- Share it! - Tweet it!

Posted in: Letters To Readers

Published on Nov 17, 2009 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for Pajamas Media

A Balkanized Imagination versus Zealous Uniformity

Why I am neither "left" nor "right"


Well, as they say, "No good deed goes unpunished." Try to help others, indeed, devote your life to doing so and you will inevitably find yourself attacked, especially by the people on your own side.

No big deal. Read the Torah. While I'm no Moses, this happened to Moses too; he had to get out of Egypt in a hurry lest the Jewish slaves turn him right in to Pharaoh.

And thus, I have recently been on the receiving end of quite a bit of nastiness from both the political left and the political right. At their best, both groups seem to share a capacity for viciousness and vulgarity that is quite uncompromising. Makes my life an exercise in irony, one both tragic and hilarious.

I was recently a panelist in Greenwich Village, a fabled neighborhood which, star-struck, I first visited in 1952. Yes, this budding bohemian once wrote poetry at Café Figaro, waited tables at Rienzi's, visited the White Horse Tavern and the Cedar Bar. From the mid-sixties on, I also lived in the Village, both on its east and west flanks; I stayed there (at a variety of addresses) for more than a decade–after which I continued to attend countless "downtown" feminist meetings, parties, and demonstrations.

I was, therefore, quite happy to be on a panel in the Village, glad to see friends and allies from the 60s and 70s on the panel and in the packed audience. And then, "Feminism: 1970" appeared, once again, right before our astonished eyes, and the attacks began.

"You are a panel of white women only, where are the black women, the women of color?" It is fine to raise a question about racism; less fine was the angry, bitter, strangled voice in which it was raised—of course, by yet another white women. A firestorm erupted.

On cue, right after "racism" came this question: Again, in a coarse and bitter voice. "Where are the working class women? I see none on the panel." Ah, funny you should ask. One of the panelists had just talked about women making only 78 cents on the male dollar, only she'd said that, based on her calculations, once you factored in unpaid work such as parenting and housework, or low-paid work for part-time workers, women in America were really earning 38 cents on the male dollar. Had this questioner been asleep? Or did she just want to "rage against the machine?"

Hard on her heels came a mighty growl from a woman in a motorized wheelchair. "What about me, I have multiple sclerosis, who cares about me? Why are there no disabled women on the panel, why haven't you talked about disability issues?" Again, a fair enough question but her rage was…clinical. Funny, several of us had canes and walked unsteadily. Six panelists were in their sixties and seventies.

The balkanization of the imagination (only a disabled woman could talk about disability; only a woman of color could talk about racism, etc.) was staggering and heartbreaking. And completely unacceptable.

Most of the feminists and lesbians present were polite, supportive, accomplished, and civilized. But no one exactly knew how to stand up to this loutish bunch and no one on the panel or in the audience could believe that this was really happening. And so, the "bystanders" let the bullies rage on. It really was 1970 all over again. Without a grownup in sight.

I know what it is to face a raging, hostile mob. But in this case, I did not anticipate such anger and bitterness among senior citizens and was unprepared for it. What a bunch of burned-out spoilers. They need an AA or NA meeting, a therapy group—a leash of some kind, on their 1950's-style grade B women's prison movie aggression.

Let them blog—that's what I'm doing.

And now, for their right-wing counterparts. Two days after my Greenwich Village love fest, I was approached by a cult-like cabal of right-wing zealots with whom I sometimes agree in principle but from whom I've kept my distance. They wanted me to write something up. Foolishly, I said I would. I began to ask some necessary questions—and then all hell broke loose. Three of them attacked me for what I said (or did not say) on CNN. You see, I was supposed to denounce all Muslims, as well as Islam itself. In their view, anything less is a craven and cowardly "sell-out," a comfy but highly dangerous delusion. Distinguishing between a "radical Islamist/jihadist" and a civilian Muslim is, in their view, too dangerous to The Cause.

Unspoken but keenly felt: One of them, not I, should have been on CNN. Once before, one of their most aggressive members started fighting with me after I, not he, was quoted prominently in a national story about Islam and honor killings—especially since I dared disagree with his view. This time, one after the other, they began insulting me, insulting Pajamas, insulting my Pajamas readership. We are all "unimportant," "too small to care about." They should never have asked for my help in the first place. The level of vulgar, personal insult was, once again, rather stunning. After each barb, one or the other of them emailed in: "Bravo!" As if this was all a grand gladiatorial sport. Bystanders were also copied on the emails—bystanders who said and did nothing to civilize the conversation.

Here, the problem is not a balkanization of the imagination, there is no identity politics at work. The problem here is a totalitarian uniformity, a cult-like mentality such that even allies are enemies if they fail to follow the Exact Party Line. And there is another problem.

It is very tempting to denounce Islam and all Muslims as we face a new kind of jihad: trans-national Muslim terrorists dressed as civilians, who attack civilians, and who are now being tried in an American court of law as if they were American citizens. We have also just endured the terrible fallout of a doctrine of political correctness combined with the probable infiltration of the American military by Islamists. For years now, we have also seen the most devious and aggressive use of American and western law by Islamists who wish to "legalize" both their religious intolerance and their subordination of women.

This must not be allowed to stand.

And yet, in my view, it would be a failure of western principle, Judeo-Christian ethics, and military strategy to meet this "stealth" and "battlefield" jihad with across-the-board hatred of all Muslims. Doing so smacks of real racism and xenophobia. It is also tactically unwise. There are nearly 1.3 billion Muslims. Shall we simply "nuke 'em all?" Really? Not all Muslims are radical jihadists or fundamentalists. Some Muslims are true dissidents, feminists, resisters; some religious Muslims have begun to oppose the fiery sermons and destructive actions of other religious Muslims. We must find and work with such Muslims, not mock, minimize, or write them off. True, they are too few in number, and true, too many Muslims are bystanders, some of whom secretly support, others of whom secretly oppose the extraordinary violence being done in their name. Come to think of it, not all that different from my feminists and lesbians in the Village.

Thus, I hereby argue for serious intellectual and political diversity among anti-jihadists as opposed to zealous, cult-like uniformity.

The leftist-feminists (above) want to reduce everything and anything to their own narrow, personal "identity" issue. The right-wing crusaders (also above) want to erase individual differences, subsume them all into one fighting Party Line.

Perhaps my view of any given matter is wrong. Therefore, I am glad when others pursue a different path. They do not have to agree with my views—but they should not attack or insult those who may disagree with their views.

I am such a dreamer.


We are not accepting comments at this time, please go to the Facebook page to generate discussion!

Back To Top