Monday, June 3, 2013

Erick Erickson's fantasy world-building

The writers' website I frequent--AbsoluteWrite (AW)--has a huge variety of forums for pretty much every genre of writing under the sun. For instance, there is a forum specifically for writers of erotica, as well as one for people doing historical writing--fiction and non-fiction, and many, many others. Included, of course, is a forum for sci-fi/fantasy writers. It's one of the more heavily utilized genre-specific areas of AW; many would-be writers hope to be the next George R. R. Martin or the next J. K. Rowling.

One of the most import issues for such writers is that of world-building, of creating a fantasy or futuristic world/universe in which a story--or series of stories--is to take place. And the meticulous world-builder needs to be concerned not only with geography, flora, and fauna, but also with political  and economic systems along with social customs and institutions. More often than not, worlds populated with humans mirror our own realities to some extent, in the present day or in the past. The worlds of high fantasy writers, filled with mythical creatures like dragons and unicorns, tend to be ones with feudal societies, by and large, peopled by knights, nobility, and fair maidens, along with common folk of all sorts.

Such worlds hearken back to the real feudal periods of our world. Weapons and armor--from siege equipment to swords to crossbows to platemail--are based on what really existed in the past, though specific items might come from different periods or cultures. Clothes, building styles, and basic economies usually follow suit, being drawn from predominantly pre-industrial societies. Political systems for the most part tend to follow fuedal patterns, or at least commonly understood/supposed feudal patterns.

As such, these swords and sorcery fantasy realms are ones with usually very distinct gender roles. George R. R. Martin's Seven Kingdoms is--from this perspective--not so very different from Tolkien's Middle Earth or Robert E. Howard's Hyboria. Writing styles and specific plot lines aside, all three--and many, many other "epic" works of fantasy--are worlds wherein men dominate, insofar as they are the warriors, the political leaders, and the religious leaders. To be sure, this is no hard and fast rule: powerful women exist in many of these worlds as well, but they are exceptional women. as written, not the norm for their societies.

There are, of course, occasional societies of "Amazons" in such worlds, wherein common gender roles are specifically reversed. But for the careful writer, such societies pose a problem: there is nothing--historically speaking--on which to base them. For in the history of mankind, the vast majority of political systems were and are patriarchal to some extent. The earliest societies--prior to the rise of agricultural communities--may have been more or less egalitarian (there is still much debate about this), but since then history of mankind involves patriarchal societies.

There have been theories of ancient matriarchies offered up by people from time to time, but no serious anthropologist accepts such things. For no actual, documented case of a matriarchy exists in human hisory; there are but a handful of societies--since the rise of agriculture--that even approach being non-patriarchal (thus possibly matriarchal, or at least egalitarian), though there are certainly examples of matrilineal and matrifocal societies.

But what we are talking about is big picture stuff here, when it comes to the history of mankind. True enough, warfare has been--and largely remains--the province of males, partly because of biological reasons. And that one reality, in and of itself, led to a male dominance of political power, both for reasons of opportunity and security. Such political dominance could have--and often did have--repercussions for the social and economic spheres of interaction. Thus, patriarchy trickled down, in sense (in a very general sense, to be sure).

The persistence of such structures needed justification. And--as is often the case for social, economic, and political institutions of all sorts--religion was sometimes used to provide that justification. So was simple power, as well.

But even then, even with the apparent dominance of patriarchal structures, it would be a major error to argue that such structures were the natural way of things, for at the lowest level--the household level--things have never as consistent in this respect as many would like to believe.

Fast forward from the past to the present day. Ours remains a patriarchal society, for the most part, with regard to overall structures (at a macro level, one might say). But not wholly. At the household level--or micro level--again things are not so consistent. It is argued by some that the institution of marriage was and is an aspect of a patriarchal society, insofar as it exists to control women. But the fact of the matter is that marriage as an institution is a primary means of maintaining equality between the sexes, especially with regard to property rights (which--like it or not--remains the cornerstone of liberty).

Moreover, women have successfully established--via a juxtaposition of their individualism with a social identity derived from marriage--a level of acceptance in society approaching equality in social, economic and--to a lesser extent--political spheres. True, this level waxes and wanes from place to place and from time to time, but it cannot be simply ignored nor dismissed. Currently--since the mid twentieth century--one might rightly see it as waxing.

What does all of this have to do with the price of tea in China? Well, a Pew study came out recently indicating that over 40% of U.S. households were dependent on a woman as the primary source of income (truth in advertising: mine is one of those households):
Mothers are breadwinners for a record share of American families, as more women bring up children on their own and more married mothers outearn their husbands, an analysis of census data shows.

The new reality is a dramatic shift from decades ago, the Pew Research Center found in a study released Wednesday. Two years ago, more than 40% of American households with children relied on a mother as their biggest or only source of income — a massive jump from 11% of families in 1960.

