A Feminist Post-Liberal Future

This week in North Philly Notes, Judith Baer, author of Feminist Post-Liberalism,  writes about how feminists and liberals can correct each other’s characteristic errors.

Basketball great Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2020. Early media coverage consisted mostly of eulogies. They stressed his five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, his two Olympic gold medals, and his commitment to equality in race relations and women’s sports. These stories, like the one in my local paper, ignored the worst incident on his record: an accusation of rape in 2003. (Criminal charges were dropped; a civil suit was settled out of court.)

Once this information emerged in postmortem coverage, all hell broke loose on social media. Fans accused critical commentators of bad taste and cruelty to the families of the crash victims. Bryant’s defenders also pointed out that he had made restitution and apologized, urging critics to put the episode behind them. Some, assuming without evidence that all women who criticized Bryant were white, accused them of ignoring the fact that black men are more likely than white men to be punished for rape and the long history of white women’s false accusations of black men. These commentators urged the critics to confront their own racism.

What does all this have to do with feminist post-liberalism? In my book, I suggest how these two belief systems can correct each other’s characteristic errors and how feminist ideas can break the connection between liberalism and male supremacy. The issues I explore include mass incarceration and cultural appropriation, both of which are relevant to the Kobe Bryant discussion.

Feminist Post-LiberalismA 40-year “war on crime” that began when Richard Nixon became president gave the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world. (We used to be third, after the USSR and the Union of South Africa.) This mass incarceration, which many liberals supported,  disproportionately harms African Americans. So many lose the right to vote that a “new Jim Crow” negates the effects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Twenty-first century liberals want to end mass incarceration. But they fail to ask how fewer and shorter sentences might affect victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Most rapists, whatever their race, get away with it. Feminism gets lost in the dialogue.

Cultural appropriation occurs when writers or artists use material from a culture not their own, especially without understanding or respect. Those who advised Kobe Bryant’s critics to face their own racism echoed the accusations an argument that goes back at least to 1932, when the poet Langston Hughes criticized the children’s book Little Black Sambo. Feminist critics of male authors have done likewise. Critics of Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt have accused the African American author of appropriating the experience of undocumented Mexican immigrants—accused her so angrily that the publisher canceled Cummins’s promotion tour in fear for her safety.

Commentators who have jumped on the cultural appropriation bandwagon have abandoned a central tenet of liberalism: its commitment to reason. Passion does not turn an opinion into a fact or a difference of degree into a difference of kind. To lose these distinctions frustrates rational discourse.

Feminism and liberalism are distinct but tangled philosophies. Modern Western feminism developed logically and historically from liberalism. A belief system that replaced faith with reason, divine right with representative government, and hierarchy with equality invited critical scrutiny of male supremacy. Defenses of women’s rights appeared in Great Britain, France, and North America during and after the democratic revolutions in these countries. So did anti-feminist tracts. Jean-Jacques Rousseau found gender equality incompatible with motherhood. Some anti-revolutionary Frenchwomen opposed equality on religious grounds. French radicals rejected feminism because they considered a decent standard of living more important than legal rights. All these arguments existed by 1800 and still thrive today. Conservative critiques of feminism continue to emphasize religion and the family. Radical critiques insist that class and/or race is the primary, and gender a secondary, determinant of inequality.

Feminism and liberalism are compatible belief systems, but not all feminists are liberals and not all liberals are feminists. Both belief systems are complex and diverse. Feminists do not all think alike. Neither do all liberals. Differences of opinion and emphasis exist within both groups, as they do among conservatives and radicals. I devoted much time and space to distinguishing among various types of feminism and liberalism.

My first draft envisioned a feminist post-liberalism free of male supremacy and misogyny. I argued that the two sets of theories could correct characteristic errors, like some liberals’ emphasis on human rights at the expense of human needs and some feminists’ acceptance of gender roles. I also discussed characteristic errors that feminist and liberals shared, like a predisposition to guilt. My optimistic tone jarred with reality in the form of the 2016 election, which decisively rebuffed both feminism and liberalism.

