Two Months and Five Days Later

My mother passed away two months and five days ago. (*See May, June, and July posts for references to this.)  The morning of July 14, Bastille Day, my friend Tanya’s birthday, the odd little contours of remembrance of a date, a number, that becomes too significant all too quickly.  In these two months, big, gulping tears of despair have overtaken me at certain moments, like when I suddenly come upon a photo of my mother at my house, or talk with my dad on the phone and he can’t pass the phone to my mom, or have a visual memory of holding my mother’s hand and whispering “goodbye” over and over (trying to convince myself it really was goodbye).  I have been taken by surprise by the force of my own body, bending over in its sobbing, slowly feeling relief in the humid release.  I have also been taken aback by experiencing what I call soldier days.  These are the days when I’m too occupied to feel the loss or at a loss, when work presses in and the kids need extra attention and dinner’s not yet made.

Many of my Spanish friends, when they expressed condolences, used the same phrase, reminding me to “crear un huequito para mi mamá,” to create a little space for my mom.  I loved hearing this phrase repeated by different people, all of whom were encouraging me to establish a new relationship with my mom, the reality of her absence, and my upside-down pyramids of memories of her.  The more I think about my friends’ suggestion, the more I understand the substance of that word “huequito.” A hole, a hollowed-out space, a gap, a place of time and space.  It’s all too facile to see this word as womb, but I do—a hollowed-out, protected space waiting for something to exist or grow there.  The gulping sobs on slower days and the secret rivulets of tears on busy days seem to come from and return to the huequito.  When I slow down enough to remember my mom, to think about her ghostly presence at her and my dad’s house, to wear a ring she gave to me, I don’t know, to just feel her around me, I’m so grateful for my heart and mind to have the huequito, a space sometimes left alone and sometimes filled to overflowing.

When my father’s mother died decades ago, I remember the wake and not wanting to go into the parlor to see my grandmother’s lifeless body.  Older relatives and priests were hovering over her body and chanting somber prayers in Lithuanian.  I wanted to remember my grandmother alive, with her big ears and dangling earrings, her mod glasses and dentures, and her interrogations about grades and musical instruments.  I was more interested in hearing the Lithuanian than paying homage to what seemed a lifeless form.  I was 23 years old.  When my own mother died, I was 51.  I no longer see the body as a lifeless form, but rather as a culmination of a full life lived and a memory that belongs forcefully in the huequito, alongside all the other memories of a body in motion and expressing emotions.  My sister’s insistence that we all share my mother’s little things—her rings, purses, scarves, and hats—helped me to understand how we fill the huequito and then visit it, with physical items whose texture and smell invite us to feel and remember.

I walk around every day looking at other people and wondering how they seem so impervious to loss, or so strong and resolute in the face of a loss.  I think, oh, my gosh, how many people have lost a parent and are successfully walking around here.  How do they do it?  And how do you carry on after losing your partner after a lifetime together?  How are people so strong? I imagine each of us has, to some degree, created the little space and spent time there, an intimate, private time that is a part of pain and, maybe, healing.

When I was quite little, my family and I watched the films “Death Be Not Proud” and “Brian’s Song” together.  I remember feeling unable to bring all that sadness into my body, unable to watch the whole film in the company of others. Over these past months, I’ve read Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death and Cory Taylor’s piece in The New Yorker titled “Questions for Me About Dying” (from Dying: A Memoir).  A few years ago, I also read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story.  I’ve been working on translating Rosa Montero’s La ridícula idea de no volver a verte (The Ridiculous Idea of Never Seeing You Again).  What I understood before July 14th has multiplied, and the appreciation I have for these authors who have so poignantly described their own illness and approaching death or the loss of loved ones has multiplied as well.

I had planned to write about Betsy DeVos and Title IX two weeks ago, and then last week, and then this week.  But somehow I am just not up to the task.  Lexington-style turmoil at work and Trump-style turmoil for our nation got the better of me, and I turned to the small space, the protected space of the huequito.

(Photo from the credits of the Netflix series “Fire Chasers” [Executive Producer Molly Mayock thanks our mom])

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Impatience is a Virtue

When our children were small, I always used to say, “Days are long, but time flies.”  When I teach about cultural differences, we discuss how people in a new culture adjust to the schedule (when you eat, sleep, work, and play).  As I think about social and political change, I watch people experiencing time in different ways.  For example, since the events of Charlottesville, more white people are “woke,” but I don’t think many more white people are moving more quickly to upend racist institutions.  They’re/We’re absorbing the images of what we saw and examining the undeniable and unfair realities for African American people across the United States. We do need to keep absorbing and examining, but we also need to act.  Charlottesville opened Pandora’s box, and we have been stung by the moths of turmoil and death.  Instead of slamming the lid shut, we can deal with the evils, make reparations, and create new signs and symbols that represent us and don’t oppress. It is time to make some progress.  In the case of racial justice, and social justice more broadly writ, impatience is a virtue, or, at the very least, a necessary bedfellow of patience.

