Saturday, March 7, 2009

Toughen up, boys and girls: rough times ahead

by Chris Moses

From the bloated bombast of Rush Limbaugh to the fashion runways of Milan, the message is clear. Toughen up. The economy is crashing and we don’t have time for namby-pamby folly, the softer side of human character.

Try to help others and see what you get, Rush belches to his adulating listeners—failure. Failure for Barack Obama and his everyone-will-be-ok socialism. Designers give women comfort over sheer elegance yet stress the perseverance of edginess, the even greater demands placed on the shoulders of those slim and sexy ladies who can still turn heads with outfits that cost more than the average human’s annual salary.

Gaul for all is our revolutionary slogan. Perilous economic suffering be damned.

There’s little surprise that the Republican ‘party of no’ reverts to arguments for strong character, unflinching will and self-determined accomplishment as an antidote to contemporary profligacy. What’s startling is their forgetfulness that (a) they were in charge, supposedly heralding this very ideology, while the current mess developed and, (b) their notion of sacrificial success actually enables the salary-as-happiness, spend-and-be-redeemed capitalism that directly undercuts simple yeomanly self-reliance.

Even if you’re making $7.50 an hour, carrying your guns in the rack of a late model Ford pick-up, the dream is to puff a cigar while shooting from a helicopter, Palin-style, on a luxury safari. Indeed it was the six-figure fashion of the just-like-you simple lady governor that created a contradiction so big as to collapse the party fiction.

Not so far behind this reversionary rhetoric lies a strict set of assumptions about individual wherewithal, all of which align to strict notions of gender conformity. Nothing is so strong as ideas of strength in defining what makes men and women. Eve’s fickleness collapses Adam’s will; the seductress of credit distracts men from true value; and shop-til-you-drop femininity undercuts hard-earned, hard-cut male labor.

So calls to toughen up deserve a great deal of scrutiny. Men face increased pressures in an economy contracting around work like manufacturing and construction. Not only for their own pride should we be worried: idle hands, especially those frustrated about a lack of power, virulence and productivity can too often find dangerous, unhealthy or even criminal outlets for their frustration. Not for nothing have wars countered depressions and recessions—by creating new jobs, but also by sending hoards of un- and under-employed young men to their slaughter.

Surely better solutions exist: I hear within calls for a green revolution much of the same battle-hard rhetoric used for brining men to arms. Soldiers against carbon will prove beneficial for the common good, but such an economic front must be opened as a way to scrutinize and reorganize our cumbersome sexual division of labor. (Remember those debates about women—and gays—in the military?)

So much energy has gone into lamenting that we make the wrong thing; that our banks have failed us; that macroeconomic management must increase along with greater corporate regulation—amidst all these big-picture analyses, shockingly little has been said about who does what and how. Economies begin and end with people or, more properly, homes: the very word derives from oikos, ‘household,’ in Greek. Hence the more familiar sounding Latin oeconomia. And no one can avoid the powerful role of gender around the house—the rest of the world is built from here on up.

We’re currently confronting the largest economic disruption and transformation since the sexual revolution but very little thought has been given as to how this drastic social change has effected our economy—and in turn, the ways we might fix it.

All the blame shouldn’t fall on conservative, turn-back-the-clock strategies for returning men and women to the social positions imagined as having made the past better than the present.

Liberals too have skirted issues of gender by the time-tested strategy of homogenizing difference and calling for improvement in the broadest terms. Big-swath betterment is surely more appealing (to me at least) than a world of Hobbesian competition. Though it can approach a kind of lump-together lunacy: in his address to Congress President Obama heralded a tax cut for 95% of working families as if being able to say such a big number was more important than addressing the astounding diversity behind this creative math. Not least does poverty—real, hard and fast, enduring poverty—get lost in the rhetoric of the middle class; so too does it obscure our vision for a more equitable future beyond the first world, where stratification and gender inequality is at its greatest.

One need not accept the loathful extremes Milton Friedman stylizes as Capitalism and Freedom to appreciate that economic participation connects instrumentally to expressions of personal liberty and human rights. For women and men to share fully in these opportunities requires concerted effort and not mere pronouncement. It requires scrutiny of basic economic assumptions about competition, ‘rational choice’ and the goals and nature of prosperity.

So rather than toughen up, let hard-headed ideas of strength wizen away. Instead draw from feminist creativity to envision a future based upon gender equity and a conviction that success for the often male few need not mean subservience for the frequently female many. That’s the best industry with which we can put the world back to work.

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