It used to be a joke—or at least it was from the viewpoint of male-dominated, patriarch-oriented Western Civilization—that a war is continually being fought between the sexes. This theme goes back to the Greek myths and drama, played out in the marital tensions between the gods Zeus and Hera and between Aphrodite and Hephaestus, or among mortals between King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra and between the hero Jason and his princess Medea. It shows up in the plot of Aristophanes’s comedy Lysistrata, where the women of Athens deny their husbands sexual relations in order to stop the Peloponnesian War. It’s a tradition that was echoed in the poetry of the Renaissance and the plays of Shakespeare like Much Ado About Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew.
The fact that Greek society could even acknowledge the differences and the tensions between the sexes was a big step forward, because it recognized that women had a part to play and a viewpoint to exercise. A culture that treats its women as a species of chattel, to be bought and sold, guarded as property, and kept secluded and silent in the home—no better than cows or horses—is a culture that does not consider women as having a point of view at all. Who listens to the barking of their dog?
Western Civilization has noted and discussed the differences for twenty-five hundred years or more. Yes, men have long had the upper hand in government and public policy, but that was mainly because these matters have always tended to move too easily into conflict and war. And there the strength, bravery, and organization of men were needed more than the empathy, cleverness, and reconciliation of women.
We have been moving toward equality between the sexes, at least in Europe and North America, for a couple of hundred years now, most notably since the Enlightenment. I credit some of this to the reformation of science from the mystical, metaphysical, semi-religious arts of the alchemists and astrologers to the precise, mathematical, empirical business of chemists and physicists. In this new age of science, anyone could play equally and come up with provable theories, regardless of background and gender. Women like Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, and Rosalind Franklin could prove the power and effectiveness of women’s brains.
But while differences persist between men and women, they are complementary rather than contentious. Men are strong, women are resourceful, but both can be brave. Men are emotionally reserved, women are emotionally fluid, but both can have strong feelings. Men resort to war, women resort to negotiation, but both can achieve their ends. A man builds a house, a woman makes it a home. A woman bears children, a man supports and protects them. Women and men are, quite literally, the yin and yang of the human experience.
But since the 1960s, and perhaps inspired by the progress women had already made in the West, a new stage of the conflict has developed. The war between the sexes has been weaponized for its political potential. Differences between male and female intentions and approaches stopped being a subject for sober reflection as well as for jokes and comedy. We stopped empathizing with the verbal jousts between Beatrice and Benedict on their way to realizing the attraction between them. We stopped laughing at the extended fight between the flamboyant Petruchio and the irascible Kate on their way to reconciliation.1
In part, I ascribe this weaponization to the underlying politics of the time, which lives on as both a barren root and a hard-shell glaze over our affairs today. The campus revolts of the ’60s started with a reaction to the Vietnam War and the draft, as the street riots in Detroit and the Watts district of Los Angeles were an expression of frustration over delayed civil rights and social progress. But both quickly took on the flavor of Marxist thought, which exploits the dissatisfactions of one group with the perceived successes and depredations of another for political purposes. In original Marxism, the fight was between the producers, the proletarian workers, against the bourgeois merchants and moneyed capitalists, who made their living off the fruits of the workers’ labor. That was class warfare, pure and simple.
The genius of the political activists of the ’60s was to seize on parallels in the differences between women and men, between the black culture and the white. Marxist oppression and its solution—revolution and the abolition of the oppressor class—became the driving theme underlying the feminist and civil rights movements. Class war had become gender war and race war.
Except it doesn’t work that way. In Soviet Russia, Communist China, and every country that took Marxist thought to its bitter end, they could have their revolution, followed by the inevitable reign of terror and civil war, and then the final remaking of society through the triumph and dictatorship of the proletariat. The merchants and the factory owners—and anyone else who supported and sympathized with them, like academics and reactionary government officials—could be tarred and feathered and driven out of town to re-education camps in the countryside. You can always overthrow societies like that, and you don’t actually need an elaborate economic theory to do so. The French had their revolution in 1789 on the strength of reaction to the failings and depredations of the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the church. But that revolution was still mostly about economic power: who had the wealth and ate cake, who lived in poverty and ate bread when they could get it.
