THE CASSANDRA OF REVOLUTIONARY FEMINISM

Commentary and an Interview with Martin Duberman

by Lawrence D. Mass

ANDREA DWORKIN: The Feminist as Revolutionary.

by Martin Duberman, The New Press, 351 pages, 2020

“Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized. In the first stage it is ridiculed, in the second stage it is opposed, in the third stage it is regarded as self-evident.” — Schopenhauer

On The Future of Wagnerism, the collection of my writing, devotes considerable attention to 3 writers notable for the extent to which they’ve gone against the grain of mainstream opinion and bucked the status quo — Larry Kramer, Gottfried Wagner and Martin Duberman.

Kramer needs no introduction as the firebrand who became the leading figure of the gay liberation and AIDS movements. Gottfried Wagner is the outspoken critic of Wagnerism and indictor of the Wagner family as Holocaust pepetrators. And Martin Duberman is the eminent gay and leftist historian, biographer, scholar, playwright and essayist who has been a consistent critic of the mainstreaming of cultural diversity.

They have all been role models for me, however not in sync I may have been with some of their viewpoints. Though not in the same league of achievement as any of these great figures, I’ve been inspired by them in the telling of my own story, to believe in the value of my experience and perceptions, however against the grain of mainstream opinion. When I feel most alone in that journey, I am often comforted by thinking of these exemplars of independence, perseverance and courage.

In the winter of 2021, as I prepared to post “Wagner Intoxication,” my interview with Gottfried Wagner, I happened upon an episode of the television series “This is Life with Lisa Ling.” It’s subject was the illicit massage parlor industry. Not surprisingly, Ling probed deeper than her stated subject, exposing not only a bigger picture of sex trafficking among Asian and immigrant women but providing a window on the greater panorama of the oppression of women, especially the poor and dispossessed.

Coincidentally that same week, a New York Times opinion feature by Nicholas Kristof called “The Children of Pornhub” raised concerns about the internet mainstreaming of grossly exploitational, abusive and violent pornography, especially of women, minorities, the poor and children.

I had known about Marty’s work on Andrea Dworkin, the research for which involved a number of trips to Boston, not the easiest gig for Marty, who has always eschewed travel and is now 90. I looked forward to reading it. Even knowing how trenchant and foresightful Marty’s writing can be, however, I had underestimated how strongly Dworkin would resonate for today’s world and for me personally.

Like Larry Kramer, Gottfried Wagner and Martin Duberman, Andrea Dworkin can still arouse strongly defensive reactions. Whatever their success with initiatives and publications, however esteemed they became, they are still seen as against the grain of mainstream viewpoints. As such, they can seem, as Gloria Steinem has described Dowrkin, more like Biblical prophets, suspect in their own lands and times.

Marty and I have been good friends for decades. As someone more linked to the mainstream gay world Marty could be so critical of, however, I carried stereotypical recollections of Andrea Dworkin as a kind of feminist Larry Kramer, a Cassandra who spoke important truth but who came across as troubled. Just as we more mainstream gays saw Larry as to an extent anti-sex and personally aggrieved in motivation, and as such a threat to the unqualified sexual freedom we clung to so tenaciously, so did we likewise view Dworkin as a threat not simply to the status quo of sexual liberation but to freedoms of speech and depiction. Especially in her attacks on pornography, she could seem, however indirectly and whatever the qualifiers, aligned with forces inevitably inimical to gay liberation.

How wrong were we? Quite wrong, as Duberman persuasively demonstrates in a biography that is sympathetic, balanced and sober.

As it turns out, the real Andrea, the complex human being with a commanding personality, expansive intellect and remarkable courage, was always there for us to appreciate. What has changed — subtly, progressively, and however fraught with relapse and regression — is the mainstream of thinking about women and sex. Past the extreme sexism and misogyny of the Trump presidency within the greater era of Rush Limbaugh with his disparagement of feminists as “feminazis,” the MeToo movement became ascendant. American culture, albeit with still far too many exceptions, is no longer as monolithically susceptible to the old tropes of women as culpable and responsible for crimes against them and suspect for defending themselves— in marriage, in the workplace, in society.

In email exchanges, Marty generously agreed to respond to questions about his subject.

Larry Mass: Why this book now?

Martin Duberman: I have one general and one specific response. In general, as the gay movement has become more centrist, my interest in it has declined. I place more hope these days in radical feminism than in gay centrism. This happened almost behind my own back. It was only after I’d been digging out Naomi Weisstein’s essays for a posthumous volume that I realized how much more her voice spoke to me than did HRC [Human Rights Campaign Fund] & friends.

The specific reason? I was reading one of Phyllis Chesler’s books and came across what I thought was an outrageous diatribe against John Stoltenberg, who I’d known for many years. I called him to express my anger and support and in the middle of our conversation I suddenly asked — it really was a stroke of lightning — “Is anyone at work on a biography of Andrea?” John told me a movie was in the works, but not a biography. He also told me that her archives at Schlesinger were substantial and untouched, but he would open them up to me. I was hooked. I wanted to continue my exploration of feminism and the fact that I’d known Andrea heightened my interest.

