Sunday, June 19, 2005

Oedipus Feminus

As another Father’s Day winds down, after the fathers who still have access to their children are putting them to bed, and the fathers that do not are hoping their children remembered them, we can reflect on how inglorious a role it has become.

The preface to Joseph Ellis’ book, His Excellency, provides a unique insight to the complicated relationship academia has developed towards George Washington in the past few decades. It reminds me of the complicated relationship our society has with fatherhood.

For reasons best explained by Shakespeare and Freud, all children have considerable difficulty approaching their fathers with an open mind. Washington poses what we might call the Patriarchal Problem in its more virulent form: On Mount Rushmore, the Mall, the dollar bill and the quarter, but always an icon – distant, cold, intimidating. As Richard Brookhiser has so nicely put it, he is in our wallets but not in our hearts. And speaking of our hearts, a volatile psychological chemistry bubbles away inside all children in simmering pools of dependency and rebellion, love and fear, intimacy and distance. As every parent can testify, initially our children believe we can do no wrong; later on they believe we can do no right- indeed, in Oedipal terms they actually want to kill us. For most of American history our response to Washington in particular and the Founding Fathers in general has been trapped within the emotional pattern dictated by these primal urges, oscillating in a swoonish swing between idolization and evisceration. In Washington’s case the arc moves from Parson Weems’s fabrications about a saintly lad who could not tell a lie to dismissive verdicts about the deadest, whitest male in American history.

This hero/villain image is, in fact, the same portrait, which has a front and back side that we rotate regularly. It is really a cartoon, which tells us less about Washington than about ourselves. The currently hegemonic narrative within the groves of academe cuts in the Oedipal direction, making Washington complicitous in creating a nation that was imperialistic, racist, elitist, and patriarchal.
Ellis could just as easily have been describing the gender feminist view of all men. Or, perhaps just the phantom “patriarchy.” To aspire to something more than cult status and historical footnote to some other more important history, orthodox feminism needs to recognize this about itself.

Men collectively have not just tolerated, but encouraged, change that has opened up all forms of opportunity to women that are willing to pay the same price we do for success. Even more than that, really, since every major institution in the country – business, governmental, educational, and the courts - provides substantially less friction for the acceptance and advancement of women now than they do for men.

With that sort of phenomenal cultural change, on such a rapid timescale, orthodox feminism should return the favor. Personal change is almost automatic once a personal issue has been recognized and fully accepted as such. Gender feminism, which today has the responsibility of an adult, but is mired in adolescent rebellion and evisceration, can do more and greater things than slamming those that buttered their bread.

It has become the F-word precisely because it is a young adult still behaving like a child. Parents and other mature adults can tolerate the strange psychological swings of a child, because we know it is all just part of the learning process. But, young adults, while allowed to make mistakes, are strongly encouraged to let go of their adolescence.

The odd thing is that Washington, while vilified by academe as Ellis so eloquently put it, was as necessary to the development of this country as the vast continent that it sits on. He was far from perfect, but played a required role that few or perhaps no other could have performed.

Fathers today are in the same unenviable position. They have done their duty and, if allowed, almost always will. They are hated by a culture that is so busy with the now and self fulfillment that it looses sight of history and what is needed for the future.

But, fathers also quietly take satisfaction in the fact that they are needed. Just as academe has rejected Washington because they found he was human, our culture has forgotten, even rejected, what fathers innately know. They are needed, even though society seems to think otherwise.

We can measure the future by whether we are able to remember. And, gender feminism can measure its future by whether it is able to make the difficult transition from an adolescent stuck in Oedipal victim mode or able move beyond it. In the meantime, fathers will always be there, waiting.


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