Our daughter learned to crawl in March 2017. She was soon traversing the wood slats of our old floors, heading for whatever object looked worthy of gumming. Occasionally she would cruise toward something perilous, like an open front door, so I would reach down with my large adult hands, grab her about her tiny infant midriff, and hoist her off the ground to change her direction.
Aloft, she would instantly arch her back and unleash a loud cry, fists and toes clenched, eyes and nose meeting in a frustrated knot. At first I was inclined to chuckle: This small body was protesting so hard! It was a miracle to see this little thing already have a preference and a direction! What a delight to see her articulate herself so! My daughter and her fruitless tiny frustration!
But I was quickly chastened by her protestations. I saw myself patronizing her as I upended her forward momentum and chuckled in her screaming face. And it began to dawn on me that if I want my daughter to be able to establish personal boundaries in her life, I should encourage her self-determination.
“Sovereignty” popped into my head in May as I raised my daughter aloft once more. I was interfering with my daughter’s sovereignty: her right to run her life without interference. The term is primarily applied to states and polities. In 2017, other struggles for sovereignty competed with my daughter’s foiled crawling.
In September 2017, the U.S. president expressly espoused “sovereignty” to the UN General Assembly to promote a more go-it-alone global order of independent self-interested powers. His vision for sovereignty suggests globalization in retreat against a more Westphalian vision of sovereignty, where nations run their own affairs and stay out of each other’s business.
I don’t personally wave a flag for increased national sovereignty — shared issues like human rights and environmental collapse do not end at borders. I believe we’re all riding Spaceship Earth together, so let’s work toward shared solutions to our complex problems. Enforcing “universal human norms” is a fraught task; still, in my leader’s speech, I would like to see more focus on peace and prosperity and less focus on bellicose sovereignty. Granted how frightening the world can be, I like to think my daughter would be better protected by community than armory.
We didn’t find out the sex of our child while she was living in my wife’s amniotic jacuzzi; we found out she had ladyparts after she emerged.
Once I realized we would be raising a daughter, I stood in new apprehension of my own experience of heterohunger. I have seen some sliver of what men can do; I’ve witnessed my own desire to have stranger-women pay attention to me and to win access to their bodies.
Now, as a father, I want to prepare my daughter to stand for herself, to assert her boundaries as men might approach her. I decided I should demonstrate that a man-type person in her life would respect her preferences. By September 2017, she was saying “no,” and I loved it. Some of her earliest “nos” were repeating what we had warned her against doing: “No throwing food on the floor!” we might exclaim. “N’yoh n’yoh n’yoh,” she would repeat, grinning and wagging her finger back at us.
Yay! We could celebrate her budding refusal power. But her “nos” were more difficult for me when I wanted to pick her up, to squeeze her and smell her and smile in the face of her existence. “No!” she often exclaims when I might lean in to kiss her cheek before I’m headed away from home. This woman, I’m learning, often prefers her personal space free from my close-up stinky dadface.
So far, this is a most important lesson of sovereignty from my daughter: She doesn’t owe me physical affection or even proximity.
As the first full calendar year of her life draws to a close, America is debating a woman’s right to be free from unwanted touch and predatory harassment. This female sovereignty in 2017 did not come with the ascent of our first XX-chromosome public servant to the American throne. This female sovereignty emerged from journalists outing predator men in positions of power. This foment against sexual harassment and assault is a welcome sign of personal sovereignty for a father concerned for his independent daughter: Perhaps she can grow up in a social context that affirms her boundaries. So, a celebration of sovereignty is in order!
Except sovereignty this year has not been uniformly easy for me to swallow. On November 8, 2016, I strapped my daughter onto my chest and headed to a party of pantsuited engineers at a former San Francisco pipe organ factory. I was beaming in advance to be with my daughter to watch the televised election returns as the first woman was elected president of the United States. Instead, electoral America affirmed a sovereignty that overruled my own.
Between the two party choices in November 2016, I preferred dignity in diversity, belief in science, optimism about immigrants, and affirming a woman’s right to choose. I might call this “sovereignty through progressive solidarity.” But instead, another vision of sovereignty won the day—what seems to me to be a more untrusting zero-sum America first.
I know otherwise-smart people who voted for Donald J. Trump for president. Some did it to express disdain for a corrupt political class unbothered by the concerns of working-class folks. Others I know voted Trump for cupidity. The architecture of our political system allowed the sovereign vision of the sprawling middle to overrule the more populous edges. Or perhaps our sovereignty was tipped by Russian meddling, a 21st-century violation of the spirit of the Peace of Westphalia.
It’s enough to make this urban California resident fret for his sovereignty. My nation now has a leader who enjoys picking petty fights, denigrating minorities, and promoting his family business from the White House. He demands petty fealties that upend our attention spans through social media; we’re enmeshed in a wounded narcissist septuagenarian’s fever dreams of sovereignty. And his victory challenges female empowerment: Today, this predatory man preens in a position of supreme power.
In November 2008, the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District filled with dancing celebrants who felt their vision of righteous power had been affirmed after too long wandering in the Bush. Eight years of soothing, rational Obama cool had lead me to imagine that our collective U.S. political spiral might wind upwards. But after November 2016, I imagined that sustained sovereignty from anyone is impossible. We think we’re in control, crawling toward our desires, when some larger force reaches down, picks us up, and changes our direction.
What is personal or even national sovereignty when so many forces impinge on our autonomy? It was more simple to understand sovereignty in earlier times: royal family members jousting and jostling. Now, so many various institutions and agents reach into our personal sovereign space. In the face of security breaches and systemantics, we have barely the illusion of personal sovereignty over our data, let alone our politics. We can learn and relearn that we have so little control, while we constantly work to preserve what little power we have.
I can believe I’m saving my daughter from injury when I pick her up: I figure it’s worth interfering with her sovereignty since she doesn’t know better. If we both live long enough, there will be plenty more I might wish to prevent her from doing. But at the root, I celebrate her indomitable spirit; I’m glad she doesn’t want to be deterred from her goals. I’m not sure what exactly I can say about the indomitable spirit of the American electorate — I wasn’t pleasantly surprised by this election, but I can ruefully admire the appetite for chaos that elected Donald Trump. Maybe Trump voters thought they were saving our collective lives by picking us up from crawling forward into traffic with ongoing Democratic party presidents.
Like my infant daughter inspired by her mobility and curious about what lies over the steep edge, we humans eagerly crawl toward danger, satisfying our curiosity, eating our earth and pooping our trash. If you stop us, we’ll arch our backs and wail and work to escape bondage so we can continue our unsettling struggles for sovereignty.