Publisher's Note — February 13, 2018, 6:44 pm

The Sleep of Men

“Why not mount a direct attack on economic discrimination and revive the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment?”

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on February, 5, 2018. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

At a dinner party in Manhattan toward the end of November—in the midst of the #MeToo whirlwind—I found myself in the company of right-thinking left-wingers, all of them strongly supportive of the women who have been victims of sexual harassment.

Given the progressive character of the gathering, I thought it presented a good opportunity to bring up some concrete ideas about improving the condition of women, over and above the daily denunciations of this or that villain in this or that enterprise. Having witnessed the anger that had led to the removal of several Confederate monuments erected to the glory of racism and the defense of slavery, I proposed what was perhaps an audacious theory: with all this dismantling of icons—marble-and-iron icons on public squares in Virginia and Louisiana, flesh-and-blood icons in luxurious offices in Hollywood and New York—did we not risk overlooking some real social problems that damage the status of women in the workplace and contribute to the most egregious inequalities in the business world?

Why not, I went on, mount a direct attack on economic discrimination and revive the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment, a noble effort of the last century to establish equality between women and men in the area of wages, employment, and promotions? The ERA, which would have amended the United States Constitution to forbid discrimination on the basis of sex, was clear and reasonable and nearly won adoption. The project failed largely because of the fierce opposition of Phyllis Schlafly, a “conservative” activist who saw in the ERA the eventual weakening of the male’s primordial obligation, dictated by biology, to support mothers and their children. Moreover, she had no desire to see her two daughters (on this point, I was not in disagreement with her) called to military service in the Vietnam War. The amendment was ratified by thirty-five state legislatures, but changing the Constitution requires ratification by three-quarters (that is, thirty-eight) of the states; when the deadline for such legislative action passed in 1982, none of the required three additional states had ratified the measure and some of the states that had initially ratified the amendment had deratified. The amendment was not adopted.

Passage of the ERA would have legally required equality of opportunity and remuneration for members of both sexes, but I also had a notion that it would have compelled an office executive to hesitate before intimidating a female colleague if he knew she could be paid as much or even more than he was. The power not only of the law but also of money would create a certain psychological and social dam in defense of women, I suggested.

Whereupon my neighbor across the table, an experienced civil rights attorney, replied drily that the ERA wasn’t worth the trouble, because the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1868 to protect former slaves against discrimination, is quite sufficient protection for women too. I answered that the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees “equal protection” to “any person” who is a United States citizen, has obviously not been sufficient for women, who still earn, on average, less pay than men—studies on how much less vary—for equal work. The same goes for women competing with men at the highest levels of civil society and the business world, where men remain numerically predominant and distinctly wealthier. Let’s not forget that in 1868, women were not entirely “persons,” given that they had neither the right to vote nor the right to obtain a divorce without excessive difficulty.

The women around the table didn’t applaud my suggestion either. They were more interested in direct action. (One of them revealed how she’d been able to get her university salary raised by threatening to go to court.) And after the Weinstein scandal burst into the news, there wasn’t a single important politician who would take up the cause of the ERA. Admittedly, the legislative task would be much more difficult than the outing of sexual offenders on social media.

Would it be more worthwhile, perhaps, to look to literature, rather than to the law, to address the injustices committed against women? La Tresse (“The Braid”), the first novel of French director, actress, and writer Laetitia Colombani, might provide an excellent place to start. The author portrays three women of radically different cultures and classes: an Indian Untouchable who earns her living by collecting human excrement; a prominent Montreal attorney, a divorced mother, who falls gravely ill; and a young Sicilian employed in her father’s small factory when a sudden accident leaves him in a coma. Each of the three is afflicted by the inescapable rules of her society.

Smita, the Indian woman, is the most daring: she dreams of helping her daughter break free of their miserable existence by sending her to school. In a society that validates rape as a method of social control, Smita’s husband is exceptional; compared with the other men of his village, he’s practically a feminist. In any case, it’s Smita who can’t sleep peacefully, not her husband, who during the night “is a lake whose surface no ripple disturbs.” Smita sees that “men aren’t equal in sleep… Men aren’t equal in anything.” Destroying a few celebrities is maybe not the most enduring way to disturb the nocturnal rhythm of men and wake them up.

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note May 16, 2018, 12:10 pm

Why I’ll Miss My Friend Tom Wolfe

“Wolfe was always the arch opponent of orthodoxy in all its forms.”

Publisher's Note May 14, 2018, 10:44 am

The Comedy

“France has lowered herself to the status of a stamp or seal in order to ‘reassure’ the American Establishment that its loutish leader isn’t entirely mad.”

Publisher's Note April 12, 2018, 5:29 pm

Humanitarian Wars

“I’ve often found myself doing battle with ‘humanitarian’ propaganda, sometimes promoted by nice, respectable people who strongly support military interventions, justified (in their view) because they would save hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.”

