An Open Letter to Gulam

Gulam is a deeply conservative young man posting to the Truthdig website. I know nothing about him except that he is articulate and defends the thesis that America and Europe are cultural imperialists exporting decadent values in the name of consumerism. He believes feminism and women’s liberation are ploys to promote consumption and that a woman’s place is inside the home and that families are the basic social units of society. Finally, he criticizes the Enlightenment (the Age of Reason) and scientific rationalism as an industrial age rationale for consumerism.

His posts to the discussion forum for the article “This Time We’re Taking the Whole Planet With Us” (Chris Hedges, March 7, 2011) appear in the commentary section immediately following the article. They accuse Westerners generally and Americans in particular of using feminism to promote western style materialism and consumerism to undermine moral society.

The subversion of local society and social processes by outside parties is an invitation to abuse and unfairness, all too often a ploy by the wealthy to externalize the environmental and social costs of their own consumption behaviors. The notion that one might use feminism as a tool to subvert local society and impose a consumerist agenda inspires these thoughts.

Dear Gulam,

I read with interest your posts to Truthdig.com in the discussion forum for Christopher Hedges’ provocative article, “This Time We’re Taking the Whole Planet with Us” (Truthdig.com, March 7, 2011).

As someone who cares about dialogue and who believes that sharing energy and ideas for a better world is a worthwhile undertaking, I thought I might share a few of my own ideas to your comments.

The West uses feminism as a means to domination
I don’t agree. I believe this is a defensive strategy used by Islamists (those who confuse religion with governance) to flag foreign influence, setting it apart from local culture. Feminism is used in this case as a symbol of cultural imperialism. It is too bad that you confuse the two, because the real subject is the health and well-being of your own society.

In the West, the feminism I know has many sources. These include 1) recognition of sexuality as a shared experience that can be pleasurable and is necessary for procreation, 2) an incitement to sociability, arising from our ancient philosophical preoccupation (4000+ years) with “beauty” and “truth” (incidentally, a preoccupation at odds with the moral precepts of the religions of the book, and the subject of much discussion today in America), and 3) the sense shared by most people in the West that “feminism”, whatever it may mean to you or to me, is a socially responsible policy to strengthen the bond of family and to encourage responsible reproduction.

Feminism is a way of introducing consumer demands only the West can satisfy
Expansion of Western consumerism is more a reflection of commercial and economic interests that have come to dominate Western culture than a desire to promote feminism, or even, of feminism as a strategy for promoting consumerism. Credit markets are an important part of modern economies and reach far down into local society; it is capital mobility and credit markets in Europe that have made Europe what it is today. Improved access to local credit is one of the key contributors to the “Arab rebellion” about which we have been hearing so much lately.

While credit infrastructure is strong in America as well, in that country a corporatist culture condones predatory lending practices, encouraging individuals and households to contract personal debt for even the most trivial consumption. In the end, the corporate culture that drives the American economy exacts payment in blood, whether in fighting its wars or in surrendering your home to money lenders.

These issues are not related to feminism but to the competition for power. Predatory behaviors are accepted because American’s subscribe to the liberal model of laissez-faire economics. Laissez-faire economics amount to Darwinian selection (survival of the fittest) applied in the economic sphere. Such behavior is condoned because most people consider that they benefit more by having such a system. Many today question whether this continues to be true given the failure of the financial markets, but traditional elites continue to hold real power.

Feminism, as I said above is a matter of honoring the human spirit and the female partner in founding a family. These are two completely separate subjects.

Cultural imperialism and the competition for power
The competition for power, not the emancipation of women is the real subject.

European competition for power has its roots in the contest to succeed the Emperor of Rome. By the time Europe emerged from its long dark age the empire had become Christian and several well defined power centers had emerged: the Franks (French), the Saxons (a federation of Germanic tribes in the north, including the Anglo-Saxons and Danes). In one way or another a ‘balance of power’ was maintained in Europe, that is until the Portuguese found a way to trade directly with South Asia, circumnavigating Africa. Then they settled Brazil and capitalized on the slave trade. At about the same time, Spain began plundering the West Indies, the Aztec, the Maya and finally, the Inca. The English, the French and the Dutch were slower getting started but were not far behind and ultimately, immensely successful in their own colonization efforts as traders and merchants of a process called mercantilism.

Colonization accelerated in 19th century with the partition of Africa, the conquest of North Africa and South Asia, the forced opening of China, the conquest of Southeast Asia and the defeat of the Spanish Empire.

These colonization efforts have been rationalized in many ways. The Spaniards called it bringing “Christianity to the heathen”, the French called it “spreading the enlightenment”, the English and Americans called it and still call it “Free Trade”. A recent and notorious name for the colonization competition was the “Cold War”. (Because of the power competition between socialist Russia and laissez-faire America, all countries in the world were required to examine their self-interests and chose one or the other orientation.) The non-aligned movement went a long way to developing a viable “third option”, rejected of course, by the power brokers in Washington and Moscow.

Then there was the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. There was the near consolidation of power in Afghanistan by the Taliban and then 9/11. Afghanistan was harboring a man who dared to organize an attack, a very successful attack against American interests on American soil.

What all of these ‘colonizing’ societies were doing however, and they were all doing the same thing was exporting their own social model and idea of stability. This is the reality of the war in Afghanistan which amounts to a contest for power and an attempt by one sovereign nation to impose a model of social stability on another. Feminism and consumerism have nothing to do with the moral tribute (geostrategic alignment) demanded and totally unimportant on the scale of issues related to anarchy and the harboring of terrorist organizations exporting opium and violence.

You state, “the secular model has followed where the Enlightenment logic led”. Demographics and the industrial revolution aside, Enlightenment thinking arose as a challenge to the doctrines held in faith by the elites of the 17th century. The Enlightenment affirmed the primacy of logic and rationality as ultimate tests of soundness and good policy. The questions you raise concerning “Enlightenment logic” should not then be so much about the Enlightenment model as no such “single” model existed, but about the logic which you say “led” to our consumerist, materialist society.

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