Monday, January 30, 2012

When Men were Men and Could Pay for the Date

“The major concrete achievement of the women's movement of the 1970's was the Dutch treat.” -Nora Ephron.

This quote always makes me laugh a bit. Of all the things in the world to be hailed as a great achievement, seriously? But my initial amusement is something of a discredit to the woman who said it, because it does her the discourtesy of not listening to her. It interprets her words through my set of ideas and assumptions, which is the surest way to avoid ever hearing what a person is saying. Obviously to her it was no laughing matter (at least I don’t think it was. I can find no reference to her as a humorist.) She meant something by it.

It turns out, when you take the time to listen, that she saw it as a symbolic victory. In her mind, up until then, men have viewed women as helpless, fragile creatures who simply couldn’t manage to provide food for themselves if the big, strong, manly men didn’t give it to them. Worse still, the big, strong, manly men were intent on keeping it that way because, deep down inside, they were all afraid of these fragile little women. They couldn’t feel manly without someone to dominate, so to protect their own egos they had arbitrarily forced women into a position of subservience.

To her, the groundswell of support from countless women around the country saying “No thanks, I can pay for my own meal,” was a vindication. It was like Gandhi, refusing to walk in the gutter, insisting that there was room on the sidewalk for all people regardless of color. Every Hindu who followed his example and calmly and quietly walked on the sidewalk, even for a few steps, was a blow at the institution of oppression. In the same way, I think Nora Ephron saw every woman’s purchase of her own dinner as a small, but significant demonstration against the patriarchal establishment.

Whether she was right or wrong, is another thing entirely, and not the point of this blog. I will say briefly that while I cannot agree with her, I cannot completely disagree with her either.

Instead of worrying about that, for the moment, let’s fast forward thirty-odd years to the 2000’s and early ‘teens. Now we have the cultural phenomenon of blogging, and in that blogging world, the delicious irony of posts and comment threads like this one, in which the women are the ones reminiscing longingly over the days when men were men and could pay for the date. In still another stroke of genius, men are now the ones who are calling for “equality”. If they want equal rights as men, let those women share some responsibility. They are adults, let them pay for their own dang meal.

Lo! I fear we have created a monster!

Actually, no. We have created nothing. We have simply put an old problem in new clothes, and even the new clothes aren’t really new. They are just the old clothes, turned inside out.

Why were a few vocal, and admittedly often eloquent women, able to launch a movement that, with very little organization and almost no direct conflict, was able completely to change the face of a society in a few short decades? As a professional student of revolutionary tactics in general, I can tell you it was a pretty bit of work. They had a base of support. Their message hit home, and resonated with women. For one reason or another, deep down inside, thousands of women heard this message of liberation and it meshed with a fear in their hearts. They felt like their rights were not being met. They were being used.

Can we argue against it? Possibly, although every individual’s story is always different. That really is beside the point. The point is that they felt used and denied rights which should be theirs. There was a reason they felt that way. There always is!

And now that the tables have turned, and men choose not to pay because generations of women have told us, “No, thank-you, I have a job and I can afford it,” the cry is different. Women lament that men don’t think them worth the time or money it would take to treat them to a nice, thoughtful date. They feel used. I doubt any would argue that their rights are being violated. That is now the man’s cry. Why does the man always have to pay for everything? Why is it now our job to be gentlemen while women have apparent carte-blanche to pick and choose which of the traditionally lady-like gestures they will or will not use? Why do laws on anything and everything from divorce, to civil disputes, to domestic quarrels favor women?

The few men who can put this succinctly find an audience. There are murmurs of assent, that instant leaping of recognition, aggrieved to aggrieved. Men feel like their rights are being violated.

Like I said, old problem, new look, same clothes just turned inside out. The root of both issues was, and is, the fear of being used. We are inveterate cynics, we human beings. Always on the watch lest someone pull the wool over our eyes. Someone is out to deal us out of the game, cut us from the line where all the good bargains are. It isn’t that we are necessarily greedy. We don’t want to take anything that’s anyone else’s but I will not be gypped of what is rightfully mine. If you don’t look out four your rights, someone else is going take you for everything you have.

Mutual suspicion is as old as fig leaves.

So what is the solution? Simple. Let go of the fear. Give someone the benefit of the doubt, for a change (which is not the same thing as pretending there is a doubt when there isn’t). Speak honestly and sincerely, expect others to do the same. It’s okay to be surprised and hurt when someone lies to you. You should be surprised. It’s a surprising thing. It is utterly unnatural and unreasonable and you ought to rebel against it with every fiber of your being. But don’t believe that lie. You see, if you take one woman who lies to you, or ten, or fifty, or a hundred, and then extrapolate that all women are therefore liars, you have bought the lie, hook line and sinker. You really have been hoodwinked.

That is not the Truth! The truth is that people lie, from time to time. (Some people tell the truth from time to time.) But there are people who believe in the truth. There are people who believe in honor, integrity, and generosity. There are people who will guard your rights far more zealously than you ever could. Seek them out, take the years it takes to get to know them. Because when you can let your rights go, confident that they will be taken care of, it frees you to live something better. Rights exist and are important because they protect us from ourselves, but they are the lowest common denominator. In a relationship, if you have to worry about your rights, you are already behind the power curve. Relationship exists so that we can forget about our rights, and move deeper into the realm of self-gift.

This is what a man says by paying for a date, even a first date. He’s saying, “I don’t need to stand on my rights. I can give of myself, and I hope you can do the same. I don’t know, but I’m giving you the chance. You deserve it.”

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