Over the past week or so the English department at my university has come under fire for making what seems to many a bold statement about the events of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia and how they are related to what we live here in Lexington. (*See this August 20, 2017, Gender Shrapnel Blog piece, “Charlottesville (and Lexington),” for more information.) Several other departments and programs are drafting statements, a challenging task for groups of people who don’t always share core values or modes of expression.  Washington and Lee Rhodes Scholar Paqui Toscano (Class of 2017) had two thoughtful and beautifully-written op-eds (on disability and on Confederate legacies) published this summer in The New York Times.  Some universities would feature this front and center on the website, maybe with a headline like: “Recent Grad and Rhodes Scholar featured again in The New York Times.”  I understand the politics of patience in the university’s choice not to publish a piece that accelerates questioning of names and monuments.  Nevertheless, I wish the choice were to share this piece–to announce and embrace that our graduates are successful critical thinkers and public intellectuals.

The backlash against the English Department statement and the hush-hush of the op-ed remind me again of what I always say about a racist or sexist status quo—that some people believe that challenging the status quo is more brutal than the racism or sexism itself.  How are we so easily shocked by mild protest based in historical fact?

This week a group of people at the University of Virginia put a shroud over a statue of Thomas Jefferson.  University President Teresa Sullivan expressed strong disagreement with the covering of the statue and the signs that called Jefferson a racist and rapist.  She reiterated that the University has acknowledged its slave-owning past and is working towards healing the wounds of the August 11th weekend.  Virginia Republican Party Chairman John Whitbeck referred to the actions (in the same piece from The Washington Post) as “vandalism.”  The actions of the student protesters, as far as I can tell from the reports and photos I’ve seen, don’t seem to constitute vandalism in that the statue itself was neither destroyed nor defaced.  In fact, this kind of symbolic protest (a shroud, some signs) seems about as respectful as it can be, unless we are still not supposed to acknowledge either racism or rape.  The over-protection of Jefferson’s image seems to imply an under-protection of those who have suffered from his legacy.

Years ago, a colleague and friend said to me, “The best way for an administrator to slow something down is to create a committee.” With a hot-button topic, like, say, Confederate monuments and celebrated Confederate generals, or, maybe, sexual assault, a committee can be appointed to study the topic and issue a report a year or so down the line.  Many constituencies are then convinced the issue is being addressed, and then high-level folks can convince big-money folks that nothing has changed, that the status quo can still be embraced, and that the coffers are still open.  I believe that these committees can do good work and actually do good work, and I appreciate the generosity of time and expertise of committee members.  I appreciate the generosity of time and money of philanthropists as well.  But I also believe that the work of these committees should be accompanied by shorter-term actions that ask difficult questions and seek necessary change sooner.  My own impatience has me ask—what are we waiting for?  The time to stop celebrating structural racism and idolizing Confederate heroes is…now!

We all live and experience both ambiguity and hypocrisy.  This is part of being human.  When we don’t recognize these experiences, however, we diminish our ability to assess our condition and change it for the better.  In my current state of hypocrisy, I occupy a newly renovated office which is quite palatial.  The office is in the last building of Washington and Lee’s historic colonnade to be renovated, and this renovation was funded in large part by a billionaire who, at a Wall Street fraternity induction event several years ago, dressed in drag (a fine thing to do, generally, but in this case the action seems to mock women and of course signals the small number of women at the exclusive fraternity event) and wore a Confederate flag on his head.  I don’t know this person, but I cannot condone or celebrate these actions, nor do I think they are counteracted very well by major philanthropy or good intentions in other arenas.  If I were to don a Confederate flag and then go teach a class, I might expect people to condemn my action.  If the individual or the University had ever explained or apologized for the message sent by this person’s actions, I wouldn’t feel as impatient as I do today.  I confront this hypocrisy (criticizing the actions of the person who paid for the fancy office I inhabit) here in this blog, usually read by no more than 350 people in a week.  I wish we as individuals and as parts of institutions could name the hypocrisies we live, critique them more soundly, and work to overcome them.  Ardent defense of these actions has a chilling effect for those who prefer that African Americans not be threatened and women not be mocked.

My frequent use of passive voice in this post reveals some of my own cowardice.  I may well be hiding behind language so as not to call people out directly or simply to protect myself.  Confronting specific events and people and asking for change challenge us.  While many people will read this post and find it too harsh, others will read it and find it too forgiving. Despite the different ways in which we measure time and societal change, I’m still advocating for picking up our pace. Last night I attended Dr. Wornie Reed’s excellent presentation on race, racism, and civil discourse.  Reed strongly stated that racial justice must come from gathering data about the policies, practices, and procedures of our institutions, confronting the data, and recommending change based on the information.  Dr. Reed specifically mentioned employment, medical care, housing, and law enforcement as institutional zones that need our attention.  Although I don’t collect data for a living, I try to understand published data that inform policy decisions.  As a humanist, I listen to language and observe signs and symbols in order to interpret messages and understand how, when, and why they are sent.  The language, signs, and symbols are my version of data, and we need to understand them as well to make informed recommendations for change.

