The alt-right’s never-ending assault on feminism is more than misdirected – it’s one of the great examples of cutting your nose off to spite your face. Dr Petra Bueskens explains.
Serena Joy from Handmaid’s Tale hit the streets and stages of Australia last month in the form of Lauren Southern, a right wing activist who advocates for traditional values on gender and sexuality among several other alt-right platforms.
Among her achievements at the age of just 23 are several years as a journalist at The Rebel Media (an alt-right media site), a YouTube channel with upwards of 580,000 followers, numerous videos and lectures, activist political theatre (most New Matilda readers would find repugnant) and a moving, if sensationalist, film about the plight of South African farmers.
Southern arrived in Australia wearing an ‘It’s okay to be white’ t-shirt, designed purely to stir controversy and point out what she identifies as an asymmetrical discourse on race. Her core message on this tour is that “multiculturalism doesn’t work”, with little attention to the fact that colonial settler societies like Australia (like her home country of Canada) were built on immigration.
— Rita Panahi (@RitaPanahi) July 13, 2018
She joined fellow alt-right Canadian YouTube star Stefan Molyneux in an Australian speaking tour geared around “defending the west” against the barbarian hordes which include a polyglot of Islamic invaders, “social justice warriors”, feminists, those on the “radical left” and all non-assimilated immigrants.
The pair have recently been prevented from speaking in New Zealand, after venues refused to host them.
One of the key platforms of Southern’s videos is that the discourse of “political correctness” has become an orthodoxy shutting down free speech, and that the left should respond with ideas and debate rather than with protest, aggression, public take-downs and no-platforming. On this we can agree!
It is something the globally famous intellectual Jordan Peterson has forcefully put on the map in the last two years. However, I invoke Peterson not because of his position on free speech or because, like Southern, he is a “darling of the alt-right”, rather it is to point out something he often says about people at the very beginning of adulthood: you know nothing! While I am not in full agreement with him on this (I have a daughter Southern’s age), it is clear, for all her defensive protestations, she knows nothing about the history of “western civilization” and nor, for that matter, do Peterson or Molyneux if they cannot see feminism as an integral part of it.
From Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies to the Querelle de Femme, from Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies to Mary Wollstoncraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, from the bluestockings to the fight for the Married Women’s Property Acts, from the Seneca Falls Convention to J.S. Mill and Harriet Taylor’s The Subjection of Women, from the suffrage movement and the New Woman to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex; from Betty Friedan’s ‘problem with no name’ to Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch we have the clear articulation of a feminist voice invested in reason and rights that is the very epitome of free speech marshalled against the prevailing orthodoxy.
In Southern’s infinite wisdom – though here she is following the ignorance that characterises the alt-right’s approach to feminism – she assumes that feminism had nothing to do with the creation of “the west”, by which she is mostly referring to the transformations in society and culture associated with the European Enlightenment. In fact feminism was an integral and defining voice! You weren’t anybody unless you were invited to Madame de Staël’s salon and all the well-known philosophes, with the notable exception of Rousseau, were “feminists” (though this of course was not a term in use at the time).
The other assumption – again commonplace on the right – is that feminism is anti-rationality and illiberal. This is patently absurd since it was the desire to have “Woman right” (as it was then called) and the vote enshrined in law that was central to early modern feminist campaigns, as was the desire to own property, including property in the person, and enjoy equal civil rights.
These campaigns were defined as quintessentially modernist (or liberal progressive) and clearly pitched against the certainties of patriarchal tradition. It was indeed the hypocrisy of wanting “enlightenment” in all domains except slavery and marriage that had abolitionists and women’s rights campaigners outraged. They wanted more progress not less, more modernity not less, more consistency in the applications of reason and rights, not less. As Mary Astell famously asked as early as 1694, “If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born slaves?”
Similarly, the French Enlightenment feminist Olympe de Gouges proclaimed in the opening line of her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791), “Woman is born free and remains man’s equal …” In a particularly prescient statement, de Gouges, who lost her head for her feminism, said, “the exercise of woman’s natural rights is limited only by the restrictions that man’s tyranny imposes on it.” Feminists were both symbolically and actually aligned with the Enlightenment and modernity – that is with “the west” – even if they were on its more radical fringe.
