Monday, July 09, 2012

This Sort of Thing


So it looks like this. Ten years after the United States and NATO allies went into Afghanistan to root out Al Queda and their Taliban allies, even as our nation prepares to disengage from this conflict, we see the brutality of progress-resistant culture through the technology developed by progress-prone culture. Now, a woman can be summarily executed in the public square, while a group of terrorists surrounds them and cheers on the gunman, and the whole world can watch the event on YouTube. That the 3 minute video is as shocking as it is to so many around the world is a testament to both the unspeakable cruelty humans will use against one another absent a social mechanism of justice, and the delusions that hamstring the cultural and political decision-making in the West.

Now, by all means, be shocked and disgusted by the Taliban’s brutal treatment of women. What happened there is awful. But let that shock and disgust remind you of the context in which our own fragile advancement with regard to rights must be viewed. Let that shock remind you that such violence is an everyday occurrence on American streets. And remember this: while there are things you can do right now to help the women of Afghanistan, those things are limited. At the same time, the things you can do to help and protect women right here in America, in your own states and cities, in your own neighborhoods, are nearly limitless, and just as necessary.

Because let’s be clear – this sort of thing was going on in Afghanistan long before NATO invaded in 2002. It has continued all through the occupation. As a matter of fact, this sort of thing goes on all around the world, right now, in countries the United States considers both allies and adversaries. They may not use automatic weapons or post it on YouTube in an effort to spread the terror, but when women are locked into burning buildings or baby girls get smothered in their sleep, the perpetrator’s behavior comes from the same place. Hell, this sort of thing goes on right here at home, as women and young girls are gunned down at their own birthday parties in the streets of New Orleans, and their own family members refuse to identify the suspects. Or in Athens, when a man facing divorce guns down his wife and two of her friends at a backyard barbecue while their children are strapped into the car.   

I mean, two weeks ago, the YouTube video shocking the world was of a pack of boys laying into a harmless grandmother who was acting as a bus monitor. I’m not trying to equate the two events, but how do you think that video ends if those boys had easy access to automatic weapons, a culture that tells them women should be subservient to any man, and a lack of institutionalized justice? What if the Bus Monitor’s only option of “justice” was to have other male family members with guns to defend her?

That kind of culture puts the personal safety of any woman solely at the mercy of how far the men in her family are willing and able to go to protect her. She’d best not get uppity or independent – they might lose a little bit of willingness if she proves to be too much trouble. And heaven help her if she “shame” any of her male relatives with her behavior, lest they turn from her only defense mechanism to her judge, jury, and executioner.

Because let’s face it, folks, this sort of thing has gone on for almost all of human history, and you can see examples of it in almost any culture or religion. The human rights of women are not universally respected, and those places and cultures where they are tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Only the rule of law, together with institutionalized systems of justice backed up through force of arms have been able to make a dent in this sort of thing. A dent. And that’s only recently and only in certain nations.

And it took our own culture generations to get there.

The “shock” factor when looking at this sort of thing, especially among those in the West, comes from the fact that many western nations tend to fall somewhere in the “exception” category.  But let’s not be fooled by taking this out of context. There is a double edged sword to such historical confusion.

On the first edge, there is the shock that injustice of this nature goes on anywhere in the world, especially in this day and age, especially after certain nations that could be considered exceptions have spent so much blood and treasure to right such wrongs. This ignores several realities. NATO didn’t invade Afghanistan because of how the Taliban treated women. If that’s what we cared about, we never would have armed these folks in their fight against the Soviets. And let's dispense with the "hindsight is 20/20" nonsense. There’s only so far pleas of ignorance will get you.

While there was and is hope that the reconstruction of that nation will include more respect for women’s rights, this was not a strategic goal of military action. Simply put, allied nations do not have the political will to use the appropriate military force necessary to completely restructure Afghanistan’s culture with respect to women’s rights. Hell, allied nations barely have the political will to use appropriate diplomatic and cultural force necessary to encourage minor change in allied nations’ culture with respect to women’s rights. That willpower is inversely proportional to the price of gasoline in the American suburbs. Pretending these realities do not exist simply obscure the actual options on the table.  We in the West are limited in the ways we are able to help. Hell, we've been limited in the ways we've been able to help ourselves. 

That brings me to the second side – and the more insidious one – and that’s the idea that because our culture does not do “that sort of thing,” that we are inherently the “better culture.” We can simply pat ourselves on the back, pretend that we’re the way we are without any work, and pretend the work is finished. There could be nothing further from the truth.

