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Subject to Debate | The Nation

Subject to Debate

Katha Pollitt

The death on January 23 of the French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu came as the American chattering classes were busy checking the math in Richard Posner's Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline--an unintentional parody of sociology in which Posner presents a top-100 list ranking writers and professors according to the number of times they turned up on television or Internet searches. Bourdieu, whose heaviest passages crackled with sardonic wit, would have had a wonderful time exploring this farcical project, which takes for granted that Henry Kissinger (No. 1), Sidney Blumenthal (No.7) and Ann Coulter (No. 74) are in the Rolodex because they are leading the life of the mind--why not include Dr. Ruth or, as one wag suggested, Osama bin Laden? In tacitly conceding the fungibility of celebrity even while decrying it, Posner confirms Bourdieu's gloomy predictions about the direction modernity is swiftly taking us: away from scholarship and high culture as sources of social prestige and toward journalism and entertainment.

Bourdieu himself argued that scholars and writers could and should bring their specialized knowledge to bear responsibly and seriously on social and political issues, something he suspected couldn't be done on a talk show. His involvement during the 1990s in campaigns for railway workers, undocumented immigrants and the unemployed, and most recently against neoliberalism and globalization, was the natural outgrowth of a lifetime of research into economic, social and cultural class domination among peoples as disparate as Algerian peasants and French professors, and as expressed in everything from amateur photography to posture. It's hard to think of a comparable figure on the American left. Noam Chomsky's academic work has no connection with his political activities, and it's been decades since his byline appeared in The New York Review of Books or the New York Times. One friend found himself reaching all the way back to C. Wright Mills.

Bourdieu, who loved intellectual combat, called himself "to the left of the left"--that is, to the left of the ossified French left-wing parties and also to the left of the academic postmodernists aka antifoundationalists, about whose indifference to empirical work he was scathing. Reading him could be a disturbing experience, because the explanatory sweep of his key concept of habitus--the formation and expression of self around an internalized and usually accurate sense of social destiny--tends to make ameliorative projects seem rather silly. Sociology, he wrote, "discovers necessity, social constraints, where we would like to see choice and free will. The habitus is that unchosen principle of so many choices that drives our humanists to such despair." Take, for example, his attack on the notion that making high culture readily available--in free museums and local performances--is all that is necessary to bring it to the masses. (In today's America, this fond hope marks you as a raving Bolshevik, but in France it was the pet conviction of de Gaulle's minister of culture, André Malraux.) In fact, as Bourdieu painstakingly demonstrated in Distinction, his monumental study of the way class shapes cultural preferences or "taste," there is nothing automatic or natural about the ability to "appreciate"--curious word--a Rothko or even a Van Gogh: You have to know a lot about painting, you have to feel comfortable in museums and you have to have what Bourdieu saw as the educated bourgeois orientation, which rests on leisure, money and unselfconscious social privilege and expresses itself as the enjoyment of the speculative, the distanced, the nonuseful. Typically, though, Bourdieu used this discouraging insight to call for more, not less, effort to make culture genuinely accessible to all: Schools could help give working-class kids the cultural capital--another key Bourdieusian concept--that middle-class kids get from their families. One could extend that insight to the American context and argue that depriving working-class kids of the "frills"--art, music, trips--in the name of "the basics" is not just stingy or philistine, it's a way of maintaining class privilege.

Although Bourdieu has been criticized as too deterministic--a few years ago The New Yorker characterized his views, absurdly, as leading "inexorably to Leninism"--he retained, in the face of a great deal of contrary evidence, including much gathered by himself, a faith in people's capacities for transformation. He spent much of his life studying the part played by the French education system in reifying class and gender divisions and in selecting and shaping the academic, technocratic and political elite--the "state nobility"--that runs France, but he believed in education; he railed against the popularization and vulgarization of difficult ideas, but he believed in popular movements and took part in several. In one of his last books, Masculine Domination, he comes close to arguing that male chauvinism is a cultural universal that structures all society and all thought; he is that rare man who chastises feminists for not going far enough--but the book closes with a paean to love.

