Journal Entry #33
Two Unserious Ladies.
NORFOLK, CONN., MAY 20—I have been thinking off and on lately about Gina Haspel. It is difficult to keep this odious person from one’s mind, much as one would like to: A known torturer (and unprosecuted felon by way of her destruction of the evidence of the original offense) was named this past Thursday to one of the most powerful positions in the American government. “Craven” is not too strong a word for Haspel. It can also be applied to the senators who glossed her crimes so as to lend a clean appearance to their confirmation of Haspel’s appointment as director of the C.I.A.
Another, related matter also lodges in the mind. Where are the feminists on this momentous occasion? Haspel is, of course, the first woman to be named to the top job in American spookery. No woman has ever risen so far in Langley. Depending on how one looks at it—and this is my crucial qualifier—Haspel can be assigned a considerable achievement in the social and political sphere. She has smashed to pieces the “glass ceiling.” She qualifies, surely, as is an “icon,” in the parlance common among many of us. Where are the celebratory accolades?
I do not pose these questions with any malign intent. They are questions we all ought to ask ourselves. This is so for a variety of reasons. Among them, American feminism as we now have it makes it impossible not to consider these matters. We owe it to ourselves to think this through. We owe it to feminism, I would say—feminism, I mean, in its authentic manifestations, a feminism worthy of the term, a feminism other than American feminism. But my topic extends far beyond American feminism, to make this point clear at the outset, for our debt is one owed to all of us in many different aspects.
Just as I was fending off a surfeit of thoughts about Gina Haspel, a friend sent a photograph. It is of Ivanka Trump at the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem this past week. As many have noted, the unveiling of the plaque fixed to the new building’s front elevation coincided with the Israeli army’s massacre of some three score unarmed Palestinians at the border fence behind which residents of Gaza are confined in their “open-air prison”—a handy descriptive I read I cannot recall where.
The photograph is doctored to reflect this gruesome juxtaposition. It is nothing more or less than an explicit interpretation of the reality depicted in the original. It is here:
I do not know what to make of Ivanka Trump and Gina Haspel as some kind of twosome. Ms. I. Trump is less institutionally accomplished—less the bureaucratic soldier, if you like. She has not, in all certainty, tortured other human beings in a professional capacity. But she was acting at the very highest levels of state in Jerusalem. There was a cabinet secretary, the ridiculous Steven Mnuchin, standing next to her as she figuratively smashed a Champagne bottle against the wall of an embassy. It is an embassy that stands as an openly hostile affront, a violence-condoning affront, to several million men, women, and children asking for nothing more than those things Americans say they hold dear. I have not heard whether I. Trump qualifies as an icon and do not know the criteria. But the question is again relevant, if less compellingly: What about this in the context of American feminism?
There was one song of praise when Haspel’s confirmation was announced last Thursday. It came from the Independent Women’s Forum, a Washington organization that “works to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty.” Its press release landed in my mailbox and begins, “Gina Haspel is a superb choice to lead the C.I.A.” It then runs through Haspel’s career accomplishments, if this is the term—omitting, of course, her criminal acts related to torture after the events of September 11, 2001. Then it concludes:
As the first woman to lead the C.I.A., she provides a strong role model for women who aspire to serve this country. As a brilliantly qualified patriot, she will strive to provide, as she promised in her Senate testimony, ‘what our nation needs from C.I.A.—truth, integrity, courage.’
There are a number of things wrong with this statement. I wonder, for instance, how many American mothers will be inclined to hold up the example of Gina Haspel to their daughters as a “role model” (a concept I confess I have never understood). There is the question of what makes one a “qualified patriot”—brilliantly so, indeed. But I leave these things to American mothers and American nationalists, for there is something very, very wrong with this thought that we simply must not miss. With the elevation in this manner of a known torturer and a transgressor of international law, a prominent American feminist organization asserts that the cause of women supersedes all that the Nuremberg trials established—morally, juridically, in humanity’s name—in 1945–46.
It is a grave assertion, if this point is not plain. To me it is a shocking assertion. And it is in this connection I read Ivanka Trump’s act in Jerusalem May 13th as one related to the near-canonization of Gina Haspel. It, too, is grave and shocking. I have long judged Israel a tragic memorial to the six million. To ignore simultaneous events at the Gaza border, as I. Trump did, is to join in a disgrace. It is, again, to cast aside all that has been established post–1945 by way of our collective responsibilities. What does this tell us about the validity of gender as a criterion by which to judge the worth or otherwise of someone in a position of influence?
