Well, it happened—I met Harvey Mansfield, Christina Hoff Sommers, and William Kristol at the Hoover Institution’s outpost in Washington, D.C., courtesy of my girlfriend. She was invited to give a talk at an event that celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Harvey’s Manliness (Yale UP) because she has debated him before, and wrote about this very debate in MEN: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation. I went along for the ride.
It was an interesting and strangely edifying day. And it ended with the most spectacular dinner at an Argentine restaurant called Rural Society. No menu choices, family style common dishes, everyone awash in a rising sea of wine—despite what you may have heard about the supply side, in D.C. it’s alcohol that lifts all boats, not tax cuts.
First course: ensalada arugula, roasted red peppers with eggplant and anchovies, beef and spinach empanadas. Second: Snake River Wagu (the generic origin of Kobe beef), garlic whipped potatoes, wood-grilled mushrooms. Third: dulce de leche plus flan, on a spoon. Simple, rustic, extraordinary.
At one point, to my girlfriend’s obvious chagrin, I loudly ordered more Wagu because my end of the table had eaten most of the original serving—six Oliver Twists at the other end were pleading for more.
The two panels at the event proper were interesting in very different ways. The first featured Sommers and my girlfriend sparring about what Mansfield calls a “gender-neutral society”—in which putative natural differences between the sexes are denied or effaced by feminism and its policy-relevant armature. After Sommers argued that such differences are indeed natural—if not, where are the women among the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley?—Kipnis explained at length that gender difference isn’t the issue. Of course there are differences, she said, but to assume that they’re natural is to leave gender hierarchies unexamined and in place.
We don’t live in a gender-neutral society, Kipnis continued, not by a long shot. We live in a society that bends or blends genders, often in and through the market, so that choices about where you identify on the spectrum are constantly multiplying. Why can’t conservatives embrace this bending and blending as one more dimension of those free markets they admire, rather than insist that male and female—manliness and femininity—are the only available choices?
But on it went, the repeated assertion that natural (binary) differences are denied by current feminist regimes, to the detriment of manliness, masculinity, civilization, and good sex. Sommers cited William James from “The Moral Equivalent of War” (1910) in passing, to demonstrate that old Will, a progressive and a socialist in his time, was someone desperate to preserve the “masculine virtues” without resort to war. She was on her way to praising John Stuart Mill’s Subjection of Women (1869) as the manifesto we deep thinkers need in our time to keep the feminist barbarians at the gate.
In the Q & A, I pointed out that Mill was one of James’s heroes, but he nonetheless criticized that epochal book for denying any differences between males and females, or rather for insisting that the ideal marriage would consist of an identity of interests between husband and wife—oh, and that sex was insignificant, in marriage or out. Sommers waved off this Jamesian critique of Mill, which I have argued is the founding gesture of the entire corpus, in “Hamlet, James, and the Woman Question,” Chapter 5 of my Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy (2001).
The denial of difference is, of course, a signature feature of liberal opposition to modern feminism and black nationalism (think affirmative action), both of which are animated by the assumption that neither women nor black folk want to treat white males—the “man of reason” posited by western philosophy and the common law—as their standard of achievement or comportment. Everybody denies that they’re denying difference, except the critics of liberal individualism who don’t claim to be conservatives.
The second panel concluded with William Kristol’s dramatic reading of the preface to Manliness. It could have been stand-up hilarious, but Bill was clearly feeling pedagogical. He wanted to explain political philosophy in the Straussian/Mansfield mood, by parsing every other sentence, as if close reading would convince us of the truth in the method. Since there’s nothing new about the method—ask Harvey—it was a mysterious moment.
Then Harvey himself spoke for about 35 minutes. Here again he invoked the supposed natural differences between males and females to cast doubt on a feminism that would deny them, and accordingly deform both men and women. But what he seems to have ignored or forgotten is that the goal of a gender-neutral society is not the erasure of difference—sameness is not the point. Unless we’re different, equality, the absence of hierarchy, can’t be something we could want, because then we’d all be alike. Who would then be able to care about equality? Mansfield fears this state of sameness, but it’s not where we are, and it’s not what feminists want.