Our culture did not become the “better culture” overnight or inherently, and we are far from being able to take that status for granted. Where we are right now was only achieved through generations of agitation and liberalization, with a respect for an amendable rule of law and an institutionalized system of justice backed up by force of arms. Yes, the United States was able to liberalize respect for women’s rights at a rate far faster than many far older nations. But those advances grew out of a combination of enlightenment thinking laid over a foundation of ancient institutionalized justice systems from France and the United Kingdom. The human rights starting block for the US of A was about 500 years or so in the making. Even then, highborn white women didn't start this experiment with the right to vote, women of color were only 3/5 of a person and had to submit to any whim of their owners under fear of violence, while Native American women were handed blankets infected with smallpox and Asian women were brought in to serve as sexual slaves for those men building the railroads. (Think about that the next time you want to play Tea Party Constitutionalist and demand a "return to the good ole days.") 

From there, it still took us 200+ years to get where we are today. Lest we forget that many of the nations that have a respect for women’s rights today were rebuilt from the ashes of World War II with trillions of American dollars, backed up with tens of millions of American soldiers and living under the American nuclear umbrella. For further context, despite such a display of seriousness with regard to human freedom, it still took an additional two generations of change, sometimes at the point of a bayonet, to bring the rest of the USA nominally on board with all that.

And where are we, today? Women still earn less than men for the same work. Childcare responsibilities still fall disproportionately on women even as health care costs are rising (more expensive with kids), state governments are cutting funding for public schools and daycare programs (which are still scheduled as if the majority of American children still harvest wheat or cotton in their spare time), and in the era of the 52% divorce rate, the institutionalized system of justice just isn’t that good at collecting child support. So, while women aren’t solely at the mercy of how far the men in her family are willing and able to go to physically protect her, she sure seems better off when there’s a man in her life to help with the bills. It’s almost like the “better culture” is set up that way for a reason.

Keep in mind, that’s before we start talking about the violence. What are the rates today? One in four women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, with a high percentage of those assaults coming from someone she knows. Domestic violence is such a thorny problem for our institutionalized system of justice that many states simply demand an arrest for any such call to the police – but that’s a new thing. As in “new” since I’ve been old enough that my parents let me watch COPS on television.

Furthermore, that all depends on having a functioning institutionalized system of justice that takes violence against women seriously in the first place. That means all women, without regard to race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or occupation. That means less excuse making and blaming the victim, and more solving and prosecuting crimes. In the second place, that system of justice is usually a reactive measure – the best that can be hoped for is a serious investigation after the violence has been done to try to track down those responsible.

And all that is before budget cutbacks to law enforcement. I guess some folks think there’s more respect for law enforcement when there is less of it. Culturally and historically, having a serious, institutionalized system of justice was the only way we’ve been able to move away from a society where the personal safety of any woman was solely at the mercy of how far the men in her family are willing and able to go to protect her. Without a viable or trusted justice system, how long do you think we’ll last before it gets back to that (where it doesn’t exist already)?

That’s where this could lead us. If you’re too busy patting yourself on the back for your own culture and looking down on others without context; or if you’re exploring unrealistic ways of addressing respect for women’s rights in particular or human rights in general in other cultures, you may not be paying close enough attention to what’s going on at home. I think about that every time I see a picture of women in Iran or Egypt – or even Afghanistan – back in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. If you’ve never seen one, go look. It will shock you, and it should. Because respect for rights can and have been rolled back, and quickly. Not just for the rural, "traditional" parts of certain cultures, but for the “advanced” middle classes as well. All those rights can be highjacked as soon as the next religious nut with a gun comes along and declares himself Supreme Leader. 

Living in a place that is an exception with regard to women’s and human rights is something special that must be appreciated, but it also must be protected and not taken for granted.  I’m reminded of that every time I hear about political organizations in the United States proposing to curtail women’s access to medical care because of some religious “freedom;” or when the state requires unnecessary invasive medical procedures for women; or every time I see a state legislator try to pass a law that will use the institutionalized system of justice to investigate every miscarried pregnancy as a possible attempted murder; or ordering that same justice system to take allegations of sexual assault less seriously as a matter of policy. While those activities may not pack an emotional punch akin to watching a crowd cheer an unjust execution on YouTube, they are all stops along the same ugly road of rolling back women’s rights as human beings.

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