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What does masculinity mean?

A series of guest posts by Clarisse Thorn at Alas raises questions about how to envision masculinity that is non-oppressive yet still manly. This sort of question has an unfortunate tendency to veer into "what about the menz?" territory, and I think the writer does sometimes seem too concerned about the burdens that traditional masculinity and the rejection thereof place on normative men (particularly in the final installment, which she admits sounds like MRA stuff and "marketing" feminism), but the commentariat has generally approached the questions in a productive spirit.

The thing that makes some of the core questions -- like "How men can be supportive and non-oppressive while remaining overtly masculine?" -- difficult is that there's a lack of clarity about what constitutes "masculinity," or even what criteria we might use to sort through the question. There are a few obvious answers that we can throw out:

1) Biological essentialism -- This is a non-starter because nearly every alleged biological difference between men and women (or even just cis men and cis women) has, upon further investigation, turned out to be 1) a result of social processes, 2) nonexistent, or 3) statistically significant but practically meaningless (e.g. a 1% difference on some measurement).

2) Extra-human dictate -- A devout adherent of a particular religion might feel that God dictates a particular form of masculinity as the proper one, but this seems like a non-starter in a religiously diverse and atheist-heavy group like the folks discussing this issue at Alas.

3) Tradition -- On the one hand, using tradition to define masculinity requires acceptance of some form of cultural-historical relativism since ideals of masculinity have varied so much (as well as cultural purification so that we know which definition applies where). And it also seems odd for people adhering to a gender egalitarian philosophy to privilege tradition -- as several commenters point out, "thinking about gender" and "being non-oppressive" are traditionally inherently un-masculine activities.

4) Pure definition -- I suppose there may be a few people who value having the word "masculine" applied to them but have no attachment to any specific content, such that if we all agreed to call wearing a pink tutu super-manly they would go buy a closetful of them. But only a few. And this kind of Humpty Dumpty strategy would make the original question vacuous -- it's easy to construct a non-oppressive masculinity if you can just decree that any old thing you come up with is now officially masculine.

An important starting point, I think, needs to be asking people "what does masculinity mean to you?" This would be a question posed both to people who identify as (or aspire to be) masculine, as well as those who find masculinity sexually/romantically attractive.

I suspect, too, that what we'd find is that there is no one definition of masculinity -- and therefore no one answer to Clarisse Thorn's questions. What one person finds valuably manly may have little if any overlap with what another person says. A while ago I read Bond's description of what specifically constitutes her masculinity/butchness -- and I found it an interesting mix of things I do but don't see as contributing to my personal sense of manliness, and things I have little interest in regardless of whether they might be more manly. Bond herself recognizes this sort of issue and is very clear that she's talking about what makes her personally feel more masculine and strongly opposes judging others' gender expressions as excessively or insufficiently manly or womanly.

It's not entirely clear whether I'm among the people Clarisse Thorn is addressing her questions to -- the series is framed as being directed to "cis het men," which certainly describes me, but elsewhere she refers to her target group as "straight/dominant/big-dicked," on which I answer yes, no, and I've never bothered to compare. There are certainly ways that I vary from the prevailing cultural norm of masculinity (to the point that Christina and I joke that I'm the wife and she's the husband), and maybe that would make me un-manly enough (and un-manly in the right ways) that someone like Clarisse Thorn who has a thing for manly men wouldn't be attracted to me, but that has never made me feel that my masculinity is in question in any way. Indeed, there's little that I can imagine that would make me feel less like a man. Certainly I would feel uncomfortable doing a lot of traditionally feminine things, and my maleness may be the cause of that discomfort (I wasn't born liking a shirt and tie better than a lacy blouse), but it's not a conscious justification. That is, I don't take "because it is/isn't manly" to be a valid reason for me to do something. Perhaps this is an expression of deep-rooted privilege -- I've always fit so well into the masculine role, and been able to easily get away with the parts where I don't fit without serious social penalty, that I've never had to consciously work on masculinity. But it does mean that a fortiori feminism has never felt threatening to my masculinity. Certainly I didn't instantly become some sort of super-feminist, and while my current views all fall within the scope of what feminists believe I might still be on the wrong side of some intra-feminist debates. And some of my resistance to some feminist ideas may have been caused by ideals of masculinity that I internalized. But I didn't consciously experience this resistance as aversion to emasculation, nor did I have to defensively construct an alternate masculinity (e.g. along the lines of the oft-suggested "it's manly to fight for gender equality" argument). So in the end it's hard for me to say how to be non-oppressive yet still manly because I have trouble imagining the quest for non-oppressiveness leading me to a problematically unmanly conclusion.


