Sunday, July 4, 2010

Independence Day

There used to be a Canadian band called "The Pursuit of Happiness". They may still be around for all I know. I mention them here because of the name and the reasons they chose it. Their intention was ironic. They sneered at the very idea and when the band was active in the 1980s that was a common liberal attitude.

And a deeply wrong one. Jefferson's decision to replace Locke's triad of "life, liberty and property" with "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" was absolute genius. It's not that property didn't matter to Jefferson. There were, and still are, more laws protecting property than anything else in the nation he helped found. It's that Jefferson recognized that life and liberty were both ends worthy of pursuing for their own good alone whereas property was a means to an end. 

You could put it this way: no one can be free in a society that doesn't protect property rights but we protect the property rights because freedom matters not because property does. (Well, we sort of protect it, there is no shortage of politicians and judges keen on taking away our property rights these days.)

But there was something else about what Jefferson did that often escapes notice. By adding the pursuit of happiness to the list he acknowledged something else. Something that my mother taught me a long time ago. As I once quoted her in this blog, "Dignity is not a human right, it's a human achievement." You have a right to the pursuit of dignity, you don't have a right to dignity.

What that means is that a free nation, a nation that is going to have dignity must be a nation of citizens dedicated to the pursuit of virtue. Not people who can obey rules but people who live their lives in pursuit of a certain virtuosity. The paradox here is that virtue is not a private matter, it's something others see and judge in us and we cannot be free by ourselves. We have to impress others with our virtue in order to be free so, odd as this may seem, our freedom is dependent on the approval of others.

To some extent we are used to that. We take it for granted, for example, that a civil engineer must meet certain criteria. We also accept that once we say "Jill is an engineer"  it immediately becomes possible to say that Jill is either a better or worse engineer than Frank.

Where we increasingly shrink and shirk, however, is at judging people as people. We don't want to say that not only is Jill a better engineer than Frank, she is also a better human being. And we don't want to say Jill is better at being a woman than Cynthia is or that David is better at being a man than Frank is And yet both these judgments are not only possible, they are absolutely necessary if we want to pursue happiness, freedom, dignity and yes, if we want to pursue life.

I came of age very much under the influence of a certain kind of attitude about women and about what it was reasonable to expect of them. It was an era when people did not accept the notion that some women were better at being women.

I don't remember when my attitude towards women began to change but I do remember when I realized it had started to change. I was reading the paper and there was a columnist in the lifestyle section who was bemoaning the way men think about women. One  sentence began something like “men these days ...”. You know a sentence that starts that way is not going to end kindly.

What the sentence said was, "Men these days wants a woman who can be solid breadwinner, can carry on a conversation at a cocktail party, can be a good mother and is a complete whore in bed." I'm not sure I have that wording exact but I am sure I have the tenses correct. She wrote three conditionals and one present tense:  that is "can be", "can carry", "can be", and "is"!

The tone of the piece was, "Oh there they go again those stupid men wanting to have this impossible thing". And I, reading it, had this subversive reaction and said "Damn right that's what I want."

A bit of a digression. Think about the expression, “Have your cake and eat it too.” The problem this expression identifies is not one of desire but of rationality. There is nothing wrong with having that desire. It’s something we all would do if we could do it. But we can’t and we rightly disparage the person who can’t see that this desire is unrealistic and thus begin to reshape their desires to match what is realistic.

Okay, back to our lifestyle writer. The thing about what she said is that it’s difficult not unrealistic. There are women who are all those things. That is not to say that such women are common or that every woman is going to succeed at being all those things. A considerable number of women won’t even try.

But the big moment for me—the very liberating moment—came from realizing that it’s not my problem. The challenge of being a woman is her challenge not mine. I can be supportive and I definitely cannot get in her way but the degree to which any woman succeeds or fails at being a  woman is ultimately up to her. And I am allowed to judge her based on her success or failure. I should keep that judgment to myself but when it comes to picking a partner I am not only allowed to judge her in these ways I am obliged to if I want to be a morally serious human being.

The list the lifestyle columnist gave above is not unlike that. It is a list of qualities, some easily measurable and some not so much, that everyone (including women themselves) expects of women whether we like to acknowledge this or not. I’d break some of them out a little differently.

She has to be a solid breadwinner. Yes, it’s a post-feminist age and women are expected to have and hold jobs. More than that, however, men expect them to bring that to a marriage. There are women who continue to think of their money as "my money" and not as "our money". Men are not interested. Getting married means getting married. What’s mine is yours and what is yours is mine.

She has to have a certain level of culture. That is what carry on a conversation at a cocktail party means. It means that she has to be able to meet with our friends and carry on a conversation at their level. And she has to do this for real rather than fake it. You can fake an interest in these things for a while but what is required is to really do it.