The puzzling thing about the proceedings was the role of Nature in making them incoherent. On the one hand, it served as a fixed, external reality that can be violated, but only at the expense of intellectual order and political stability. That’s the legacy of ancient political philosophy, natural law theory, medieval theology, and Straussian method. The conservative critique of a world without differences between males and females is grounded in this idea of what Nature must be.
On the other hand, it served as the fixed, external reality that these Aristotelians cannot abide—the dead universe of matter measured by modern science, the objective place where laws of motion hold. “Manly nihilism” derives directly from the Darwinian disenchantment of Nature, according to Mansfield, and leads directly to Nietzschean excess, then on toward Jamesian, pragmatic acquiescence.
You can’t have it both ways. Or rather, you can, but then you’ve stopped making sense to anybody who doesn’t already share your schizophrenic attitude toward modernity.
Things got more interesting after Harvey’s talk, at the reception that preceded the dinner in Argentina. My girlfriend and I are just waiting around, hoping to get going, when this very large manly man approaches her and says “I got a question for you.” I think immediately of Paul Newman and Richard Boone in Hombre (“How you gonna get down that hill?”), and realize that I might eventually have to intervene. Not to save a damsel in distress, just to assuage my irritation at the guy’s aggressive assertiveness—his manliness, as Harvey would say.
“Why is it that American women are so ideological? You can’t talk to them, I mean I’ve been all over the world and talked to a lot of women, believe me, but here you just get into an argument. Why is that?”
“Because we have more choices?” Kipnis says. “More resources? Are you complaining that women have more power here?”
“They just want to argue about everything, why? Women don’t argue with you in Africa.”
I leave to get a drink because I think I might have to break a glass on this guy’s forehead. When I get back with a beer, he’s kind of cave-man crouched and he’s saying “Just answer the question.” I’m thinking she’s gonna gut this Neanderthal with a plastic knife, but instead she says, “No,” then turns and leaves, to join another conversation. Just like that.
“You see what I mean,” the large manliness says to me, “she just walked away, she won’t answer the question.”
“It’s a stupid question,” I say, “No reason to answer it, I don’t even understand it, and why do you get to control the fucking conversation? Because you don’t like feminism?”
“You academics are all alike,” he says, “You don’t want an argument.”
“About what? Say something I understand, I’ll argue with you. Say something interesting for God’s sake. You want to explain ‘Nature’ to me, as Harvey speaks it? It makes no sense, either way he goes with it.”
“Like I said, you’re all alike. Have a nice life.” He leaves.
I drove him away, what a nice feeling it was. For just a few seconds before then, I thought he’d get all assertively manly and attempt a physical assault on my person—that’s probably the masochistic homosexual in me talking—but I was prepared for this possibility.
And there’s the really interesting thing. I am surely the least manly man Harvey Mansfield has ever met, because I’m a Marxist and a nihilist and a pragmatist and a feminist, but I’m usually ready for a fight—notice, I did not say fisticuffs. On second thought, this wouldn’t have been a fair fight. He would have been acting on impulse. Me, I was the man of reason who had already calculated the odds.
On the train back to New York, I was trying to figure out why the official hosts of this little conference were so affable, so comfortable, whereas my girlfriend and I were on guard the whole time. Sure, they were on home turf, and we were the outsiders—they could afford to be nice, and, as hosts, they were supposed to be.
But still. I decided that the sheer serenity of their affect is a function of their beliefs. They know who they are and what they think. Us creatures of the Left often torture ourselves when we reach any state of belief, because, unless we’re sectarian fanatics, we don’t rest easy with faith, whether it’s religious or political. We’re always asking how we know what we know. These figures on the Right, at least in this small sample, don’t seem to be bothered by that Kantian question. Again, they know who they are and what they think. They exude faith in themselves and their ideas.
The wonderful irony at work here is that their faith and our doubts derive from the same source—a profound sense of exile from the present. At the Hoover Institution, the form this sensibility took was a naïve faith in the ancients. Plato and Aristotle might as well have been on the program: references to them were as frequent as refusals to mention the Donald.
My girlfriend agreed with me, I think, when I offered this explanation of the weird equanimity that made everyone at the conference (except us) seem soaked in anti-depressants. She said, “It’s not meds, it’s money. You notice they didn’t ask about our allergies and food preferences, like they do when you go to a dinner planned by leftists. They just plunked a pile of meat on the table.”