Breaking Fast

(The News-Gazette, Lexington, Virginia, September 6, 2017)

Buena Vista (pronounced “Byuna Vista”), Virginia, hosts a big breakfast, parade, and speeches each year on Labor Day.  The Democrats and Republicans break their fast separately, and then join together for the parade and speeches.  Buena Vista’s residents are mostly Republicans; many of the very few Democrats in attendance at the parade drive six miles on Route 60 East from the neighboring town of Lexington.  You know Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  Well, the Labor Day parade is a tale of two towns, one red, one blue.

My husband and I drove separately to the Democratic Party breakfast because we had to head in different directions afterwards.  As I made the short drive, I listened to radio news about the impending death of DACA.  Gender shrapnel news and events of the past week pierced my thoughts.  A nurse in Utah was handcuffed by a policeman when she wouldn’t violate patient protections and draw blood from an unconscious patient.  A 2014 report on sexual violence was removed from the White House website.  Statistics about the enormous gender pay gap at the White House resurfaced for the Labor Day moment.  Head of the Office of Civil Rights Candice Jackson boasted on her resume that she had fiercely attacked Hillary Clinton.  In my own little town’s lovely pie festival, 99% of the young volunteers were girls, being trained to do free labor for their community while the boys did whatever the hell they wanted.  Some major items, a few minor ones—together they made for gender shrapnel stew.  And when I’m stewing, and the weather’s beautiful, and you’re supposed to just eat barbeque and enjoy, it can be rough going.  The people who usually kindly listen to you or patiently analyze with you or fervently fume like you have had enough.  People experience shrapnel overdoses and a need to disconnect, but I was still stewing and fuming. Breaking fast with the Dems didn’t help a whole lot.

When my husband and I got to the breakfast, we picked up our name tags from the front desk.  Two women were working there, and they seemed to be the owners of the handsome cursive writing on the tags.  My husband’s tag included the title “Dr.,” while mine just had my first and last name.  Men gave each other hearty handshakes and then introduced their “better halves” to each other.  We sat up front with some nice people who seemed to be regulars at the event.  They welcomed us warmly, and we all made small talk.

There in the high school atrium, cinder block walls with “Go Blue” written in big letters, and a vague smell of ham on bun and creamed corn from high school lunches past, we were four feet from the slate of Democratic candidates.  Candidate for lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax and local candidate John Winfrey sat in between the master of ceremonies and the minister.  On the other side of the dais sat Ralph Northam, Tim Kaine, Mark Herring, and Creigh Deeds, well known Democratic candidates and elected officials.

Each did the job he had to do, and each spoke quite well.  The minister gave a prayer and blessed the meal.  For an atheist who believes fiercely in the separation of church and state, the blessings and prayers made me roll my eyes, think impure thoughts, and glance around at everyone in a more curious way than I normally would.  The MC spoke eloquently and graciously and thanked all the right people.  John Winfrey spoke briefly to make room in the packed schedule for those who had a helicopter waiting to whisk them away.  Justin Fairfax spoke with great warmth and charisma.  Creigh Deeds demonstrated his decades of political knowledge in Virginia.  Mark Herring spoke in concrete terms about the four years of work he has done as attorney general and the plans he has for the next term.  Ralph Northam, clearly avoiding any talk of the pipeline or Dominion, hewed to the topic he knows best, healthcare.  I had to remind myself to pay good attention to him because he looks and sounds so much like a former boyfriend that it was distracting.  Tim Kaine thanked Democrats for their activism since 2016, talked about how Democrats need to make opportunities for all, and inspired the crowd to work hard on behalf of the party until November 7th.  For the most part, the speakers were well-prepared and interesting.

I watched and noticed the rhetorical requirements of political speakers in this kind of event—an ability to modulate the voice in order to gently whip up the crowd, a certain false language of self-deprecation as the speakers listed their many accomplishments, a buddy-buddy network demonstrated through the personal stories the men told about each other, and an insistence on talking about the abnegating women who indulge the husbands’ “call” to public service and still feel hot and romantic towards them, all these years later, in a kind of Al and Tipper French kiss thrall.

Have you noticed where I’m breaking fast?  Six Democratic candidates, all men.  One of them black, five white.  An older white man as MC and an older white man as minister.  To use the overly popular new term, the optics aren’t good.  At the same time, I really think I was the only person of the 200 or so at the breakfast who gave a shit about gender in that moment, who noticed how the men ran the public show and the women ran the private one, who wondered if there is a real place in any political party for 51% of the population.  To use Danielle Allen’s words, is there a way for women in any party to be “democratic authors”—to make themselves trustworthy, to participate in tough public policy debates, and to foment conversations that include all the people?  Is the big failed Hillary experiment a signal to the Democrats that they’re to blow off all women because women just aren’t the face of the party?  These were big Democratic players on a small-town stage, and they made clear that they don’t even have to pretend to include women—not as emcees, not as pastors or ministers, not as small-town candidates, not as big state party candidates or officials.