LM: I remember Naomi Weisstein from the early 1980’s, when I first met you. By that time she had become an invalid. Who was she to you and what became of the essays?

MD: I assembled and annotated Naomi’s essays after her death in 2015. I included a long introduction as well. My publisher at the time, The New Press, turned down the manuscript. By then I’d given up having an agent and rather than go through the tedious process of finding a publisher, I self-published it as Naomi Weisstein: Brain Scientist, Rock Band Leader, Feminist Rebel (Off the Common Press: 2020). It runs 348 pages and got some wonderful blurbs, including from Gloria Steinem (though few reviews). Her scientific work was highly respected and two of her colleagues published a festschrift of her scientific papers after her death. As Steinem put it, “For years, I’ve been trying to explain that Naomi Weisstein was great at everything, from science and music to writing and friendship. If she hadn’t existed, no one could have invented her.” I’d love it if you could include something about her in your piece. She was bed-ridden for more than 30 years with chronic fatigue syndrome.

LM: Can you say something more about how you feel John Stoltenberg was maligned?

MD: I don’t have the Chesler book at hand, but what I recall in general is that she accused John of having a long history of seducing and abandoning young men.

LM: In Dworkin your trademark skills as historian and storyteller are on prime display. As in your other biographies, you render complex individuals and circumstances with wisdom, heart and a lightness of touch that invites the reader to join you on a journey of uncertain destination. In the case of Andrea, is it a journey to the future?

MD: Indeed, Andrea’s message to the future is strong and clear: “Get back up!” No-one that I know has ever been more consistently savaged by reviewers (and many others) than Andrea. Yet over and over, she picked herself up and went back to work.

LM: The subtitle of your book is “The Feminist as Revolutionary.” In what ways was Andrea Dworkin revolutionary?

MD: Andrea was “revolutionary” (and not mainstream) because 1) she didn’t believe in categories — in regard both to sexual orientation and gender. 2) she was an across-the-board radical — including being anti-capitalist.

LM: For mainstream gay men preoccupied with securing civil liberties protections, Andrea’s initiatives against pornography for its exploitation and abuse of women could seem to be facilitating right-wing agendas of censorship and LGBT oppression. You navigate this complex and thorny issue with clarity and security, but did you have misgivings?

MD: Though often accused of allying with right-wing anti-pornographers, she disdained them as being merely puritanical. Besides, if A and B both detest C, that doesn’t mean that A and B think alike or are joining forces; they also detest each other. Andrea refused to join forces with right-wingers. She was NOT puritanical. What she cared about was violence against women; she was against only the kind of pornography that fanned that violence — and there’s plenty of evidence that some of it DOES.

Involved here are First Amendment issues — often misstated. The right of free speech has never been unencumbered. The amendment as interpreted by the Supreme Court restricts freedom of speech on various grounds-including libel and incitement to violence. The argument is between the First Amendment’s right to freedom of speech and the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to equal protection of the law. Andrea argued that the First Amendment has always favored those in power, while the less-used Fourteenth Amendment gives primary emphasis to the injuries done to women and to minorities.

LM: “The Children of Pornhub,” the NYT feature by Nicholas Kristof, does not discuss Dworkin or the history of Women Against Pornography, but it does validate in excruciating and abundant detail issues of the exploitation and abuse of women in widely-available internet pornography. So did Andrea fail in her mission to curb pornography?

MD: Internet pornography is filled with material abusive of women. So, yes, Andrea lost. Even a scholar as respected as Whitney Strub (Perversion for Profit) vilely indulges in mocking Linda Lovelace, claiming (falsely) that she expressed regret when the shooting of Deep Throat ended! He also mistakenly characterizes Andrea and her sympathizers as calling on the state to suppress pornography — which they never did.

LM: Another thorny issue you touch on has to do with transgender rights and initiatives. Mount Sinai now has a Center for Transgender Medicine. Accusations of transphobia continue around J.K. Rowling. But first, last, front and center is the ongoing violence, topped by alarming spikes in murder, of transgender persons and blatant curtailment of their rights under Trump. In what ways can transgender folk, and we with them, look to Andrea Dworkin for inspiration?

MD: In Andrea’s words, transgender people will find an unconditional defense of their right to name and be themselves.

LM: A book of Andrea’s later years, Scapegoat, found her doing a comparative analysis of the experience of Jews and women. Not surprisingly, she found they had much in common. There was additional perspective on the oppression of women in Israel, and as well Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Her suggestion that there should be an Israel, a country of refuge, for persecuted women, is powerful and intriguing. Was there any further pursuit of this idea?

MD: To my knowledge nothing ever came of Andrea’s idea of a nation state for women; there’s scant evidence that she ever pursued it with any actual energy.

LM: Andrea’s writing always drew heated criticism. Was that true of Scapegoat as well?

MD: I myself had never heard of Scapegoat until I did the biography. I much admire Scapegoat, but the book, from all I can tell, remains largely unknown. My guess is that its carefully reasoned, un-hysterical tone doesn’t suit the stereotype of Andrea as a wild woman that her detractors insist upon.

