Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Oh, Freedom! (for Whom?): American Rhetoric about Freedom and the Matrix of Gender

I had begun to think I might have dropped in from outer space, without realizing it.  Last week, I mean. With the annual American hotter than blazes high holy day.  With the annual feast of American self-congratulation that we call Independence Day.  

To be specific: I was wondering if I'm the only person in the world who sees and thinks about the heavily gendered component of the ceaseless stream of Fourth of July prattle about liberty and what our sainted fathers accomplished when they bought our freedom with their blood.  Self-congratulatory American prattle that seems to have become more strongly gender-skewed than ever in recent years, and, for American Catholics, notably so with the current religious freedom battle of the bishops.

All of whom are men.  And whose chief financial handlers are men.  And whose rulers in Rome are men.  Whose supporters in Congress are exclusively other men.

As I say, I was deep into my annual Fourth of July unwitting-visitor-from-a-distant-galaxy experience last week--deep into it and the doldrums it evokes for me as I feel I don't belong, don't want to belong . . . 

Until I read Jessica Coblentz's fine essay asking for whom the gentlemen in miters claim to be salvaging religious freedom.  An essay that recognizes and explicitly states, "Still, who defines religious liberty remains a matter of authority—and a highly gendered one at that."  An essay that made me recognize that at least one other person on the planet sees what I think I see in the current brouhaha about sacrosanct religious freedom.

Coblentz adds, 

[S]o long as the all-male Catholic clergy solely possess the authority to identify what does and does not constitute a free, religiously-motivated choice worthy of legal protection, women have no official authority in Catholic religious liberty conversations whatsoever. 

And she goes on to note, 

The public rhetoric surrounding the HHS mandate has only reified the debates’ gender lines. As Michael Sean Winters observed earlier this year, the bishops are framing the mandate debate in terms of religious liberty in opposition to those who frame the discussion in terms of women’s rights. A series of events in February bolstered the position of those advocating for a women’s rights perspective—namely the absence of women at the official congressional hearing concerning the mandate and Rush Limbaugh’s “slut” fiasco that arose in response to Sandra Fluke’s testimony during an unofficial Democrat-sponsored hearing. 

I think Coblentz is absolutely correct with this analysis.  What I would add is this: American rhetoric about freedom has long had a decidedly male cast to it.  And that cast is growing more prominent in American culture year by year--so that the clearly evident gendered component of the U.S. bishops' faux religious liberty war has to be viewed against the backdrop of a culture that has long thought of and defined freedom in gendered terms.  And which is more committed than ever, in its circles of power, to hyping up the gendered aspect of rhetoric about liberty.

This Fourth of July, a number of experiences crystallized this recognition for me.  First, I had the temerity to compose a little biography of a South Carolina Loyalist ancestor of mine whose story--whose family story, since the narrative involves a wife and five children from whom this man was separated when he chose the British side during the Revolution and was exiled to Canada--has long intrigued me, due to the dramatic flow of its narrative line.

And then I unwisely made my short biography available to a number of folks interested in this particular man and in Revolutionary history, only to receive unpleasant reminders of something I keep forgetting to my peril: unless your angle is adulatory, you just don't touch the history of American wars, of any American war, without courting the wrath of self-appointed experts in the history of American wars.  All of whom are boys--boys now overgrown who spent their childhood playing soldiers.

And a very large percentage of whom are Southern males, who love to pore over every least detail of every tiniest battle fought on American soil during the Revolution or the War for Southern Independence, moving the troops around in their minds as they replay (emphasis: "play") each skirmish in their heads, anticipating the movements of the other side: "Ah, yes, as Cornwallis marched from Fort Ticketyboo through the More Than Dismal Swamps, Campbell was bearing down from the Alhambra plantation on the coast of Georgia, while Pickens was rousting his noble Scotch-Irish lads at the Sweet Liberty Presbyterian church to march north and defend freedom with their lives."

I made the mistake of circulating what I had written, that is to say, to cousins who happen to be Southern males descended, like me, from said Tory ancestor, or Southern males who have a more than passing interest in the Revolution, and I got back a series of hot criticisms, all of which boil down to the point that someone who took the wrong side during the Revolution must have been a blackguard and must have met a tragic end even if historical records don't say a word about said tragic end and rightful punishment--other than his exile.

And that experience--being told all over again (a rather pronounced strand in my personal narrative) that we understand these things, because we're normal men assessing battles in which only other normal men played a decisive role--had me down, as the Fourth approached.

As did another mirroring experience that has to do with that other area in which patriotic Southern men imagine they have unparalleled expertise: which is eating red meat.   In this case, I dared to write a criticism on the food blog of our statewide free newspaper about the fatuous way in which it reviews one new hamburger joint after another--as if there's nothing in the world to be said about local food except hamburger hamburger hamburger.

As if there's nothing in the world wrong with encouraging people to imagine that eating an endless diet of hamburgers and french fries, and feeding their children an endless diet of hamburgers and french fries, is healthy and good and all-American.  And a way of holding onto the sacred local foodways for which our sainted forefathers fought all those wars and died.

And, true to form, almost immediately after I had published my little critique at said blog site, the paper responded with yet another review of yet another hamburger place.  Whose reviewer, clearly responding to my remarks, reminded readers that eating and celebrating hamburgers is a patriotic American duty, and especially the duty of a patriotic American male.

Of the kind of patriotic American males who count, that is to say.  Of the normal kind of patriotic American males who fought and died for the freedom we enjoy today to gorge ourselves on 'burgers and fries and all the red meat we can wrap our lips around, to use the elegant turn of phrase employed by the callow, undereducated little twerp the free paper (whose editors never miss an occasion to poke fun at anything I write) employed to slap me down in a Fourth of July review.

So there was all that last week, reminding me that I don't fit, don't count, have no right to open my mouth.  That and the heat and the drought and the bishops going on and on about their embattled religious freedom, about their divine right to discriminate against women and the gays.

And with all of this, I've begun to wonder if what we call freedom in American culture is really worth defending anymore.  And if the gender-exclusive nature of the conversation about liberty so radically undercuts that conversation that the conversation needs to be changed.

If, in fact, it might be all to the good for us to hear the viewpoints of some of those excluded others for a change--of women, for instance.  Who were not envisaged as any part of the conversation when it got underway in American culture.  Since the freedom for which my own sainted forefathers fought was exclusively their own freedom.

Their own freedom as white male property owners to control what happens in the new American society for which they fought in the Revolution.  While they excluded women, slaves, and propertyless white men from all power, kept them from the polls, refused to accord them a voice in the political process.  Trampled them down, when necessary, to keep the freedom of white male property owners alive.  At all cost.

Which is, I have to confess, not very much different from what I see the GOP and its religious propaganda machine, the USCCB, wanting to do today--all in the name of safeguarding liberty.

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