The recent death of Andrea Dworkin didn’t even make the small print news in Russia. Feminism, at least the feminism of the kind Westerners take for granted, never caught on. Patronizing Westerners often see that as a sign that Russians are culturally too primitive. Russians, particularly Russian women — and particularly the Russian female intelligentsia — literally laugh and roll their eyes when you mention feminism of the American or West European brand. The reason is fairly simple: Russians haven’t quite learned the Western art of sloganeering for radical philosophy without meaning a word of what they say. A Russian woman would assume that if you’re a feminist, you’d actually have to live out the philosophy. In that sense, Andrea Dworkin was, in her own way, the only “Russian” feminist in America — and that is why she was so hated.
There was a strange undertone of smug satisfaction in the obituaries for Andrea Dworkin. The fact that she died relatively young, at 58, got a lot of space, followed by long descriptions of her obesity and the medical problems that supposedly resulted from it. In other words, she was fat, fat, fat. Case closed.
Then there were her stories of rape and abuse, which theLondon Times called “probability-defying.” American papers were more sly and cowardly, of course, but managed to imply that she was crazy as well as fat.
Feminists more comfortable in the meanstream had some very strange comments on her. Elaine Showalter, a sleek Princeton gender commissar, said, “I don’t wish Andrea Dworkin any harm, but I doubt that many women will get up at 4 am to watch her funeral.”
If you know anything about the verbal habits of upper-echelon academics, this is easy to translate: “Die, you bitch! Shut up and die so I can dance on your XL grave!”
I can’t recall so much barely-concealed delight in a celebrity death since Sam Kinison was wiped out by a couple of drunken kids in a pickup. He had it coming, the papers of record informed us; he too was fat and crazy and said things you’re not supposed to say about women.
Dworkin’s fatness and madness hardly disqualify her from intellectual distinction. If we excluded the fat and/or crazy from recent intellectual history, we’d be left with a very bland, Clinton-style consensus. And that, of course, is the goal, the point of these non sequiturs. They’re great for dismissing loud, unbroken voices. American academics have a habit of skipping to the slur with disconcerting speed, as I found out a couple of years ago when I mentioned my love for Wallace Stevens’ poetry to a Film professor. She winced, then said, “Wasn’t he a racist?”
She didn’t really know or care whether Stevens was a racist. As I realized later, that wince meant that she hadn’t read Stevens, didn’t want to be shown up and so had simply reached for the nearest available non sequitur. The notion that Stevens might be a racist AND a great poet, just as Dworkin might be a fat loon AND a crucial figure in feminist intellectual history, is simply beyond our Beige compatriots.
The habit has sifted so far down it’s affected the dialogue of disaster films, as I noticed while watching a bunch of unconvincingly attractive pseudo-nerds try to survive the fastest Ice Age ever in theDay After Tomorrow. There’s a great scene where a male and female nerd, stranded in the NYC Public Library, are arguing about whether to burn Beyond Good and Evil for warmth. The guy says, “Nietzsche was the most profound thinker of the nineteenth century!” The woman replies, “Nietzsche was a chauvinist who was in love with his sister!” It gave me a nightmare vision of what Lite Beer Super Bowl ads will be like in a few years, after everybody and their dog has been to grad school.
In the mating rituals of healthy people — that is, people who aren’t like Andrea Dworkin — these stylized collisions about ideology, usually personified by clashes about an historical figure, are usually no more than flirtation. That’s literally true in Day After Tomorrow; in the last scene of the movie, the male and female nerd are holding hands in the rescue helicopter, their Nietzsche dispute remembered, if at all, as the first scene of a third-hand screwball comedy they’re using as their romance template.
We’re supposed to know that you don’t take it seriously — you don’t live as you speak. What I revere about Dworkin is that she never realized that. Dworkin is hated so intensely simply because she accepted first-wave feminism fully. She blurted naively the implications of that ideology. And that appalled and embarrassed millions of smoother women, who liked the cool, fashionable tune feminism gave their bitching but had never had any intention of letting it get in the way of their romantic career plans.
I remember, ladies. I was there — at Berkeley in the 70s. And I was like Dworkin, a naive loser from a family which actually lived the ideology it claimed. Hers was the classic east-coast Jewish progressive tradition; mine was the most severe, self-flagellating brand of Irish Catholicism. The common denominator was the lack of compromise. Dworkin had a great line on this: “I don’t find compromise unacceptable, I find it incomprehensible.”