I’ve made my political and ethical home in this party because the other one is abhorrent, and inhumane tides must be stemmed. But the utter lack of gender awareness within the Democratic Party means that we are as far from full gender representation as we’ve ever been.  This is a big, hypocritical, sorry-ass mess.

So, yes, I’m still stewing and fuming and I’m thinking a lot about when I met with Lidia Falcón, famous lawyer, author, and founder of Spain’s Feminist Party (founded in 1979, just four years after the death of the Generalísimo).  When I asked Falcón where on the political spectrum she saw feminism, she replied, “Well, it’s the overcoming of communism and the perfection of all the parties.  It’s true equality.”  A very Second Wave response, it’s now making me think that it’s about as avant-garde as we’re going to get, ever.

Is there a political party that is really ready to nominate, support, showcase, and elect women to run municipalities, congressional districts, states, and the country?  I believe the answer right now is “no,” and I believe this means that this is no country for old women, or middle-aged ones, for that matter.  The ridiculous bifurcation of public service for men and private service for women, of speeches, parades, and pavilions for men and booths, nametags, and phonebanks for women, of skateboarding and loafing for boys and serving up barbeque and pie for girls has got to stop.  We are not your helpmates, men.  We are your running mates.

A photo of blue town starts this post.  A photo of red town ends it.

Labor Day, 2017

(https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/07/05/white-house-gender-pay-gap-more-than-triples-under-trump/?utm_term=.7f6ba9d7e3a2)

 

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/07/01/racial-gender-wage-gaps-persist-in-u-s-despite-some-progress/

Tomorrow is Labor Day, 2017, here in the United States.  The White House celebrates this milestone by creating a 37% gender pay gap within its own ranks.  This The Washington Post piece (7-5-2017) informs us that, “According to the Pew Research Center, the Trump White House gender gap is wider than the national gender pay gap stood in 1980.”  I haven’t been able to find data for pay gaps based on race in the Trump White House, presumably because there are not enough employees of color hired by Trump even to generate data points. (I do not know the statistics for the long-term staff who cook, clean, and organize the day-to-day needs of this big enterprise.)  Nevertheless, we do know (Politico, 1-24-2017) that 85% of Trump’s cabinet choices are white, and 75% are male.  Henry C. Jackson writes in the piece, “The numbers don’t lie: Trump’s Cabinet is older, whiter and richer than his predecessors.”  Jackson informs us, too, that there are “no Hispanics” at all in this “president’s” Cabinet.

The second graph (above) from the Pew Research Center shows 2016 statistics on the gender and race pay gap in the United States, which at least recognizes differentials between and among Asian, Black, Hispanic, and White women and men.  According to this chart, Hispanic/Latina women in 2016 earn 58% of white men’s earnings and 70% of white women’s, and Black women earn 65% of what white men earn.  The report also states that “Black and Hispanic men have made no progress in narrowing the wage gap with white men since 1980.”  This bleak picture of the pay gap is all too familiar and long-standing, and the current party in power in its public policies and its own hiring practices is reinforcing the inequities across race and gender.  The New York Times reported last week that, “even after decades of affirmative action, black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at the nation’s top colleges and universities than they were 35 years ago.”  These data underscore the challenges of access (for example, to elite schools, graduation from which catapults students into greater areas of privilege) and the resultant inequalities that continue to plague our economic systems.  Of course, the greater the economic inequality, the more difficult life is in other areas, and this maps generally unfavorably for those who are not white.  (Just check out statistics on, for example, mass incarceration and increased lack of security of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.)

Bryce Covert writes in today’s The New York Times that the Unites States’ drop in female labor force participation (6th highest in the world in 1990; 17th highest in 2010) is due in part to “the fact that other developed countries instituted and expanded policies like paid family leaves, subsidized child care and flexible work arrangements while the United States did barely anything at all.” Add to this the decrease in women’s reproductive rights, slowness in closing the gender pay gap for all races, and the increased reports in sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, and you have a workplace that continues to be at least unwelcoming, if not downright hostile, to women of all races, and especially to women who are not white.

As I watch the Trump White House send message after message that white men will continue to make money on the backs of men and women of color and white women, I see the same messages communicated here in the 6th District of Virginia.  Our representative, Bob Goodlatte, has not appeared in Lexington, Virginia, to address his constituents directly since 2013. This past Thursday, Goodlatte did visit Lexington for a closed visit with area veterans of the Vietnam war (all men, mostly white).  During recess from Congress, Goodlatte also touted his tours of Shenandoah Valley farms and agribusinesses.  Don’t get me wrong: it is perfectly fine to celebrate people who have served our nation and who produce the food we eat.  But it is not fine only to recognize the hard work of mostly men and mostly white people.  This is an elected official, with Trump as role model, who chooses only to speak to white men.

