From time to time, Sly leaves orphans. Unfinished pieces, strands of thought drifting off into the ether. I regret this, but it is a natural by-product of writing. Sometimes, I lose focus on what would be a fine piece, and sometimes you are spared the most asinine of my musings that I might have been tempted to consider profound.

In the spirit of there being nothing new under the sun, particularly when it comes to blogwarring, i offer the following. This first came up a long time ago, when someone (i really do forget who) offered the ill-timed sincerity of relating to us just how awful those terrible Chinese were for practicing foot binding, right during the middle of Burqa-Photo-Gate-Shop-Wars. This has again risen to view in light of the strange and continuing conflation of transgender and racial issues in feminism.[1]

I will refer to both periods of time in which this piece is written as recent history, so take note, keeping in mind that we’ve been down this road before.

Technically, this post might be entitled: “The Other, Other, Worst Thing” and i’ll explain. In all the recent discussions on how western feminism relates to the burqa, one of the statements of why cultural relativism sucks is to bring up FGM. The most annoying thing about this is that I don’t know of a single cultural relativist, anywhere. [2]

It’s a frigging bat that conservatives use to whack “us” and now that we’ve found one to hit back, we’re trying it out. The attack that anyone who doesn’t support cultural intervention or colonization is a “relativist” is a particularly vicious strain of this new “progressive” teaching.

I don’t like to admit it much here on these pages, but Sly Civilian used to have a grand narrative. I wasn’t Sly back then, and many things have changed since. And one thing was my relationship to modernity. One part stubbornness, two parts ignorance, folded into a base of Western Acculturation which was then seasoned an uncritical and fucked up version of pomo washed around the halls of Undergraduate Institution. (I should be clear here that the problem primarily resided with New Converts, and not with the faculty. Get a bunch of 19 year olds to all think the same thing when they think said act is totally rebellious, and you’re gonna have some issues. Most got over it.)

So, in the midst of clinging desperately to my Grand Narrative, I was introduced to this work: Aching for Beauty, by Wang Ping.

She writes a fascinating cultural and social history of foot-binding, with special attention to women’s stories, reflections, and language around the practice.

I was intrigued. And my intrigued, I mean outraged. I knew I was beat if I went for the direct assault, so I ended up writing a very intense piece that tried to be fair to her argument for the first half, and take to to town in the close. I went to Orwellian linguistics, and the morality of simple speech, for crying out loud.

I know, dear friends, I know. My naiveite is painful, but you must read on. For it is a cautionary tale of how a well intentioned youth could end up being so very very wrong. That, and I had a point. The act of description is in fact, a moral act. Recall Subcommandate Marcos’ call for truth telling about the ongoing struggle in Oaxaca. The people’s move for justice is accomplished at the same time that the injustice is fully named. I was not just being a neo-con dilettante, but I had a genuine concern for the moral implications of speech.

The comments were, as I suspected, fairly withering. One sticks out. In a impassioned plea (imagine the pathos of a “won’t someone please think of the children” cry), I asked for the simple, honest truth…

“Isn’t that what she did?”

But…her narrative was ambivalent! It talked about how Westernizing pressure damaged society, and how women whose feet were already bound were summarily barred from civil society. It discussed the ways in which foot binding was both a violent and intimate act, and how women used that space to communicate, write, and be in community with each other…

Orwell is right. It is a dastardly thing to think that the glaze of the writer’s flourish is a replacement for sober honesty. And this is not just a peculiar flaw to the creative set, but an endemic malady of the age. Classics like “Down and Out in Paris and London” help form a blueprint for writing as moral act, and offer youths like myself something to aspire to.

But my professor was correct as well. I was faced with a very accurate truth telling. I just didn’t like it. The indictment of the West was searingly understated, the display of how ham-handed the interventions were, how painfully racist the rhetoric was…it made me hurt. I wanted to see progress, for something to address the queasy unease with which i regarded these stories of pain. But in that desire I did not care see the full dimensions of the social practices at hand, nor the self-interest of those who “opposed” them. For what were they opposed to? The image of the bound woman? The sexual rhetorics? The social status made available to women via this practice? Women’s intimacy and communication? The cultural self-definition of China? This was a truthful narrative, and the truth was ambivalent.

The worst thing in this world is not FGM, or a burqa, or footbinding.

What is? The answer to this does not lie at the end of the Oppression Olympics, but far closer to home. It’s the the way in which we abandon the ability to be truthful about our own exercise of power, however limited or expansive as it might be.


1. I don’t mean strange as in incomprehensible. I mean strange as in frustrating. As I’ve remarked previously, I think this has to do with conceptions of state power and knowledge. But it was squickfantastic to see folks like Bint totally disrespected over at heart’s, yet…it’s not like this is something new. Threads to read include Bint’s reaction here, and Kim’s take here. (Read the comments, too… Belle offers some really great moments, including the new to me information that Heart used to be a hot commodity in the Christian Home Schooling movement. You don’t say…) As for the nasty, transphobic, racist shit that got spewed…again…in the words of my great puppeteer, belle, “fuck you and the “we” you rode in on.”

2. That’s a lie. I did meet people who claimed to be in undergrad. That said, given the utter incoherence of their defense of what they thought cultural relativism to be, I’m going to chalk those cases up to them being idiots. Feel free to prove me wrong, though.