Moral Panic:
Biopolitics Rising

by John Fekete,
381 pages,
ISBN: 1895854091

Post Your Opinion
A Radical Re-ordering
by Brian Fawcett

PRETEND, JUST FOR A MOMENT, THAT YOU'RE this reviewer, and you've had John Fekete's Moral Panic: Biopolitics Rising (Robert Davies Publishing, 283 pages, $21.99 paper) dropped in your lap. You've accepted the assignment for three reasons: 1) You've heard the term "biopolitics" and are disturbed (although not very clear) about its implications; 2) The term "moral panic" is new and intriguing; and 3) you've forgotten that when your editor grins

and says "this is just the book for you" he really means "this book is serious trouble."

As you peruse the jacket copy, a couple of other things about the book register. One is the volume's "Food for Thought" imprimatur, along with its publisher, Robert Davies, who runs a small commercial press with a track record

of publishing issue-oriented books aimed at raising controversy. The other is the book's author, John Fekete,

whom you're vaguely aware of as a left-of-centre professor of cultural studies at Trent University who gives good academic conference and was (now the key datum comes back) an articulate spokesperson against Ontario's Ministry of Education and Training's draconian (and, you think, ill-considered) Framework Regarding Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination in Ontario Universities initiative of last year.

You begin to read the book. At first, you enjoy yourself. You're soothed when Fekete, in the second page of the preface, defines his stance:

My voice, in the past, has been upbeat, devoted to

the utopian prospects made possible by the radical

will. I have come to believe that the radical

(utopian) will and the radical (atopian) will-to

openness set up between them the indeterminate

energies that can keep us creative in the actual

world and tolerant of its differences.

That pretty much describes the values you try to uphold (with a stronger emphasis on the will-to-openness side), so well and good. When, a few paragraphs later, Fekete quotes his mentor Feri Feher as saying it is the duty of intellectuals to be rude to the movements, you're doubly reassured: with utopians leaking from every academic and commercial closet, you're starved for precisely this sort of atopian levity, and you chuckle right out loud.

But as the pages go by, a small chill settles around your backbone. Your brain is wolfing down each rearrangement of the intellectual field, but you're becoming aware that this particular field is much closer to your own back yard than you first thought. Or maybe it is your back yard. You're beginning to recognize how disorderly you've let it grow. Were you afraid to straighten it out yourself? You shrug off that unpleasant thought and go on reading. Fekete's prose is gelid and conceptually dense, so much so that nothing can be perused lightly. Here is a book that must be read sentence by sentence, not because it is over-complicated or technical, but because it is well written. When you skip a paragraph, you find yourself going back to check what you missed -- by itself a rare and alerting experience in an era where most discourse is cluttered with self-inflating rhetoric.

Fifty pages into Moral Panic, you're in a state of panic all your own: a powerful segment of your cultural experience in the last decade has had a reordering new light shed on it. Is this what's going on'? Can I have been misreading -- or ignoring -- the transformation of the left so utterly?

For years, you've been wondering where all your extremist friends from the 1970s disappeared to: the Trotskyites who used to argue that it was wrong to support progressive measures like child care and rapid transit because any improvement merely served to prop up the corrupt capitalist system, or the wild-eyed Maoist cadres who used to crash meetings of rival factions brandishing two-by- fours in defence of the correct political line, which of course always belonged to them alone. You suspect that they've mostly become wealthy lawyers, docile academics, dithering bureaucrats, each convinced in a different way by their accumulated middle-class splendour that struggle is not quite the priority it once was. When the radical movements began to die off in the 1980s, you noted that most of the radicals who were still politically active seemed to be giving up on political and social justice. They were more concerned with admonishing people about unsafe behaviours and attaching them to a regulatory apparatus with a flak jacket and a hard-hat to prevent any possible harm coming to them or the legions of innocent and apparently brainless bystanders. Such people, you note, once called "citizens," are now "consumers."

What characterized all of these people was a terror of complexity and plurality, a wish (as Fekete's opening inscription from Milan Kundera has it) for "a group of people [to] hold hands with and dance in a ring," and a too-quick resort to authority and regulation when opposition appeared. There had been an unnerving and slightly addled certitude about their eyes when they talked at you, as if they were not seeing you as a living being but as a symbol or cipher. And there was a ruthlessness in their actions that contradicted their loudly declared desire for justice.

They were scary people in their day, and now John Fekete is telling you that a new generation of them has arrived, more cybernetically sophisticated, no less bloody-minded, but impossible to write off as privileged malcontents rebelling against their upbringing. They are scarier than their predecessors. Equally disturbing, Fekete has found them coiled around a whole series of values and initiatives that he and you agree are worthwhile: racial, gender, and sex-preference equality; the desire of women to be able to live their lives without fear of discrimination and violence; and the fundamental democratic liberty to pursue knowledge, truth, and self-expression.