When she came of age, feminists like Steinem were speaking in the rhetoric of third-world national-liberation movements. Their case was simple and unassailable: women were oppressed, the biggest and most deeply, ubiquitously abused ‘minority’ on the planet. It was a view so simple that an intellect as subhuman as Yoko Ono was capable of absorbing it and translating it into “Woman is the nigger of the world.”
The difference is that Yoko would never have dreamed of letting her revelation get in the way of her relationship with that mangy meal ticket of hers, John. He was the reason she was able to get her 20-minute yodels on wax, baby. No way was she going to ditch him. Being the ultimate groupie, trading sex (let’s just move right along rather than get into what “sex” meant for John and Yoko) for money and fame had nothing to do with that line about women as niggers.
But there were people like me who’d been raised all wrong, who didn’t know any better, who actually believed that Steinem’s essays, which we had to read in our Norton Anthology, implied a code of conduct. And above all, that meant that man/woman mixing was going to come to a grinding halt. It was, according to the national-liberation model, fraternizing with the enemy. People were garroted for that kind of thing in places like Algeria, and Frantz Fanon had told us all how glorious it was that revolutionary piano wire was used to enforce this Spartan revolutionary separatism.
In my book Pleasant Hell I describe at length how I drifted sadly around the Berkeley campus in the 70s, convinced that everyone there was as bitterly lonely as I, and that this was simple historical necessity. And how shocked I was, happening to walk across campus at a later hour one night, to realize that men and women still fraternized with a vengeance once the sun went down. This may sound silly, but it was the biggest surprise of my life, and my introduction to the sleazy agility with which normal Americans dodge the inconvenient implications of the ideologies they mouth during the day.
Dworkin took the same Norton Anthology truisms to their obvious, clear, unbearable conclusions. If women were an oppressed group on the model of Fanon’s Algerians, Ho’s Vietnamese or Yoko’s “niggers,” then the steps to a revolutionary cleansing were simple:
1. The oppressed minority must re-learn history and re-evaluate society in order to see the horrors beneath the facade of normalcy.
In 70s campus feminism, this meant getting excited about footbinding, bar-b-que’d witches, and then acquiring a proper alienation from standard male-female interaction. In other words, learn all of the horrible oppressions males have unleashed upon women, and then cite the examples as reasons why you hate men and demand a fundamental change in the relationship.
This, comrades, was the tricky part. What Dworkin’s simple, loyal, canine mind could never grasp was that for a sly player like Steinem, this first stage of the process was fine, no matter how violent the denunciation of men and patriarchy became. Why not? As long as one didn’t let it interfere with one’s life (Steinem’s relationships with a series of male billionaires, for example), then Hell — the more violent the denunciation, the better!
Because — and this was another wrinkle I, like Dworkin, was far too naive to grasp — most meanstream men were in on the joke too. They were, in fact, more aware of what a joke it was than the young women students who in many cases, truly thought they believed their own clenched-fist chantings. The male response to 70s feminism was horror from old fools like Mailer, but a tolerant smile from the cool dudes whose job it was to disarm and fuck the feisty ladies. Their stance was a slightly more subtle, coy version of “you’re so cute when you’re mad, honey.”
2. The oppressed minority must mobilize, replacing its colonial relationship with the oppressors with ties to comrades among the oppressed.
What this meant for a “sane” or normal 70s woman depended on the degree of identification with the movement. At least, it meant lip service to a female version of “bros before ho’s” — high-profile socializing with female friends, during which male company was noisily disparaged. (This type of socializing, of course, was already a common habit of middle-class female socializing; giving it an ideological cast was simply a matter of replacing a few jargon terms.)
At most, it meant lip service of another sort: the big plunge into lesbianism. If you wanted to be a professional activist, you had to make the jump. A Women’s Studies lecturer I knew said a colleague once told her outright, “You’ll never have any street cred, Jennifer, because you don’t sleep with women.” For meanstreamers, the lesbian allegiance was all anyone could ever be asked to give; it was, in fact, more than most were willing to make. All you really needed to do was grit your tongue and give it a try — a rite of passage, a gesture of solidarity. After that you could get back to planning your wedding. That’s why the university lesbian interlude has been compressed into mock acronyms like BUG, “bisexual until graduation.”
But even full-time dyking around had little to do with the original model, the Fanon national-liberation rhetoric. He and Ho and Che didn’t advocate fucking other proletarians; they were in favor of wiping out the Other, the Oppressor. Fucking other revolutionaries was, if anything, a dubious way to spend time owed the Revolution.
