Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Failure of Rage

Death has been big in the news lately. First and most publicized has been the passing of pope John Paul II, and tucked neatly in the same few days Prince Rainier of Monaco. And on April 9, 2005, the well known radical feminist and anti-porn crusader Andrea Dworkin died at the age of 58. Now, I never met Dworkin, and so far as I know she was never aware of my work, but I think it is safe to say the two of us wouldn't have gotten along.

The reasons for my guess are multiple. First, I reject many of the basic assumptions Dworkin made about both the human condition and the nature of human beings. I reject her argument that human relations are strictly political and power-based, and I reject the Marxist idea that human beings are defined by which groups they belong to (in the case of radical feminist ideology, male and female, particularly), which I believe has crippled modern feminism. But it must be said in Dworkin's favor that she cast enough of a shadow that her death and probable legacy have brought out in me a few introspective moments, which I will attempt to elaborate on here.

As is usually the case with controversial lives, the details of Dworkin's feelings and opinions can sometimes be hard to pin down, and doubtless they changed as she aged, as they do for all of us. Some accused her of arguing that all heterosexual intercourse was rape, for example, though she denied having said this. She also denied that the Canadian ban on pornography commonly thought to be influenced by her and fellow anti-porn crusader Catharine MacKinnon wound up banning her own works. To be fair, I won't dwell on such specifics, since I have not researched them adequately, and since the details of them are not really relevant to my thoughts here.

Beyond her politics and reputation, though, I think it is safe to say after reading even a sampling of her work that Andrea Dworkin was defined by her rage. It permeates her writings, just as it permeates radical feminism. She was angry, and despite a reputation for shyness, seldom hesitated to tell us how she felt.

To be sure, Dworkin had a lot to be angry about. The history of humanity is filled with brutality against women, and one of the most prominent features of today's world is that on many parts of our planet, it actually seems to be getting worse, though this may well simply be a feature of the fact that the general methods of oppression have become so sophisticated. Nonetheless, the simultaneous efforts among a wide variety of religious groups worldwide to eliminate the rights of women should provoke us into rage, as should the modern growth of slavery, including sexual slavery that preys on the most vulnerable. We should be enraged by the tolerance of extremes of poverty and social decay that strike women and children hardest, even as the governments of the developed world freely sell weapons that frequently contribute to and even cause genocides like the one being largely ignored in Darfur, where rape is simply another weapon.

But since it was her defining feature, we should now ask ourselves: what did Dworkin's rage accomplish? Can we point to her work and her life and say they were successful? This is not merely a question we should ask of Andrea Dworkin, of course-- it is a question we should all regularly ask of ourselves. In Dworkin's case, I think her legacy is likely to be seen as a mixed bag, something Susie Bright seemed to indicate in her own comments on Dworkin's death. To be sure, Dworkin's attitudes about pornography, sex and the erotic were defined by her rage, but as Bright notes, she did at least talk about the subject before others did, giving it some level of intellectual attention that it had never had before.

But here her contributions ended. Rage had brought Dworkin to porn, but it got her stuck there too. Again and again she said the same thing, making the same assertions, using the same flawed, simplistic assumptions about men and women and sexuality. She really did seem to believe that pornography does only one thing (encourage rape), that it exists for only one reason (encourage rape), and all men are alike in their sexuality, all working together in a social construct designed to rape, humiliate, and control women. Actual research into sex crimes and sexuality was only useful to Dworkin when it supported her rage, regardless of its quality as science, and this led her, in circumstances both tragic and ironic, to reject modernity itself and ally herself with social conservatives who saw and continue to see all sex as sin and pornography as a foot in the door for their desires to restrict freedom generally, and the freedom of women in particular. In the end, Dworkin's efforts alienated far more feminists than they attracted, even as many of her legal efforts against porn were rebuffed as unconstitutional.

Here, I think we can learn from Dworkin and her life. As an example of distilled and unrepentant rage, she can teach us about anger and its effects. In the early days of modern feminism, rage was commonplace, and I think it had its place in that context. Women were actively discriminated against, and that discrimination was so pervasive and so institutionalized that very public rage was needed to jar society out of its complacency and to point out that by the standards of freedom and equality America had fought to protect in the Second World War, women were being cheated. As the comfortable post-war society of the 1950's aged, and as the birth control pill found its way into American life, the sudden appearance of protesters in large numbers, yelling in their anger and frustration, could and did effect some very real changes. Dworkin's early work came in this environment, and as Bright noted, it did cause discussion about pornography in a new way. Rage, then, has its place; to feel it is natural, as natural as our sex drives and our need for love. There are few more effective calls to action, few more effective ways to get people to pay attention. For this very reason, in fact, much (but not by any means all) of my upcoming novel Portent was written in a state of advanced rage.

But in the end, rage does not build anything; in the long run it is destructive, not constructive. We can see this in Dworkin's efforts against porn, which were mostly just thinly veiled efforts to harm men by branding all of them as rapists or their accomplices, which naturally led most men to reject her ideas as nonsense. She did not seek a compromise with men, the overwhelming majority of whom are not rapists and who seek, as most women do, the love of a good partner; rather, reading Dworkin's work leaves the impression that she felt all things male need to be destroyed, and the notion that women might enjoy and appreciate men and many aspects of their sexuality was seen as treason in her war. And so her message became only the rage, never building anything, never offering us a better world, never offering us meaning or hope.

This is the tragedy of Andrea Dworkin. It seems to me likely that Mackinnon and others will carry on her campaign, and that they, like her, will do so fueled by rage. For the rest of us, however, and certainly for me, there is a different and more positive lesson Dworkin can teach us. Rage has its place, and it must be given its due. But just as there is a time for rage, there must as well be a time to step back from it. I know that rage will come for me again, as it does for us all, but it need not consume us as it seems to have consumed Andrea Dworkin. Others, like for example John Walsh, deal with a rage no less intense than Dworkin's, but they manage to turn it into something positive, something that adds to the quality of the human condition rather than detracts from it. As I face my own life and my own rage, I can only hope to do the same.


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