So, the book is in your hands, you're reading it, and it is making a startling amount of sense. Yet you catch yourself recoiling, not because what you're reading is inaccurate, but because every sentence calls into question your integrity and intellectual courage. You passionately want someone -- anyone -- else to deal with this hot potato. What do you say about it?

I'll say this much: it is about time somebody wrote about the subject. So let me stop fooling around and try to encapsulate Fekete's ideas for you without simplifying them beyond recognition. That will be difficult, because as noted, Moral Panic is an extremely articulate and detailed book, particularly in its first seven chapters.

Fekete's primary argument concerns the recent devolution of what used to be called the radical left away from a focus on democratic community-of-the-whole gradualism to a "new primitivism which promotes self-identification through groups defined by categories like race and sex," which he calls biopolitics. When libertarian democracy is working properly (admittedly that isn't very often these days), it aims at achieving justice and equality through tolerance of differences, a legalistic wariness of authority, and the pursuit of personal liberty governed by the moral strictures of the categorical imperative. Biopolitics, according to Fekete, operates by deliberately creating and then manipulating moral hysteria, and, where it suits biopolitical goals, by authoritarian fiat.

His specific targets for analysis are two: one is the frankly Maoist tactics of the current radical feminist campaign to end violence against women. The other is the tactics of an allied movement within our postsecondary education system aimed at achieving gender parity and an end to the educational oppression of minorities. But let's be clear. Fekete is arguing against the extremist tactics of these connected movements, not their general goals, which are hardly unacceptable except perhaps to neo-Nazis.

In the gap between goals and tactics lies the problem that makes Fekete's project so risky. To raise the slightest criticism of the biopolitical movements is to subject oneself to accusations of liberal naivete, obstructionism, or covert sexism/racism. And if the probability of being denounced (it is fast becoming a certainty) doesn't induce a state of moral panic in you, there is the matter of the questions the movements raise, questions that don't seem to me to be at all rhetorical: if ending the injustices biopolitics aims to set right has the support of virtually everyone except a tiny, lunatic minority, why does violence against women persist, and why are our universities not altering their white-maleoriented, Eurocentric character more swiftly? Aren't, in the circumstances, draconian measures called for?

The problem that is dogging us here is a very old one. It is the "ends justify the means" conundrum that has been a crucial controversy throughout this century. A whole new generation of radicals with a new set of impatient imperatives has brought it back, along with a whole set of new and murkily seductive, cybernetically opaque means. Big trouble, wherever you try to stand.

The first part of Moral Panic aggressively charts -- in painstaking detail that is only occasionally marred by outbursts of flippancy and anger from Fekete -- the current state of public and conceptual hysteria that has evolved over violence against women, together with the intellectual and empirical tactics that have created the moral panic. No one in their right mind is going to argue that violence against women isn't a serious social problem, and very few will be foolhardy enough to suggest that the problem isn't worsening. But are hysteria and an outbreak of authoritarianism warranted, and are the statistics currently being used to focus attention on the issue accurate? Fekete says no to both questions, although his "no" is louder on the second one.

Fekete begins his analysis with the 1993 federally funded report of the Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women, Changing the Landscape: Ending Violence -Achieving Equality, and follows it through a series of like- minded documents (including the notoriously biased 1993 Katherine Kelly/Walter DeKeseredy study of campus abuse). He reveals that taken together, these reports constitute a de facto research conspiracy, fuelled partly by lazy or cowardly empiricism, but partly by a stunningly Maoist willingness on the part of feminist researchers to mess with data in order to bring it into line with an ideological agenda bristling with authoritarian attitudes and regulatory proposals.

Ironically, one of the key instruments of biopolitics' conceptual and statistical distortions is the enlightened 1983 criminal code amendment that redefined rape as the high end of a continuum of acts of physical abuse against women. The intent was to prevent rape cases from being moral excoriations of rape victims rather than prosecutions of sexually violent and predatory offenders. But over the last decade, it seems, this concept has been hijacked by the biopolitical movement and transformed into a more far-ranging (and much more conceptually wonky) continuum of violence that begins with the possession of a Y chromosome by males and continues as a kind of unrelieved moral accusation straight to men murdering and raping women. Society gets redefined, along the way, as a binary "patriarchy" of guilty male perpetrators and innocent female victims in which everyone has to choose sides because the middle ground has been eradicated.

The sociometric manipulations that support this "continuum of violence" derive from a seemingly chronic inability of feminist social surveyors to distinguish between representative and clinical sampling techniques. In a representative sample, the researcher samples the general population, ideally with a sample large enough to achieve reasonable statistical verity. If, for example, a representative survey were to report a very high incidence of violence against women, and if the sampling techniques were reasonably bias-free, we would have a statistic of monumental importance. But evidence of high degrees of violence against women hasn't been forthcoming from representative samples.