Bourdieu's twenty-five books and countless articles represent probably the most brilliant and fruitful renovation and application of Marxian concepts in our era. Nonetheless, he is less influential on the American academic left than the (to my mind, not to mention his!) obscurantist and, at bottom, conservative French deconstructionists and antifoundationalists. Perhaps it is not irrelevant that Bourdieu made academia and intellectuals a major subject of withering critique: You can't read him and believe, for example, that professors (or "public intellectuals," or writers, or artists) stand outside the class system in some sort of unmediated relation to society and truth. The ground most difficult to see is always the patch one is standing on, and the position of the intellectuals, the class that thinks it is free-floating, is the most mystified of all. It was not the least of Bourdieu's achievements that he offered his colleagues the means of self-awareness, and it's not surprising either that many decline the offer. His odd and original metaphor of the task of sociology holds both a message and a warning: "Enlightenment is on the side of those who turn their spotlight on our blinkers."

What would the government have to do to convince you to get married when you otherwise wouldn't? More than pay you $80 a month, I'll bet, the amount Wisconsin's much-ballyhooed "Bridefare" pilot program offered unwed teen welfare mothers beginning in the early nineties, which is perhaps why then-Governor Tommy Thompson, now Health and Human Services Secretary, was uninterested in having it properly evaluated and why you don't hear much about Bridefare today. OK, how about $100 a month? That's what West Virginia is currently offering to add to a couple's welfare benefits if they wed. But even though the state has simultaneously cut by 25 percent the checks of recipients living with adults to whom they are not married (including, in some cases, their own grown children, if you can believe that!), results have been modest: Only around 1,600 couples have applied for the bonus and presumably some of these would have married anyway. With the state's welfare budget expected to show a $90 million shortfall by 2003, the marriage bonus is likely to be quietly abolished.

Although welfare reform was sold to the public as promoting work, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of l996 actually opens with the declaration that "marriage is the foundation of a successful society." According to Charles Murray, Robert Rector and other right-wing ideologues, welfare enabled poor women to rely on the state instead of husbands; forcing them off the dole and into the rigors of low-wage employment would push them into marriage, restore "the family" and lift children out of poverty. That was always a silly idea. For one thing, as any single woman could have told them, it wrongly assumed that whether a woman married was only up to her; for another, it has been well documented that the men available to poor women are also poor and often (like the women) have other problems as well: In one study, 30 percent of poor single fathers were unemployed in the week before the survey and almost 40 percent had been incarcerated; drugs, drink, violence, poor health and bad attitudes were not uncommon. Would Murray want his daughter to marry a guy with even one of those strikes against him? Not surprisingly, there has been no upsurge of marriage among former welfare recipients since 1996. Of all births, the proportion that are to unwed mothers has stayed roughly where it was, at 33 percent.

Since the stick of work and the carrot of cash have both proved ineffective in herding women to the altar, family values conservatives are calling for more lectures. Marriage promotion will be a hot item when welfare reform comes up for reauthorization later this year. At the federal level conservatives are calling for 10 percent of all TANF money to be set aside for promoting marriage; Utah, Arizona and Oklahoma have already raided TANF to fund such ventures as a "healthy marriage" handbook for couples seeking a marriage license. And it's not just Republicans: Senator Joe Lieberman and Representative Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, are also interested in funding "family formation." In place of cash bonuses to individuals, which at least put money in the pockets of poor people, look for massive funding of faith-based marriage preparation courses (and never you mind that pesky separation of church and state), for fatherhood intervention programs, classes to instruct poor single moms in the benefits of marriage (as if they didn't know!), for self-help groups like Marriage Savers, abstinence education for kids and grownups alike and, of course, ingenious pilot projects by the dozen. There's even been a proposal to endow pro-marriage professorships at state universities--and don't forget millions of dollars for evaluation, follow-up, filing and forgetting.

There's nothing wrong with programs that aim to raise people's marital IQ--I love that journalistic evergreen about the engaged couple who take a quiz in order to qualify for a church wedding and call it off when they discover he wants seven kids and she wants to live in a tree. But remember when it was conservatives who argued against social engineering and micromanaging people's private lives and "throwing money at the problem"?

