“Chivalry”

"Dante and Beatrice" Henry Holiday, 1883

“Dante and Beatrice” Henry Holiday, 1883

Chivalry

John Adams, who was the second president of the United States, wrote: “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

At present, the people of the nation John Adams helped to found are preoccupied with debating which is worse: the grossly ignoble words uttered by one candidate, Donald Trump, for our highest office, or the reportedly menacing approach the other candidate, Hillary Clinton, used to silence a woman who had been (according to that woman’s credible testimony) viciously raped by Bill Clinton.

The partisans of each candidate decry the trespasses of the other and excuse the trespasses of their favorite. This trade in excuses further degrades the citizens’ virtue that John Adams thought indispensable to the survival of our form of government.

My interest here is a narrow one. I cannot advise anyone as to whose election to the presidency of the United States would be worse for the future of the republic. About that, I have no special expertise. Personally, my concern is with the chivalry of men and the honor of women. But these are big, nay, vast topics. One way to cash them in for concrete value is, after all, to take up the question: which is worse? Or, to put it another way, what is going on here that is of specific concern to women?

This morning, I watched a recent interview of Juanita Broaddrick that was rerun on RealClearPolitics. Juanita is much older than she was when I watched her interview with Lisa Myers on NBC and afterward spoke with her by phone. The feminists I tried then to enlist in her defense said things like, “Why did she let him into her hotel room?” (The reason he gave her was that he wanted to dodge the press, which he couldn’t do if they met, as she’d proposed, in the hotel coffee shop.) Or they said, “My book is coming out and I can’t afford to get involved.” Or, from a woman who had first put me up to contacting Juanita and was famed for opposing pornography, “I’m awfully sorry but I’m terribly rushed and have to leave town.”

Juanita is older, but the “incident” has, if anything, grown larger and more vivid in her memory. Bill Clinton, she credibly asserts, raped her twice within the same half hour. But, although she described the entire brutal incident in more detail than she had in her first interview with Lisa Myers, the one thing she couldn’t bring herself to repeat were the words Clinton uttered to her between rape #1 and rape #2. Though she was often tearful, her recollection shows her, as I had found her to be, intelligent, careful in her language, and morally focused. I challenge anyone who doubts her to watch the recent interview replayed on RealClearPolitics and see if you can still believe that woman is lying.

Since the heinousness of the crime of rape is widely conceded, I won’t linger on that point. Except to say that I think it more than a fleshly intrusion. Rape attacks the center of desire in a woman, the part that acts out the drama of love and intimacy. We have a will to live so long as we can access our own desires. A person who cannot desire, won’t be able to find motivation to go forward in her life. In my humble (and completely unprofessional) opinion, that’s why women will black out during rape or when trying to recall it. Their center of desire having been erased – made null and void – they cannot cast awareness back over what happened. They can’t desire to do it, so they can’t in fact do it. Since Clinton put Juanita Broaddrick in considerable pain, and left her upper lip blackened and swollen, she of course remained conscious.

So much for the horrors of physical rape. It is impossible to exaggerate the harm that it does to a woman.

Nevertheless, though Juanita Broaddrick can describe what Clinton did to her, she can’t repeat what he said to her.

Although Trump has spoken with an unusual degree of grossness outside the “locker room banter” recently aired, it was when I heard his words on the tape that I felt a disgust so deep as to become the most ineradicable and absolute repudiation.

What is it about words that violate that makes them so unpardonable an attack on the woman victimized on the verbal level?

By words, women ascend into ideality. Women are then no longer, in Simone de Beauvoire’s phrase, en proie à l’espèce – at the mercy of the species. By words, a protective distance is put around them. They have the space for moral freedom, for choice. To strip women of chivalric words is to leave them unprotected from animal nature. If we as a nation descend to the level of animality, women will forever be the weaker sex.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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