Nothing in Fekete's analysis denies that sexual violence is a serious social problem. But he argues that the biopolitical "violence continuum" distorts our view of the problem, and that the high-end violence statistics that can be secured with a reasonable degree of verity don't warrant hysteria or extremist measures. More Canadian women, Fekete somewhat mischievously notes, die of obesity each year than at the hands of their husbands. That's the absurd statistical side of a growingly violent society in which men are twice as likely to be murdered as women, and three times as likely to commit suicide. The serious side is that violence is ugly and destructive for everyone, and that while pointing fingers may be an effective technique for political organizing, it is probably the least democratic (and least scientific) method of figuring out what to do about violence.

Fekete specifically criticizes the clinical sampling techniques used by biopolitical feminists to establish the existence of a crisis-level "continuum of violence." Clinical samplings, it turns out, are the basis of literally all the inflammatory statistics about violence. The problem is that they reflect the statistical profile of sexually traumatized women, and frequently are distorted by ideologically biased researchers attempting to fit the testimony of their abused clients into a conceptual continuum in which all male behaviours, are regarded as abusive. Nearly every study reports a very high incidence of sexual violence against women, a result that should surprise no one. But to generalize the condition across society is what Fekete calls ,.statistical abuse." At the very least, the statistics from clinical surveys ought to be quantified against the incidence of violence experienced by women who don't enter the clinical system and who, empirically at least, don't suffer the same degree of victimization.

But within what Fekete carefully calls an "emotionally over-determined research climate," this hasn't been happening. He posits that, to a great degree, there's been a deliberate mixing of apples and oranges to create a moral panic that is likely to perpetrate a set of nasty human fights abuses of its own.

Can you see the problem this book presents? Depending on one's gender and where one's ideological loyalties rest, Fekete's revelations are most likely to invoke one of two responses: sighs of relief (Christ, I'm not a barely repressed rapist) or outright hostility (You're in favour of violence against women). Fekete, I think, would despair at either response. Certainly, he isn't suggesting that the problem of sexual violence is imaginary. He is saying, very clearly, that the induced moral panic is leading us toward authoritarian solutions, gender-based tribal warfare, and the setting of one set of rights against another; that it isn't warranted; and that it will be both divisive and destructive of the civilities that are our truest protection against violence.

In the second half of the book, Fekete discusses the abrogation of academic freedoms that has resulted from the excessive zeal of the various anti-harassment movements and initiatives in our educational system. The dimensions and sources of moral panic there are similar to those examined in the book's first half, but they are somehow less galvanizing, possibly because the measures taken are against a privileged enclave -- and a democratic institution (academic freedom) -- that has already been discredited in the eyes of many people by the self-arrogating behaviour of a generation of too-secure academics who too often have ceased to be either scholars or intellectuals.

Fekete's documentation shows that those who tend to utilize the anti-harassment hysteria often aren't the victims of harassment, but rather career-crazed opportunists and ideologues from the far ends of the political/economic axis. The same documentation also reveals that such tribal warfare, if unchecked, is likely to intensify, creating a climate that will make serious education impossible. The violence-continuum model has created a generation of students, teachers, and administrators seemingly better equipped to conduct search-and-destroy missions on whatever happens to offend them than to pursue knowledge. If you think that doesn't constitute a genuine educational crisis, you'd better wake up and smell the coffee before you choke on it.

I have another concern about biopolitics and moral panic. It comes from watching our economic system and its operators head in the opposite direction -- i.e., toward valorizing amoral competition and downgrading common civility as a primary social and interpersonal value. In the face of that trend, the Maoism of the biopolitical project is destined to drive white middle-class intellectuals -- men and a high percentage of women -- into the waiting arms of this rejuvenated neo-Darwinist right, people with an agenda crazier and more totalitarian than that of the biopolitical feminists.

A binary choice between born-again Fascism and born-again Maoism won't serve anyone's interests. Women will be forced to choose between separating from men altogether, or becoming the same sort of aggressive assholes men have traditionally been; and the choice for men -- penitent abusers or globalist visigoths -- won't be any more pleasant to live with. If a sane middle ground can't be recreated, we'll see Canadian society become a cross between Sarajevo and Beirut -- and if this prospect doesn't trouble you, whether you're male or female, you'd better ask yourself why not. Weighty issues, aren't they?

Finally, please don't take my word for any of this. John Fekete will challenge your understanding of the world, no matter what your gender and ideological/tribal affiliations. The wiser heads among us will answer his challenge as clear-headedly as possible. That's my hope, anyway.


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