To Choose or Not to Choose: A Politics of Choice

By Hill, Steven | The Humanist, May-June 1993 | Go to article overview
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To Choose or Not to Choose: A Politics of Choice


Hill, Steven, The Humanist


Postmodernism, at its best, stands for multiculturalism, decentralization of power, and the emergence of new foci of power other than the white heterosexual male paradigm. At its worst, postmodernism degenerates into a New Age naivete and shallowness that tells us "don't worry, be happy," "we create our own reality," and that promotes notions of "free choice" and "liberty" stripped of any analysis of power imbalances or historical context.

A shallow "politics of choice" has crept its way into gender politics, acting as a wedge to slowly pry apart the integrity of the feminist analysis of society. It threatens to turn feminism upside down, transforming it from a liberation movement into one that caters to a libertine sensibility pursuing simply the cause of liberty--the ability to do as one wishes. Bestselling authors like Naomi Wolf and Camille Paglia, as well as MTV feminists and sexual liberals like Madonna and Suzie Bright, have elevated the cant of free choice and individual liberty to a new plateau, issuing a challenge to the perceived "prudery" of traditional feminists.

Yet these two movements--one for liberation, the other for liberty--are very different, aiming for very divergent outcomes. Oddly enough, this liberal/libertine feminist philosophy of free choice has more in common with the laissez-faire, free-market economics of the Bush and Reagan administrations than any civil libertarian or sexual liberal would care to admit. In curious ways, left meets right.

What's wrong with liberty, an inquiring mind might ask? What's wrong with the "freedom to do as one wishes"? Isn't that one of the great philosophical underpinnings of democracy racy in the United States? Of course it is, which should be enough to alarm any person seeking justice and equality. In the name of liberty--free choice and free enterprise--slaves were shipped from Africa, Native Americans were massacred and their land stolen, and women and children were held as the property of the male head of household. In the name of liberty, as late as 1868, a North Carolina court upheld the "rule of thumb" standard, which said that a switch used for beating one's wife must be no wider than one's thumb. ("The violence complained of would, without question, have constituted a battery, if the subject had not been the defendant's wife:' ruled the court.) White male liberty has almost always come at the expense of women, children, and ethnic minorities; white male Iiberty has usually been the antithesis of womenss liberation.

Despite the passage of more than a century--as well as the sweat, tears, and triumphs of grass-roots feminist activism--nineteenth-century modalities of liberty still linger into our modern age. A good portion of our contemporary constructs of liberty and free choice springs from the nineteenth century and its tradition of classical liberalism. Central to this tradition was the view that "that government governs best that governs least' " We can see the descendants of classical liberalism today in two disparate groups: free-traders and private-property-rightist like George Bush and Dan Quayle, columnist George Will, and Ron Arnold of the Wise Use Movement on the one hand; and civil libertarians, pro-pornography advocates, and sexual liberals like Madonna, Camille Paglia, Hugh Hefner, Bob Gucccione, and the American Civil Liberties Union on the other.

The First Amendment tradition of the latter group builds on the classical liberal view which equates free speech with maximum individual liberty and defines liberty as the absence of government interference. Their paradigm of free speech is that of the street-corner radical, inveighing from his or her soap-box unhindered by police authorities. This paradigm is also obsolete and increasingly conservative, since the impact of such individuals on the arena of public discourse has been totally eclipsed by the corporate media, cable television, and the fetishized privacy of the VCR generation.

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