Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Chalice or the Blade: Choose Now

One way to look at the gradual rise of the Far Right is through the lens of relationship models. There really are only two ways that human beings can be in relationship. We can relate as dominator/dominated, or we can relate as partners.

I first heard this way of looking at things from my brilliant friend, Nancy Hartsock, when we were both on the editorial staff of quest: a feminist quarterly. This was in the early-to-mid 1970s. As we developed each edition of the journal, the editorial staff sat around the quest office hammering out theories of human relationship from a radical lesbian feminist perspective. Not all of us are lesbians, but all of us are radical feminists, meaning feminists not willing to settle for tweaking our social arrangement so that women have more transitory "privileges." We were and are interested, although quest ceased publishing many years ago, in identifying and altering fundamental social consciousness so that all the things we mean when we speak of "equality" are the norm.

Nancy was writing an article about power, that most basic element in social relationships. As she talked about her ideas, I heard for the first time that power can be "power-over" or it can be "power-to." It was a breakthrough moment. Maybe it seems commonplace to you now, but thirty years ago, few people conceived of power in any way other than as an instrument of domination, and often of force.

In 1987, Riane Eisler wrote an international best-seller called The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. Eisler, too, focuses on human relatioships, and in this spellbinding work, sweeps through epochs and across continents, showing that there are clear patterns in human relationship. Namely, the hierarchical dominance model, represented by the sword or Blade, is associated with patriarch social arrangements, and the egalitarian, partnership model, represented by the cup or Chalice, is associated with matrilinear, matrilocal arrangements.

I can't recommend The Chalice and the Blade more strongly. Get it, read it. If anything, the predictions and patterns Eisler explores in it are clearer now than the were in the mid-80s.

Essentially, she says that we are in living through a monumental existential struggle between the patriarchal, dominatory way and the matriarchal, partnership way. She doesn't equate all males with the former or all females with the latter. She's not simplistic. But she does make an irrefutable case that the patriarchal way will not yield easily or nicely.

I'm not doing this justice, but I hope that you can glimpse in this shorthand synopsis why racism, misogyny, homophobia, and the dominion approach to nature and to religion (i.e., Christian fundamentalism) routinely ascend together or wane together, as they began to do during the US Civil Rights era, for instance. Just one metric may remind us how it was for a time. For a decade, the tide toward equality was so strong that anybody who was a racist, sexist, or homophobe was quiet about it. It wasn't cool.

That might not be much, but it's a world away from today's Chris Matthews, Don Imus, Pat Buchanan, Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, etc. Using Eisler's model, these are both agents and symptoms of the ascendant Blade--the dominator model. So, indeed, is the entire Republican agenda. I mean it's hard to imagine a more explicit expression than Cheney's "one percent" doctrine, in which even a one percent chance that another nation is a threat to the USA is reason to take it out in a violent "preventive" strike. No evident is necessary. Just a hunch. As in the hunch that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, our president's macho-centric personal style conforms perfectly with his approach to both domestic and international politics. Whether business or international relations, his black-or-white polarities permit just one arrangement: Dominate or be dominated.

If I understand Eisler correctly, she seems to be saying that the closer the partnership model comes into being, the more violent and brutal the dominators will be. In that sense, the rise of a purely patriarchal Christianist Right and Republicans' parallel, swaggering contempt for the poor people of New Orleans during Katrina; pride in constructing torture chambers and "rendering" people completely out of any realm of God-given human rights; readiness to suppress the vote through violence, deception, and fraud; gratuitous slaughter and displacement of millions in Iraq; flagrant assaults on nature--air, water, national parklands, the sea, the mountaintops--all these and more are signs that the patriarchal old way knows that change is coming.

In this analysis the misogyny and racism expressed by the likes of Imus and Matthews are intentional and systemic, as well as merely symptomatic of something much bigger. And the mainstream media's relentless and fraudulent attacks on the Clintons and Democrats are simply predictable attempts by the old Dominator to squelch that change.

I certainly don't equate the fullness of the Partnership Way to a woman president. That's not the point, even though the fact of a female and a minority male campaigning for the nation's highest office are symptoms and symbols of the change I'm speaking about. What I'm suggesting, using Hartsock's and Eisler's analysis, is that we are both in for a hell of a ride, AND we still have a choice.

That choice is not merely about who'll be president. Either Democrat will effect some degree of the kind of life-affirming change we so desperately need--which Eisler represents as the nurturing Chalice. More fundamentally, that choice arises in every single threat to justice, equality, peace, and environmental sanity.

That change will come if and when WE choose it. If ever there were the time to do so, it's now.