What are women for?

I keep trying to better understand James Poulos. I like James a great deal, though we disagree pretty fundamentally on many things. I’ve been fascinated by his discussions of the Pink Police State (a conservative argument against panem et circenses.)

And yet postmodern conservatism has always been somewhat vague. It’s unorthodox in terms of American debate – not quite paleoconservatism, not quite neoconservatism. I’m not sure exactly. Like I said, I keep trying to understand Poulos, and I don’t always succeed.

So I walk with caution into his latest piece at The Daily Caller – a piece which was at once designed for controversy (and certainly titled for clicks) but which James has taken plenty of flack on already. I hate to be merely pile on.

I almost hate excerpting, but I will anyways. After mucking through the contraception debate a bit, James veers into a discussion of left orthodoxy and particularly what he sees as an inchoate take on “what women are for:”

Lip service is often paid to the impression that the point of empowering women is to empower them to do whatever they want, but much of the left stops well short of the more radical implications of that easy answer. The left’s culture of celebration is hamstrung by the very assertions of should and shouldn’t that contemporary women have inevitably come to make — as the ongoing debate over the advisability of marriage reveals. Reihan Salam has hinted that typically left-wing implications of academic theories like “erotic capital,” including mainstreaming prostitution, point in directions quite at odds with the dominant but failing framework of liberal sexual politics.

To the growing discomfort of many, that framework hasn’t come anywhere close to answering even the most basic questions about what women are for — despite pretty much universal recognition across the political spectrum that a civilization of men, for men, and by men is no civilization at all, a monstrously barbaric, bloody, and brutal enterprise. A few inherently meaningful implications about what women are for flow naturally from this wise and enduring consensus, but no faction of conservatives or liberals has figured out how to fully grasp, translate, and reconcile them in the context of our political life.

Ironically, one of the best places to look for a way out of the impasse is the strain of left feminism that insists an inherently unique female “voice” actually exists. That’s a claim about nature. Much good would come from a broader recognition that women have a privileged relationship with the natural world. That’s a relationship which must receive its social due — if masculinity in its inherent and imitative varieties (including imitation by quasi-feminized males of quasi-masculinized females!) is not to conquer the world.

I read this as an extension of James’s broader critique of libertarianism or perhaps libertinism. But I find the framing of the issue distracting at best, and unnecessarily inflammatory at worst. What are women for?

This sounds quite a lot like, “Where do women fit in contemporary society?” or “How does biology create different social roles for the sexes and how can we grapple with that question given the political grounds we’ve all staked out?”

Perhaps I’m mistaken. But here’s my translation: We haven’t decided yet, as a culture, how to properly determine the roles of men and women in today’s society, or today’s economy, or today’s politics, and the thought police on the left have adopted an essentially libertarian argument about a woman’s body – placing individual choice above all other values – and that this, rather than helping us understand one another, serves merely to obscure.

As I’ve noted previously, I think the framing of this as “What are women for?” itself serves to distract, and perhaps it’s just me but I think that while James is a fine writer his prose can be a bit inscrutable at times. On one level, of course, he’s correct – we haven’t and likely won’t come to any cultural definitions here. The very notion of “roles” has become antiquated, rubs against the grain of modern thought. To even want to come to some conclusion strikes many as illiberal or sexist. This is what happens when your culture is at war, when you live in a plural and rapidly changing society.

James has concocted a brief lament and cloaked it in pithiness. Where he sees something troublesome – sociological Huns at the gates of the city – I see elbow room for evolution.

Then again, I may be missing the point here altogether. I’m sympathetic to much of what James writes. Our biology really does define us more than we’d like to admit. So do our thousands of years of social evolution. But I’m not sure trying to rope this discussion into something quite so polarizing is going to move the ball forward, or backward, in any meaningful or particularly helpful way.

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