Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Hirshman vs. Parents
Linda Hirshman is gaining more publicity, this time in the progressive media: in The Progressive, Ruth Connif takes her ideas apart and doesn't bother to put them back together again; in AlterNet, readers do the job. All the hostility naturally makes me want to give Hirshman a second look: are her ideas really so terrible? I gave it some thought.
But I'm afraid that the answer is still a big, fat YES. What's good about Hirshman is what was good about second-wave feminism. She calls for smart, talented women to resist to the pre-ordained role of the housewife and use their intelligence and skills to make a difference in the world. "You can't have an equal, just and fair workplace and a gendered family," says Hirshman. I agree; I'm all for de-gendering the family.
Hirshman says she wants to start a social conversation about women and work - also fine and good - but unfortunately she doesn't do much to bring the conversation to the next level. She's still stuck in the second wave, and doesn't see how men have changed and are changing as a result of the feminist movement. "What about those who say raising children is the most important job a person can do?" asks the AlterNet interviewer. "I have no idea what they mean by that," replies Hirshman. "If, in fact, it were the most important thing a human being could do, then why are no men doing it? They'd rather make war, make foreign policy, invent nuclear weapons, decode DNA, paint The Last Supper, put the dome on St. Peter's Cathedral; they'd prefer to do all those things that are much less important than raising babies?"
First, as documented here and elsewhere, more men are "doing it" - the advances of second-wave feminism made it possible for more and more men to become caregivers. Wasn't that one of the goals? Second, for forty years many men have been explicitly rejecting the destructive empire-building roles Hirshman identifies as more desirable (making war, nuclear weapons, etc.) than raising children. (There's also considerable psychological, medical, and sociological evidence that focusing on work and neglecting family leads to profound unhappiness and health ills such as high blood pressure, but that's a point to be made at another time.)
Most perilously, I think the very existence of Hirshman's obtusely and arrogantly rendered argument drives a needless wedge between people who should be allies. Recently I've been reading and thinking about the political competition between Red States and Blue States (as part of a project for Political Research Associates), which is more accurately characterized as a rural vs. urban split. In his new book Welcome to the Homeland, public radio reporter Brian Mann cites example after example of "homelanders" (as he calls rural conservatives) who vote Republican because they feel scorned by the intellectuals and city folk whom they see as dominating the Democratic Party. "There's nobody there that I can relate to," says Mann's brother Allen, a homelander.
Mann's numbers, mostly from the 2004 election, are chilling: they show that Republicans have almost completely lost the cities and Democrats have mostly lost the country. The American political mix (e.g., the structure of the electoral college and the Senate, etc.) has given Republicans an edge in recent decades, but it's a precarious edge. Their small towns are in demographic and economic decline, while the cities keep growing stronger. Politically and culturally, we really and truly are becoming two nations, divisible and alien to each other. Though city folk are losing most of the national battles at the moment, in the long run we stand to win the war. Homelanders can sense that their way of life is dying; their fantasies of persecution do have some basis in reality.
Sure, to a degree homelanders have brought it on themselves. In a global society, fear of immigrants and foreign ways is an economic and cultural liability. In a knowledge-based economy, distrust of education and the scientific method is economic death. Homelanders are fighting Darwin in the classroom, but for their own sake they should be reading him. "It's not the strongest of species that survive," Darwin writes, "nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change."
Sometimes when I think about this I feel galvanized; I want my side to "win" and I want the rubes to "lose" (yes, I'm angry, too). In more reflective moments, I just get depressed and I wonder what kind of country Liko is going to live in when he's my age: it can't be good for a culture and an economy to be split so severely and thrown so far out of balance.
That's why Hirshman's relentless scorn for childrearing, which is so inescapable and important to so many people, troubles me. I'm in favor of fighting when fighting is the only option: we can't afford to compromise with homelanders on issues of human and civil rights (I'm thinking of gay marriage, abortion, and the use of torture, in particular). But does it follow that we have to sneer at everything they stand for? We shouldn't be wasting time telling potential allies in the homeland that it's "stupid" to focus on raising children instead of making money.
From where I stand, our children and the experience of parenthood might be all that we have in common. It is, at least, what I have to talk about when I'm talking with someone from the homeland, and if our styles and roles differ, well, that's something we can talk about. For those of us who have freely chosen to have children, raising them is the most important job we can do; working is a part of that, but I've learned the hard way that there's more to life than work. Denigrating caregiving - as Hirshman certainly does, despite her denials - confirms the worst stereotypes of homelanders hold about selfish urban yuppies; it burns the only bridge we might have.
Perhaps it doesn't matter what Hirshman says or what I say; maybe all the good will in the world doesn't amount to a hill of beans. There are forces at work that none of us can control. But we can never know that for sure, and though there might be things happening that are bigger than any one of us, we as individuals still have ethical choices to make. I don't disagree with Hirshman because I believe (quoting from her interview) "that women's lives aren't important enough to merit a real analysis." I disagree with her because her message is completely at odds with my experience.
OK, that's the last thing I have to say about Hirshman.