Two things drove the change: Single mothers now make up a quarter of all U.S. households with children, the Pew analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data found. On top of that, a growing share of married mothers make more money than their husbands, as more women earn degrees and enter the workforce. Wives earn more in nearly 1 out of 4 married couples, Pew found.
The study also found that many people are less than thrilled with this development, are worried when mothers are not the primary care-givers for their children, and assume women are superior in this role to men. Various pundits have opined on this study, including Erick Erickson of RedState. His initial comments in this regard were on TV to Lou Dobbs:
"I'm so used to liberals telling conservatives that they're anti-science. But liberals who defend this and say it is not a bad thing are very anti-science. When you look at biology -- when you look at the natural world -- the roles of a male and a female in society and in other animals, the male typically is the dominant role. The female, it's not antithesis, or it's not competing, it's a complementary role. We're lost the ability to have complementary relationships ... and it's tearing us apart."
Erickson's citiation of the "natural world" and "other animals" betrays a profound ignorance on his part. True enough, social animals--like humans, wolves, and lions--tend to be "led" by the most powerful male. And true enough, this is largely a function of biology, an issue of size and strength as it were. But that standard does not translate down to the individual/household level. It never has. And with regard to humans, the development of labor specialization forever changed this game. That's development over time, it's the way societies work: effective patterns are repeated and become the norm, just as is the case in evolution, proper.

Erickson's mind is locked in on an ahistorical version of reality, the kind wherein generalizations are wrongly taken to be de facto rules or natural laws, with regard to the way things are and should be. As the Atlantic piece clearly indicates, U.S. society has developed in this regard over the past half-century, a period of time that has also seen drastic increases in both standards of living and wealth creation, all under the umbrella of the post-World War pax Americana. So it's pretty tough to claim that this development is some sort of societal cancer or the like.

In fact, it looks to be exactly the opposite. Mouth breathers on the right (and they are there, unfortunately) argue that the increased number of women in the workforce is somehow taking jobs away from men. But the truth is that this increase in labor force participants has had the opposite effect. It creates needs; working women--like working men--have new expenses, from clothes to cars to computers. Thus, new consumers are created, meaning growth from one end of the economy to the other (interestingly enough, this also means more tax dollars and is partly why government spending is out of control, but that's a different discussion). This is capitalism, though the business cycle still exists.

Erickson, however, doubled down on his argument with a column at RedState, claiming:
Ladies, if you want to work that’s fine. If your position in life makes it advantageous for you to be the primary bread winner, that’s fine. But your individual circumstances and mine should not hide the fact that there is an ideal and optimal family arrangement whether we in our own lives can meet it.

We should also, as a society, recognize that many single moms are in that position because the men in their lives abandoned their obligations. We should work on all those fronts to put the pieces of the nuclear family back together.

Having said all that, now on to the main point wherein all the controversy lies. . . .

Many feminist and emo lefties have their panties in a wad over my statements in the past 24 hours about families. I said, in a statement reflecting the view of three quarters of those surveyed in a Pew Research Center poll, that more women being the primary or sole breadwinners in families is harmful to raising children. This result came from a survey that found “nearly four in 10 families with children under the age of 18 are now headed by women who are the sole or primary breadwinners for their families.”
Setting aside his silly misogyny--which is probably intended as humor but is clearly not Erickson's forte--he does have a point with regard to single mothers. That is a rising problem and has been for some time. But it is not actually a consequence of there being more women in the workforce in general, but of other issues, ones that are vitally important. Bringing such things up in defense of his initial claims is a simple attempt at deflection on his part, nothing more.

The problem again lies with his assumption that "ideal and optimal" family arrangements exist and that in such a model the male should be the primary bread winner. That's just not the case. Erickson thinks he has science on his side, but he's horribly clueless in this regard. Such an ideal arrangement is a far more recent development, an early modern one, that was momentarily reinforced by the early years of the industrial revolution. Again, it is in warfare and the political arena where the male has a "natural" leadership role; in the economic sphere and at the household level, such a role does not exist (all of which is evidenced by the non-existence of matriarchies and the documented existence of matrilineal and matrifocal socities). The point is, at the basic household level, families have--throughout history--done what they had to do to survive. Those that refuse to do so--who might cling to such silly gender roles, for instance--did not survive. We--all of us--play the hands we are dealt in life.

Interestingly enough, Erickson backed off on his absolutism, with regard to his claims about the animal kingdom:
I also noted that the left, which tells us all the time we’re just another animal in the animal kingdom, is rather anti-science when it comes to this. In many, many animal species, the male and female of the species play complementary roles, with the male dominant in strength and protection and the female dominant in nurture. It’s the female who tames the male beast. One notable exception is the lion, where the male lion looks flashy but behaves mostly like a lazy beta-male MSNBC producer.
He's still got it wrong, though. This is what happens when people create their own versions of reality, based on limited knowledge gleaned from the History Channel and Wikipedia. As a world-building exercise for the background of a fantasy novel, it's not really a problem. It's the way things are done. As social commentary with regard to actual reality...

Cheers, all.