Archive for June, 2010

The Plight of Feminism

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

As we greet the 50th anniversary of “the pill,” it seems apt to reinvigorate feminist discourse. 

Simone de Beauvoir proclaimed “one is not born a woman, but becomes one,” affirming Spinoza that we are not predetermined to act but rather that society determines how we act—effectively breaking the long-established explanation of female social inequality based upon biological grounds. In other words, while men and women may differ in sex from birth, the difference between male and “man” and female and “woman” is the difference between a human being born with a tabula rasa—a blank slate—and a human being after he has been molded by his social environment.

This, in itself, ushered huge strides in how we think of the role men and women play in society—that is, we are not biologically determined to act in a certain way. If it is society that mandates how “men” and “women” ought to act, then we may be critical of what society decrees.

Today, feminism is a huge global movement that involves the participation of both sexes in its discourse. However, feminism itself has many different varieties: American feminism differs greatly from French feminism and post-colonial feminism.

American feminism emphasizes equal social rights—in particular, equal political footing between the two sexes. This can be seen in how women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton had fought for women’s suffrage alongside Frederick Douglass, who fought for equal rights for African Americans.

In contrast, French feminism distances itself with American feminism and instead focuses on much more metaphysical questions, like what defines the difference between the “body” and the corporeal body.

Though American feminism and French feminism have made their marks in changing how society views gender inequalities, postcolonial feminism has been established in part as an antithesis to the aforementioned variants of the feminist movement.

Postcolonial feminism is a movement spearheaded by the unheard millions of voices of women in developing countries (I use the term “developing countries” here only because it shows the cartographic area I am referring to; in no way do I believe that “developing countries” are “backward.”) Women in the Southern hemisphere, who have long been denied equal footing with their male counterparts, found some homage in the succession of “traditional knowledge” from one generation of women to the next.

In other words, women in the Southern hemisphere, whose roles have largely been restricted to the household, sought both meaning and individual identity in “traditional knowledge”—knowledge that has allowed women to raise hundreds of varieties of crops in a small plot of land.

Yet the one bastion of strength these women have enjoyed has been increasingly been encroached upon by large agribusinesses such as Monsanto, an American multi-national company. As Vandana Shiva, a highly acclaimed Indian economist argues, in today’s corporate-led globalization, there is no room for true female empowerment. As a matter of fact, as agribusinesses plow away small fields and farms that have a diverse range of crops and replace them with large tracts of monoculture fields, “traditional knowledge,” the one source of power for women in the Southern hemisphere, is undermined and placed at risk.

Shiva argues that there must be a resurgence of feminism, one that is truly global and reflects the voices of all women. She criticizes American feminism and French feminism for establishing the Western image of women upon their counterparts in the Southern hemisphere, which is eminent in how some traditional customs of women in “developing countries” have been frowned upon by those in the North.

In place of male supremacists and religious conservativism, feminism faces new fronts against corporatocracy and MTV. The former puts “traditional knowledge” and postcolonial feminism in peril; the latter confuses the high ideals of feminism with overt sexual liberalism and the affirmation of promiscuity.

Speaking of which, feminism, as understood by the populist culture in Japan, is as denigrated as MTV’s image of women. As the late Masao Maruyama, a political theorist in Japan notes, Japan has always never reached the idealized vision of freedom envisioned by Locke and instead has been stuck swimming in the low-brow, trivial, sensational, and irrelevant freedom of Hobbes. Feminism in Japan has been tainted by the sexual promiscuity professed by MTV, and draws not the quill of the academic but the frills of sexy lingerie.

On the bright side, in recent decades feminism has grown as a field of study in Japan—providing fertile grounds for domestic public discourse on issues of gender in a country long plagued by a male-centered society.

The reason? A declining fertility rate (which bottomed at 1.26 in 2005) has made gender equality a central issue in Japan, particularly in Japanese politics.

There are already signs of conscious improvement: the Japanese government initiated the “Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society” to try and help Japanese women tackle both child-rearing and retaining a career.