The 6th District is a lot more than veterans and farmers, and we workers of all genders and races need to have the ear of our representative.

Here I have parsed economic questions of labor according to gender and race.  In some ways, this moves against the prescriptions of the Occupy/99%/Bernie Sanders-inflected movements, which prescribe a more unified front based mostly (or maybe solely) on economic justice. Nevertheless, I do subscribe to Nancy Fraser’s argument (published here in The New Left Review, July-August 2016)  that “capitalist societies have separated the work of social reproduction from that of economic production,” associating social reproduction with women and free labor and economic production with men and remunerated labor.  Fraser suggests that we need to break this dichotomy in order to recognize and remunerate all forms of labor with a fair wage.  Given the statistics on gender and race wage gaps, we need to move in this direction, recognizing, as Fraser has said here (in Spanish; 8-23-2017), that we are all residents of this country who are capable of sustaining/earning and caring for people.

Lilla Again: Campus Politics

*A shorter version of this blog post was published as a Letter to the Editor on The Chronicle of Higher Education site.

(The New York Times photograph of students protesting Mike Pence, May, 2017 Notre Dame graduation; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/31/us/parents-students-summer.html?mcubz=3)&_r=0)

A few days ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a long piece by Columbia University Humanities professor Mark Lilla.  This piece, “How Colleges are Strangling Liberalism,” is adapted from Lilla’s recently published book, titled The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.  As The Chronicle has done with other authors (*see this Gender Shrapnel post), here they have had the author write a “Chronicle Review” piece about his own book.  The timing of the publication of the piece, nine days after the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, coupled with the subtitle of the article, “An obsession with identity has made students less likely to engage with a world beyond themselves,” seems intended to fan the flames of our national debate about white supremacy and to blame the left for its visible resurgence.

Full disclosure: I addressed Mark Lilla’s ideas in the Gender Shrapnel Blog back in November of 2016, soon after the election (another propitious moment to fan flames), when The New York Times ran Lilla’s piece, titled “The End of Identity Liberalism.”  The November blog post I wrote takes issue with Lilla’s refusal to learn the lessons of the interdisciplinary programs he scorns.  His inability to recognize why “identity politics” is an exclusive and offensive term cripples his argument.  The term comes to life only when people who aren’t cis, white males start having a political voice. In the second paragraph of his piece in The Chronicle, Lilla writes, “All of us liberals involved in higher education need to take a long look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we contributed to putting the country in this situation.”  This would have been a good moment for Lilla to make clear what he means by “all of us liberals.”  Who are “us liberals,” and what do we have in common?  How does the author define “liberalism” itself?

Lilla accuses 1980s liberals who espoused a “politics of identity” of “losing a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation.”  I was in high school and college in the Reagan 80s, and, like many of my peers, I was concerned about and involved in protests of nuclear armament, apartheid—in South Africa and in the United States–, U.S. support of right-wing fascist dictatorships in Latin America, and the nation’s continued failure to support and elect women leaders of all backgrounds.  In other words, I did not feel “bound” to my nation because so many people were disenfranchised from participation in the voice and governance of the nation.

Lilla says, “What was astonishing during the Reagan years, though, was the development of an explicit left-wing identity politics that became the de facto creed of two generations of liberal politicians, professors, school teachers, journalists, movement activists, and officials of the Democratic Party.  This has been disastrous for liberalism’s prospects in our country, especially in the face of an increasingly radicalized right.”  My sense of this argument is that Lilla is encouraging a seemingly all-embracing left (would that it were more so) to silence its recognition of the existence of different groups (often formed from a shared group identity; often formed in response to visible and invisible systems of oppression) so as not to galvanize the forces of the right, so as not to unleash the dangerous forces of the right.  Is this silence, or this inaction, not just another form of oppression, in this case, as posited by Lilla, an oppression of the left that he recommends being imposed by the left?  Lilla says that the only way to “meaningfully assist them” (with “them” being “minorities”; ah, the haughtiness of this tone, the distance established) is “to win elections.”  Yes, absolutely, winning elections is essential, of course.  But multi-pronged approaches to problems, approaches that draw upon a variety of people’s different strengths, also work.  I believe the function of higher education is to develop this variety of skills, analytical approaches, and ability to collaborate so that our students become citizens who are interested in the world and able to effect change no matter where they land.  Also significant is our need to understand affective approaches to the polis—understanding our changing selves, engaging in dialogue with many others, and working together towards viable solutions.  I envision Venn diagrams of groups that often exist apart but certainly find interlocking areas of affinity, agreement, and action.

