Saturday, January 3, 2015

Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

My kids, for some reason, love Alexander McCall Smith. Never mind the slow pace and character driven plots. Never mind the exotic yet mundane setting. Never mind the serious and philosophical topics. They want to bring one of his books - particularly the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series - on every long driving vacation we go on.

Last summer, we listened to The Kalahari Typing School for Men, which is number four in the series. Blue Shoes and Happiness is number seven. Fortunately, it is possible to figure out the characters in the middle of the series, because, unlike my wife and kids, I haven’t read the earlier ones. 

I won’t rehash the details of my previous review, which discusses the series and the characters. Rather, I will just mention a few things that stood out in this book.

First, the plots in this book turn on superstition, greed, the quest for happiness, and the meaning of “feminism.” The fear of a curse leads to a near panic at a wildlife refuge. A government employee steals food to keep her philandering husband from leaving her. A doctor sells generics at the full price to line his pockets. A bitter advice columnist blackmails for profit. And, unforgettably, Mma. Makutsi nearly loses her fiance over what it means to be a “feminist.”

As with the other books, McCall Smith and his protagonist, Mma. Ramotswe, are gentle with human foibles. As Mma. Ramotswe puts it, each of us have our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. When faced with them, we often cannot rise above our defects. For Mma. Ramotswe, this would be her love for sweet things, which lead to her “traditional build” and high blood pressure. For Mma. Makutsi, a beautiful but impractical pair of shoes would prove irresistible.

Mma. Ramotswe therefore attempts to fix serious issues with a minimum of damage to those involved. This may be frustrating to those wishing to see virtue rewarded and vice punished to the hilt, but it fits with a worldview of showing grace and mercy to others - including those who don’t deserve it. In some ways, this is an interesting contrast to the G. K. Chesterton book I read recently, The Man Who Knew Too Much. In that one, the greatest crimes are so great that they cannot be punished at all, which is a frustrating outcome, but one that is perhaps all too true in real life. For Mma. Ramotswe, justice is tempered, rather than escaped. Often, she is able to stop an evil before it causes great damage. The perpetrators may not experience “justice” in the sense of punishment, but they must abandon their schemes. In other cases, the law must be involved, and a more traditional form of “justice” is necessary, but even then, Mma. Ramotswe is never out to destroy, but to stop evil. I find this emphasis on restoration rather than vengeance to be fascinating, and morally compelling to one who aspires to follow Christ. There is a bit of an echo of “neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more” in these books.

Perhaps the most fascinating bit in this book, however, was the question of “feminism.” Mma. Makutsi’s fiance, Phuti Radiphuti, is somewhat timid man, with a stutter, who has found himself at ease - and less stuttery - around Mma. Makutsi. In turn, Mma. Makutsi is a strong, opinionated woman, alternately intimidating and naive, but with a good heart. Phuti asks her one day if she is a feminist, and she say that of course she is, and so are nearly all women these days. Poor Phuti is terrified, because of the differing perceptions of what “feminism” means.

Phuti is fully in favor of equality for women, but he is haunted by a radio broadcast he heard from a “feminist” who claimed that “men were finished, and would soon be swept away.” This conjured in his mind a giant woman with a huge broom, sweeping him out with the dirt. This is, naturally, the furthest thing from Mma. Makutsi’s mind, as she gets great enjoyment from cooking for Phuti, and would hardly be one to disregard him. She may be outspoken and expect to be able to make her own decisions, but she would never want to hurt Phuti.

McCall Smith does a brilliant job in this book of bringing the debate into focus using humor and believable human interaction. The two lovers were in fact admirably close in their actual beliefs and actions, but the words meant different things to them.

This is a current problem, in my experience, within conservative and religious circles. While there are some that genuinely wish to return to a patriarchal society, I believe most people I know actually agree with most of what feminism stands for. The problem is that “feminism” to them means a strawman version. A man-hating version, standing by with a giant broom to sweep men aside.

This version is not only out of touch with the real meaning of feminism, a belief in the social, political, and economic equality of men and women, but is also out of touch with what all except for a small, if vocal, minority of feminists advocate. In my experience, the stereotype of “feminism” is a mashup of Helen Gurley Brown (known both for Sex and the Single Girl and “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”) and Andrea Dworkin (whose past experience of abuse led her to believe that heterosexual sex could not be separated from dominance and control).

Unfortunately, this has lead to so many within the Evangelical camp to view “feminism” as the flip side of misogyny. On the one hand, this is merely sad, because “social, political, and economic equality” isn’t at all the same thing as misandry. On the other, there is a certain influential movement within Evangelicalism to whom “social, political, and economic equality” is considered to be a true evil. I have written a good bit about this in the past, so I won’t rehash it, but I do want to note that the conflation of “feminism” with misandry is not an accident. It was and is promoted intentionally by those that do in fact oppose the true meaning of feminism because that false equivalence allows them to claim that allowing equal social, political, and economic power to men is the first step toward inevitable misandry, and thus incite many within Evangelicalism to oppose all things “feminist” without actually learning about them or engaging with their ideas.

I am one who proudly wears the label of “feminist.” I didn’t always do so, until I married a “feminist” wife, and met many other “feminists” within my profession and social life, and realized that, to paraphrase the philosopher Inigo Montoya, that word didn’t mean what I thought it meant. Perhaps, then, Mma. Ramotswe is right in her approach to the situation. Rather than try to browbeat either party into changing their views, she gently suggests that Mma. Makutsi assuage Phuti’s fears. Likewise, Phuti is then able to clarify that he has no wish to control her or take her for granted - things far too common among men in the culture of Botswana (and, let’s be honest, in most cultures to some degree or another).

For Mma. Ramotswe, who is, if anything, even more feminist than Mma. Makutsi, the solution isn’t about an argument over labels, but in seeing the common ground. And this is really her approach to all of her cases. Encourage and build up. Right wrongs when possible, but never seek vengeance. Account for human weakness and help all tap their better selves. And, of course, brew another pot of bush tea.

1 comment:

  1. Seconding your vocabulary points about feminism. I've noticed many evangelicals will agree with everything you say as you describe feminist beliefs, but will insist that they are "feminists" because feminists hate men and they don't hate men. They don't know they're feminists and/or won't admit to themselves that they're feminists. It's kind of funny actually.

    And seeing you write about misandry, I realize that I really should get off my writer's block mental duff and write that gender-stereotypes-and-misandry post that I sent you a research email about months ago.