Gender war and race war have different roots. Yes, they are about power, but not so much about money, about cake and bread. The extension of Marxist thought into these other struggles is less about real economic control—the gathering, hoarding, and spending of riches—than about ephemeral personal gains like obtaining respect and wielding political influence, and longer-range group ambitions like ordering society and shaping culture. Wealthy women can become active feminists and wealthy African-Americans can make race-based demands without having to analyze their own economic situations or feeling a moment’s blush about their underlying lifestyles.
But where does one take these struggle to their end? In a war of the proletariat, you can kill off the capitalists, create a network of workers’ collectives to run the farms and factories, and govern the country with a revolutionary council which will eventually morph into a popular assembly and a politburo reporting to a party general secretary. And all that can work for a while—seventy years in Russia, and maybe a bit longer in today’s China. But what does winning look like in a gender war? Do all the men go into camps for extermination, except for a few breeding farms for sperm donors? Or does procreation of the next human generation proceed by genetic manipulation, to allow for the eventual elimination of adult men, boys, and any babies that might happen to be born male? What is the outcome of a race war, other than absolute segregation into different societies in separate countries—that, or wholesale genocide?
Marxists are radical thinkers—by which I mean they go to the root2 of the problem and seek out ultimate solutions. In Marxist-Leninist economic theory, there is no place for, nor quarter given to, merchants and capitalists. And serious people—misguided, in my view, but still absolutely serious—can envision a society run on completely communal principles. They can see examples of it in the Israeli kibbutz and the hunter-gatherer tribes out of which human civilization arose. They sense echoes of it in the feudal barony—but minus the feudal lord. They can even call this communist state of affairs a utopia.3
But how do you apply a final solution—what is your intended end-state—in a conflict between two necessary and complementary parts of a functioning society or family structure, like men and women? Or between and among groups of people who merely exhibit minor genetic, physical, and cultural differences—but who remain fully functional members of the species H. sapiens—differences which have become magnified in the discussions of race until they approach the dreaded condition of “the other”? What utopia has all women and no men? Or people of all one, totally homogenous, ethnic and cultural representation with no differences among them?
I am a believer in balance, in dynamic tension, in competition between people in pursuit of their own goals and ambitions. By competing with each other over the production and consumption of goods and services, we can hope to set a fair price at useful volumes of supply. By contending with each other over heartfelt beliefs, we can hope to find an acceptable truth to which most people can subscribe. When aims, viewpoints, and ideas remain open to discussion—with an admixture of charity, good will, and personal reflection—then we can hope to create a balanced society that satisfies, if not actually pleasing, everyone and leaves no one out in the cold. And, given the nature of human imagination and creativity, that competition, contention, and discussion will go on forever, finding only temporary balance and peace before then dissolving again into new contentions and discussions. So be it. Human history is a roiling equilibrium.
But in the war between the sexes and among the races, carried out according to Marxist principles that are directed toward a distant utopia, that balance amid continuing discussion has been broken. Rather than contention and competition—with an admixture of humor and charity—certain feminists, serious people, are now making proposals, without a shred of irony, about the subjugation and annihilation of men. In their published writings and tweets, men are all bad and useless, and women are nothing but good and virtuous. A similar absolutism has entered the discussion of race: just kill them all and start over again.
To say this is not healthy thinking is an understatement. This is not even sane. And what I fear is that thoughts and words—attractive and fulfilling as they may seem—can have consequences. If too many people subscribe to, believe in, and try to act upon the writings of these serious people, it will end badly for all of us. We saw it in the writings—and ravings—of Lenin, Hitler, and Mao. We may one day see it again in the writings of de rigueur feminists and race separatists if we cannot somehow defuse the situation.
1. However, the reconciliation is all on Petruchio’s terms—the taming—and leaves Kate subservient to her husband. That tends to stick in the throat of any modern person.
2. From the Latin radix, or root.
3. See When Socialism Works from October 10, 2010.