Some woman can’t because the only kind of interaction they are capable of with men is a sexual one. My ex was like that. She hung around with artsy types and said she liked to talk about art with men she met this way. The truth, however, is that she liked to encourage them to talk about art. It was a way of getting them to like her sexually. She could not hold up her end of a conversation.

Being capable of being good mother means has to be a moral exemplar; which is to say she has to be good not perfect. She has to be someone who sees life in moral terms and is engaged in the struggle to live a moral life. That is the quality that is meant by can be a good mother. The decision to actually have or not have children is a separate issue. What I mean here is a certain moral seriousness and self awareness. She has to understand her strengths and weaknesses and she has to be capable of building her strengths and struggling with some degree of success with her weaknesses. To do this, she has to be able to evaluate herself the way a good but honest friend would.

Finally, yes she does have to be really good at letting herself go and enjoying herself in bed. And the tense shift here is important. All the other qualities are conditional; they all indicate qualities that are expected to come with a  future marriage. But in today’s world, men expect women to come already able to be complete whores in bed.

There are things to like and things to dislike about that. I’m not going to argue the point here because, like it or not, the sexual revolution happened. And, like it or not, the crucial fact is the sex is a very, very meaningful thing to men. To say something like , “You’re not interested in love, you’re only interested in sex,” makes absolutely no sense to us. And we expect not just positive attitudes but success. Again, not perfection but solid and consistent success.

This point was hammered home to me when I found myself single after having been in a  relationship for a while. My former partner’s attitudes towards sex had two sources. The first was her mother who, like many women of her generation, nursed a distrust towards men and believed that only women could be expected to be moral in sexual matters. The second source was second generation feminism and its crusade against male attitudes towards sex. My ex, for example, was firmly convinced that men were like children. We might be given bits of candy as an indulgence but always the clear insistence that this wasn't nutritious and was doled out only as she saw fit. Her own desires and needs, on the other hand, were always legitimate.

When I started hanging out with other women, I noticed that some were like my ex. Others were not. Their attitudes towards sex had two very different sources. First they had a natural suspicion of the sexual motives of other women equal to their suspicion of male motives. Unlike women of my generation they tended to think that women were every bit as likely to be untrustworthy as men.

And the second source. Well, sit down for this. They'd picked up a lot of their attitudes about sex from men. They took it for granted that being good at sex was a matter of pleasing men. For example, they were while not absolutely approving of porn its mere existence did not trouble them and most had experimented with using it as way to be sexually stimulated. They'd moved on from that just as they'd moved on from early experiments with binge drinking. But the experience had changed the way they thought and behaved about sex and I'm sorry but it had affected them in a positive way.
Yes, there are genuinely troubling aspects to porn just as there are troubling aspects to the sexual revolution. There is a lot about porn and the attitudes it promotes that is ugly. That said, however, I wouldn’t consider turning back the clock on the sexual revolution even for a second. Likewise, I have zero interest in living in a society that represses writing and pictures that is intended primarily to obtain sexual stimulation.

Oh yeah, what about men? Do the above criteria apply to me? Yes but not in exactly the same way. There is a difference between men and women. Especially in the last. One thing that has never changed is that women still expect sexual performance from men. Really letting go and enjoying themselves in bed is a challenge for women and we judge them on their ability to do that. It's not that men don't have any challenges in that regard but we take it for granted that they should succeed. A man who can't do that is an irredeemable failure. What women expect a man to be good at is in having the ability and dedication to make it happen for her. She expects performance and if we want to be men, we have to learn to deliver.


  1. This is very good, and you raise many legitimate points, things I have thought about also. Its hard being a man in today's world, maybe it always was hard but in different ways than today. We can't take the same things for granted or have necessarily the same expectations that our fathers and grandfathers did. For that reason, men need to support each other, and I think we are doing that more and more. There's a great website that I just discovered and joined, its called "The Art of Manliness" Its not sexist or homophobic, or a place for angry men to vent about how they got screwed in their last divorce. Women aren't excluded but there are some groups within the site that are men only, and that's a good thing. You should check it out, I think a lot of what's on there will resonate with you, it certainly did with me.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. This was one of those things where I hesitated a long time before clicking "post" wondering if I would regret putting it out there. I wasn't sure I wouldn't regret it.

    By the way, I love this line from your comment:
    "... a place for angry men to vent about how they got screwed in their last divorce." There is a lot of that about isn't there? I always figured real men don't get bitter myself (although I suspect every man goes through periods when bitterness is a tempting response).

    Thanks for the link. I've visited the site once this afternoon and I know I'll be going back.