Domestic violence experts have warned that poor women may find themselves pushed into marrying their abusers and staying with them--in a disturbing bit of Senate testimony, Mike McManus of Marriage Savers said domestic violence could usually be overcome with faith-based help. Is that the message women in danger should be getting? But there are even larger issues: Marriage is a deeply personal, intimate matter, involving our most private, barely articulated selves. Why should the government try to maneuver reluctant women into dubious choices just because they are poor? Even as a meal ticket wedlock is no panacea--that marriage is a cure for poverty is only true if you marry someone who isn't poor, who will share his income with you and your children, who won't divorce you later and leave you worse off than ever. The relation between poverty and marriage is virtually the opposite of what pro-marriage ideologues claim: It isn't that getting married gives feckless poor people middle-class values and stability, it's that stable middle-class people are the ones who can "afford" to be married. However marriage functioned a half-century ago, today it is a class marker. Instead of marketing marriage as a poverty program, how much better to invest in poor women--and poor men--as human beings in their own right: with education, training for high-paying jobs, housing, mental health services, really good childcare for their kids. Every TANF dollar spent on marital propaganda means a dollar less for programs that really help people.

The very fact that welfare reformers are reduced to bribing, cajoling and guilt-tripping people into marriage should tell us something. Or have they just not hit on the right incentive? As a divorced single mother, I've given some thought to what it would take for me to marry against my own inclination in order to make America great again. Here's my offer: If the government brings Otis Redding back to life and books him to sing at my wedding, I will marry the Devil himself. And if the Devil is unavailable, my ex-husband says he's ready.

Christmas can be a consumeristic orgy, but consider some gift-giving alternatives to improve the world.

Laura Bush might put on a good face for women's rights in Afghanistan, but her husband's handwork works against women in other places.

With a turn of season comes a turn of politicians—now we've got a billionaire mayor.

War tropes abound once again during our war on terrorism, but this ain't the USA of yesteryear.

How depressing was the October 13 peace rally in Washington Square? Well, the Bread and Puppet Theater performed--that should give you an idea. "It's the sixties all over again," murmured the portly graybeard standing next to me as the funereal drum thudded and the players, holding their papier mâché body masks, paraded glumly through the crowd of perhaps 500 people--most, by the look of them, veterans of either the peace and justice or sectarian left. Look on the bright side, I thought: At least we don't have to sing "Down by the Riverside," as happened at the peace rally in Union Square on October 7, a few hours after bombs started falling on Afghanistan.

I don't like to criticize the activists who put together what little resistance to the bombing there is. But the 2000s aren't the 1960s, and whatever else Afghanistan is, it isn't Vietnam, any more than international terrorism or Islamic extremism is the new communism. Essential to the movement against the war in Vietnam was the pointlessness of our involvement: What had Ho Chi Minh ever done to us? The Vietcong never blew up American office buildings and murdered 5,000 ordinary American working people. You didn't have to be a pacifist or an opponent of all intervention everywhere to favor getting out of Vietnam--there were dozens of reasons, principled, pragmatic, humanitarian, self-serving, to be against the war. This time, our own country has been attacked, and the enemies are deranged fanatics. No amount of military force short of nuclear weapons would have defeated the North Vietnamese and Vietcong, who really did swim like fish in the sea of the people and had plenty of help from the Soviet Union besides; the Taliban, by contrast, are widely, although not universally, hated in Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden's men, known as the Arab-Afghans, are viewed there by many as a hostile foreign presence.

Faced with a popular air war conducted, at least on paper, in such a way as to minimize civilian casualties, the peace movement falls back on boilerplate: All war everywhere is wrong, no matter what evils pertain; any use of force merely perpetuates the "cycle of violence"; the war is "racist," whatever that means; it's a corporate plot. The most rousing and focused speech at Washington Square was physicist Michio Kaku's denunciation of Star Wars--but no one I heard (I missed the noted foreign policy experts Al Sharpton and Patti Smith) grappled with the central question: If not war, what? Realistically, some of the alternatives that have been proposed would also involve military action. Osama bin Laden is not likely to mail himself to the International Criminal Court to be tried for crimes against humanity; the disarming of both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance by United Nations peacekeepers, followed by free and democratic elections--the course favored by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan--is not likely to happen peacefully either.

