Bill Gates and Work
Sam Kriss’s takedown of Bill Gates, and of money generally, is a provocative and thoughtful piece (“The Truth About Bill Gates,” November 2022), but more than once while reading it I felt sorry for Kriss. His understanding of work has a depressing every-man-for-himself gloss. Thus we read that the rich can afford to have someone else perform “humiliating service,” can buy someone else’s “daily drudgery,” and can avoid “giving over their labor-power in the factories that produce [the] commodities” that benefit others.
So the custodian who provides others with a clean and dignified restroom experience (one of life’s simple pleasures to be sure), and maybe even takes pride in doing so, should instead feel aggrieved and is to be pitied. Not for Kriss any notion of St. Josemaría Escrivá’s joyful teaching that Christians sanctify themselves by performing even mundane tasks. And let’s not even talk about St. John Paul’s description of work in Laborem Exercens as a participation in the creative act that separates man from all other creatures.
Sure, Gates is a cad and seems to be using his money more to exert power than to do good, but other rich people have not only provided the opportunity for thousands of their employees to engage in meaningful work that provides benefits to their customers, they’ve donated much of the profits to charitable ventures that have done real good. It’s not money that turns a man into a “shell of what was once a human being”; it’s sin.
Mark R. Proska
Sam Kriss replies:
Mark Proska is correct that work as such is simply the self-conscious human transformation of the world. Work is beautiful and essential, and without it we would all wither and die, both physically and spiritually. But anyone who leaves things there has adopted the ideology of a slave-driver.
Marx distinguished between estranged and unestranged labor. As a writer, I get to work in conditions of minimal estrangement. Not everyone is so lucky. A friend of mine once had to resort to an app-based cleaning service. When the cleaner arrived, my friend made her some tea and had a brief chat with her. The cleaner broke down in tears. She was barely able to feed her family, she spent just about every waking hour cleaning strangers’ apartments, and this, she said, was the first time that any of her clients had ever treated her like a human being. The simple act of cleaning is not the problem—but there is a specific social form of work operating today, one that dehumanizes the people who perform it and turns them into tools. And when this happens, then yes, they should feel aggrieved.
I was perplexed by Matthew Schmitz’s recent review of Erika Bachiochi’s The Rights of Women (“The Wrongs of Woman,” November 2022). The excesses of #MeToo and alleged weaknesses in traditional pro-life thinking and activism are undoubtedly legitimate issues for discussion, but are not really germane to Bachiochi’s argument.
The book is actually concerned with the sexual asymmetry between men and women—something which abortion does not eliminate—and how this asymmetry should shape thinking on rights. Bachiochi calls for grounding rights not in a notion of individual autonomy but in an acknowledgment of the responsibilities that natural relations (based in sexual asymmetry) involve. Rights should thus be understood as those things that enable women (and men!) to fulfill those responsibilities with respect to each other and, most importantly, their children.
It would be a shame if Bachiochi’s important book were sidelined because of other factional debates among conservatives.
Carl R. Trueman
grove city college
grove city, pennsylvania
In reading Matthew Schmitz’s review of Erika Bachiochi’s book The Rights of Women, I was clear on one thing: He thinks wrongs have been committed by women, especially feminist women. On this point, I can only agree, as does Bachiochi in her book. I was less clear that he pondered the main arguments in the book, because why, pray tell, does this banality figure as the guiding thesis in a review of a masterful book from an academic press engaging political, legal, and feminist philosophy and history?
Bachiochi’s main purpose is to rework the question of rights from the perspective of duties, vulnerabilities, and virtues, but you wouldn’t know that from reading Schmitz’s review, which is more concerned with female victimhood and false accusations of sexual harassment. You also wouldn’t learn about her central insight: that women are asymmetrically burdened by the consequences of sex, an asymmetry that cannot be eliminated through abortion and contraception.
Why is the sexual asymmetry so persistent? Because these technologies fail, because only women get pregnant, and—crucially—because even women who choose abortion are not freed from the consequences of that choice, a choice that men need never make. Yet Schmitz strangely disagrees with Bachiochi’s assertion that abortion “liberat[ed] men, but never women, from the consequences of sex.”
How has a post-abortive woman been liberated from the consequences of sex? She doesn’t have a child, to be sure; instead, she has a dead baby that she herself has contracted to kill, which is not a situation conducive to future mental health. Meanwhile, the man has been enabled and even legally required to disappear.
This tragic situation certainly results from the wrong choice that the woman has made. But a merely libertarian understanding of human agency is an inadequate framework. In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II points out that our decisions do not happen in an individualistic vacuum. The culture of death puts its thumb on the scale, pressuring women toward abortion and pushing everyone toward utilitarianism, pornographic nihilism, and sterility.
