Posts from April 2006

Over My Shoulder #21: Kathie Sarachild, “The Power of History,” in Feminist Revolution (1975)

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from The Power of History by Kathie Sarachild, the leading essay from Feminist Revolution, an insightful, indispensable, and sometimes infuriating anthology published in 1975 by the Redstockings; the essay is, among other things, a kind of memo on where the anthology as a whole is coming from and why the Redstockings thought it was so important to put it together:

The grass-roots appeal of feminism has been reflected in the composition of liberal feminist organizations like NOW as well as in the mass response to the radical ideas and agitation.

Yet the radical, feminist women faced opposition all the way, with constant advice from all sides that everything they were doing would have the opposite effect: that it would raise antagonism and bitterness, tat it was unrealistic and would get nowhere, that it wasn’t speaking to where women were at.

What lay behind the successful plans and strategies of the women’s liberation activists, what kindled the wonderful explosion, was simply their commitment to a radical understanding and approach to feminism, to discovering the common issues facing women and addressing them directly at their deepest level. They were not playing political games, trying to figure out whether women or men were ready for this or that, whether this or that would be understood or be popular.

This was going to be a movement in our own self-interest, as we said. This was going to be a fight for ourselves, for our own immediate lives, as well as for our dreams — a movement growing from our own experience, addressing the problems we ourselves had encountered. But a fundamental part of this effort to better understand our own situation was the radical understanding that the conditions in our own lives we wanted to change were essentially the common situation for women. This understanding of ourselves was going to be essential to the common fight because it was what put a person in touch with the common fight, connected a person directly to the common fight. We wanted to change the world out of our own self-interest, and because we had such a strong sense of this being in our interest, we felt sure we could convey this sense to all who shared the same interests.

With all our talk about self-interest, it was, of course, all along common interest that we were talking about, the common interest of women.

The intensity of our belief that our own personal interest arose out of the common situation was what made usknow that there would be no conflict between standing up for our own impulses and desires and analysis growing out of our own situation, and launching a mass movement. All the politicking, the guessing at the popularity of this or that, the feasibility of this or that with one group or another, would build nothing, really. It would fail to turn women on and maybe even turn them off. We knew this because we acknowledged our own most honest reaction.

The radical, feminist interest in developing and disseminating theory–in raising and spreading consciousness–was scorned, even attacked, by the liberal feminists and non-feminist left alike, who were always calling for action and for whom no amount of action we engaged in was ever even acknowledged. They were always posing it as analysis versus action, and priding themselves in being the activists, or the politicos, or the steady, on-going workers who accomplished tangible, concrete gains in the community, in the nation, for themselves, or what not. They always implied that the radical, theory people (as they would sometimes complain about us) didn’t take any action, didn’t produce any actual changes in the everyday lives of women.

Don’t agonize, organize was a favorite one liner. Of course, when stated as Don’t analyze, organize a lot of the punch goes out of it.

Oddly enough, there was also the totally contradictory charge, usually from the left, that the women’s liberation movement needed some theory, hadn’t produced any theory. Just as the actions of the radical feminists were not seen as actions–they were too petty, too sporadic, or what not–their analysis was not seen as analysis or theory.

What we were trying to do was to advance and develop both theory and action, and to unite them, putting theory into action and action into theory. It was this commitment to unity of the two, of course, which made us radicals, and which made us such a threat to liberals, right and left, who had a hard enough time recognizing and supporting feminism in either the realm of theory or action–and who apparently went blank or haywire when confronted with the combination.

Whatever we were doing just never seemed to fall within the range of the liberal left’s vision. But in the beginning it did fall within the range of the TV cameras and newspapers.

In fact, it was the public actions of the radicals, the consciousness-raising section of the movement, that put the WLM on the map. This was true of virtually every category of action you could name–from confrontation, consciousness-raising actions like the picketing and disruption of the Miss America Contest to developing techniques for mass organizing to producing journals, newspapers and books which were widely disseminated.

But the radical theory and strategy was not only the source of widespread mobilization, was not only what sparked the interest of the masses of women, it was also what produced the most in the way of concrete results, the most changes in women’s lives. This is another lesson of the past decade whose truth comes clear with access to an authentic history of the movement. The greatest achievements of the women’s liberation movement so far, those that have reached the masses of women as a whole–greater freedom in the area of birth control and abortion, greater freedom from oppressive dress codes, and the spread of feminist theory and consciousness–were all the arenas the radicals first addressed and in which they led.