Martha S. Jones’ response to Lilla, “What Mark Lilla Gets Wrong About Students,” published in the August 24, 2017, edition of The Chronicle, appropriately takes issue with Lilla’s overgeneralized characterizations of today’s generation of college students.  While Lilla states in general terms that our students are obsessed with their own identities and are unable to engage with the broader world, Jones gives concrete examples of students who have watched the gathering clouds of racism and done something about them.  I would like to add to Jones’ examples.  At the small university where I teach (which Lilla might see as “detached socially and geographically from the rest of the country”), many students understand their own changing mores and priorities and figure out how to contribute in small and large ways to the local community and the larger political realm.  Many don’t assume one, blanket national identity, but rather work to understand the many groups that make up the United States and the positive and negative effects our nation’s leaders have had on the world.  Many of the students recognize their own wealth and privilege (or lack thereof, in some cases) and labor to alleviate, to the extent they can, the challenges of everyday living for people in our community—transportation, food supplies, safety, education, and literacy.

Lilla’s characterization of college towns also reveals his own biases, rather than the more nuanced realities that one can seek to see, understand, and engage with: “A thoroughly bourgeois setting without a trace of the demos, apart from the homeless men and women who flock there and whose job it is to keep it real for the residents.”  The tongue-in-cheek tone both contradicts Lilla’s later criticism of “casting an ironic eye” towards democratic politics and caricaturizes real people who experience actual life struggles.  In addition, Lilla says that campus towns “are very pleasant places to live.”  The town where I live is beautiful, but it can also be an unpleasant, and sometimes downright hostile, place for people to live.  (See last week’s post in the Gender Shrapnel Blog.)  Again, Lilla’s unexamined position is from above, and he neglects to distinguish between and among types of colleges and universities and the surrounding towns.  The refusal to engage with the world beyond the Ivory Tower simply reaffirms Lilla’s sense of the Tower itself.  Nevertheless, there are plenty of other ways to exist, teach, and advise in the higher education setting.  Instead of creating a straw man of so-called “identity politics” and this current generation of students, Lilla could get in the trenches and see what kind of actual work is being done.

I hope a collective sigh takes hold of The Chronicle’s audience when it reads Lilla’s sudden decision to incorporate a “she” in his article.  When he asks readers to “imagine a young student entering such an environment today,” the young student is a “she,” and the old master paternalistically mocks the courses the student chooses to take, the groups she chooses to join, the ways in which she will choose to be labeled a “victim.”  The long screed against this fictional “she” includes this assertion: “If our young student accepts the mystical idea that anonymous forces of power shape everything in life, she will be perfectly justified in withdrawing from democratic politics and casting an ironic eye on it.”  Is Trump “an anonymous force of power?”  Are Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler, and Christopher Cantwell “anonymous forces of power?” Is Dylann Roof an “anonymous force of “power”?  How about Brock Turner?  I believe we know the names and faces of those who use power—whether manifested through elected office or violence, or both—for their own gain, and I don’t think we could say that Heather Heyer, for example, chose to withdraw from democratic politics and cast an ironic eye on it.

If Lilla had used concrete examples (for example, here: “Today’s activists and leaders are formed almost exclusively at colleges and universities”) and had avoided sweeping generalizations (e.g. “liberal academics idealize the ‘60s generation”), I might have understood his argument better.  Had he not completely discarded the profound social, political, and legal impact of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, I might have understood his argument better.  Had he not made a sermon out of “reasoned political debate,” and had actually defined what that is, I might have understood his argument better.  Had he provided statistics (for example, about how colleges are “mainly run by liberals”), I might have understood his argument better.  In other words, had Lilla practiced the research and writing prescriptions offered in most higher education curricula, I might have understood his argument better.

I argue that we are not imposing an identity-based education, but that neither are we ignoring that individual and group identities exist and enjoy different levels of voice, visibility, and power, in our curricula, on our campuses, in our political realm.  To interpret contemporary campus politics with nuance, we have to examine our course offerings (have the white dudes really been taken over across the curriculum?), club offerings (I don’t think fraternities have disappeared, have they?), and our towns (real people live and work in these towns; real people struggle in these towns).  Traditional power dynamics still prevail, and they seem both unstudied and reinforced in Lilla’s work.

Does Lilla’s message continue to be broadly publicized because it comforts those who want to believe in a universal “us” and scorns and silences people and movements on the left who are laboring to achieve a working wage, safety from the violence of white supremacist groups, and a sense of fairness in our world?

Charlottesville (and Lexington)

(Photographs of “flaggers” in Lexington, Virginia)

If the events in Charlottesville did nothing else, they made clear to multitudes of people who somehow weren’t yet sure that, since the nation’s inception, we in the United States have created and sustained in overt and covert ways profound systems of oppression—especially of black and brown individuals and communities and Jewish peoples.