The attack on the World Trade Center, an unspeakable and unjustifiable crime, created a sense of urgency and feelings of fear and anger that do not easily accord with calls for a deeper understanding of America's role in the Muslim world. It's hard to care that the US government armed and bankrolled the fundamentalist mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, or that it supports clerical-fascist Islamic governments like the one in Saudi Arabia, when you're afraid to fly in an airplane or open your mail. Say for the sake of argument that the "chickens" of American foreign policy "are coming home to roost": You can see why many would answer, Well, so what? Why not just kill the chickens and be done with it? That may prove much more difficult than today's pro-war pundits acknowledge--what if one only hatches more chickens?--but it's not totally off the wall, like Alice Walker's embarrassing and oft-cited proposal that bin Laden be showered with love and "reminded of all the good, nonviolent things he has done."

Right now, the argument that the war will have unforeseen and disastrous consequences may sound like handwringing, but it is doubtless true. Given the millions who are starving in Afghanistan, the 37,500 mini-meals that have fallen from the sky are a cruel joke. And even if the Al Qaeda network is destroyed and the Taliban overthrown, the circumstances that created them will remain. This is the case whether one sees the attack on the WTC as inspired by religiously motivated hatred of modernity and Enlightenment values, like Christopher Hitchens, or as a response to particular American policies in Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as Noam Chomsky argues. Experts can debate the precise amount of motivation this or that factor contributes to terrorism--but unless the Muslim world is transformed on many levels, it is hard to see how the bombing of Afghanistan will keep Americans safe or prevent new Al Qaedas and Talibans from forming. For that, we would have to be able to look down the road ten years and see a peaceful, well-governed, rebuilt Afghanistan; a Pakistan in which the best chance for a poor boy or girl is public school, not a madrassah for him and nothing for her; a Saudi Arabia with a democratic, secular government; an Egypt without millions living in abject poverty and a hugely frustrated middle class. This is all the more true if militant Islam is relatively independent of concrete grievances like Israel and Iraq.

Unfortunately, anyone who tries to talk about the WTC attack in this way--as Susan Sontag did in her entirely reasonable but now infamous New Yorker piece--is likely to find themselves labeled a traitor, a coward, anti-American or worse. (I found this out myself when I made the mistake of going on the radio with mad Andrew Sullivan, who has said the "decadent left...may well mount a fifth column," and who accused me of objectively supporting the Taliban and likened me to someone who refuses to help a rape victim and blames her for wearing a short skirt.) But a war can be "just" in the sense that it is a response to aggression--as Vietnam was not--and also be the wrong way to solve a problem.

Are there any people
on earth more wretched than the women of Afghanistan? As if poverty,
hunger, disease, drought, ruined cities and a huge refugee crisis
weren't bad enough, under Taliban rule they can't work, they can't go
to school, they have virtually no healthcare, they can't leave their
houses without a male escort, they are beaten in the streets if they
lift the mandatory burqa even to relieve a coughing fit. The
Taliban's crazier requirements have some of the obsessive
particularity of the Nazis' statutes against the Jews: no high heels
(that lust-inducing click-click!), no white socks (white is the color
of the flag), windows must be painted over so that no male passerby
can see the dreaded female form lurking in the house. (This
particular stricture, combined with the burqa, has led to an outbreak
of osteomalacia, a bone disease caused by malnutrition and lack of
sunlight.)

Until September 11, this situation received only
modest attention in the West--much less than the destruction of the
giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan. The "left" is often accused of
"moral relativism" and a "postmodern" unwillingness to judge, but the
notion that the plight of Afghan women is a matter of culture and
tradition, and not for Westerners to judge, was widespread across the
political spectrum.