It was in New York State, the area in which radical feminist analysis, action and organizing ideas were strongest and most advanced, that the first concrete breakthrough of the women’s liberation movement in the U.S. was achieved–the abortion law reform which for a few years turned New York State into the abortion mill of the nation and upon which the U. S. Supreme Court modeled its guidelines a few years later. It was the radical strategies of 1) opposition to reform and demand for repeal, led by Lucinda Cisler 2) mass consciousness-raising on abortion with women testifying to their criminal acts in public and in court 3) the development of the feminist self-help clinic ideas and their promotion of simpler, new abortion techniques that led to the nationwide reform in five years time.

The area of employment, on the other hand, is one in which the liberal feminist groups have concentrated and so far have led, and in which there has been as yet very little progress–for most women anyway. (See New Ways of Keeping Women Out of Paid Labor in this book.)

Knowing these things provides information, support and strength for a continuing radical approach and further radical action. But virtually none of it is known.

As soon as the movement began and proved successful, a process set in of wresting control from the women who had started out. And as certain approaches in the movement proved to be popular and successful with other women, the process began of confusing who and what had produced those successful approaches, what thinking, what inds of people, and specifically which people. There was an assault on the history of the movement–to take it over, to lasso it for one’s private ends, to slow it down, to stop it.

Many of the simplest and most powerful elements of the movement’s history I listed earlier have disappeared from sight or the connections between them have been severed. Instead, an array of secondary versions, interpretations and revisions have effaced and replaced the original record.

There are now amazingly different stories of these events, with very different beginnings and very different conclusions. One version doesn’t even have women starting the movement but history and changing times starting it instead. If history or changing times isn’t behind the changes then technology is, or the economy.

The rise of the feminist movement reflected a certain historic context, but this context had to be unlocked by analysis in order to be opened up for attack and work.

The knowledge of who started the movement contains important political lessons for women as does the knowledge of what brought women their gains. That women started the movement and gave it its strength and momentum suggests that it was necessary for women to start the movement, that men would not start the movement, that men don’t lead women to their freedom. Women must rely on themselves for that–not because they should but because they have to.

–Kathie Sarachild, The Power of History, from Feminist Revolution: An Abridged Edition with Additional Writings (1975/1979), pp. 18–21.

Further reading:

Anti-Econometrix Comix

Another great one from the Calvin and Hobbes reruns today:

Calvin (chewing a huge wad of gum): I need to get a heart rate monitor.

Hobbes: What for?

Calvin: To make sure I’m chewing at my aerobic threshold! Every day I want to see that I’m chewing more gum faster, harder, and longer!

Hobbes: What’s the point of attaching a number to everything you do?

Calvin: If your numbers go up, it means you’re having more fun.

Hobbes: Science to the spirit’s rescue once again.

Where else in the funnies can you find, in nuce, the Austrian critique of the GDP and other econometric mummeries?

Further reading:

From the geek archives: Jews, Tolkien, and a parting note to some ruddy little ignoramuses

Here’s a side note on Old is the New New’s interesting post on the origins of Superman (the origins of the fiction, that is, not Superman’s origin story within the fiction):

I’m also curious about the importance of Jewish identity to this story. Jones and Chabon remind us, if we need reminding, that most of the key figures in the origins of the superhero are Jewish. I sometimes wonder how much all of geek culture is a discourse on Jewishness in America. Not just the superhero thing, which is pretty obvious–nebbishy immigrants transforming into Nordic supermen to fight crooks and Nazis. I mean the whole cultural edifice of nerddom, from Amazing Stories to The Matrix. A man is not a man until he owns land, Duddy. The suspiciously Wagnerian epics of Tolkien and Lucas. Jewish-American Henry Winkler in Italian-American juvie-face as the Fonz. The insult that made a man out of Mac. The whole geek-jock just you wait until our 25th high school reunion baggage that so many skinny (and fat) bespectacled kids carry around in their psyches. Is it all a secularized, de-ethnicized mastication of Philip Roth?

It’s an interesting point, and one which certainly needs to bear in mind the tangled knot of connections between Jewish identity and gender — the baggage carried along from the cultural association of Jewishness with effeminacy and femininity. In any case, though, in the provinces points out in a comment:

J.R.R. Tolkien was neither American (an eminently English academic and Oxford don) nor Jewish–but an Englishmen of partially German (and eminently Christian German) descent. I’m not quite sure what he’s doing in an otherwise interesting commentary on Jews and geek culture in America.

