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Riane Eisler is a macro-historian; systems and cultural-transformation theorist; international activist for peace, human rights and the environment; and president of the Center for Partnership Studies. In The Chalice and the Blade (1987), an international best-seller, she reviewed Western history in a radical new way, and introduced the models of domination and partnership as two underlying possibilities for human organization. In Sacred Pleasure (1995), she applied these models to the erotic; in Tomorrow’s Children (2000), she applied them to child development and education. Her next book, The Power of Partnership, due in spring 2002, is a wildly original self-help book. We can’t help ourselves, she says, outside the complex web of our relationships — from family, to nation, to the Earth. She devotes a chapter to international relations, and the subject of terrorism comes up again and again. Eisler discusses terrorism and transformation with novelist and former L.A. Weekly staff writer Helen Knode.
RIANE EISLER: Look, this is not about the U.S. and the Arabs. It goes much deeper — and we need to understand this to deal with the long-range implications of post-industrial terrorism. We need to distinguish between what lies behind anti-American sentiment and what lies behind these acts of terrorism. I ask myself two questions. What’s at the bottom of these virulent acts against the U.S.? And what kind of family produces a person willing to fly an airplane into a building full of people he’s never met, who aren’t armed, who’ve never done anything to hurt him directly?
HELEN KNODE: Family? Discussions of the Middle East don’t usually start there.
But it’s where I start, because gender relations and parent-child relations are the critical, formative relations. This is where we first learn what’s normal and moral, where we learn values and behaviors.
Including terror and its uses, you mean.
Precisely. Terror and hate have a context. My research shows that underneath conventional classifications — religious versus secular, tribal versus industrial, right versus left, capitalist versus communist — are two underlying ways of structuring relations. They’re actually two opposite poles, with a continuum in between. At one end of this continuum is the dominator society. Dominator societies have existed throughout history and have the same basic plan, whether it’s Attila’s Huns, Hitler’s Germany or the Taliban’s Afghanistan. These societies consist of rigid top-down rankings, of “superiors” over “inferiors,” men over women, adults over children, “in-groups” over “out-groups” — rankings backed up by force and the threat of force in homes, in society, and between societies in chronic wars.
Terror is built into the dominator system, and these bombings are the latest manifestation of that fact. Muslim fundamentalists are extremely dominator, in a bizarrely feudal way. It’s as if they have one foot in the Middle Ages and another in our postmodern world with its powerful technologies of communication and destruction.
You’re saying that their family structure is feudal, too.
Yes, but first I want to be clear that this isn’t an anti-Muslim diatribe. There are dominator elements in every country, and we’ve seen a worldwide dominator regression in recent years. We see it in multinational sweatshops, environmental rollbacks, the widening gap between haves and have-nots, the IMF’s structural-adjustment policies. And we see it in resurgent religious fundamentalism, in the East and West, aimed at putting women back in “their place” and reinstating the absolute authority of the father.
Yes, their initial response to this horrible tragedy was to use it to incite more hate and persecution of the groups they’re after — feminists, secularists, abortionists, gays, lesbians, even People for the American Way. It’s grotesque. I know Falwell apologized under pressure. But unfortunately it’s not surprising that our own fundamentalists have introduced the first divisive note into a cataclysm that, above all, requires unity and sanity.
Do they think bin Laden cares if any Christian God is worshipped?
You see how the dominator mindset works. What they call the cure, I call a central problem — I, and every person who truly values freedom and democracy.
We were talking about the feudal family and terrorism.
Yes. Because in rigid dominator families, whether in the Muslim world or elsewhere, you learn from childhood that it’s okay to impose your will by force on those weaker than you — women and children — that it’s your God-given right to do so. And you learn never to express your anger or resentment against those who cause you pain, for fear of more pain. So you have a lot of stored rage that can be redirected toward “out-groups,” in pogroms and lynchings and “holy wars.”
But you can’t think that family is the only factor here. You’re no Freudian.
No, of course not. The family and society are profoundly interconnected. A mark of where a nation is on the dominator/partnership scale is how it treats women and children. Even if your family is less authoritarian, in a Muslim fundamentalist context, you still live in a culture where, for example, women get acid thrown in their face because they aren’t wearing a burka, or get killed by members of their own family because they exhibit sexual independence. You live in a culture that worships strong-arm rule and male violence.