to even higher heights of absurdity. Inveighing against feminist things that annoy her, like the "battered woman motif," Paglia makes the case that battered women freely choose to stay with their batt erers due to their fondness for "hot sex." Everyone knows, says Paglia, that "many of these working class relationships where women get beat up have hot sex. They ask why won't she leave him? Maybe she won't leave him because the sex is very hot...How come we won't allow that a lot of wives like the kind of sex they are getting in these battered wife relationships?"

With such a superficial politics of choice as her standard, Paglia brazenly proclaims what most closet sexists fear to say about gender relations lest they be accused of bigotry and reaction. She assigns free choice to the battered, targeted prey, caust ically tossing aside economic considerations, threats of retaliation and even possible murder by the batterer, and a general lack of a support network that twenty years of domestic violence activism has shown is necessary for most women to leave their bat terer. This conservative wolf in liberal sheepskin -- complete with her resurrection of Freudian pop psychology and her passion for stinging personal philippics against those with whom she disagrees as a way of distorting the debate -- odd behavior for a civil libertarian -- would have fit in nicely at the 1992 Republican National Convention, alongside Marilyn Quayle, Phyllis Schlafly and Pat Buchanan. But because Paglia couches her message in the liberal lexicon -- free choice, personal liberty, and ma ximum autonomy -- she is given undue attention by the liberal establishment, including some liberal feminists.

Similarly, Madonna's Sex has partially turned the feminist analysis of pornography on its head. Here is a woman who has chosen to be her own pornographer. No economic coercion or physical intimidation compels her, as in the notorious case of Linda Ma rchiano in Deep Throat and countless other sex industry performers. Madonna is her own capitalist, endlessly flouting her own brand of MTV feminism, and her chief product that she peddles for millions of dollars is increasingly explicit and sado-masochis tic depictions of her own body. For Madonna, as well as female pornographers Suzie Bright and Annie Sprinkle, posing for and producing pornography is simply another lifestyle choice. Prostitution is defended as a viable career path; On Our Backs merely the flip side of Off Our Backs. Sadomasochistic porn is simply another form of free expression, as is a Florida man's right to hang pornography in the workplace, defended by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Recently, pedophilia encroached into the men's pro-feminist movement when the ostensibly pro-feminist magazine Changing Men ran a feature story called "First Loves" in which gay therapist Jeff Beane, a founder and prominent organizer of the National Orga nization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS), romanticized and glorified a past sexual encounter when he was 17 years old with a 12 year old boy. In the ensuing controversy, the defense of the article was that gay men -- due to their confused sexual developme nt in a homophobic, heterosexist society -- need to be able to "experiment" in order to find their true homosexual selves, even allowing for sex between adults and children. That very same issue of Changing Men appeared an ad by NAMBLA (North American Ma n Boy Love Association), an organization dedicated to a philosophy of sex between "consenting" children and adults; and another article entitled "An Invitation to Transgressive Sex" in which author Duane Allen invited readers to "violate playfully the cur rent genres of sexuality" and endorses sado-masochistic pornography. In all the above cases and more, the sexual libertine philosophy nipping at the heels of feminism focuses on individual choice and pleasure without an analysis of power dynamics in sexu al behavior. In short, virtually any type of pleasure and "transgression" may be defended as simply one more life style choice.

"But you don't understand, our newly won liberty is our liberation," insists the feminist libertine philosophy. "This isn't the 19th century; this is a new age of post-modernism, with new opportunities for women. We can use the old rules of liberty to our advantage. Who are you to say that my liberty is not also my liberation? Who knows my liberation better than myself?" End of subject, end of debate. Yet such a solipsistic brand of post-modernism replaces deeper understanding and rigorous analysis with unconditional acceptance of personal truth -- virtually any truth. If it's imaginable, it is expressible; if it's expressible, then it is also personal, sacred and inscrutable. Here again, left meets right as post-modern stridency shuts off debate .

To its credit, post-modernism breaks the overbearing and unwieldy weight of "the truth" into a thousand truths. But this does not mean that all truths are equal or valid. Nor does this mean that there is not a consensus to be reached about what the sha pe of liberation looks like. We may not be able to precisely pinpoint it, but we can certainly point in a general direction. And while it is hardly possible, nor desirable, to crawl inside each person's head and proclaim this one liberated, this one not , and so on, we can certainly point to specific puzzling behaviors or qualities and with eyebrow raised wonder if they are liberating or not. And to do this we don't always need to buttress our conclusions with complex social theory; sometimes just commo n sense will do.

Common sense suggests that there is something disingenuous about the slayer of the old beauty myth now modelling and celebrating a new beauty myth; something fraudulent about tying up, handcuffing and causing pain to one's lover, and hailing that as libe ration; something dishonest about Madonna the profiteer pushing the old beauty myth (or is it the new beauty myth?) with a vengeance for her own considerable profit, even unearthing and reincarnating past sex symbols like the orphaned and abused self-immo later Norma Jean Baker also knows as Marilyn Monroe (One wonders: didn't Norma Jean's sacrifice serve as a warning to anyone? Will she ever be allowed to rest in peace?). Common sense also suggests that there is something unscrupulous about a free spee ch fundamentalist like Camille Paglia who can only look good by hurling invective and denigrating almost everyone else. The cosmetically superficial "free choice" philosophy of these libertarians, libertines and liberal feminists, shorn of any analysis o f power imbalances or remedies, can hardly represent feminist liberation, much less a third wave.

It is deeply ironic that liberal feminists and sexual libertines have denounced radical feminists as lying in the same bed as fundamentalist Christians and the Moral Majority because of a similar focus against pornography -- albeit for completely differe nt reasons that rely on completely different tactics. Yet every time Madonna, Paglia, Bright, Sprinkle, Wolf, the American Civil Liberties Union, et al, crow about the benefits of liberty and free choice, they are accomplices to the other half of that an tiquated 19th century tradition of classical liberalism -- namely George Bush, Bill Clinton and their fellow free marketeers and property rights ideologues.

How far will this trend go? It is already ubiquitous, and being used to legitimate pedophilia, to dismiss the seriousness of battered women who stay in the relationship, and women's continuing attachment to the beauty myth, fear of fat, and their eating disorder behaviors. But if its influence continues to creep much deeper, there will be little left to feminism. A liberation movement shorn of its analysis of historical context, power imbalances and power dynamics, will be little more than a hollow sh ell. Such a politics of choice and liberty has not been and will not be liberating.

In the prologue to Pornography and Silence, acclaimed feminist author Susan Griffin, writing of the pornographer as libertine, makes this distinction between a politics of liberty and one of liberation:

"[T]hough in history the movement to restore eros to our idea of human nature and the movement for political liberation are parts of the same vision, we must now make a distinction between the libertine's idea of liberty, 'to do as one likes,' and a visi on of human 'liberation'...If we are to move toward human liberation, we must begin to see that pornography and the small idea of 'liberty' are opposed to that liberation."

These are strange and confusing times, a mixture of progress and setbacks, and it is not always easy to sort out which is which. The larger question to guide our deliberations must be: is the work of feminism done? Have women and men achieved equality ? If the answer is no -- as it most certainly seems to be -- then a feminist politics of choice will continue to include Susan Griffin's distinction between liberation and liberty. And a feminism with such an ethic will continue to be a movement of libe ration, rather than a passing fad or fashion statement. Granted, some women and men will selfishly exploit the gains of feminism and achieve fame, fortune and notoriety by pandering to the libertine sensibility. But that must be recognized, named and fo ught against for what it is: backlash.

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