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2018

Combat High

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Last Best Place

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Sound of Madness

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Looking for Calley

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Comforting Myths

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Wizard of Q

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Combat High·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Afew months before the United States invaded Iraq, in 2003, Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time, was asked on a radio show how long the war would take. “Five days or five weeks or five months,” he replied. “It certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.” When George W. Bush departed the White House more than five years later, there were nearly 136,000 US soldiers stationed in the country. 

The number of troops has fallen since then, but Bush’s successors have failed to withdraw the United States from the region. Barack Obama campaigned on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, only to send hundreds of troops into Syria. For years Donald Trump described America’s efforts in Afghanistan as “a waste” and said that soldiers were being led “to slaughter,” but in 2017 he announced that he would deploy as many as 4,000 more troops to the country. “Decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk of the Oval Office,” he explained. Every president, it seems, eventually learns to embrace our perpetual war.

With the Trump Administration’s attacks on affordable health care, immigration, environmental regulation, and civil rights now in full swing, criticism of America’s military engagements has all but disappeared from the national conversation. Why hasn’t the United States been able—or willing—to end these conflicts? Who has benefited from them? Is victory still possible—and, if so, is it anywhere in sight?

In March, Harper’s Magazine convened a panel of former soldiers at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. The participants, almost all of whom saw combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, were asked to reflect on the country’s involvement in the Middle East. This Forum is based on that panel, which was held before an audience of cadets and officers, and on a private discussion that followed.

Illustration (detail) by John Ritter
Article
Comforting Myths·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before he died, my father reminded me that when I was four and he asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a writer. Of course, what I meant by “writer” then was a writer of Superman comics. In part I was infatuated with the practically invulnerable Man of Steel, his blue eyes and his spit curl. I wanted both to be him and to marry him—to be his Robin, so to speak. But more importantly, I wanted to write his story, the adventures of the man who fought for truth, justice, and the American Way—if only I could figure out what the fuck the American Way was.

Artwork by Mahmood Sabzi
Article
The Sound of Madness·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Sarah was four years old when her spirit guide first appeared. One day, she woke up from a nap and saw him there beside her bed. He was short, with longish curly hair, like a cherub made of light. She couldn’t see his feet. They played a board game—she remembers pushing the pieces around—and then he melted away.

After that, he came and went like any child’s imaginary friend. Sarah often sensed his presence when strange things happened—when forces of light and darkness took shape in the air around her or when photographs rippled as though shimmering in the heat. Sometimes Sarah had thoughts in her head that she knew were not her own. She would say things that upset her parents. “Cut it out,” her mother would warn. “This is what they put people in psychiatric hospitals for.”

Painting (detail) by Carlo Zinelli
Article
Looking for Calley·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the fall of 1969, I was a freelance journalist working out of a small, cheap office I had rented on the eighth floor of the National Press Building in downtown Washington. A few doors down was a young Ralph Nader, also a loner, whose exposé of the safety failures in American automobiles had changed the industry. There was nothing in those days quite like a quick lunch at the downstairs coffee shop with Ralph. Once, he grabbed a spoonful of my tuna-fish salad, flattened it out on a plate, and pointed out small pieces of paper and even tinier pieces of mouse shit in it. He was marvelous, if a bit hard to digest.

The tip came on Wednesday, October 22. The caller was Geoffrey Cowan, a young lawyer new to town who had worked on the ­McCarthy campaign and had been writing critically about the Vietnam War for the Village Voice. There was a story he wanted me to know about. The Army, he told me, was in the process of court-martialing a GI at Fort Benning, in Georgia, for the killing of seventy-five civilians in South Vietnam. Cowan did not have to spell out why such a story, if true, was important, but he refused to discuss the source for his information.

Photograph © Bettmann/Getty Images
Article
The Last Best Place·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The family was informed they would be moving to a place called Montana. Jaber Abdullah had never heard of it, but a Google search revealed that it was mountainous. Up to that point, he and his wife, Heba, had thought they’d be moving from Turkey to Newark, New Jersey. The prospect of crime there concerned Heba, as she and Jaber had two young sons: Jan, a petulant two-year-old, and Ivan, a newborn. 

Montana sounded like the countryside. That, Heba thought, could be good. She’d grown up in Damascus, Syria, where jasmine hung from the walls and people sold dates in the great markets. These days, you checked the sky for mortar rounds like you checked for rain, but she still had little desire to move to the United States. Basel, Jaber’s brother, a twenty-two-year-old with a cool, quiet demeanor, merely shrugged.

Illustration (detail) by Danijel Žeželj

Average amount Microsoft spends each month assisting people who need to change their passwords:

$2,000,000

Chimpanzees who join new groups with inferior nut-cracking techniques will abandon their superior techniques in order to fit in.

Trump leaves the Iran nuclear deal, Ebola breaks out in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and scientists claim that Pluto is still a planet.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today