Of course, how Tolkien’s work was received within the American geek culture being discussed is at least as interesting and relevant to the story as Tolkien himself. But, in any case, Rob replies in a comment:

Yes, you are right of course. And I knew writing it that Tolkien is quite the opposite of American or Jewish (he comes by his Wagnerian echoes much more honestly than George Lucas, you might say), so it was probably sloppy of me to toss him in there. He’s just so central to the geek mythos as I see it that any half-baked theory on geek culture has to find some way to accomodate him. I did try to keep that paragraph speculative, since my thinking on these subjects is very tentative.

Thanks for reading, though, and thanks for the comment.

And added the following in an update to the original post:

[Edit: I’ve been chastised, in comments below, for tossing J.R.R. Tolkien into that melting pot of American Jewish geekery, a fate he would have found more horrifying than Mount Doom. Obviously, Tolkien was neither American nor Jewish, and my half-baked theories about geek culture probably need some more baking before they can accomodate him. In the meantime, maybe I should revise that sentence to say the epics of Asimov and Lucas, though Asimov’s epics were really less Wagnerian than… what should I say… Thucidydean? Gibbonian?]

But while Tolkien certainly would have been alarmed to be confused with an American, mb points out in a later comment:

Speaking of Tolkien, in his collected letters there is a fine letter from the late 1930s, when the Hobbit was being translated into German. As I recall it, he was asked to certify for the German publisher that he was Aryan, ie non-Jewish, to which he replied that he had no idea what the term Aryan meant linguistically, and that he’d be quite proud to be Jewish, though he wasn’t. So Tolkien would probably be surprised to be lumped in with the folks discussed above, but not necessarily horrified.

The letter that mb is referring to is a letter to the Potsdam publishing house, Rütten & Loening Verlag, dated 25 July 1938. Tolkien’s English publisher, Allen & Unwin, had agreed for Rütten & Loening to publish a German translation of The Hobbit; soon after, Tolkien received a letter from Rütten & Loening asking if he was arisch (Aryan) descent. Tolkien sent a letter (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #29) to Allen & Unwin with two drafts of possible answers to Allen & Unwin enclosed:

… I must say that the enclosed letter from Rütten & Loening is a bit stiff. Do I suffer this impertinence because of the possession of a German name, or do their lunatic laws require a certificate of arisch origin from all persons of all countries?

Personally I should be inclined to refuse to give any Bestätigung (although it happens that I can), and let a German translation go hang. In any case I should object strongly to any such declaration appearing in print. I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.

You are primarily concerned, and I cannot jeopardize the chance of a German publication without your approval. So I submit two drafts of possible answers.

In one of the drafts, Tolkien refused to make any answer to the question (that’s the one which was probably sent to Germany); the other one is the only one preserved in Allen & Unwin’s files. Here’s the excerpt published in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (letter #30):

Dear Sirs,

Thank you for your letter …. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to wear my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

Your enquiry is doubtless made in order to comply with the laws of your own country, but that this should be held to apply to the subjects of another state would be improper, even if it had (as it has not) any bearing whatsoever on the merits of my work or its suitability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung.

I trust you will find this reply satisfactory, and
remain yours faithfully,
J. R. R. Tolkien

Tolkien, of course, would have been far more horrified to see how he has been appropriated, quite against his will, by illiterate fascist revivalists such as the National Vanguard and Prussian Blue; for those folks, here’s another one (to his son Michael; Letters #45), for them to chew on:

I have spent most of my life, since I was your age, studying Germanic matters (in the general sense that includes England and Scandinavia). There is a great deal more force (and truth) than ignorant people imagine in the Germanic ideal. I was much attracted by it as an undergraduate (when Hitler was, I suppose, dabbling in paint, and had not heard of it), in reaction against the Classics. You have to understand the good in things, to detect the real evil. But no one ever calls on me to broadcast, or do a postscript! Yet I suppose I know better than most what is the truth about this Nordic nonsense. Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge — which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler (for the odd thing about demonic inspiration and impetus is that it in no way enhances the purely intellectual stature: it chiefly affects the mere will). Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.

–J. R. R. Tolkien to his son Michael, 9 June 1941

Further reading:

Why I feel absolutely no nostalgia whatsoever for the 1980s

(Link thanks to The Bellman 2006-04-24.)

Ever wondered what you’d get if you created an unholy cross between We Are The World and Nightmare on Drug Street?