A progressive feminist woman lost the presidency to a billionaire outsider. A coalition of conservatives, capitalists, and fundamentalist Christians was born. Enough people in enough states preferred a misogynist to a woman and a political novice to a seasoned legislator and diplomat. Enough people in enough states sat out the election to give Donald Trump the victory. Enough voters wanted change, and did not see a woman insider as an agent of change. Instead, we got reactionary change. Conservative ideas dominate the executive and judicial branches of the federal government. Feminists and liberals have a great deal of work to do.

Considering gay economies of desire, intraracial romance, and sexual intimacy

This week in North Philly Notes, Cynthia Wu, author of Sticky Rice, writes about issues of race and sexuality, the subjects of her new book, a critical literary study.

Last month, Sinakhone Keodara, a Lao American actor, screenwriter, and entertainment executive, made headlines when he announced on Twitter his plans to file a class-action lawsuit against Grindr, a popular geosocial networking app for men interested in dating other men. The problem? The commonplace declarations that announce “no Asians,” which are allowed by moderators to remain on user profiles. Those who broadcast this restriction are mostly, but not exclusively, white.  Their ubiquity creates a hostile climate for Asian American men.

In a separate statement, Keodara clarified that white men should not “flatter [themselves]” to imagine that Asian American men need to convince them of their appeal. Rather, these outward expressions of racial loathing tap into a larger historical fetch of inequities leveled against people of Asian descent—from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the World War II Japanese American internment, and the Department of Homeland Security’s present-day profiling of Arab and South Asian Americans.

Keodara’s refusal to uphold white men’s primacy in the gay economy of desire resonates with the premises of Sticky Rice: A Politics of Intraracial Desire.  “Sticky rice” is a term coined by gay Asian American men to denote those amongst them who prefer intraracial romantic and sexual intimacies. As the logic goes, Asian American men who stick to themselves—like the types of rice grains favored by many Asian cuisines—disrupt presumptions about their aspirations to both whiteness and heteronormativity.

Sticky Rice_smMy book is not an ethnography of these men, however. It is a literary critical study that borrows from their language of intraracial bonding to revisit some of the most widely read selections in the canon of Asian American literature. In so doing, it revises an origin narrative about this body of work that has taken the heterosexuality of its seminal texts for granted.

John Okada’s 1957 novel, No-No Boy, presents a key example of how returning to old texts with new lenses produces a more nuanced story about the rise of an Asian American arts and culture movement. The novel, ignored upon its publication, was later championed by an all-male vanguard of separatist cultural producers in the early 1970s. These novelists, poets, and playwrights were known for their public condemnation of femininity and queerness. Okada’s work, they asserted, portrayed a shining model of politicized Asian American manhood in line with their stringent ideals.

No-No Boy, set in the period right after World War II, tells the story of an unlikely friendship between two Japanese American men, a disabled veteran and a nondisabled draft resister. The former holds the approval of the United States for his patriotic sacrifice to the nation, while the latter is condemned for his refusal to join the Army from within the confines of an internment camp.

The novel is often read as a treatise on the impossibility of choosing between a violent and—ultimately—fatal assimilation and a resistance that could not be realized in the midst of the Cold War. What has been overlooked in the literary criticism on No-No Boy is the erotic and sexual attraction between the main characters. I argue that the bond between the two men dissipates the either-or dichotomy that divided Japanese Americans during and after the war. Moreover, it calls into question the favorability of proximity to whiteness and heterosexuality alike.

That men of color could afford or would want to turn away from these trappings of legitimacy is often unthinkable. The lawsuit Keodara is threatening against Grindr, after all, is a reaction to the social acceptability of rejecting Asian American men on racially discriminatory grounds. We all know that a common response to rejection is more impassioned efforts at inclusion.

However, rather than compensatorily clinging to mainstream standards, the male characters in Asian American literature’s seminal texts show that we need a wholesale rethinking of love, intimacy, justice, and community. Their bonds with one another and their relentless intent to stick together become the basis on which we can imagine a different order of values.

%d bloggers like this: