10 February 2010

Respect for Woman

The disgusting words (to which I will not link) that the contemptible Andrew Sullivan recently had for Sarah Palin, especially printed in such a prominent place, shows that there are still those who seek to discredit strong women by reducing them to mere sexual objects. Palin may be a Republican, but she is still a human being, and it is, or ought to be, beneath us to speak of other human beings as Sullivan does of Palin.

This is not the first time that people have said disgusting things about Palin. Why, on earth? If her ideas are false, correct them; if her arguments are weak, refute them; if she has her politics or economics or religion wrong, then by all means prove them false. But the ad hominem fallacy is still a fallacy, even when directed at a Republican or at a woman.

Reading the discreditable things Sullivan, among others, has written about Palin reminded me, by way of contrast, of the redoubtable Miles Standish of Longfellow's great poem "The Courtship of Miles Standish." (If you have not read it recently, you can do so here.)

Captain Standish's wife has long passed, and he finally reveals to his friend and "stripling" John Alden that he has love in his heart for a good Puritan maid named Priscilla. Would Alden kindly, out of his friendship for the Captain, make the case to Maid Priscilla to marry the Captain? Alden--whose own secret love for Priscilla now plunges him into a fit of confused duties--gently asks why the Captain, whose many military campaigns have demonstrated his fearlessness, does not make the proposal to the Maid himself. Is this not the same Captain Standish, after all, who has said, "Serve yourself, would you be well served, is an excellent adage"?

Alas, the Captain confesses that he is "a maker of war, and not a maker of phrases." Yet the Captain then confesses an even deeper secret: the prospect of addressing a woman--this woman, on this topic--terrifies him:

Now, as I said before, I was never a maker of phrases.
I can march up to a fortress and summon the place to surrender,
But march up to a woman with such a proposal, I dare not.
I'm not afraid of bullets, nor shot from the mouth of a cannon,
But of a thundering 'No!' point-blank from the mouth of a woman,
That I confess I'm afraid of, nor am I ashamed to confess it!

The maid Priscilla is a remarkable woman. "Modest and simple and sweet," Alden tells us, yet powerful enough to make a grizzled war veteran tremble and to render Alden, the "elegant scholar / Having the graces of speech, and skill in the turning of phrases," able only to stammer "like a school-boy" when he addresses her.

I will not reveal the rest of Longfellow's story, but one contrast with our contemporary culture is particularly striking. The proper comportment of a gentleman before a lady was, clearly, one comprised of deference and deep, sincere respect. She could command him with the lightest touch--when Alden assists Priscilla's spinning, she occasionally brushes his hand with hers, "Sending electrical thrills through every nerve in his body"--and her virtue was at once an inspiration and a warning to him.

My how things have changed. It is difficult to say who, precisely, is at fault for the evaporation of the respect men once had for women; I suspect both men and women are at fault. Perhaps there are some today who will not lament the change, but it is hard to take the coarseness of contemporary manners as anything but a decline.

Reading Longfellow today stirs longings for a bygone era, perhaps permanently behind us. And of course the Victorian world of Longfellow, and the Puritan world he describes in "The Courtship of Miles Standish," had their vices and foibles as well. But the world of the gentleman and the lady still had a dignity and nobility that one cannot help but wish more people today knew of, and indeed, perhaps, even appreciated.

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