Criticizing the culture of death is not cheerleading for a #girlboss and #KillAllMen mindset, as Schmitz inexplicably implies. Critique is, rather, a simple intellectual and ethical requirement, as a preliminary to calling all to virtue. Bachiochi is completely impartial regarding the effects of sin on the sexes as well as the possibility of virtue for both.
st. john’s seminary
Never enter a bidding war with the left on its own ground. They will always be able to promise more than you can. I thought Matthew Schmitz’s review was terrific, a corrective to the idea that we can push back against feminism’s excesses by being even bigger feminists.
Richard Reeves was among those bashing Matthew’s review on Twitter, which didn’t surprise me. His recent Of Boys and Men, like Erika Bachiochi’s book, tries to critique modern feminism while loudly distancing itself from those bad old reactionaries. This is a common tactic and not in itself wicked, but it will leave you with excellent diagnoses and inadequate solutions.
Matthew Schmitz is not alone in thinking Erika Bachiochi’s book inadequate, since it not-so-secretly embraces premises of modern feminism. Bachiochi frames the book as an attempt to find an adequate relief from the sexual asymmetry between men and women in order to defend human dignity. While men and women play different roles in sex and childbearing, framing the difference as asymmetry is the troubling move.
Asymmetry of what? Answer: asymmetry of power. Such asymmetries appear everywhere. Women have to live with the “consequences of sex,” while men can escape them. Abortion and contraception exacerbate this “asymmetry,” freeing men to have consequence-less sex. There are asymmetries in the workplace and in household work, too. Bachiochi depicts women as pure and innocent victims of power dynamics, while men, their oppressors, are taken with vices. This excusing of supposedly victimized women, which Schmitz rightly emphasizes, results from framing women as the victims of asymmetrical power dynamics.
“Asymmetries” could just as easily be framed to the advantage of women. No man ever has the “power” to conceive and bear a child or to nurture a child with his body. It is an “asymmetry” of power. But Bachiochi, who no doubt appreciates this “asymmetry,” accepts the feminist account of asymmetry: To wit, men use their strength to subject and control women. At root, this misses the point. Sexual asymmetry, a tool of feminist analysis, is not the same as sexual difference, the product of creation.
Embracing this feminist premise, Bachiochi embraces the politics of Friedan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but not their sexual politics. Workplaces reflect “asymmetries,” as do schools and men’s clubs. Those places must be subject to anti-discrimination laws, anti-sexual harassment laws, and the full panoply of leftist trainings because “asymmetries” need to be broken down.
Bachiochi tries to ground rights in a notion of duty to a higher power. At the same time, her notion of rights serves efforts to mitigate asymmetries. Thus, perhaps without intending to, Bachiochi furthers feminist premises and analysis, which entail that rights come from society, not from God. Only the state can dismantle the asymmetries to achieve women’s rights in families, workplaces, schools, or men’s clubs. Again, Bachiochi may not intend to defend the idea that rights come from the state, but her premises lead there.
boise state university
Matthew Schmitz replies:
Erika Bachiochi, quoting Mary Wollstonecraft, argues that “the little respect paid to chastity in the male world is . . . the grand source of many of the physical and moral evils that torment mankind, as well as of the vices and follies that degrade and destroy women.” A book describing almost any other class of people as a grand source of evil due to a characteristic vice would be met with condemnation instead of applause.
Be that as it may, I agree with Bachiochi that men are depraved. But I believe that women are no less subject to the Fall. Bachiochi’s “Wollstonecraftian vision” suggests that men are evil by nature, whereas women are merely socialized into wrongdoing by an economic, political, and social order that serves the interests of men.
This argument is central to her book, but it is not the only thing in it. Bachiochi has written a wide-ranging work of legal and intellectual history, spanning centuries and continents. She explores the internal tensions of the feminist movement and forces abortion opponents to think about what kind of society would be capable of welcoming the unborn. She proposes that the cure for our ills can be found in feminism, challenging those who think that it must be sought elsewhere. Because these are important matters, her book deserves to be taken seriously.
Shortly after reading Angela Franks’s letter, I received a mailing from the pro-life office of the archdiocese of New York. It advertised an “Entering Canaan” retreat for men who regret having pressured women to get abortions or whose children have been aborted despite the men’s objections. The organization’s site features testimonies from men who have experienced their complicity in abortion as a form of spiritual bondage. Bachiochi and Franks’s contention that abortion has the effect of “liberating men, but never women, from the consequences of sex” falsifies what is in fact a complex reality. It ignores the fact that some women do experience abortion as an unqualified liberation—as a cursory reading of pro-abortion literature will show.
Contra Carl Trueman, disagreements over feminism are not so much factional as generational. Earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a poll showing that 62 percent of younger Republican men and 46 percent of younger Democratic men agree with the statement “feminism has done more harm than good.” Only 42 percent of older Republican men and 4 percent of older Democratic men agree. Younger men are vastly more antifeminist than their elders. People who want to understand the reasons for this striking fact would be well advised to read the works of Helen Andrews and Scott Yenor.
Image by PxHere via Creative Commons. Image cropped.