What do a long-dead President and his slave concubine, the tug-of-war over a little boy, and two current books about men by feminists have in common? For nearly two hundred years the keepers of the Jeffersonian myth have denied there was a sexual relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemmings, and that her progeny were his. So they denounced feminist writer Barbara Chase-Riboud's book about Hemmings because she told the truth. Then along came DNA and that fiction could no longer fly. Now their relationship is being packaged as a tragic love story. In a recent made-for-TV film, Hemmings is portrayed as a seductress who actively pursues Jefferson. O.K., stranger things have happened, and slavery created countless contradictory and confusing relationships. (Hemmings was also Jefferson's wife's half sister, the product of another "tragic love story.") Could she have been a willing participant? Yes. But nothing changes the fact that she was his slave, and as such her very existence depended on pleasing him. Turning this into a plantation soap opera demeans the slave experience, reinforces stereotypes about black women's sexuality, fails to grapple with the insidious institution of slavery, sugarcoats Jefferson's hypocrisy, and completely avoids the question of rape. I'm sure that some folks find this a more palatable version of history--Sally as old Tom's Monica Lewinsky.
Similarly, the folks orchestrating the heartbreaking tug-of-war over Elian Gonz‡les have convinced themselves that they are motivated by concern for the well-being of this little boy. But had this Cuban child not been on a boat filled with people fleeing their country for the United States, he'd have been immediately returned to his father and his homeland. Had the boat been filled with people fleeing the U.S. in search of asylum in Cuba, those demanding that Elian make a new life in a foreign country would be rattling sabers, demanding that he be returned home. Their hypocrisy is hardly surprising given that all too often interest in issues like "family values" and "fathers' rights" is more about exercising control over women than any genuine concern for the best interests of the children involved. Their hypocrisy is as transparent as the double standard being applied in this case. I suspect that a movie about Elian pleading for U.S. citizenship is already in the works.
Funny how all the pundits and columnists avoid asking pointed questions or commenting on the double standards. But she who rocks the boat is sure to catch hell. Especially when what she says raises uncomfortable questions. Which explains why Susan Faludi caught so much flak from the usual feminist-bashers when her book about men was published. In Stiffed Faludi explores male country at a time when the old rules about manhood no longer seem to apply, men are floundering, and the terrain is fragile. Now comes another book, by Ms. Editor Emerita Suzanne Braun Levine, that looks at husbands and fathers. In Father Courage, Levine sets out to discover how men (and women) are redefining their relationships and parental roles, and whether expectations, attitudes, and behaviors are changing. There are no villains here, only menfolk struggling. But both books rock the boat by posing challenging questions about men's lives, the issues many men are grappling with, women's expectations, and society's prescriptions for manhood. In this issue, you'll find a lively conversation between these two authors about men today.
So what's the thread? Power, politics, and propaganda and the need to keep rocking the boat.