Read the Women’s Forum statement again. What do you make of the language in it? It is cotton wool, in my view. It consists of wads of words whose meanings are so worn down as to no longer matter. It is in this way obfuscatory language, ritual language, the language of mythology. While purporting to tell us something, it induces us precisely not to think about what is being said. It is certainly to advise us that what is being said lies within the bounds of belief and beyond the bounds of question. This is a problem—our Tower of Babel problem—that goes a long way toward rendering us an “unconscious civilization,” to borrow John Ralston Saul’s excellent phrase. I write here about American feminism, yes, but at the horizon because its corrosion—its lapse from feminism without the national qualifier—is symptomatic of matters we need to address with some urgency.
“All issues are women’s issues” is the Women’s Forum’s motto. True enough. The inverse is truer. Women’s issues are all issues.
THERE WAS A TIME during the 2016 political season when the way we ought to understand Hillary Clinton’s campaign was much at issue. Some said her gender was of no consequence as they considered a Clinton II presidency. This was my position. I considered her dishonorable record as a violence-prone secretary of state a disqualifier all by itself, non-negotiable. Man or woman did not at all matter. It is odd and unfortunate that America has never elected a woman to the presidency, but when surveying the record elsewhere—Thatcher, Indira, Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka, and so on—it does not seem a matter one can consider decisive.
Others put Clinton’s gender at the very top of their considerations. The clearest statement I saw in this line came from a sociology professor at Northeastern named Suzanna Danuta Walters. “I want a woman president,” Walters wrote in an essay called “Why this socialist feminist is voting for Hillary,” published in The Nation during the time I write of. “I support her less for her specific policy positions… than for the iconic value of electing the first woman president of the United States.”
If you pull this statement apart as one would a ball of cotton wool, it rivals the Women’s Forum for its gravity and shock value. I wrote about it at the time. The column is here. As then noted, Walters casts the globe itself as a proscenium within which American feminists are to elevate an “icon” to their liking. Among much else, this thought reeks of American exceptionalism, which I count among our most fundamental impediments to regaining a respectable place in the community of nations and our health as a society. In the name of the eminently humane, we have the inhumane. (Paul warned us of this upside-downness in some of his epistles, I might add.)
I wonder now what Professor Walters thinks of the Haspel appointment, to make the point (and the problem) plain. “I want a woman C.I.A. director. I support her less for her specific policy positions… than for the iconic value of appointing the first woman director to our top espionage and covert-action agency.” Is there a forthcoming essay to this effect? Or, conversely, placards on sticks reading “Not my C.I.A. director”? I doubt it in both cases, of course.
In my view, American feminism was far off the rails by the time of the Clinton-as-feminist discussion. But it brought me back to a time long earlier, when I lived in Tokyo and got to know a number of Japanese feminists. This was a fascinating, inspiring bunch in their kinetic intellects, their frank talk, their un-bourgy insouciance in matters of dwellings and dress. Among them was a member of the Tokyo city council named Mariko Mitsui. Among Mariko’s sins were her exceptional looks: She was very attractive. She did not last long on the council (and subsequently baled on electoral politics, so far as I know). Her greater sin was one she shared with the others I knew and liked: She understood feminism as a question not merely of “women’s liberation” but of human liberation. Feminism had to be understood as a subset of humanism. This meant something of monumental importance if the term “feminism” was to retain its authentic meaning: Within feminism there had to be a critique of power. Without this, the entire discourse or undertaking or what one may call it is defaced. It becomes something else.
Mariko and the others I knew in Japan looked askance at American feminism, and they shared my habit of treating it as a phenom unto itself. They called it “rights-and-careers feminism” with a disdain that hardly needs noting. In time we talked through what had happened. In the late–1960s into the early–1970s, American feminism became an orthodoxy (as it is today). In pursuit of a place at the table, it eschewed any opposition to power itself as constituted. It repudiated all suggestion of radical critique for the sake of wider appeal. There is a long, intricate history here, but I will stay with summation. When I came home from Asia and this topic came up with a friend—the kind of authentic feminist who would never bother with the term—she called what I described “Betty Friedan feminism.” This does well to get my point over.
I think of Gina Haspel, and in a different way Ivanka Trump, and what happened as feminism became American feminism with these matters and memories in mind. To me a great loss, a great missed opportunity, has been sustained. It is a loss all of us share. Something very fine has been cheapened. It is as if those who might praise Haspel and all who have fortified the version of feminism that produced this praise are pimping this very fine thing for nothing more than individual gain. I would like to think there are many feminists who object to the iconization of Gina Haspel as I do—there must be—but so far as I know no voices have been raised, no placards raised aloft.
There was something else I learned during my years in Japan that bears mention here. It had to do with women, but also with my study of the old nationalists and the sararimen, the managerial class, whose lives were often lives of unrelieved misery. Victimizers are victims, too. They suffer in a different way, but suffer they do. I have since come across no exception to this. Corollary: There is no such thing as individual salvation, not at the horizon.
