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The wrong turn (4): a real choice

Rosemary Bechler
23 October 2008

It is this kind of counter-strategy, worthy of feminist acclaim and experiment, (and capable of setting a standard for the assessment of all manner of candidates) - a politics of empowerment indeed - that seems so lacking from the current discussion around Sarah Palin and the feminist vote. Viewed from this perspective, for example, how do we judge her achievement when to become governor of Alaska she ‘took on her own party's good ole' boys and won'? Jonathan Raban's recent account of Palin's rise (Cut, Kill, Dig, Drill, LRB, 9 Oct) is more reminiscent of the inexorable and ruthless exercise in ‘power over' of Brecht's Arturo Ui than anything else. Who, after all, did she empower? If it was her church, then according to some accounts, including this one from Chris Hedges, author of ‘American Fascism', we are dealing with a textbook example of ‘gender dichotomisation':

A cult of masculinity defines the Wasilla Assembly of God Church and the Juneau Christian Centre where she worshipped. This cult propagates a vision of the world where believers are warriors. They are taught to ready themselves to engage in a final cataclysmic clash with the forces of Satan. This cosmic struggle, infused with the language of war, death and violence, leads inevitably to the slaughter by the righteous of all non-Christians... It fosters a world of binary opposites... All in life is rigidly defined. Disorder and chaos are banished. Reality, when it is defined in these absolutes, is predictable and understandable, something deeply comforting to believers who have often had trouble coping with the messiness of human existence... The movement builds concentric male fiefdoms. They radiate out from the home. They do not permit revolt, discussion or dissent.

Read more on similar themes from 50:50

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Such glimpses into the forms of power which have co-opted Palin shed some light on the obscurity of ‘half a feminist vote'. But they do more than this. They remind us of the true nature and scale of the Sarah Palin challenge to American feminists in the run-up to this election. How could they begin to engage with the one-quarter to one third of the US population, so many of whom are women, who identify themselves as ‘born-again' evangelicals, and who, as Joe Bageant introduces them in his riveting book, ‘Deer Hunting with Jesus: Guns, Votes, Debt and Delusion in Redneck America' are ‘white... and for the most part working class'? Have American feminists taken these women and their life experiences seriously? How would we set about doing this? Of course, not all of these US citizens believe the script of the hardcore end time fundamentalists as Bageant summarises it:

  • The United Nations is a tool of Antichrist. America alone must spread the gospel around the world

  • There is no need to worry about the environment because we are not going to need this earth much longer

  • Israel is to be defended at all costs and even encouraged to expand, because the Bible declares that Israel must rule all the land from the Nile to the Euphrates in order for End Times prophecy to be fulfilled

  • God will provide a Christian leader to shepherd the American flock as they become his chosen people to extend the gospel worldwide and rid the earth of evil

Given the certitude of these believers, it is a relief to hear Bageant echo approvingly the conviction that when you get down to the guy in the church pew, ‘You will find that most conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists do not want a theocracy and are not inclined to civil war here or in the Middle East. Their intellectual and political leaders may be, but most of the congregation just wants to pursue happiness in pretty much the same way as everyone else. It is time to get to know our neighbours.' In other comments he seems less hopeful, lamenting that whatever the distinctions between the myriad fundamentalisms that define this constituency, ‘they sure as hell share some of the same DNA', and that talking to them ‘sure as hell won't be easy'. Paul Valleley, in his essay on ‘The fifth crusade: George Bush and the Christianization of the war in Iraq', is less equivocal. Describing in some detail the full-scale attack on Israel heralding the Battle of Armageddon which End-Timers await, and the Rapture which true-believers hold will rescue them from the general fate - he insists that there are, 'as many as eight million pre-millennial Christians in America' for whom ‘Armaggedon is always just around the corner' and that, 'Their mindset has had a creeping influence on the way mainstream America thinks about the world.'

Where both commentators agree is that those who do not share such convictions, or should I say such a mind-set, must find a way of taking them seriously. For this is a surreal worldview which has real global implications. As feminists, facing up to the prospects of Palin for Vice-President demands an act of imagination very different from the coy anticipation of the ‘symbolic power of her success', to repeat Chrystia Freeland's words, to which we have so far been treated. If Vallely is correct, there is nothing symbolic about the influence this worldview already exerts on an awesome US presidential power. After all, as Paul Rogers points out in an openDemocracy column which has long been the antidote to complacency, ‘In the fiscal year 2009, the US military budget will be the largest in real terms since the second world war - exceeding expenditure at the time of the Korean war (1950-53), the Vietnam war (1965-75), or at the height of the cold war. It will also be larger than that of every other country put together, even excluding direct war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan.' There is nothing symbolic about that, or about US encouragement for the militarisation of the Israeli state in a combustible Middle East, or the warning President Sarkosy gave the Iranian government only last month about the danger of nuclear escalation precipitating an Israeli attack - these are real enough events in an ongoing hard power pursuit of national interest where ‘hegemonic masculinity' has long held sway, without any extra encouragement from rightwing Christian fundamentalism.

In the same issue of the FT which contained Freeland's musings on Palin as ‘a true feminist model', Martin Wolf was making a rather different case. In a piece entitled, What the presidential choice could mean, his argument is this: that this US presidential election might well determine the character of the next, possibly final, epoch of Anglo-American global hegemony: and that the choice it offers the American people ‘is between those who expect a world of conflict and those who believe in seeking co-operation.' The election contest takes place between two divergent elements in the Anglo-American tradition: ‘The first instinct seeks enemies and the latter deals. The former is manichean and the latter conciliatory.' McCain, Wolf suggests, is ‘a warrior against evil'. His vision is ‘seductive, plausible and dangerous. It is dangerous because it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is dangerous because, as the world becomes smaller and the challenges of managing the global commons greater, co-operation is essential.' He begins his article with the sentence, 'We are all Americans now.'

Here precisely is the debate that J.Ann Tickner and her feminist colleagues in IR have prepared us for over the last two decades - a debate that is not confined to American feminists and evangelicals, but that has worldwide implications. It is one to which women - not least all those caught up one way or another in what UNESCO has called the ‘21st century global epidemic' of violence against women - have something particular, something different to contribute. Why then are we so silent, now that it has arrived?

Since the first flush of innovation, somewhere along the road we have pursued to this crossroads, I believe we Anglo-American feminists have taken a wrong turn. I think of it as a kind of swerve which set us on a self-defeating course that at the time, at the end of the Cold War, perhaps didn't seem too important. But as the ‘war on terror' continues, to be joined by a global recession that may convince many that Armageddon is indeed just around the corner, we urgently need to revisit an old debate about women and war, and retrace our steps from there. If at this point in my argument I sound as if I am addressing an open letter to the sisters of my own generation in particular - many of the most thoughtful of whom are on the list of openDemocracy authors - I don't deny it. But this discussion-opener is for the men too, since it is also about their liberation, first and foremost from the use of force.

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