LM: In her review of your Andrea Dworkin for Dignity: A Journal of Exploitation and Violence, Phyllis Chesler, author of Women and Madness, shares with you a discernibly deep affection and regard for Dworkin, but takes issue with some details of your recounting of difficult exchanges between them.

MD: She doesn’t “refute” my account of Andrea’s interactions with her. My evidence is solid. Phyllis offers no real counter-evidence — she simply indulges in rhetoric, unsubstantiated.

LM: Many figures make brief appearances in Andrea Dworkin. Chelser is one, as is Alan Dershowitz, both of whom can be viewed as having drifted to the right during the Trump period. In both cases, I’ve tried, often with great difficulty, to appreciate that they see what they’re doing as somehow ultimately in the greater interest of protecting basic principles of civil liberties.

MD: Seeing those two as “protecting basic principles of civil liberties” is a joke.

LM: What I mean is that I know Phyllis, and presumably Dershowitz as well, to be deeply concerned about resurgent antisemitism, as am I. Within that concern are difficult issues, especially for progressives, of freedom of religion.

In my own case, however, I found myself unable to join or condone their apparent strategy of defending, and thereby aligning themselves with, extremist right-wing forces — Trump, the Evangelicals, Orthodox Jews, most Republicans, right-wing media, as a way of standing against what they perceive to be, not incorrectly, as “The New Anti-Semitism” (the title of one of Chesler’s recent books, for which I gave an affirming blurb), increasingly white supremacist extremist, but a lot of it Islamist and leftist as well. Dershowitz keeps pointing out that he voted for Hillary and Chesler denies being in lockstep with Trump. Meanwhile, however, there they are on Fox and Breitbart. (My experience with Chesler is discussed in my essay on Huffington Post: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/phyllis-chesler-sarah-schulman-and-me-wonder-women_b_59b7db53e4b0883782dec2e6). What’s your take on this?

MD: Like Andrea, I don’t doubt that there’s been a resurgence of anti-Semitism. Neither of us, however, would seek an alliance with right-wing forces on the issue. Right-wingers have little or nothing to say about the legitimate grievances the Palestinian people have against Israel’s oppressive policies. As a Jew I feel emotionally attached to Israel’s democratic principles — but not when they themselves transgress against self-determination.

LM: And what of your own interactions with Andrea — did they follow a trajectory over time?

MD: I do detail and evaluate my own involvement with Andrea in the book. I relegated most of that material to the footnotes, to avoid calling undue attention to myself.

Yes, there was a trajectory over time. I distinctly remember during the early days of the Gay Academic Union (in the early 1970’s) Andrea and several other women imploring the gay men to prioritize feminism — and how confused I initially felt, feeling then that feminism and gay liberation were related but separate issues. Yet I trusted those women more than I did many of the gay men (like Wayne Dynes or Jim Levin). Over time (I can’t put a date on it) I fully embraced Andrea’s contention that the global inequality of women is iniquitous and that their liberation should be at the top of the activist agenda.

LM: You share with Andrea a wry sense of humor. Did you or she ever write a work of comedy or satire?

MD: I hadn’t thought of it before, but yes, Andrea and I did share a wry sense of humor. Most of mine went into my plays, especially Payments, which is about gay male hustling.

LM: Like Larry Kramer and Andrea Dworkin, you are both a writer and an activist. In Larry’s case, people would argue about whether his legacy was primarily his writing or his activism. His legacy will be both, of course. The same, I’m sure, is true of Andrea. And of you. Any thoughts about your own experience of activism vs writing?

MD: I can’t give you a clear-cut answer on “activist or writer?.” In the past, whenever I was deeply involved in activism (anti-Vietnam; NGLTF; CLAGS, etc.) I was constantly kvetching about the lack of time I had to write; the same was true vice versa. Also, some of my activism — especially GAU and CLAGS-was involved in promoting gay scholarship (including writing). Except for marching in anti-war (and pro-gay) demonstrations, I was rarely a street activist. For 4–5 years I answered the phones for People With AIDS Coalition, but didn’t picket the White House. I was arrested only once — during a sit-in on the U.S. Senate floor demanding an end to the war in Vietnam.

LM: For those of us looking to the future, or trying to, what better place to look than the next book project(s) of Martin Duberman. Can we ask what they are?

MD: My Young Adult biography of Paul Robeson will be published mid-March. I’ve also completed two other manuscripts: “Encounters on the Left” (my personal interactions with eleven radical activists over the years), and “At Ninety” (a long glance backwards). “Encounters” will probably be published in early Spring 2022 and “At Ninety” late in 2022.

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Martin Duberman is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he founded and for a decade directed the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS). He is the author of many books, including biographies, memoirs, plays and essay collections. He has won a Bancroft Prize and been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Historical Association and Honorary Doctorates from Amherst College and Columbia University.

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Larry Mass - at www.lawrencedmass.com

Larry Mass - at www.lawrencedmass.com

Larry Mass is a physician who writes about health and culture