Home > invisible women, literature, rw > HIS-tory of half the World

HIS-tory of half the World

I’m reading this book, the History of the World in Six Glasses, that outlines, yes, the history of the world, by following the lives of six drinks – beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and cola. It’s a great read, no doubt, very entertaining and informative and engaging – and my test of a good non-fiction: tells me at least one new story every chapter. That’s the only way I can digest non-fiction: if it slips in small sweeteners of fiction or fable or anecdote for me.

Anyway, the author, Tom Standage, is an excellent storyteller, and seems to be the model of the Good American (as opposed to the Bad = racist/xenophobic/close-minded, etc. type). He’s curious, informed, has a truly ingrained sense of democracy and equality of all people of all colors and nationalities and is able to appreciate various cultures without giving them a cartéblanche on their bigotry. He is visibly outraged that slavery was such an integral part to most commerce through the ages, and that even the Europeans, who prided themselves on equality and their humanity turned so easily such a blind eye to the most heinous forms of human trafficking.

Also, thankfully, his sense of racial equality is not limited to whites and blacks, he also repeatedly acknowledges the contribution of Arabian knowledge, expertise and commerce in developing most of the foundations of modern human life – the technical and scientific knowledge, the economic philosophies, mathematical and astronomical experience, etc.

Each time he stumbles upon an advancement made by one culture on the backs of another – like the development of rum as part of the sugar plantations run by slavery in the West Indies; or the invention of distillation by Arabian scholars; or the class structure in Roman society that was so stringently implemented that people never got to drink a different wine than the one they were born to; or the failure of Charles II to close down the famous and ubiquitous coffee houses in the 17th century – Tom subscribes to the Christian Amanpour school of thought: you cannot forever be an impartial observer in the face of extreme bigotry.

However, note this: the famous London coffeehouses that Tom lauds for ushering in the Age of Reason did not permit women entry. He mentions this, often as a joke – about how a group of women published a petition in ~1675 complaining that their husbands spent all their time in coffeehouses and were therefore no longer interested in sex. The fact that this segregation was even stricter than the Roman wine classification has not occurred to him – if it has, he feels no outrage, just mild amusement. The coffeehouses of London were pivotal in bringing together people from different walks of life. They were instrumental in merchants finding practical uses for the science of their time (e.g. for astronomy, navigation and all via the kewl instruments those guys invented – gyroscopes, periscopes and sextants), and in scientific method and reasoning finding its feet as the basis for all civilized argument and discourse. The London coffeehouses were where new financial products were discussed and created – the London Stock Exchange was an offshoot of Jonathan’s coffeehouse.

Women were excluded from all of this. Not just the pleasures of coffee drinking itself, but from the discussion, the debate, the mental stimulation of the times, the enormous social networks that were built over coffee. If there was a parallel, it would be like excluding women from using the Internet today, including, say, Facebook, and from reading newspapers, and from attending Universities/colleges. For half the population to not participate in society is horrendous, not just for that part of the population but for society itself. Imagine suddenly having doubled the activity in one of those hubs of activity back in the seventeenth century – doubling the commerce, doubling the rationality, doubling the scientific brainpower. And yes, the value of diversity, then as now, is not just that it dramatically increases the total number of participants, it beings in different kinds of participants, it brings in a whole new perspective, whole levels of creativity, and entire new world-views to the debate. It would’ve been not just the Age of Reason, but the Age of Revolution. But Tom fails to notice or remark on this enormous lost opportunity.

It’s not surprising that he does, it’s just yet another proof that the Age of Revolution is yet to urgently make its way to Earth, circa 2009. He’s able to, with the confidence of hindsight, critique and evaluate the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, and upto modern-day Americans, and call them out confidently on their racial injustices and heinous practices like slavery. He’s unable to see the injustices of gender-related discrimination because he is himself a participant in the inequality. He’s a victim of male privilege, which, as many advantages as it confers, it also induces extreme blindness to gender-based victimization. There’s not much that he offers in terms of analyses of gender stereotypes, not just for women, but also such stereotypes for men – on why they need to be masculine, on say why Jon Favreau felt he needed to pathetically grope a cardboard cut-out of a powerful woman, or on why Barack Obama’s Iowa victory was not just his triumph over a strong political rival, it was his male conquest of a female threat, reinforced by his campaign’s selection of theme music for the night “99 problems but a bitch ain’t one”.

If you still wonder why this great nation that was built on the idea of liberty and equality doesn’t have a female president after 300 years, or if you still wonder why Prop 8 can pass in California, if these thoughts even occur to you, you know you’re years ahead of all the better known thinkers and successful authors of your time.

Categories: invisible women, literature, rw
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