I USED THE WORD “SYMPTOMATIC” as I began these considerations. This is finally why I address the question of feminism on the occasion of Gina Haspel’s appointment at the C.I.A. In the applause—and in its way in the far more prevalent silence—we find symptoms of something liberal Americans (those of my generation, certainly) have perpetrated upon themselves straight across the board. They are cashing in, it seems. They trade all thought of human liberation—the phrase itself will prompt derision—for pieces of silver, for places at the tables where silver is to be had. There are exceptions, but not many. Fenton Johnson, a prominent thinker in the gay community since the ACT UP days, made the very same point about gay culture in “The Future of Queer,” an essay published in the January edition of Harper’s. It is here. I picked up that edition to read a piece about Mailer’s Vietnam novels. I got to that (also excellent) only after I finished Johnson’s. I was riveted by his pithy audacity in advancing the truth of things.
The trajectory of American feminism since the late–1960s marks a road well-worn. I single it out here merely for the clarity brought by the Haspel appointment. It has been a steep descent on this road since the 1960s for all manner of people and causes. For all its faults—and who will ever finish counting?—the era we know as “the ’60s,” its zenith marked this year, bore within it the fundamental critique of power I have just mentioned. It had an idea of something else I consider essential to any life well-lived, any mind well-developed, and any aspiration worthy of the term: There was within it an implicit notion of transcendence. No assignment of authority is given to what is. “Is-ness” is not king, to put the point too simply. “All power to the imagination,” someone scribbled on a Paris wall 50 years ago. This is another way to say it. These things are gone now, evaporated from our minds and hearts. We are impoverished in consequence.
Anyone who lived through that time should have little trouble understanding my meaning. Maybe this is also true as to what has happened since. No one wanted to come out and say afterward—to himself or herself or to anyone else—that the ideals manifest during the 1960s had been abandoned. Thorsten Veblen, in the opening chapters of The Vested Interests, remarks that societies articulate principles established during a previous time long after it ceases to live by them. He was writing of “the modern point of view” and how America continued to profess the Enlightenment’s ideals when it was well into the Age of Materialism that had displaced it. This is something of what happened when the 1960s tipped into the 1970s and 1980s. What had once been full was hollowed out.
Another language is spoken now. It serves as a kind of opiate, just as “the Resistance” is a tranquillizing drug for our “progressives.” Much is done in the name of the old ideals. I read many times that Hillary Clinton “speaks truth to power.” The other day I read that we can count on Gina Haspel to do the same. Everyone speaks truth to power now. Everyone except almost everyone, in my surmise.
There are arguments now about pronouns and public facilities and statues on village greens. There are fights for city council seats in small municipalities. In our private lives we make fetishes of organic vegetables and fitness and all manner of other virtuous things. We signal these virtues, of course: This is part of the point. The lists in this connection are endless. It is all good, let there be no question, and our lists satisfy us. But there is no thought of transcendence in any of this. There is no comprehensive censure power as it is now structured and exercised. There is no idea of an escape, in sum, from the eternal present that imprisons us or—far better—within which we have chosen to imprison ourselves. Constituted power can satisfy itself, too, for it is fundamentally unaccosted.
It is possible to cast this point in political terms. One could well argue that there was a great capitulation to the “conservative revolution” led by Reagan and Thatcher. One can and must point out that there are many exceptions to the line of regress I trace. But I want here to trace a psychological chronology, one that may be peculiar to those of my cohort, “the ’60s generation,” in a phrase I do not like. My topic is a kind of cultural memory, and its loss. And the ways too many of us have come to fool ourselves so as to avoid facing this loss.
This loss makes Gina Haspel possible. And there will be more Gina Haspels where this one came from and more disgraceful displays in Jerusalem so long as there is no coherent response to all that produces them.
Chomsky once observed—and I am still looking for the reference—that the fundamental function of language is not speech but thought. We use language in our minds far more than we do in what we say. This suggests something excellent. The counter to what gives us Gina Haspel—and the approval and acquiescence she enjoys, let us not leave out—must begin with a new language. My friend Peter Dimock, a superb novelist never shy of such matters as these in his elegant books, calls this “a language of historical justice.” I have and continue to learn a lot from Peter. This language he thinks of, if I can attempt a brief description, consists of clarity, not cotton wool. There is no defensiveness in it, no righteousness, no fences around what can and cannot be said or questioned by means of it. It is devoid of the subtexts that encrust the language we have come to speak. It is emancipating, not obfuscating.
It would be a start, it seems to me. Much would flow from it, it also seems to me.
THIS ESSAY’S TITLE DERIVES from the very uncommon novel Jane Bowles published in 1943. Two Serious Ladies is Bowles’s only outing in the genre. The ladies in question are wanderers, escapees from various kinds of convention. They are in search of roads to freedom—private roads, it is important to add. Bowles wrote a line that must go down as a zinger, and I conclude with it: “If you are interested only in a bearable life, perhaps this does not concern you.”