Monday, January 12, 2015

Beware the Amazons!

I have not read Adrienne Mayor's new book, entitled The Amazons: Lives & Legends of Women Warriors Across the Ancient World. It would never have crossed my radar screen but for an article in Socialist Action.

From the preview at it looks to be charmingly written and beautifully researched. Appropriately, it's doing well in the sales rankings and has been widely reviewed elsewhere. I have read two "bourgeois" reviews from The Independent and the Wall Street Journal. There's nothing wrong with the book. It's just that I have lots of other stuff to read first that's more important to me.

Ms. Mayor's opus concerns female warriors from Scythia. That land was in Central Asia, and the warriors (both men and women, as the WSJ points out) were members of nomadic tribes who depended on finding new pastureland and/or booty for survival. Occasionally they attacked Greek communities (unsuccessfully, I gather), inspiring a voluminous and enduring series of myths about Amazon warriors. They caught the Greek imagination.

Ms. Mayor writes
After Heracles, Amazons were the single most popular subjects in Greek vase paintings. Amazons appeared in city murals and monumental civic sculptures in Athens and other Greek cities; tombs and places linked to Amazons were revered in the Greek and Anatolian landscape.
Ms. Mayor's effort is to separate fact from fiction--what was true about the Amazons, and what was myth. It's a book about art, culture, fashion, archaeology, and sex. I think it will be a bestseller.

So why am I writing about a book that I have no plan to read? It's because of the odd, idiosyncratic review provided by Socialist Action's resident feminist, Christine Marie, entitled A challenge to the myth of male dominance. Ms. Marie reads much more into the book than I think is there.

The title of Ms. Marie's review gives the game away. She reduces a complex, romantic tale to a cardboard cutout. Mayor's book is little more than an anecdote to justify some Marxist theory.

Her first claim is that the very existence of female warriors is in doubt. Of course that's not true--we have Amazons even today--the US military is almost completely gender-integrated. Ms. Marie thinks that we males are sent into paroxysms of psychological despair by the mere thought of female warriors. Then how does she explain the idolization of said Amazons in today's video games?

Second, she suggests that the acknowledgement of women soldiers has been the secret knowledge of Marxist anthropologists.
Collections of works by Marxist feminist anthropologists such as Eleanor Burke Leacock are kept in the public eye thanks only to small radical publishing houses. And so, when academic publishers commit to printing a new book that challenges the mainstream on these questions, it should be celebrated.
This ultimately reduces to a conspiracy theory--that well-known academics (almost all of whom are Leftists, and the majority are women) are somehow keeping important knowledge under wraps. How could this happen? And why?

Then comes the bizarre argument that because women died in battle, therefore there is a threat to male dominance. The logic escapes me. I do not see the connection between the title of Ms. Marie's piece and the substance of Ms. Mayor's book. Over 700,000 British soldiers died in World War I, many of them in futile attempts to move the front lines by a few hundred yards. Is that an argument for male dominance? And yet Ms. Marie will have us believe that the discovery of graves of a few hundred female battle victims implies that women were equals way back when.

And then there is the category error. She is taking a tale from history and turning it into a fact of anthropology. Ms. Mayor's book looks to be a rousing good tale, analogous perhaps to the myriad Civil War stories. These are at best anecdotes. And true enough--collect enough anecdotes and eventually you get data. But Ms. Marie has one anecdote and from there she argues for Marxist anthropology. The premise does not justify the conclusion.

Any effort to do anthropology has to take into account evolutionary psychology. From what I've read, there is nothing in Ms. Mayor's book that contradicts evoPsych. Nor as a work of history would one expect it to. But anthropology looks at a much bigger canvas over a much longer timeframe. Marx knew nothing about genes or genetics, nor did he have any ability to track their propagation through human populations. We have that toolkit today, at least in rudimentary form.

I don't expect Ms. Marie to change her mind. A person's political opinions are likely innate, or at least not changeable after age 30 or so. It all depends on what categories you put things in, and what values you consider important. To use Arnold Kling's language, Ms. Marie puts everything in terms of an Oppression/Liberation axis. Women are oppressed, and the political goal is to free them.

I prefer (in this context) the Civilization/Barbarism axis, i.e., that rules of civilized behavior are a crucial ingredient of our modern world. Civilization requires some limits on freedom. Men, for example, are not allowed to form street gangs with the purpose of going out to rape women, Genghis Khan style. Women, on the other hand, need to provide domestic life that keeps families and communities intact. When these institutions break down, we'll all be much worse off.

So Ms. Marie is from Mars and I'm from Venus, or whatever. I relinquish any effort to alter her world view. But I will suggest that she could become better at making her own case if she knew more. And that, of course, applies to me as well. So I'll make a deal with her. If she reads one book that I recommend, then I shall return the favor. The goal is not to change minds (impossible), but rather just to inform.

My recommendation for Ms. Marie is Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate. I don't agree with everything in that book. It's also somewhat dated. Nevertheless, I think it makes the strongest case against Marxist anthropology as historically understood. Now a reformulation of Marxism is possible, but that will require some understanding of evolutionary psychology.

I await Ms. Marie's instructions for what book I am to read. I promise to review it here.

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