The backlash against the Enlightenment, what Edmund Burke in his famous conservative tract Reflections on the Revolution in France identified as the inevitable consequence of too much freedom and too much chaos, is being repeated with a twist in the contemporary scene. In Hegelian terms, we see the historical dialectic swing between radical and conservative poles, which means that what follows the revolutionary release of social norms is often a conservative backlash.
After the Enlightenment came the Terror; just as after the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s and its belated, beleaguered aftermath of identity politics comes Jordan Peterson, the doyen of order and tradition. It also produces Trump and the alt-right.
It is interesting to me that Canada is producing so many of these social media stars: people who were once on the left or saw themselves as liberals and have now undergone a YouTube conversion and seen the alt-right light – Jordan Peterson, Janice Fiamengo, Lindsay Shepherd and Karen Straughan, as well as more established stars such as Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux. In the US there is Sam, Harris, Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro and, more recently, Candace Owens. The so-called “intellectual dark web” of left-to-right converts (as well as left-to-critical left converts) is growing apace.
In any event, the twist in this narrative is that with the institutionalisation of progressive agendas, the new right emerge as the “radicals”, the one’s “shaking the joint up”. Conversely, those shutting down free speech, the supposed progressives, become the face of the establishment, the arbiters of what is and what is not allowed to be said. Hence the concerns – that I too share – about the left’s more recent propensity to shut down free speech on contentious issues.
Where Burke defined the Enlightenment revolutionaries as a “swinish multitude” we see a direct analogue to the pejorative moniker “SJW” adopted by the new right (and although one can see truth in both depictions, neither group can be reduced to this caricature). Are Rousseau, Voltaire, and Wollstonecraft part of the “swinish multitude”? And, for that matter, are Stephen Fry, Laura Kipnis and Brendan O’Neill “social justice warriors”? There is a long and strong left libertarian tradition that is both on the side of the Enlightenment and for political and economic justice.
But the more important point is that the very Enlightenment the pop-conservatives now laud as a vital part of their cultural inheritance – under assault and in need of defence – was radical through and through. The Enlightenment was radical opposition to the status quo and it is precisely this opposition that upended all social conventions.
The problem with the new right’s simultaneously lofty and parochial articulation of “the west” is that what defines the west, particularly after the 18th century, is precisely its capacity to be critical of itself, to not sit still culturally and intellectually speaking, to reject tribal affiliations and religious absolutes, to seek progress over stasis and to release “the individual” (itself a curated category) from the strictures of tradition. The paradox of invoking western culture as a “tradition”, therefore, is that from its very inception it is anti-traditional!
This makes the west, as the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski points out, especially vulnerable to self-critique.
This culture, as a result, becomes vulnerable not merely to outside threats but, perhaps, even more dangerously, to that suicidal mentality characterised by indifference to our own distinct tradition, by doubt, indeed by an auto-destructive frenzy, all given verbal expression in the form of a generous universalism.
We have paid a very heavy price for our emphasis on freedom of thought and freedom of the individual; that is, for our “generous universalism”. Both have upended the naturalised hierarchy, existential security and group bonds that come with traditional society. As the progressive arm of the west it is easy to blame the left, to say the left are “destroying our traditions” but what we really have to come to terms with is that that west’s tradition is itself anti-traditional.
Returning to Lauren Southern, she is in precisely Serena Joy’s conundrum (or Phyllis Schlafley’s the famous antifeminist who successfully campaigned for the end of the Equal Rights Amendment), which is that as a woman with a public platform, she is indebted to feminism not just an amorphous “western culture” that stands for freedom of speech, the rule of law and equal rights. Women had to fight long and hard for entry into the hallowed halls of institutional power – the governments, universities, law courts, media and culture industries. That special club we rightly celebrate was not simply handed to women by enlightened, egalitarian men, it was fought for by feminists in a centuries long battle. Historically, men with power made punitive laws and passionate speeches against women’s suffrage, against women taking up public office, and against women like Lauren Southern having a platform to speak (no matter what they spoke about). We inherit this great privilege and assume it as a given, but it most certainly is not. Using that platform to denounce feminism is therefore paradoxical at best and a betrayal at worst.