The flood of articles, interviews, longer magazine pieces, and more informal posts on social media take our nation, and especially and appropriately white people, to task for ignoring realities and/or taking no action in the face of awareness, and they reveal the many gulfs of levels of belief and understanding between and among us.  Sherman Alexie’s poem “Hymn” speaks beautifully to the sadness and complexities of our current moment; “Renegade Mama” reminds white women that “This is definitely us” (meaning we are complicit in the system of oppression); Ijeoma Oluo’s piece on The Establishment gives practical advice on battling white supremacy; the UVa Graduate Student Coalition published “The Charlottesville Syllabus” to teach us about “the long history of white supremacy in Charlottesville, Va.”; presidents of academic organizations and universities and mayors, congresspeople, and governors have made statements about Charlottesville to condemn white supremacists and their umbrella groups.  This video clip of Toni Morrison on the Charlie Rose Show in 1993 has also recently made the rounds on social media.  Of course, we all know that our oppressor-in-chief was prepared from the very start of his term (and seemingly throughout his life) to support white supremacist groups.

I am a white woman who still has a lot to learn about the history of monuments, the rise of white supremacist groups, and the daily dangers, obstacles, and challenges in the life of people of color living in the United States.  I am writing about Charlottesville this week because I cannot think or write about anything else (except for the additional tragedy of the events in Barcelona and Cambrils), nor can I sleep, nor can I feel safe for friends, oppressed communities, or my own family.  In this blog post I’m going to provide cultural context to my own living situation and then list briefly the major issues that I have seen underscored in the week since white domestic terrorists armed themselves to the teeth, marched triumphantly through various areas of Charlottesville, chanted vile words against African Americans, Jewish people, women, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and killed peaceful activist Heather Heyer and injured many more.

I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, where I always wondered at the lack of nuance in official discussions about Thomas Jefferson and at the banal insistence on putting a Jefferson quote on every building stone and t-shirt.  For 20 years I have lived in Lexington, Virginia, home to Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University.  Lexington continues to confront its own problematic history of slavery, the Civil War, complicity with Jim Crow laws and culture, civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 60s, and present-day conflicts about what the city does or can represent.  This week there has been discussion here among knowledgeable and generous people of generating a “Lexington Syllabus” to make more transparent the conflicted history of white supremacy in this town.

VMI was founded in 1839.  Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson taught at VMI and is kept alive in the town through the following: his statue at VMI; his gigantic tomb, flanked by those of other Confederate soldiers, at the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery; the Stonewall Jackson House; the Stonewall Jackson Hospital (where my two children were born); Stonewall Street; Jackson Street; even Jackson’s horse, Sorrel, is stuffed and housed at the VMI Museum.

Washington and Lee University was founded in 1749.  As you can tell by the name, the university was named for its founders, two of the most famous generals (the “Generals” are also the mascot of the university) of United States History.  As president of the school from 1865-70, Robert E. Lee lived on the university campus.  “Lee House” is the name of the presidential residence at W&L.  The university’s chapel is Lee Chapel, in the basement of which you can find the crypt of Lee and several family members.  Even his horse, Traveller, is buried right outside the chapel.  A famous statue of Lee literally occupies center stage in Lee Chapel.  This statue is called “Recumbent Lee,” but I usually call it “Incumbent Lee,” because it feels as if he’s always about to return to the university presidency.  Besides W&L’s numerous reminders of Lee, the town of Lexington boasts the RE Lee Episcopal Church, the Robert E. Lee Hotel and Lee Street.

The university has celebrated Lee as just another one of its presidents.  In 2006, the incoming president of W&L said this about Lee: “Then of course, there is Robert E. Lee, assuming the leadership of Washington College after the Civil War. Offered numerous other opportunities, Lee chose a college presidency because it was the only option that allowed him to help bind the wounds of a divided nation. If the United States was to recover from the devastation and moral wounds of the Civil War, the healing had to begin with education. We build upon the legacy of Lee, the educator, with an ongoing commitment to educating citizens and leaders for a complex world.” (Here is a piece that president wrote almost six years later, more nuanced, but still adopting a rehabilitative view of Lee.)  Ultimately, though, this president did take down the Confederate flags that were displayed on the W&L campus.  If I recall correctly, the university (where I teach) has also sponsored exhibitions and workshops of “Lee the Educator.”  When I interviewed at W&L on a January Monday, the university was celebrating “Founders’ Day” (Washington and Lee), while the rest of the nation celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.

