Patriarchy and possibilities on Father’s Day

Che Guevara’s daughter Aleida Guevara, who, like her father, is a doctor of medicine. Photo by Pablo Flores, Flickr.

Today, father, is father’s day,
And we’re giving you a tie.
It’s not much we know,
It’s just our way of showing you
We think you are a regular guy.
You say that it was nice of us to bother.
But it really was a pleasure to fuss,
For according to our mother,
You’re our father,
And that’s good enough for us.

—Groucho Marx

Father’s Day reminds me that we are living in more than one America — in an empire (albeit in decline) which attempts to divide us while pretending that we are or should be all alike.

The questionable a priori provability of fatherhood, coupled with historic emotional distance, has long given fuel to the idea — summarized in the above-cited words of Marx (Groucho, not Karl) — that fathers are just not as important as mothers. In some ways, Gandhi confirmed this biologically-determinist position when he wrote that “man can never be a woman’s equal in the spirit of selfless service with which nature has endowed her.” Of course, Gandhi also went far beyond thinking that nature scripted one’s destiny. The love-force feature of his satyagraha protests and constructive programs may often be overlooked, but his optimism about people was always clear. “Brute nature,” he reminded us, “has been known to yield to the influence of love. You must never despair of human nature.”

Indeed, it is “unnatural” phenomenon — the matters of race and class (or, more correctly put, of racism and capitalism and sexism) — which must remind us of the divided Americas we live in. It is hard for me to celebrate Father’s Day in light of the knowledge that there are more men of African descent in U.S. jails today than there were enslaved in the era just prior to the Civil War. With the “war on crime,” “war on drugs” and “war on terror” targeting men of oppressed nationalities just as conventional bullets-and-bombs wars put these same men on the front lines, it is noteworthy that — according to the Drug Policy Alliance — one out of three black men aged 18 to 35 are in some way entangled in the criminal justice system.

Some of the more political of these men have come to understand the ways in which patriarchy and power diminish us all. Former Black Panther and current political prisoner Russell “Maroon” Shoats, for example, writes eloquently about the links between violence against people and the planet and the male supremacy which all men have been socialized into — and most men still subscribe to. Despite his more than 20 consecutive years in solitary confinement, Maroon’s words ring out clearly:

Psychologically and socially — like most males — from birth I was conditioned and socialized to accept and even seek violent solutions to most problems: the pirates, cowboys and Indians, war movies, James Bond, gangsters, boxing, football, martial arts, hunting, and on and on… Little boys get toy guns, toy soldiers, football gear and then “graduate” to get (or want) real guns and to go to war — with “somebody!”…

It’s my opinion that the leading feminist/matriarchy thinkers and activists are heads and shoulders above all others in offering up a worldview that we can utilize to help rescue ourselves and the environment from this worsening crisis we’ve allowed ourselves to be manipulated into.

David Gilbert, a former leader of Students for a Democratic Society (and another political prisoner and dedicated father), chronicled his experiences and reflections as an activist with an early pro-feminist organization in the 1970s, Colorado’s Men Against Sexism, in his recent book Love and Struggle. “The main point,” he wrote, “wasn’t some unattainable self-perfection; fighting sexism mandated concrete solidarity with women’s struggles.” Simply asking women in the movement what support they most needed was a good (though sometimes daunting) first step — not unlike the steps still needed by men interested in working against patriarchy, whites struggling against white supremacy or people on “the outside” looking to work in solidarity with those literally shackled by the modern violence of runaway prison and military industrial complexes.

Beyond thinking about my own and the many other “brothers behind bars” this Father’s Day, I feel moved to remember my good fortune of having two fathers — one biological, the other “adopted”; one white and one black. My biological father taught me the softness of a man uninterested in the physical world. He also symbolically ripped up his Korean War army papers in solidarity with me in the early 1980s, when I was a public non-registrant for the draft. Though not overtly involved in the peace movement, Simon’s days as an early activist in the teacher’s unions taught me that economic justice was a central concern not to be overlooked. My “adopted” stepfather, a pan-Africanist mentor who later became a full part of my own patchwork family, taught me the tough ways of a committed pacifist who nevertheless supported national liberation movements in all their forms. While introducing me to his generation of comrades and conscientious objectors, Bill also showed me that sticking to one’s principles doesn’t always mean “taking sides” in battles where there are many participants who each have a slice of the truth.

I think about another complex and principled father who, like Gandhi, believed greatly in the transformative and revolutionary power of love. Aleida Guevara recently described her father Che’s “great thirst for love,” and recalled his obsessions and values passed down to his children: “Don’t mistreat books,” she remembers. “That was a really strong belief. Be a friend to mankind, do not put up with injustice of any kind, anywhere, and be worthy of your country. Nothing more than that, but that was a lot.” Aleida, like her father, has grown up to become a medical doctor, devoted to helping her community and fellow Cuban people.

It is not at all clear that Father’s Day — since its founding in 1910 up to modern times — bore much of the universal peace message rooted in the creation of Mother’s Day; it has long been a primarily commercial affair. I guess my family is lucky in that regard: Father’s Day falls right in the middle of my two children’s birthdays, so there is little time or money to be spent feting yours truly. But if it gives progressive families of all configurations a chance to reflect on those made invisible by an oppressive and violent society, and a chance to use the day for positive and peace-building community-based constructions, I guess that we can wish a happy Father’s Day to everyone.

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