Which brings us to Dworkin’s sexual orientation. If she was a lesbian, she was the worst I ever saw. And I should know — read my book. She called herself a lesbian, but then she also called herself a celibate. Even Morrissey would be scratching his head at that point. And besides, once the term acquired a positive connotation, everybody was a lesbian — Jane Fucking Austen was a card-carrying dyke, according to the ideologically-correct journals. Men at UC Berkeley who were cool but still wanted to fuck women took to calling themselves “male lesbians.” I don’t want to dwell on this; it wasn’t a great moment in American culture.
The point is that Dworkin never offered the world a significant other of the proper gender. Instead, she lived openly with…a man. I don’t mean to dwell on such sordid things, but it’s a matter of public record. The point was that they didn’t fuck.
And in this, once again she was a good orthodox Fanon/Guevara feminist. For the revolutionary, the point is not to screw in your own class but to stop getting it on with the enemy. And this was something America’s avid, proud young lesbians-until-that-first-big-job never, never promised to do. They’d made their point by licking girls; after that, they had every intention of fucking, or as Dworkin would insist, getting fucked by men.
For Fanon and the rest, any interaction between the Oppressor and the Oppressed is to the disadvantage of the Oppressed. That’s axiomatic. What that means in Dworkin’s simple, obvious reading of the Revolutionary Scriptures is that when men fuck women, it’s always an act of oppression.
That was where she went too far in the views of her more flexible colleagues. They didn’t like having their options reduced. That, in the view of an American striver, was the worst thing you could do to anybody.
Dworkin didn’t know a thing about her audience. Didn’t know they were talking career and fun when she was talking sacrifice, martyrdom. (It’s no accident her heroine was Joan of Arc. Dworkin was a Catholic without knowing it, an old-time Catholic who never suspected it of herself. She and J. K. Toole, another fat loser who died young, are the only Catholic writers to survive, for a while, in modern America.)
Dworkin maintained this strictly orthodox view in her most-hated book, Intercourse (1987), arguing that heterosexual intercourse was rape. Oh, and please, don’t tell me that’s not her argument. I not only read and reread that book but taught it to a group of horrified Berkeley students in 1990. That damn well is what she said. You could tell it by the expression on their little faces — a great moment!
Even the reviewers who praised Dworkin did it in ways intended to alert their readers that they were encountering a nut, someone who was to be admired rather than listened to. Intercourse was “daring,” “radical,” “outrageous” — in other words, beyond the pale. It was something to have on your shelf, or your reading list, as ballast, another sort of street cred. It was never meant to accuse women who fucked men of, to coin a phrase, sleeping with the enemy.
But that was exactly what Dworkin meant, and all she meant. It was so obvious; the real shock is that it took so long for someone in the women’s movement to say that and get noticed for it.
The last stage in Fanon’s and Guevara’s blueprint was the one that put Dworkin out of play forever:
4. Kill the oppressor.
That’s what the revolutionaries said, and they didn’t mean it figuratively. They meant get a fucking machete and kill a cop, take his gun and use that on as many of the oppressors as you can get. They were pretty damn clear on this, as clear as a Calvinist ruling out salvation by works. You could not overthrow the oppressor with harsh language, or the evil eye, or moving depictions of slum conditions. You had to kill the bastards. Are we clear?
And Dworkin, as loyal and dumb as the horse in Animal Farm, trotted along to this fatal fourth step — and found herself alone.
She said it, as usual, with simple clarity, in the language of Che Guevara. It must have amazed her that she even needed to say it; it had been so obvious from the start. Her pleas for resistance are couched in a wonderful diction, mixed of Catholic martyr-cult and Fanon’s call to jacquerie: “I’m asking you to give up your lies. I’m asking you to live your lives, honorably and with dignity. I’m asking you to fight. I am asking you to organize political support for women who kill men who have been hurting them…They resisted a domination that they were expected to accept. They stand there in jail for us, for every one of us who got away without having to pull the trigger.”
In the end, the most remarkable thing about Dworkin is that there was only one of her. Hundreds of millions of women more sly, raised with the notion of compromise and an immunity to ideology, scrambled away from the inconvenient implications of liberation rhetoric. She alone stood their on her famously arthritic knees, doing her simple best to fight the jihad she’d been fool enough to believe would actually take place.
What if they held a war and only one fat lady sang? You don’t need to ask; you’ve lived through it.
This article was first published in The eXile on April 22, 2005
Buy John Dolan’s novel “Pleasant Hell” (Capricorn Press).
Got something to say to us? Then send us a letter.
Want us to stick around? Donate to The eXiled.
Twitter twerps can follow us at twitter.com/exiledonline