The Compleat Sceptic: Of Fathers and Dissident Daughters

As mesmerized television viewers know, America is beset with vapid discussions of the faith of their future president masquerading as “compassion forums.” In the April 12 CNN version of what may become a permanent feature of American political showmanship, candidates were challenged to describe whether they have ever felt the Holy Spirit move within them and whether, in their best judgment, God wanted him, or her, to be president.

No, this was not a BBC satire. It is American Realpolitik. The questions were deadly earnest, exceeded in absurdity only by the feigned seriousness with which the combatants stumbled through their rehearsed platitudes. Neither contender was asked the unfashionable empirical question that used to dominate discussion: Would you push a red button or invade a country if you were menstruous, or testosteronous, or had simply had a bad day? Plausible reasons for doing irrational things, in 2008, are not discussible. The real, persistent, and biologically-based causes that explain why human beings sometimes behave dangerously are sequestered through a diabolical system of rhetorical taboos. But imaginary things, like “the Holy Spirit moving” in us, still matter. In America, anyway, this is where the Postmodern Feminism that supplanted (even if it was nascent within) the Political Feminism of the 1960’s has brought us.

I have just come from a lecture by Daphne Patai. Her father, the much-neglected Rafael Patai, was a Hungarian Jew who collaborated with the mythographer-poet Robert Graves in producing one of the most sophisticated exposés of Hebrew myth ever compiled. Her lecture was on the intellectual limitations of feminism. Thirty one people attended. It was one of the best lectures I have heard on the “anti-science” of the feminist movement. It was not recorded. That is a shame because it was a refreshing breath of heresy directed against the political orthodoxy of “women’s studies programs.” It opened a wound that has scarcely been noticed: the tension between political liberalism and secular humanism, between skepticism as a programmatic cast of mind that can be turned even against fashionable positions, and a programmatic liberalism that advocates a selective form of skepticism—namely, the sort applied to conservative orthodoxy.

Patai inherited from her father the compleat sceptical gene that very few people, in my experience, possess. Voltaire may have been one of them. He is alleged to have said “Only my skepticism keeps me from being an atheist.” The same rule applies to Patai’s feminism. She is a feminist, self-proclaimed and proud to be one. She was a pioneer in the founding of women’s studies programs at the University of Massachusetts, where she still teaches (but not women’s studies). She believes that the souls, bodies, and intellects of men and women are created equal. I am sure she hates the mindlessness, violence, brutishness and unreflective self-congratulation that defines sexism; but she finds sexism in both sexes.

She is problematical because she (brazenly) challenges her sisters to justify the excesses of their trade, without saying their trade is insignificant. A curriculum that studies and celebrates the achievements of women is as justifiable, surely, as one that glorifies the achievements of dead Greeks and medieval monks and reformers.

If women’s studies means that, then recherchez la femme. She is aware of the peculiar history of the field, which, without being limited to Jewish theorists, boasts an array of them. She worries that the history of personal violence and masculine idiocy should become, in its own right, a field of academic inquiry.

A fable: A young Jewish Bennington graduate betakes herself to the freewheeling culture of Amsterdam to research the Provo Anarchy movement. She marries one of her “subjects,” and in turn is abused by him. Mercilessly—beaten, hunted, and harassed. She is befriended by a fellow American-in-search of meaning, also Jewish, Ricki Abrams. Abrams introduces Andrea Dworkin to radical feminist writing from the United States–Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. She and Abrams begin to work together on “early pieces and fragments… of a radical feminist text on the hatred of women in culture and history.” The result of all this is the theory that (a) all men are sexist and naturally violent; (b) all acts of heterosexual sex are rape, by implication if not in law and (c) all women are victims. From this, to Third Wave, to Catherine MacKinnon’s reverse legal-Aristotelianism, to Riot Grrrl punk feminism is a dizzying journey. But it is more than a journey. It is a curriculum leading to a degree in America’s best liberal arts colleges and universities.

Daphne decided to jump ship when, in a planning session with other women’s studies specialists, she wondered out loud why the sciences were “sexist,” and asked specifically about the Periodic Table—something, surely, both men and women would agree is beyond the dimorphism that characterizes most modern discussions of sex and gender. After all, the world is the world, chemical, physical, biological. But with that contempt for intellect which characterizes both Bubba in Georgia and too many women’s studies professors, she was told that “Only men would put numbers in boxes.” She retired happily into the Romance Linguistics department, whence she had come.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the brilliant biblical and Talmudic scholar, is best known for his pioneering work on the nature of Hebrew prophecy, less known for his daughter Susannah who now teaches at Dartmouth. Heschel, like many Jews of his generation, had doubts about the “legitimacy” of women being ordained to the rabbinate in the culture that is alleged to have given us patriarchy. But he had a history of his own. His sister Esther was killed in a German bombing. His mother was murdered by the Nazis, and two other sisters, Gittel and Devorah, died in Nazi concentration camps. He never returned to Germany, Austria or Poland. He wrote, “If I should go to Poland or Germany, every stone, every tree would remind me of contempt, hatred, murder, of children killed, of mothers burned alive, of human beings asphyxiated.”

Heschel concluded that if the message of the prophets is social liberation, then the prophets were pointing forward to the religious enfranchisement of his children, irrespective of their sex. Susannah would be a rabbi, because so many women had been killed by the cruelty of men without conscience and scruples.

Not every father is Abraham Heschel, or Rafael Patai. And those men were not uncomplicated, perhaps not typical.

But Patai bears that sort of relationship to her father, who is her ghost and her mentor, but not her master. “He had,” she said to me over dinner, “seventeen languages; I’m a professor of Romance linguistics and I have four.” It is the kind of complex father-daughter relationship that throws Margaret Atwood’s “King Lear in Respite Care” into view, or Anne Sexton, on the death of her father:

Gone, I say and walk from church,
refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June. I am tired of being brave.

She does not begin with atheism, or secularism or any of the liberal secular agendas thought to arise from a purely personal and political point of view. Her father was bold, or foolish, enough to write books called The Arab Mind (1976) and The Jewish Mind (1996). He was martyr to an intellectual cause that flew in the face of liberal orthodoxies. So is she. Irreverent critics of The Arab Mind, infected with the spirit of Edward Said’s Orientalism, said it was “a compendium of racist stereotypes and Eurocentric generalizations.” The Jewish Mind fared worse. She lives his controversies amidst controversies of like proportion, against social orthodoxies of similar dimensions.

I must wonder where these discussions are headed, as the academy lapses into the self-preserving rhetoric that dilutes liberal ideals on the one hand and punishes scepticism with an iron glove on the other.

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