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Rebecca Solnit: The War Is Over (If You Want It), Feminism and Men

By       Message Tom Engelhardt     Permalink
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This article originally appeared at To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: The posting of today's Rebecca Solnit piece on men and feminism is also TomDispatch's way of announcing a new hardcover edition of her runaway paperback bestseller Men Explain Things to Me . That volume, the third Dispatch Book to make it into the world, has been on indie bestseller lists since it was published four months ago. It's a remarkable achievement, especially for a book from a new press like ours. The hardcover version has two new essays, including her recent Harper's Magazine cover story, "Cassandra Among the Creeps." We hope it will be the gift all of you will consider giving in the coming holiday season. (Sometime before the end of the year, she will also sign copies of the new hardcover for those who care to donate to this site.) Tom]

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In my experience, when it comes to women, young men lie to each other in grotesque ways and those lies are foundational to what, at least in my youth, was men's culture. My own learning curve on this was uncomfortable indeed and I've never forgotten it. In the early 1960s, I went to Yale, an elite all-male college. It was still a time when, if you were walking along a street with a friend and your hands happened to touch, you jumped as if electricity had shot through you and reflexively began to make jokes about "fags."

My particular problem in those years when it came to male culture, women, and of course the topic of the moment, sex, was that I was experience-impaired and quite shy about that fact. Two alternatives were then available, or so it seemed to me: lie through my teeth and be one of the boys or keep quiet. I chose the latter option, not out of any essential purity of spirit but out of embarrassment, out of a feeling that I wasn't really your basic man's man. The result proved curiously educational, and deeply unsettling. I regularly sat through spiraling bouts of intra-male bravado in which guys pumped themselves up while denigrating each other (and above all women) by lying outrageously, and I did so in silence. The unexpected twist was this: that silence was sometimes mistaken for knowledge, for a deeper understanding.

Here's one vivid memory of just how this worked. Yale's residential colleges had courtyards and one day from our third-floor window I heard a roommate, returning from spring vacation, yelling from that courtyard that he was no longer a virgin, that he had "screwed" his girlfriend. He bragged ceaselessly about this for the next 24 hours, upping the ante on what he had done, and just how spectacular it all was, while others pitched in with their own tales of sexual bravado. I said nothing. Finally, clearly because I hadn't joined in, he pulled me aside and told me the actual story of a desperately failed encounter, a nightmare for him and undoubtedly even more so for his girlfriend. It was hair-raising. Among other things, at that age I didn't want to know how bad it could be (and keep in mind that, back then, information about sex was in distinctly short supply in the society at large).

All of this represented a truly poisonous system that was everyday life for boys. Until I grew up, until feminism came along, I wasn't going to be privy to just what that culture felt like from the other side of the aisle, just how grimly those lies and the "truths" that went with them often played out in women's lives, but at least I knew in a modest sort of way just how badly it all played out in my life. When I think of the online male trolls of the present moment, I imagine a modernized version of that grim male culture of self-inflicted lies running riot in a new world of social media which is open, at least, to the rest of us to see. It's so much clearer now just how poisonous it is when young (and not so young) men lie ceaselessly to each other and everyone else at the expense of women. Such a system is also far more open to puncturing, and so to change, and it's that reality which TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit, author of the bestselling book Men Explain Things to Me (just out in a new hardcover edition with two extra essays added), considers today -- and thank heaven! Tom

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Feminism: The Men Arrive!
(Hooray! Uh-Oh!)
By Rebecca Solnit

What do the prime minister of India, retired National Football League punter Chris Kluwe, and superstar comedian Aziz Ansari have in common? It's not that they've all walked into a bar, though Ansari could probably figure out the punch line to that joke. They've all spoken up for feminism this year, part of an unprecedented wave of men actively engaging with what's usually called "women's issues," though violence and discrimination against women are only women's issues because they're things done to women -- mostly by men, so maybe they should always have been "men's issues."

The arrival of the guys signifies a sea change, part of an extraordinary year for feminism, in which the conversation has been transformed, as have some crucial laws, while new voices and constituencies joined in. There have always been men who agreed on the importance of those women's issues, and some who spoke up, but never in such numbers or with such effect. And we need them. So consider this a watershed year for feminism.

Take the speech Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave on that country's Independence Day. Usually it's an occasion for boosterism and pride. Instead, he spoke powerfully of India's horrendous rape problem. "Brothers and sisters, when we hear about the incidents of rape, we hang our heads in shame," he said in Hindi. "I want to ask every parent that you have a daughter of 10 or 12 years age, you are always on the alert, every now and then you keep on asking where are you going, when would you come back... Parents ask their daughters hundreds of questions, but have any parents ever dared to ask their son as to where he is going, why he is going out, who his friends are? After all, a rapist is also somebody's son. He also has parents."

It was a remarkable thing to say, the result of a new discourse in that country in which many are now starting to blame perpetrators, not victims -- to accept, as campus anti-rape activists here put it, that "rapists cause rape." That act, in other words, is not caused by any of the everyday activities women have been blamed for when men assault them. That in itself represents a huge shift, especially when the analysis comes from the mouths of men.

The Obama administration, too, recently launched a campaign to get bystanders, particularly men, to reach out to protect potential victims of sexual assault under the rubric "It's On Us." Easy as it might be to critique that slogan as a tone-deaf gesture, it's a landmark all the same, part of a larger response in this country to campus rape in particular.

And here's what it all means: the winds of change have reached our largest weathervanes. The highest powers in the country have begun calling on men to take responsibility not only for their own conduct, but for that of the men around them, to be agents of change.

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When X Doesn't Equal Y

Feminism needs men. For one thing, the men who hate and despise women will be changed, if they change, by a culture in which doing horrible things to, or saying horrible things about, women will undermine rather than enhance a man's standing with other men.

There are infinite varieties of men or at least about 3.5 billion different ones living on Earth now, Klansmen and human rights activists, drag queens and duck hunters. For the purposes of feminism, I'd like to delineate three big blurry categories. There are the allies, mentioned above (and below). There are the raging misogynists and haters in word and deed. You can see them in various places online where they thrive (and seem to have remarkable amounts of time on their hands): the Men's Rights forums, for instance, where they endlessly stoke the flames of their resentment, and the guys on Twitter who barrage almost any outspoken woman with threats and insults. Take the recent threat not just to kill media analyst Anita Sarkeesian for daring to speak up about sexism in video games, but to launch a massacre of women at a speech she was to give at the University of Utah. Sarkeesian's not the only one in that world to receive death threats. And don't forget all the gamers who have gone down the rabbit hole of misogynist conspiracy theories under the hashtag #Gamergate.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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