Sunday, October 16, 2016

On the Question of Consent

Mr. Limbaugh brought up a curious hair ball the other day in the form of an argument that is, in analysis, too cute by at least half. Here's what he said, via a transcript from Media Matters, and copied and pasted here from Crooks and Liars:

RUSH LIMBAUGH: You know what the magic word, the only thing that matters in American sexual mores today is? One thing. You can do anything, the left will promote and understand and tolerate anything, as long as there is one element. Do you know what it is? Consent. If there is consent on both or all three or all four, however many are involved in the sex act, it's perfectly fine. Whatever it is. But if the left ever senses and smells that there's no consent in part of the equation then here come the rape police. But consent is the magic key to the left.

Of course what he's trying to attack is the allegedly "liberal" tendency to live and let live, to be nonjudgmental in the domain of the private and personal. This is part and parcel of the general right wing pushback against expanding marriage to include people of the same sex, and of decriminalizing various sex acts that once were not only taboo, but actually criminalized. See, e.g., the criminal state destruction of Oscar Wilde's life, and the tragic suicide of the genius mathematician who broke the German coding machine in World War II. There was a time not long ago when discovery of one's homosexuality would end careers in government, and in many other public spheres of endeavor. The constitutional acceptance of same sex marriage confers legitimacy on a whole class of formerly closeted American citizens. It also, as a small but not insignificant benefit, makes the fact of homosexuality less subject to the kind of blackmail that, in turn, rendered government workers possible security risks.

Part of the current Republican platform includes rolling back these rights. A thin end of this wedge, in North Carolina, is the odious HB2 legislation. Hundreds of right wing lawyers toil without rest to find any number of potential chinks in the armor of obvious righteousness that surrounds the final Supreme Court judgment that, indeed, a gay person is still simply a person, and a first-class citizen. But to the right, and to Mr. Limbaugh obviously, it is a galling bit of sand, and generates apparently pearl after pearl.

But as with much on the right, underlying this issue is a deeper and more existential one: power, and authority. It is indeed true that consent is a hallmark of legitimacy for liberal morality. But there is a deep reason for this. Consent is not a magic incantation. Consent can only exist in a relationship of equality. If someone is ordered, at the point of a gun, say, or the point of a legal writ, or the point of community censure, or the point of divine and eternal damnation, to do or say something that they would otherwise abjure, how is such a recantation anything more than coercion. Oh yes, for sure, a person can still choose to be a martyr. It's brave, courageous, and a great movie moment, to say "fuck you, do your worst," in the face of coercion. In that very narrow sense there is still a kind of choice. But when a person acquiesces to rape, this is not the same as consent, but a transaction acknowledging power and the lack of it. For the right, physical power is the ultimate test of moral authority. A rape is an affirmation of physical power. Just lie back and enjoy it they used to say with a smile.

It's odd, by the way, this unholy alliance between Trump's male dominating world view and the NRA, now running ads featuring female victims. In one ad a woman reaches into her bedside gun case only to find it empty as the thumps in the night grow ever closer. Hillary has supposedly taken her gun. In another ad a young woman tells the camera that she successfully fought off a knife-wielding male attacker with her own gun. So how does that jibe with Trump's assertions and obviously beliefs that his wealth and power are aphrodisiacs to the women he finds worthy of his brief physical company, his hand under their skirt or blouse. How enraged would Mr. Trump or Mr. Limbaugh be if the cute little lady whipped out her purse pistol and said "Make my day, mofo." For that matter, how does a gun aid in fighting off an attacker armed with the aphrodisiac of money and power. The problem in that case is that aphrodisiacs alter the mental state of the victim, like roofies.

I think Mr. Limbaugh, like Mr. Trump, sneers at "consent" because the authoritarian right generally refuses to acknowledge that there is ever an equal relationship between men and women, just as much of the authoritarian right rejects the possibility of an equal relationship between white people and any other race. In the authoritarian right, white males are by stipulation the dominant force. If a black man becomes President that is proof, by definition, of some sort of malfeasance. This is the same if it comes to pass that a woman is elected President. For Trump, Mrs. Clinton must, by definition, be broken, weak, using drugs, on her last legs. She cannot legitimately win against a man. As long as a woman accepts the true "nature" of male/female order (see, e.g., the Southern Baptist Church's creed concerning wifely submission), of course Mr. Trump can "respect" such a woman. But Mr. Trump, in his own mind and in Mr. Limbaugh's, needs no "consent." His power is greater, like it or not. All the right wing male patriarch need do is confer or withhold. "I'll treat her nicely if she treats me nicely." "She wasn't beautiful enough to warrant my unwanted advances."

For Limbaugh, and for Trump, and unfortunately for millions of Republican voters, consent implies too much. But in historical fact, we do here in the US continue to struggle towards a day when consent is the true test of legitimacy. Black people did not consent to be slaves. Women did not consent to be male property. As long as the spell of subjugation was strong enough, subjugated groups acquiesced. When they didn't, the lesson was historical, generational. The earth was salted. There is a reason, for example, why Haiti is the poorest, most wretched nation in the western hemisphere. It was the seat of the first successful black slave rebellion. The United States punished the little island nation of Cuba for nearly six decades for accepting leadership which fundamentally rejected our hegemony. Even now, should a Republican administration return after November, expect an immediate cancellation of Mr. Obama's efforts to at last normalize relations with Cuba. The authoritarian lesson is clear--we confer, we do not need your consent.

To quote David Byrne, "same as it ever was." Or, to quote Leonard Cohen, "Everybody knows... old black Joe's still pickin' cotton, for your ribbons and your bows."

[John McCutcheon took the photo some years back.]


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