Dear Mr. Patriarch: Just what, exactly, did you accomplish with your life?
The seasons always bring change. And this season I know of two very patriarchal men who are quickly approaching the end of their careers.
Perhaps, as they prepare to bring their working lives to a close, these two men are taking a moment to reflect upon their experiences.
But I know that I am taking a moment to reflect upon the meaning of their life’s work, and honestly, I don’t see any. To me, it seems that these two men were dragged kicking and screaming into a feminist future, and, despite their best efforts to resist time and progress, time and progress happened anyway. And when these two men finally do turn in their keys and receive their gold watches, it is hard to know just how (and by whom) they will be missed.
I don’t think they will be.
The measure of a man is what he does with power – Plato.
On the surface these two men are very different. But scratch that surface and you find that they are essentially the same guy. And what these guys did with their power was essentially the same as well: they pursued positions of relative authority, not because they had any leadership initiative themselves, but only because they wanted to exert control. And what did they do once they got to sit in the Big Chair? Instead of initiating any kind of change, they merely worked hard to ensure that none would in fact occur.
One of these men is not overtly ideological in his dealings, but he rarely misses an opportunity to quietly say something racist or sexist under his breath. He also has a history of sexually harassing female coworkers. Despite having repeatedly gotten in trouble for this behaviour over the years, he remains utterly unreformed and totally unrepentant. And, in a patriarchal context that has yet to treat the issue of sexual harassment with the seriousness that it deserves, the punishment for this man has always been to give him a little slap on the wrist, and then to move him around to a different part of the organization. (No doubt to a department where the women might be less likely to speak up.)
The other man seems – at first – to be very different. He is overtly left-leaning and speaks continually about the power imbalances in society and the need for societal change in order to redress these issues. He takes anti-racist stances, and he strongly opposes economic inequality. (Ironically, he makes good money espousing this view – money that he does not then seem to share with others.) Another inconsistency is that for all of his preaching about the need for social liberation, he never devotes any significant energy towards issues of gender discrimination. (It is of course utterly ridiculous to claim to oppose racism and economic inequality and yet omit any meaningful attention to the status of the world’s women – who so disproportionately bear the brunt of both of these forms of oppression.) And while I have not (yet) heard any stories about this man being inappropriate toward women in the workplace, I do happen to know that he treats the women in his personal life as if they were his indentured servants.
If anyone ever needed any further evidence that we do not in fact live in a meritocracy, one need just follow these guys’ career paths. These men are not especially competent, and they are quite offensive in their dealings with women. Yet they have managed to have successful careers (i.e. make good money and attain some authority) even so. They never used their power for good. They used it only to dominate others, and to avoid doing much real work. Over the years both men became very adept at setting things up so that they would receive credit for work performed by others – usually by women.
You think the cream always rises to the top? Not this time.
Power is my mistress. I have worked too hard at her conquest to allow anyone to take her away from me. – Napoleon Bonaparte.
As I go about my life, I attempt to work toward greater equality and opportunity for all (and especially for those who have been historically boxed out by systems created by comparatively privileged, white, straight men like me). I try to remain conscious of the notion I should always try to leave the doors to power open a little bit wider than I myself found them. But over the years I have encountered all too many other men who are just like these patriarchs. Men who, in the words of Barry Switzer, “were born on third base and thought they hit a triple.” Men who fight any and all attempts to try to level the playing field. Men who work very hard to ensure that the doors to power never open any wider, that the path to success is never made any clearer, and that the established “objective standards” (which in truth are rarely either objective or standard!) remain as rigidly biased as ever.
These small men remind me of Napoleon – each fighting hard to keep his clutches on any scrap of power that he has managed to attain.
As these two men’s careers come to a close, I wonder if they ever wonder whether it was worth it to put so much energy into being the sole king of a very small hill. After all, with the loss of their paid positions, any power that they have attained will quickly vanish. As they look back, will the fact that for only one very brief moment in time they were able to tell a handful of other people below them just what to do (and that they were able to block those same people from advancing) be of any satisfaction to them at all? Will the fact that they were once a very small “somebody” have any meaning whatsoever?
Several years ago there was a very effective advertisement on t.v. for a job search website called monster.com. The spot was called “When I Grow Up.” It featured children facing the camera and saying dismal things about their futures. One child bravely asserted: “I want to claw my way up to middle management.”
(You can see the ad here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJB0CzlzSwY.)
Well, my two patriarchal friends, when I think of your careers, I think of that ad. Through manipulation and political game-playing (and through being white, formally educated, straight, and male) you managed to claw your way up to middle management. To positions that you did not deserve.
But I cannot imagine that retirement will come easy for you.
(As I recall, it didn’t treat Napoleon all that well either.)
“A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling 'Stop!'” – William F. Buckely, Jr.
Although the fading patriarchs of whom I write are not overtly politically conservative – and certainly not as conservative as was the American thinker William F. Buckley – they are indeed very rigid when it comes to social power relations. On some level both men believe that they are superior to women. And they have both opposed expanding opportunities for people of color. The only thing they were ever interested in was maintaining a status quo power system that had unfairly privileged them.
Which again leads me back to my initial question: Just what, exactly, unkind sirs, did you accomplish with your lives? From my perspective, it seems that you merely stood in the way of other people. And for a while you were able to prevent them from advancing. But those who oppose equal rights for others (for women, for people of color, for sexual and gender minorities, for example) will always find themselves fighting a losing battle.
You cannot stand forever in the path of justice, nor can you long hope to stem the currents of history. Those who seek fairness and equal opportunity will always find a way to push past those who wish to reserve power only for themselves. In the end, all that you patriarchs can really do is stand there athwart the path, futilely yelling “Stop!” until you are finally pushed aside.
Even William F. Buckley, Jr. – probably as strong a conservative as has ever existed – realized that there were dangers in mindlessly opposing the tide of history. He wrote:
Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great.
In other words, maintaining an overly rigid adherence to the status quo makes you both increasingly stupid and rabidly single-minded.
And I have to ask you: Was that really a good way to spend your career?