Monday, April 10, 2006

The Good Ole Boy Pines For The Good Ole Chivalry

This is David Brooks, of course. Of the New York Times stable of little patriarchs. He takes on the Duke rape case (where the white lacrosse players are accused of raping a black exotic dancer) with his characteristic aplomb:

All great scandals occur twice, first as Tom Wolfe novels, then as real-life events that nightmarishly mimic them. And so after "I Am Charlotte Simmons," it was perhaps inevitable that Duke University would have to endure a mini-social explosion involving athletic thugs, resentful townies, nervous administrators, male predators, aggrieved professors, binge drinking and lust gone wild.


The main theme shaping the coverage is that inequality leads to exploitation. The whites felt free to exploit the blacks. The men felt free to exploit women. The jocks felt free to exploit everybody else. As a Duke professor, Houston Baker, wrote, their environment gave the lacrosse players "license to rape, maraud, deploy hate speech and feel proud of themselves in the bargain."

It could be that this environmental, sociological explanation of events is entirely accurate. But it says something about our current intellectual climate that almost every reporter and commentator used these mental categories so unconsciously and automatically.

Are you holding your breath with excitement to know what our David thinks is wrong with this sociological analysis? No need to do it any longer: it's a lack of chivalry that caused the whole scandal:

You would then ask questions very different from the sociological ones: How have these young men slipped into depravity? Why have they not developed sufficient character to restrain their baser impulses?

The educators who used this vocabulary several decades ago understood that when you concentrate young men, they have a tropism toward barbarism. That's why these educators cared less about academics than about instilling a formula for character building. The formula, then called chivalry, consisted first of manners, habits and self-imposed restraints to prevent the downward slide.

Furthermore, it was believed that each of us had a godlike and a demonic side, and that decent people perpetually strengthened the muscles of their virtuous side in order to restrain the deathless sinner within. If you read commencement addresses from, say, the 1920's, you can actually see college presidents exhorting their students to battle the beast within — a sentiment that if uttered by a contemporary administrator would cause the audience to gape and the earth to fall off its axis.

Today that old code of obsolete chivalry is gone, as is a whole vocabulary on how young people should think about character.

So let me get this straight: We all have our little inner rapist bubbling to the surface all the time, especially if we gather together in large packs. But we can fight the little rapist and make him submerge again by learning the rules of chivalry, by opening doors to women and by lifting things for them and by not requiring them to kick butt themselves. Ok.

I'm a female goddess, though, and as far as I know women were never taught chivalry. What is David telling me, specifically? Nothing, as far as I can tell. The young people he exhorts with moral advice are male.

It isn't quite as silly as it looks on the surface, this moral sermonette. As Orcinus has often pointed out, the mainstream wingnuts have an important task, the task to convert unacceptably radical wingnut ideas into something that doesn't taste quite as strange and looks a lot like mum's apple pie. Brooks is doing that here by applying certain minor aspects of patriarchy, the domination of women by men, into a current event (and not necessarily a very common current event). His job is to make patriarchy look good, or at least preferable to what its alternatives might be. So he trots out the concept of chivalry for our examination, in isolation from the society which used it.

Chivalry. How much was it a fact of life, really? Brooks doesn't tell us that. Neither does he tell us that we have no way of knowing how common sexual assaults were in the era of chivalry, because women were taught not to tell. And we have no way of knowing whether the men who were taught chivalry were less likely to rape than those who were not. And think of the droit de seigneur, the right of manor-owners to deflower the virgins among the people they ruled over. Not part of chivalry but something rather similar, as both are about the rights and obligations of people in power. And there are arguments that neither really existed.

Upper class concepts. Brooks offers upper class concepts to upper class lacrosse players and doesn't see this as a sociological endeavor?

Now to the meat of the nut: Brooks is right to bring up the moral question, though he runs in the wrong direction with it. The problem is not that we don't have chivalry to tame the horrid beast within; the problem is that we are taunting the beast all the time (look! tits! cunts! here is woman flesh to chew, she don't matter as a person), that we are training it to be a beast (hey guys! got laid last night by a ho), and that we are not having chats with the beast to make it react with anger to the proper things.

Or so my horrid beast asked me to tell you.