Whether or not reform towards true gender equality will be realized in Japan (and the rest of the world) remains to be seen, but it seems that true academic discourse towards the role of women in has finally begun after centuries of oppression.


Inequality, Intelligence, and the Post Crisis World

Saturday, June 12th, 2010

Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics, writes in his book “Inequality Reexamined” that when we think about inequality, we first ought to ask ourselves “inequality of what?”

Until Sen posed this question, policymakers often talked of “a more equal society” in a rough, slipshod way. As Sen notes, it is pivotal to debate what kind of inequality one is focusing on and how it ought to be addressed.

Sen proposes that the best way to gauge socioeconomic inequalities within a particular society is by measuring each individual’s “capabilities”—calculated by the sum of one’s “functions.” For example, a child starving in Africa and a man engaged in a hunger strike are both being deprived of food, but the latter has the option to eat should he decide to do so while the former does not. In this regard, the latter has the “function” to eat, while the former does not enjoy such a “function.”

We see here that starvation has two distinct forms when analyzed through Sen’s “capability approach”—“chosen starvation” and “forced starvation.”

This observation is crucial when it comes to policymaking: especially when the policy is geared towards lessening a particular inequality. Combating a particular inequality is usually a problem of distribution, and this is where the notion of “capabilities” becomes particularly important. Though distributing food to poverty-stricken African countries may help, it doesn’t do much good to distribute food to people fasting in Islamic countries, because they’re engaged in a form of “chosen starvation” out of a religious belief.

This problem of prudent distribution is also a problem of “pareto optimality,” named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. In short, “pareto optimality” is a state in which no further distribution will bring about any further utility (“utility” is a term akin to “happiness” – advanced by the fathers of utilitarianism J. Bentham and J.S. Mill.)

Today, the world is increasingly divided by “have’s” and “have-nots.” This problem is most conspicuous in the “North-South problem,” which depicts the enormous wealth disparity between the northern and southern hemispheres, an ugly phenomenon that has progressed due to globalization’s polarized, partisan governance.

It is time we develop a better system of global governance. It is time we establish new guidelines for economic prosperity in which every country is entitled to the nectars of growth. It is time we move beyond mere awareness of unequal global distribution of wealth, and move towards amending it.

As Amartya Sen observes in his essay “How to Judge Globalization,” globalization “deserves a reasoned defense, but it also needs reform.”

But without the intellectual infrastructure, in other words an academic infrastructure to mandate global policymaking, any hope of better global governance and better global distribution of wealth would largely be in vain.

The first realistic step towards establishing a post-Westphalia-system epistemic community—that is, a truly globalized intellectual brain-cloud that goes beyond the mere cathartic expression of today’s blogosphere—would be most easily achieved by networking all academic institutions into one giant, intertwined forum.

Some progress has been made since Joseph Nye indirectly affirmed the growing importance of intellectual persuasion in by coining the phrase “soft power” in his book “Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power” (1990). The relevance of intellectual persuasion has gradually risen over the past several decades, and there are growing signs of change within the ranks of many government bodies.

A prominent voice in international relations, Akihiko Tanaka agrees with Nye in his book “The Post Crisis World” that there is now a much greater emphasis on “soft power” rather than “hard power” as the political realm shifts towards intellectual brawling and the economy also shifts towards knowledge-intensive industries.

For example, Obama’s cabinet, which some have branded “Obama University,”—qualified by the fact that Obama has amassed an impressive echelon of brains wielding M.D.’s and Ph.D.’s, shows some early signs of growing brain-clouds that will soon hover over much of the political realm.

Unfortunately, Obama’s example hasn’t been followed by countries such as Japan, whose political leaders have shown a marked inability to lead through intellectual discourse. Prime minister Hatoyama shocked the world as he resigned, the sixth Japanese prime minister to do so in five years.

What Japan and much of the world needs today is to follow Obama’s example and bring about a renewed intellectual discourse on foreign policy, one that emphasizes the establishment of a global public sphere to tackle tomorrow’s problems.