Sorry, Greenland

I was poking around at the IMF's Data Mapper website, and I was amused to note that their world map appears to be in the Oops-Greenland-looks-too-big-and-some-people-flip-out-about-that-so-let's-just-shrink-it-a-bit-nobody-cares-about-Greenland-and-it-doesn't-have-any-data-anyway Projection. A little horizontal squishing got a Miller Cylindrical Projection (red outlines) to fit nicely over the IMF's map (orange and green), with Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago conspicuously mismatched (Severnaya Zemlya and Svalbard look a bit off too, though I can't tell if that's just my imperfect sqishing or if they really manipulated that too).


Michael Steele's two immigration policy rationales

Arguments against immigration generally take one of two forms: rule-of-law and ethnocentric. Rule-of-law arguments usually purport to oppose only illegal immigration -- i.e. the "just wait in line" theory -- though there is some spillover when other criminal activity by immigrants comes into the picture. Ethnocentric arguments focus on the cultural incompatibility of immigrants and natives, and express concern for the country's culture being changed or diluted.

In a recent interview on Univision, RNC chair Michael Steele blends the two forms of argument:

So that is the first and foremost thing, we got to stay true to our character as a nation, we must recognize that. Number two, I think as I found with a lot of Hispanics, particularly those who have been her for several generations, they understand and respect the rule of law that is so important as a foundational principle of this country...I can sum it up for you this way, the party as I said is always the party, its been the party of assimilation and that is something that we believe in very firmly and basically what we should be saying is that there are rules that you need to get into the country, go the right door, fill out the right form, have some apple pie, hum a few bars of the star spangle banner and get to work, God bless you, and I think that that begins to set us on the right road to dealing with this issue.

At Shakesville, where I found the link, the discussion focuses on the final sentence. Taken alone, that sentence seems to exude a negligently naive optimism about how functional the process for legal immigration currently is. But it also seems to cash out the apparently pro-migrant implications of a pure rule-of-law position, by preemptively offering a positive response to the question often asked to sort out the real rule-of-law-ers from those using rule-of-law as a cloak for ethnocentrism: "Would you be OK with tons of immigration as long as people had access to, and followed, a legal process for getting here?" I was tempted to remark that I weirdly enough agree with Steele about how to reform immigration.

But note the requirements Steele lists in his proposal -- not just going to the right door and filling out the right form, but also taking on two core symbols of cultural Americanness, apple pie and the Star-Spangle[d] Banner. In the larger context, this reflects his earlier points that immigration reform must be primarily guided by "our character as a nation," and that the GOP is the "party of assimilation." In other words, he's happy for immigrants to come here as long as they fit in, as long as they assimilate to, rather than threatening the hegemony of, Anglo culture. He says it in a nice and optimistic way, since he has enough political acumen to know that Univision's audience is probably not too receptive to stories about the grinding oppression of having to press "1" for English, but it's the same ethnocentric philosophy.

Steele blends the two rationales at both ends. On the one hand, he describes respect for the rule of law as "a foundational principle of this country,"* implying that merely being undocumented is inherently un-American. On the other hand, the content of the rules that you must respect and follow mandate not just peaceful coexistence but full cultural assimilation. Thus, as conceptually separate as the two rationales purport to be, there is a strong resonance between them -- rooted, I would suspect, in the "this particular order or chaos" fallacy, by which cultural difference is a form of dangerous un-rule-governed-ness while lawbreaking provokes anxiety about how it can be condemned if cultural difference is accepted as a value.

*This is a hilarious comment considering that this country was founded by people who showed up uninvited and took over the land by military force, breaking not just moral laws and the laws of the people who were already here but also the treaties that they swore were binding under their own system of law.


The deal with Mongolia

Someone recently found this blog searching for "what's the deal with mongolia". Surprisingly, Google found no sites with that exact phrase. So I'm rectifying that with this post, which will state "what's the deal with Mongolia?" several times. For countries in Mongolia's population size range, it appears to be pretty hit-or-miss in terms of whether Google brings up any "what's the deal with ..." results, though I imagine Mongolia would be happier to get no results than to get the one (now two because of this post) hit for "what's the deal with Lesotho". Weirdly enough, "what's the deal with the united states" turns up only a single result, but luckily those wishing to find out what our deal is can find more information by searching on "... the US" or "... America."

As to what the deal with Mongolia is, Mongolia is a country in Asia. Beyond that, I admit I don't know much. Get back to me next semester, after I teach World Regional Geography.


Vandana Shiva's "Earth Democracy"

I recently finished reading Vandana Shiva's Earth Democracy. If you've read a bit of her work, there probably won't be much in this book to surprise you. It's a longer -- but not necessarily deeper -- manifesto of the overarching political-cultural-ecological perspective she has been advocating for some time. If you haven't read much of her work, this is a good overview of what she has conlcuded (her Reith lecture covers most of the same ground in far fewer words but without citations).