Well, citizen, wonder no longer.

YouTube provides the answer with this 1986 music video, Stop the Madness!

A quick word of advice. If you’re planning on quitting drugs, you should not go out dancing in the street while you wait for withdrawal to kick in. Also, you should not just throw your bag full of pills, or crack, or whatever, into the garbage truck. Especially not right in front of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s creepy, watchful face.

A poem for Nepal

It might not seem like a poetry reading from Rudyard Kipling is the most promising way to commemorate ongoing events in South Asia. But, by jingo, he did turn a good one out in protest of the Boer War; and the Ministry of Culture for this secessionist republic of one would like to offer it in honor of recent events, and in recognition of the danger posed by Geyanendra’s moves toward restoring his political patronage to would-be opposition leaders, in an effort to buy off the opposition. This may also have some application to other deciders I could mention, beyond the Himalayas.

The Old Issue

October 9, 1899

HERE is nothing new nor aught unproven, say the Trumpets,
Many feet have worn it and the road is old indeed.
It is the King–the King we schooled aforetime!
(Trumpets in the marshes–in the eyot at Runnymede!)

Here is neither haste, nor hate, nor anger, peal the Trumpets,
Pardon for his penitence or pity for his fall.
It is the King!–inexorable Trumpets–
(Trumpets round the scaffold at the dawning by Whitehall!)

. . . . .

He hath veiled the Crown and hid the Sceptre, warn the Trumpets,
He hath changed the fashion of the lies that cloak his will.
Hard die the Kings–ah hard–dooms hard! declare the Trumpets,
Trumpets at the gang-plank where the brawling troop-decks fill!

Ancient and Unteachable, abide–abide the Trumpets!
Once again the Trumpets, for the shuddering ground-swell brings
Clamour over ocean of the harsh, pursuing Trumpets–
Trumpets of the Vanguard that have sworn no truce with Kings!

All we have of freedom, all we use or know–
This our fathers bought for us long and long ago.

Ancient Right unnoticed as the breath we draw–
Leave to live by no man’s leave, underneath the Law.

Lance and torch and tumult, steel and grey-goose wing
Wrenched it, inch and ell and all, slowly from the King.

Till our fathers ’stablished, after bloody years,
How our King is one with us, first among his peers.

So they bought us freedom–not at little cost
Wherefore must we watch the King, lest our gain be lost,

Over all things certain, this is sure indeed,
Suffer not the old King: for we know the breed.

Give no ear to bondsmen bidding us endure.
Whining He is weak and far; crying Time shall cure.

(Time himself is witness, till the battle joins,
Deeper strikes the rottenness in the people’s loins.)

Give no heed to bondsmen masking war with peace.
Suffer not the old King here or overseas.

They that beg us barter–wait his yielding mood–
Pledge the years we hold in trust–pawn our brother’s blood–

Howso’ great their clamour, whatsoe’er their claim,
Suffer not the old King under any name!

Here is naught unproven–here is naught to learn.
It is written what shall fall if the King return.

He shall mark our goings, question whence we came,
Set his guards about us, as in Freedom’s name.

He shall take a tribute, toll of all our ware;
He shall change our gold for arms—arms we may not bear.

He shall break his judges if they cross his word;
He shall rule above the Law calling on the Lord.

He shall peep and mutter; and the night shall bring
Watchers ’neath our window, lest we mock the King–

Hate and all division; hosts of hurrying spies;
Money poured in secret, carrion breeding flies.

Strangers of his counsel, hirelings of his pay,
These shall deal our Justice: sell–deny–delay.

We shall drink dishonour, we shall eat abuse
For the Land we look to–for the Tongue we use.

We shall take our station, dirt beneath his feet,
While his hired captains jeer us in the street.

Cruel in the shadow, crafty in the sun,
Far beyond his borders shall his teachings run.

Sloven, sullen, savage, secret, uncontrolled,
Laying on a new land evil of the old–

Long-forgotten bondage, dwarfing heart and brain–
All our fathers died to loose he shall bind again.

Here is naught at venture, random nor untrue–
Swings the wheel full-circle, brims the cup anew.

Here is naught unproven, here is nothing hid:
Step for step and word for word–so the old Kings did!

Step by step, and word by word: who is ruled may read.
Suffer not the old Kings: for we know the breed–

All the right they promise–all the wrong they bring.
Stewards of the Judgment, suffer not this King!

— Rudyard Kipling (1899-10-09): The Old Issue