Serena Joy’s conundrum examined with excruciating clarity in The Handmaid’s Tale, is that she becomes invested in and uses her public platform to diminish women’s right to a public voice, all in the name of their putative preference for being wives and mothers. As Sarah Jones points out, Margaret Atwood’s character of Serena Joy was based on an amalgam of conservative women, including Phyllis Schlafely who asserted in 1972 that, “The women’s libbers don’t understand that most women want to be wife, mother, and homemaker — and are happy in that role”. As Jones, points out,
But like her fictional doppelgänger, Schlafly was no homemaker. She traveled the country; she appeared on television; she influenced policy. The world she wanted to build could not coexist with the world that allowed her career.
Replete with tragic irony, Serena Joy’s politics land her in a prison of her own making. Lauren Southern similarly says, women just aren’t meant to be CEO’s (read: leaders) and that our primary fulfilment can be found in the home – a point that both is and is not true. The very fact that Lauren Southern has a fulsome public presence, that she can vociferously provoke, pontificate, preach, proselytise, prevaricate, and publish is because of feminism. There is just no getting around that.
I agree with Southern that there are developments in very recent articulations of feminism – the no-platforming, social media driven, soundbite variety – that are now implicated in the inflammation and exacerbation of the culture wars, but here Southern can only be the pot calling the kettle black since she is from the same zeitgeist and utilises the same dumbing down tactics (her sweeping rejection of feminism being a point in case).
Like others on the left, I see deep problems with no-platforming and, by association, the destruction of free speech, the rise of victim culture, and the encroaching ideological orthodoxy that means a feminist luminary like Germaine Greer is now persona non grata among third wave feminists, dismissed summarily (and stupidly) as a “transphobe” and “rape apologist”. A fact reinforced only last week when Greer was “uninvited” from the Brisbane Writers’ Festival. We certainly need more nuance in the debate and for the rising tide of “illiberal liberalism”, including in more recent articulations of feminism, to be exposed and challenged.
On this I am with the libertarians: free speech includes the right to question one’s own right to free speech or one’s group (as strange as that seems). The proper place for women, according to Southern and her ilk, is at home, and yet this is a position that she does not herself adhere to, a point which has not been lost on her fans who have started to accuse her of hypocrisy for not getting married and, well, not disappearing into the domestic sphere, making babies and shutting the hell up, which is the logical consequence of her traditionalist agenda!
I would much rather see Southern speaking loudly and proudly, even though I disagree with almost all of her views, than disappearing into a domestic vortex of (ostensibly) contented silence. But, what I would ultimately hope for her, as for all women who wish to be mothers “someday” (as Southern assures her fans she will be) or who are mothers now, is that she is not forced to choose between motherhood and her career. Reconciling this duality of self – the so-called feminine or maternal self with the autonomous and individualised self – is as I have argued in my new book, the unfinished business of feminism.
Southern is interested in South African farmers, but I suspect she is less familiar with Olive Schreiner the nineteenth century South African writer who wrote The Story of an African Farm in which her young protagonist, Lyndall, struggles against the traditional limits of femininity. To this problem, which bedevilled her own life, Schreiner seems to provide an answer only in the inchoate and speculative realm of dreams. In her short story, “Life’s Gifts” (1892), she recounts a beautiful and portentous fragment of a dream,
I saw a woman sleeping. In her sleep, she dreamt Life stood before her and held in each hand a gift: in the one Love, in the other Freedom. And she said to the woman, “Choose!”
And the woman waited long: and she said, “Freedom!”
And Life said, “Thou hast well chosen. If thou hadst said, ‘Love,’ I would have given thee that thou didst ask for; and I would have gone from thee, and returned to thee no more. Now, the day will come when I shall return. In that day I shall bear both gifts in one hand.”
I heard the woman laugh in her sleep.
The antidote to Serena Joy and her rhetoric is that women want and justly deserve is “both gifts in one hand”. Both the question and its answer constitute part of the great story of “the west” of which feminism is an integral part.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.