The book is organized around a contrast between corporate-dominated globalization and "earth democracy," her term for a form of localized, compassionate, communitarian, sustainable way of life that globalization has attacked but which is seeing a resurgence in anti-globalization activism. The obvious criticism here (and one that's somewhat ironic, given that she condemns globalization for its Manichean either-or logic) is that the world is a lot more complex than this. Those who have lambasted her for romanticizing pre-colonial India will find little in this book that responds to their concerns (and they may scratch their heads when in the same page she lauds India for being the world leader in textile manufacturing and exports until the 1700s, then blasts the British for imposing abstract faceless commerce on the country). Whether this criticism is persuasive depends on the reader, and thus whether the simple contrast functions as a useful polemical device to clarify the kind of society she's calling for, or as a rose-colored glass obscuring the difficult navigation of the world's hybridities.

When discussing any social trend -- whether corporate globalization or earth democracy -- it's necessary to answer the questions of why and how. That is, why is this trend occuring, and how does it work. Shiva spends a lot of time on the how of globalization, describing the means by which, for example, free trade rules and US/European agricultural subsidies drive Indian farmers into crushing debt. But the why is left unanswered except for occasional references to "greed." Thus the structural forces driving the rise of capitalism are reduced to an apparent policy choice by evil individuals. On the other hand, while the why of earth democracy is apparent (who is going to say no to compassion and diversity?), the how is glossed over to a great degree. Thus Shiva calls for important resources like water and farmland to be managed as commons rather than privatized. That's fine as far as it goes -- but there's a huge literature on commons management because successfully managing a commons is a complex sociopolitical project. It's not enough to say (though Shiva doesn't even explicitly go this far) that as long as it's a commons it's good and the details can be left up to local communities. I doubt the problem is that Shiva doesn't know this, since she's worked extensively with a variety of local and global social movements. Rather, she just doesn't talk about it in this book.

Shiva's overall analysis of the state of the world sometimes reads like a compendium of left-leaning criticism of modern trends, from Karl Marx to Markos Moulitsas. She moves from fundamentally questioning the institution of private property as it emerged during the 1600s in England, to blasting specific policies of the Bush administration. Many of these criticms are gone over in an offhand way, such as her occasional references to the "Cartesian worldview" in a way that presumes the reader is familiar with it and why it's bad despite the fact that she never stops long enough to say "Rene Descartes." I agree with most of these criticisms, but in Shiva's book there are clearly times when the seams show. For example, she presents the National Parks as a government effort to protect the commons that's under seige by neoliberalism, without acknowledging how the parks were built on the disposession and destruction of Native American (and in a few cases, poor white) ways of life. Having spent a lot of time in the progressive blogosphere, it also jumped out at me -- though it plays a very minor part in the book -- that she accepts the "obestity crisis" narrative as straightforwardly true. It would have been nice to see her grapple a bit more with the complexities raised by critics of that narrative (even if she didn't ultimately agree with the fat acceptance movement the way she endorses every other leftist movement she mentions) rather than just saying #oh, and globalization makes you fat, too!#

The overall evaluation of this book depends on what its purpose is. As an overview of Shiva's philosophy in particular or left-wing criticism of globalization in general, it's quite apropos. As a rallying cry for people who have already signed on to earth democracy but could use a pep talk, I expect this book is useful as well. As a detailed analysis of the workings of the global market, I think there are better places to turn, even for people (like myself) who are disposed to share much of Shiva's political leanings and conclusions.


Fall cartography

Via Mapas, Mapas, I came upon this handy Google Map of fall foliage. What I found particularly interesting was what happens when you scroll down away from New England proper, where the fall colors are in full swing. The remainder of the eastern US is colored in green, with a smattering of counties in yellow (indicating that the foliage is starting to turn). But these turning counties are not distributed in any ecologically sensible fashion -- rather, they're disproportionately the home of large cities. For example, the only two non-green counties in Tennessee are Davidson (home of Nashville) and Shelby (home of Memphis). It's possible that there's some ecological reason that urban areas would provoke trees to change their leaves sooner (some brief Googling didn't turn up anything, and I haven't noticed any significant tree color gradient in my commute between Pittsburgh and Slippery Rock). But if you click to see the underlying data, the explanation is clear -- big cities have more people, and therefore a higher likelihood that someone in the city would have started thinking about fall leaves, heard of this site, judged the leaves to have crossed from "green" to "turning," and submitted a report. Such are the perils of crowdsourced data. It would be interesting to compare the underlying data from this map, particularly dates at which counties were switched over, to population size and some more systematic measurement of foliage (perhaps from satellite data). I would guess that in addition to the urban-rural difference, there would be a general tendency for the Google Map to switch counties over quicker, because people like to be the one to announce something new and see it marked on the map. On the other hand, if there's any tendency for foliage in areas accessible to people to change faster or slower than in inaccessible areas, a crowdsourced map like this would be more appropriate, since the reason people would look at a map like this is to see where they can observe fall colors -- it's irrelevant to map users if trees in the deep woods are a different color.