Friday, September 3, 2010

Holding up half the sky

Half the Sky was published last fall. Since it had gotten quite a bit of positive press and, being under the mistaken notion that Nicholas Kristof was one of the more reasonable and unbiased journalists, I bought it. This week, I finally sat down to read it. It's a good job there are screens on my windows or it might have gone flying out one. The biases of Kristof and his wife and co-author, Sheryl WuDunn, are remarkably and annoyingly obvious throughout the book. When Christians do something praiseworthy, he seems to believe it is in spite of their faith or that their faith provides no incentive to action. I have decided to pick out three areas that show this bias most clearly. But first, some general notes about the work.

The book's chief positive accomplishment is to help highlight the plight of women and girls around the world. There are good resources mention throughout and listed at the back of the book. It is a call to engage, to go and do. The book highlights problems such as slavery and shows how globalization, the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and local corruption help fuel modern-day slave trafficking and forced labor (prostitution and other forms of coerced labor). Bride burning, acid attacks, honor killings and genital cutting are also covered. Rape as a weapon of war is dealt with frankly, if sometimes unnecessarily graphically. We are also reminded in the book of the forms of violence against women we often don't think of - isolation and neglect.

Most heartbreaking, in a way, is not violence it self but the devaluing of women which takes them as child brides and leaves them to give birth without assistance, often resulting in the death of the child because the mother's pelvis is too immature to allow unassisted birth. These pregnancies end not only in the death of the child but severe injury to the mother resulting in the formation of a fistula leaving them incontinent, with urine and feces trickling out of them. Because the odor is so terrible, the women are often isolated and suffer further from infection and wounds due to lack of proper hygiene. It was heartening to hear of the new efforts being made to help repair these (often quite young) women's bodies and their lives with the building of new fistula hospitals in Africa.

Oddly, on page 140, Kristof and WuDunn call for mandatory HIV testing - with an opt-out option rather than voluntary opt-in testing. This runs contrary to the way HIV/AIDS has been treated and is surprising to see, coming from journalists who have advocated sexual freedom throughout the book. It's not something that is likely to be embraced soon in this country and certainly not something I've read Kristof advocate here in the States. But, apparently, it's OK to advocate in the developing world with people of color.

Since the book purports to be about helping lift women out of abuse and poverty, the authors sound a strikingly discordant note when they call the hymen "pointless". While I would agree with them about the indignity of "virginity checks" in some cultures, it shows a callous disregard for women's differences to dismiss female anatomy in that fashion. I find myself wondering at this, as at many other points, whether the authors really understand and value women as women or whether women are simply valued as another cog in the economic machine. Their praise of Mao's communist revolution would seem to point to the latter:

Communism after the 1949 revolution was brutal in China, leading to tens of millions of deaths by famine or repression, but its single most positive legacy was the emancipation of women. After taking power, Mao brought women into the workforce and the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and he used his political capital to abolish child marriage, prostitution, and concubinage. It was Mao who proclaimed: "Women hold up half the sky."

By most estimates there are 100 million missing girls and women in the world. And yet the authors praise Mao's China and only once do they come close to criticizing the country's brutal one-child policy which turns women and their children into victims through forced abortions and sex-selective abortions -- the latter of which in a gross injustice, disproportionately victimize the littlest women.

The Problem of Abortion

"Unsafe abortions cause the deaths of seventy thousand women annually and cause serious injuries to another 5 million." (99)

There is no such thing as a "safe" abortion. It doesn't matter how sterile the conditions, how practiced the abortionist. The aim of every single abortion is the death of one of the two human beings subject to the procedure. Two human beings enter the procedure, only one of them comes out of it alive. It is no tragedy that seventy thousand women die as a result of abortion every year if it is not also a tragedy that at least one human being is killed in every abortion.

The authors also betray a healthy dose of anti-Bushism when they complain about his implementation of the Mexico City Policy's ban of the release of funds to international abortion providers like Marie Stopes. They write of Marie Stopes International as having "some links" to abortions and yet the organization's own website is headed by a banner which reads, "Family Planning, Safe Abortion, Sexual Health". No, it's not, "some links", it is one of their three primary activities internationally. The authors argue that more abortions happened because organizations like MSI didn't receive funds as a result of the Mexico City Policy and yet this isn't true. Organizations like International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marie Stopes International would be eligible for US funds even under the Mexico City Policy if they refrained from providing abortions. So it is not the Bush administration, Republicans or cultural conservatives that are "forcing" women to choose unsafe abortions, it is the organizations like MSI or IPPF which refuse to budge - they would rather be free to provide abortions than cease providing them for the sake of funds that would help women in other ways.

Here again, we find the authors praising communist China when they write about China's switch from a cheap and very uncomfortable steel-ring IUD (intrauterine device) to the more comfortable and effective copper-T type of IUD. They claim this switch "has prevented nearly 10 million abortions"! (133) Yet they fail to note that this number is utterly unknown because the IUD also causes early abortion via its secondary effect -- irritating the uterine lining and preventing implantation of the growing baby. Instead of feeling the abortion's vacuum, the tiny human being is simply flushed down the toilet.

