Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Monday, September 8, 2014

On menstruation

Dear Hannah,

I'm absolutely certain that it was my anthropology professor who told me that in certain bushman cultures, a menstruating woman is put into a hut until she stops menstruating.  What I'm not certain about is whether quarantining a menstruating woman is a good idea.

The reason I'm not certain about it is because, whether or not the effect may have been beneficial for everyone involved, the bushman's reasoning may have been altogether bad.  My first thought on the matter was that if they locked her away because she was a bit of a nuisance, good for them; but my professor said they hid her because they believed menstruation made her too powerful for society. 

This may have been a bit of sophistry on the man's part.  How do you lock a woman away when nobody has been smart enough to invent any locks?  You can't (or shouldn't) threaten your wife with violence; or, at least, almost everyone knows this except the man who wrote the Qur'an; so you have to reason with her.  So you tell her she's too powerful for you and she's full of magic, and you send her away for a couple of days by keeping her in plain sight.  They say flattery will get you everywhere.  Or if you're one of the unlucky men whose wife is periodically insufferable, it may send her anywhere. 

The question is whether anyone is stupid enough to believe him.  I suppose if you tell a lie too many times and get enough people to say it, people will assume it's true because they believe in their own rational powers, and thus they believe that a majority of people who reason like them will most likely be right (which is why our customs are always worth questioning).  Maybe the man who started the whole thing was an artful, pragmatic kind of liar -- the kind who told stories to get people to be tolerable -- and his story became a kind of myth, and his myth became a kind of creed.  But if the bushmen really believed that women were most venerable when they were the least appreciable, then I would argue that they've misunderstood the value of power, which means that they would never be worth talking about except as a perfect example of how we should never talk.

There are of course plenty of ways to look at power itself, and plenty of different books written about it.  There are plenty of people out there (like Plato's Thrasymachus) who think that being powerful means being impulsive and reckless and bossy; in times past, we used to say that men like King Henry VIII were powerful because they threw tantrums and fought popes and killed their wives.  Nowadays we say that bossy women are powerful, because they throw tantrums and fight husbands and make their coworkers want to kill themselves.  The truth is that neither Henry VIII nor the feminine tyrant are really worth copying: anyone who's subjected the world and is incapable of mastering himself is a fool -- and he (or she) will always be a fool, whether or not he's powerful.  Solomon says it's better to master yourself than to conquer a city, because a man in control of his passions can at least have a happy home, but a fitful king will ruin a kingdom.  Moses gave us the moral limits of kingship; Locke said that political power existed for the good of the majority, with their consent.  The bushman has it wrong like he has nearly everything else wrong; which is why he lives under a bush.  Which is why I shouldn't have spent any time studying him in college.

But I did spend time learning about him in college -- too much time.  It should seem slightly suspicious that I also learned about how he also endorsed post-birth abortions, and about the Maasai tribesman who didn't know the meaning of chastity, and some American Indians who celebrated the cross-dresser, and another kind of Asian who lived in homes entirely owned and run by women. And it's suspicious not only because all these people are completely irrelevant, but also because their positions happen to coincide very nicely, when strung together, with a certain political party in the United States.

I don't remember ever hearing about Athens or England or Israel or Rome or Sparta -- not even about Persia, which one would think would be mentionable, if not for their notable contributions to civilization (mostly through Xenophon the Greek), at least for their postage system, or maybe the sheer size of their empire.  There is of course a very obvious reason why we never heard about any of them: if we study Athens too closely, we might run into someone sensible like Aristotle talking about a knowable reality (which angers the postmodernist); or if we run into Rome, even at its worst, we'd find men talking like Cato and Cicero about manliness and citizenship and common sense (which angers the effeminate).  Even if we talk about Nero, we end up talking about Seneca.  Israel, of course, unless approached by someone completely senseless, would mean that we'd end up talking about wisdom or production like Solomon (which offends the welfare statist); and if -- heaven forbid -- we talk about England, why, we'd end up talking about Locke or classical liberalism, which would mean we'd end up talking good about America (which offends nearly every progressive).  Much better to stick with the world's bushmen -- they have no great orators talking about great things, because they never produced any great (as in internationally renowned) men.  A "modern" anthropologist is very happy to find the unknown society, not only because the unknown society can occasionally be found to do something particularly backward and licentious that nobody else except the leftist is willing to endorse, but because they haven't done the things that end up in Western Civilization.  

There is something valuable we can take from the modern anthropologist, however, and it is that another culture can always teach -- but it may teach vice instead of virtue, falsehoods instead of truths, foolishness instead of wisdom, and inhumanity instead of charity.  If it's true that As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another, it's also true that we may be dulled by men with hearts and heads of stone (or to counterbalance one saying of Scripture with another, bad company corrupts good morals).

We all know that fools exist; but only the fool will seek another out and follow him, simply because the fool agrees or is especially foreign.  Learning is finding a new and better way to do or think about something; in a world with a history as rich as ours, to look for confirmation from the nobodies is the surest way to prove oneself an idiot.  Only a fool would go to the Maasai herdsman, when he could go to Seneca or Samuel Johnson.  Only a dunce would confirm his political positions with a man without a polis.  A wise man takes Cicero from the Romans, and leaves Mark Antony.  A fool like my professor scours all of Asia for a lonely tribe of promiscuous matriarchs, and completely ignores Confucius.

Your father,

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