Now, finally, the world is paying
attention to the Taliban, whose days may indeed be numbered now that
their foreign supporters--Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates,
Pakistan--are backing off. The connections between religious
fanaticism and the suppression of women are plain to see (and not
just applicable to Islam--show me a major religion in which the
inferiority of women, and God's wish to place them and their
dangerous polluting sexuality under male control, is not a central
original theme). So is the connection of both with terrorism, war and
atrocity. It's no accident that so many of the young men who are foot
soldiers of Islamic fundamentalism are reared in womanless religious
schools, or that Osama bin Laden's recruiting video features bikinied
Western women as symbols of the enemy.

But if
fundamentalism requires the suppression of women, offering desperate,
futureless men the psychological and practical satisfaction of
instant superiority to half the human race, the emancipation of women
could be the key to overcoming it. Where women have education,
healthcare and personal rights, where they have social and political
and economic power--where they can choose what to wear, whom to
marry, how to live--there's a powerful constituency for secularism,
democracy and human rights: What educated mother engaged in public
life would want her daughter to be an illiterate baby machine
confined to the four walls of her husband's house with no one to talk
to but his other wives?

Women's rights are crucial for
everything the West supposedly cares about: infant mortality (one in
four Afghan children dies before age 5), political democracy,
personal freedom, equality under the law--not to mention its own
security. But where are the women in the discussion of Afghanistan,
the Middle East, the rest of the Muslim world? We don't hear much
about how policy decisions will affect women, or what they want. Men
have the guns and the governments. Who asks the women of Saudi
Arabia, our ally, how they feel about the Taliban-like restrictions
on their freedom? In the case of Afghanistan, the Northern
Alliance presents itself now to the West as women's friend. A story
in the New York Times marveled at the very limited permission
given to women in NA-held territory to study and work and wear a less
restrictive covering than the burqa. Brushed aside was the fact that
many warlords of the Northern Alliance are themselves religious
fighters who not only restricted women considerably when they held
power from 1992 to '96 but plunged the country into civil war,
compiling a record of ethnically motivated mass murder, rape and
other atrocities and leaving the population so exhausted that the
Taliban's promise of law and order came as a relief. It's all
documented on the Human Rights Watch website
(www.hrw.org).

Now more than ever, the Revolutionary
Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which opposes both
the Taliban and the Northern Alliance as violent, lawless,
misogynistic and antidemocratic, deserves attention and support.
"What Afghanistan needs is not more war," Tahmeena Faryel, a RAWA
representative currently visiting the United States, told me, but
massive amounts of humanitarian aid and the disarming of both the
Taliban and the Northern Alliance, followed by democratic elections.
"We don't need another religious government," she said. "We've had
that!" The women of RAWA are a different model of heroism than a
warlord with a Kalashnikov: In Afghanistan, they risk their lives by
running secret schools for girls, delivering medical aid, documenting
and filming Taliban atrocities. In Pakistan, they demonstrate against
fundamentalism in the "Talibanized" cities of Peshawar and Quetta.
Much as the victims of the WTC attack need our support, so too do
Afghans who are trying to bring reason and peace to their miserable
country. To make a donation to RAWA, see www.rawa.org.

* * *

I got more negative comment on my
last column, in which I described a discussion with my daughter about
whether to fly an American flag in the wake of the WTC attack, than
on anything I've ever written. Many people pitied my commonsensical,
public-spirited child for being raised by an antisocial naysayer like
me. And if The Weekly Standard has its way--it's urging
readers to send young "Miss Pollitt" flags c/o The Nation--she
will soon have enough flags to redecorate her entire bedroom in red,
white and blue, without having to forgo a single Green Day CD to buy
one for herself. (See this issue's Letters column for some of the
mail on the flag question.)

Fortunately, for those who want
to hang something a bit more global out their window, there are
alternatives. The peace flag (www.peaceflags.org) reshapes Old
Glory's stars into the peace sign; the Earth flag (www.earthflag.net)
displays the Apollo photo of the Earth on a blue background.

Author

Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the...

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