"Whatever one thinks of abortion, it's tragic that up to 40% of all pregnancies globally are unplanned and unwanted - and that almost half of those result in induced abortion." Why? Why is it a tragedy? What is wrong with abortion that we must look at it this way? There is a bit of cognitive dissonance going on here. Something is wrong with the view that simultaneously argues for the good of "safe" abortion and yet says the incidence of abortion is tragic. If abortion is a tragedy, it is so whether or not it is performed "safely". The authors quote a social entrepreneur who stepped into the breach to raise funds when the media began to cover Bush's re-implementation of the Mexico City policy:

"Forty women every minute seek unsafe abortions - to me this is just a crime against humanity." (140)

Yes, it is. But not for the reasons she believes.

I'm ever so sorry I have to say this . . .

The authors, being remarkably eager to lay the blame at Christianity's door when a president like Bush prevents abortion funding, in a remarkably facile move, turn to an apologetic tone when they write a chapter on Islam. The subject of the Islamic faith and Islamic-dominated cultures can hardly be avoided when the book is about the treatment of women around the world. So why apologize?

In an obsequious display,Kristof and WuDunn praise Muhammad and the Koran for being more respectful of women than early Christian leaders like that love-to-hate-him, simply awful St. Paul. (Oh, right. And no Christian ever risked anything to save a Roman baby girl from death by exposure) While they do note the poor record of Muslim countries regarding abuse of women and honor killings, the tone continues to be apologetic throughout the chapter.

It is interesting then, when the authors note that Europe had an Industrial Revolution but neither Asia or the Middle East did. They write that openness to new ideas was one of the driving forces of that revolution and that " . . . one of the best gauges of that openness was how a country treated its women." (159) Of course, this couldn't possibly be due to anything remotely like Europe's Christian heritage as the Holy Roman Empire, could it?

Once again, we see the anti-Christian bias of Kristof and WuDunn. While apologizing for having to say something uncomplimentary about Islam, they studiously avoid the 300-pound gorilla in the room - the good Christianity has done for the world.

The Clapham Sect

William Wilberforce comes up three times in the book - in the Introduction, as the hero of a young social entrepreneur and again towards the end as a segue to highlighting Thomas Clarkson's role in the British abolition movement. The discussion of Clarkson's risky and clandestine efforts is brief, but quite good in most respects. It is evident, as the authors note, that the success of the British abolition movement was enormously aided by the British public's growing knowledge of the horrors of slaving -- and this was Thomas Clarkson's work.

But they also note that the abolitionists were dismissed as "idealistic moralizers" and the authors themselves denigrate them by writing that they were, "a few indignant Britons". Wilberforce is mentioned, Clarkson is highlighted although his status as an Anglican clergyman is not mentioned, but John Newton who was, in some ways their spiritual leader, is nowhere to be found. And in a remarkably studied manner, the authors utterly fail to mention the driving force behind Wilberforce, Clarkson and the bulk of their friends in the abolition movement -- namely, their Evangelical Christianity

What happens when you only hold up half the sky?

The anthropology driving the book might be described as a form of Economic Man. Women who are homemakers raising children are not, in the authors' view, productive members of society. Rather it would be better they deny their womanliness and limit their number of children to preserve their health so they can become economic contributors - working in a factory or sweatshop rather than making a home for their husband and children and caring for their elderly parents.

It was obvious that Kristof and WuDunn are passionate about helping women and have invested a great deal of blood, sweat and tears in their foundation and this book. But all their efforts will come to naught in the end because their diagnosis is off. As with so many secular efforts, even ones which are not openly hostile to Christianity as this one is, the cure won't work in the long run because they are treating the symptoms and not the root cause, In short, they fail to be truly radical.

While taking all this care to come to know and understand the problems women face around the world --their vision for their immediate culture is utterly and completely darkened. Almost every single effort highlighted and praised in this book focuses on women to the exclusion of their husbands, fathers and sons. In fact, women who defy their husbands and fathers are praised frequently throughout this book. What the authors are missing while praising the defiant young woman in Lahore is the jails and prisons not far form their New York City home which are filled with fatherless young men.

Our war on poverty in this country, supposed to help women and families has succeeded in nothing so much as feminizing poverty and filling our jails with the sons of female-headed households. In fact, the single most consistent predictor of whether a young man will succeed in attaining adulthood as a man or end up as a frustrated and violent adolescent for the rest of his life (in other words, be convicted of a violent crime and end up in prison) is whether or not his father was present in the home when he was growing up.

Educating women is a good thing. Repairing obstetric fistulas is a marvelous work of mercy. Rescuing a young woman from a brothel and teaching her beadwork so she can sell her wares in the market and support herself and her younger siblings is praiseworthy. And yet, if we do these things and ignore the men, we are breeding disaster. Success in the long run requires both men and women to be valued for their differences as well as their shared dignity and value, and lifted up.

The authors' biases, sadly, taint the work to the extent that I cannot really recommend it as anything other than a source of information about various groups working with women -- and even that I do reluctantly considering the number of groups listed at the back of the book who are abortion providers or advocates. Kristof and WuDunn harbor a malignant hostility to Christianity which deeply mars their work. While they put great effort into helping women around the world, they are doing so while impaired by this hostility. When they haven't been overtly hostile, they have ignored the Evangelical Christianity which is the driving force behind Wilberforce, Clarkson and countless other caring people around the world. They aren't consistently overt in this, for that would certainly offend. Rather, they often do this by studied neglect -- they refuse to mention it as the driving force behind some of the Christians they praise while never missing an opportunity to criticize Bush and any other religious conservative with which they disagree while never failing to mention these people are Christians.

If you only hold up half the sky, eventually it will all collapse.

1 comment:

Snoopy said...

I've been reading your old blog posts, and your writing is amazing. I would love to see more! This was an excellent post.