In the Gender Shrapnel Blog, I’ve written on several occasions about the oppressive nature of civility codes and the problematic silencing of so-called identity politics.  I suspect that this week’s post will be unpopular among some groups of my town and university, but I also think we must face the hypocrisies we continue to foment as we fear airing the dirty laundry of our past and present.  Four years ago, W&L rightly determined that it would publicly reckon with the institution’s slave-owning past.  To do so, the institution placed an historical marker on the side of Robinson Hall on the university’s historic Colonnade to show that donor John Robinson had been the owner of 84 enslaved people and to name those 84 individuals.  This marker was visible from my office window, and I was glad to see even the smallest nod towards understanding that W&L had benefited from the ownership and labor of enslaved peoples.  At the same time, renovation of the entire Colonnade was nearing its end, supported in large part by a big donation from W&L alumnus and former trustee Warren Stephens.  Stephens has been listed as part of the Wall Street fraternity not-so-slyly named Kappa Beta Phi.  In a 2014 article in New York Magazine, Kevin Roose recounts his infiltration of the group’s big annual event, which featured Stephens and his “fraternity brothers” doing skits.  Roose writes, “Warren Stephens, an investment banking CEO, took the stage in a Confederate flag hat and sang a song about the financial crisis, set to the tune of “Dixie.” (“In Wall Street land we’ll take our stand, said Morgan and Goldman. But first we better get some loans, so quick, get to the Fed, man.”).”  This link from the Arkansas Times used to contain a link to the audio of the performance.  As I recall, the New York Magazine piece originally included video coverage of the event, but that has also been removed.  This Salon piece comments on Stephens’ link to the Confederate flag, and extrapolates to a discussion of Wall Street’s ties with the Confederacy.

While the historical marker for 84 enslaved people is found to the side of one of the buildings on W&L’s historic Colonnade, Warren Stephens is honored with not one, but two, rectangular stones, placed right on the Colonnade itself—one at either end of the brick-lined walk.  Stephens frames the Colonnade, and W&L’s enslaved peoples are tucked to the side.  There is still much work to do in terms of the semiotics of remembrance, reckoning, and reconciliation.

One of the Lexington citizens who led the way to make illegal displays of the Confederate flag in public spaces used to own the house I live in.  Groups of “flaggers” still drive by our house every year throughout Martin Luther King Day Weekend and, on occasion, they hop out of their cars, 30-40 women, men, and children abreast, line up by the curb in the front of our house, wave their Confederate flags, and sing “Dixie.”  (See photos of this, above.) They also remark at the “Latinos for Obama,” “End Crooked Districts,” “Safe Space,” and “Take Back the House” bumper stickers on our 21-year-old car.  These are the days we don’t allow our children to walk home from school or go outside without us.

Three days ago, as the town worried about increased activity and potential for violence, especially given the events in Charlottesville, the U.S. “president’s” continued support of white supremacist groups, and our proximity to Charlottesville, I heard myself say to my daughter, “The flaggers are out.  Please be careful after school.”  After I said this, I realized how normal such a statement had become and thought about how that statement must feel more acute and necessary in homes of black and brown residents of our town.

This week my mind has done daily roundtrips between Charlottesville and Lexington.  The major issues that keep popping up include (but are by no means limited to):

-Real violence and real threats of violence being enacted by white domestic terrorists on communities of color and their allies;

-White House cultivation and support of these groups, including Neo-Nazis, Neo-Confederates, and the KKK;

-Discussion of white supremacy, systems of oppression, our nation’s history as the present, and the need for greater awareness and action, especially on the part of white people;

-Awareness of increased tensions for Jewish peoples and women as well;

-The clash between the 1st and 2nd Amendments; how to protect free speech and the right to assembly when weapons of war are used against us;

-Monuments and memorials (See Barton Myers’ interview in the Los Angeles Times);

-Complicated conversations among people on the left, revealing some intersectional and generational splits, or rifts; a recognition of the need for more education, dialogue, and action on the issue of white supremacy.

Our “president” is both a symptom of and a catalyst for oppressive systems that have been in place here in this nation for centuries.  His “vice president” can’t be much better.  Therefore, even an accelerated change in the leadership of the White House to an entirely different administration won’t reduce or eliminate white supremacy.  We citizens have to do it, and we’ll need to do so with a multi-pronged approach.  This should include firmness about the terms we use, the legal implications of the 2nd Amendment and the powerful NRA lobby, the monuments we remove, and the hours we devote.  We also need a heightened understanding of the politics and ethos of non-violent protest.  And we need to show up. The resources are out there.  It’s time to read, learn, and act.

Close Reading Bob Goodlatte

 

 

 

 

 

 

(E-mailed response from Congressman Bob Goodlatte to one of my requests that he support the ACA and Planned Parenthood.  The e-mail reply from Goodlatte arrived in my inbox on Tuesday, August 8, 2017.)

Do you remember your high school and/or college teachers and professors requiring close readings of literary texts?  The kind of close reading for which you summarized the plot or movement of the segment, discerned the principal theme, and examined the rhetorical devices that made the piece a work of art that communicated an idea?  Well, it’s hardly possible to do all that with Bob Goodlatte’s form letter genre, but I’m going to complete here a brief analysis of a Goodlatte letter.

This week, I’m taking a page out of my friend and colleague Chris Gavaler’s blog.  Since December 2016, Chris has written Congressman Bob Goodlatte a letter every day, and all the letters are posted in Gavaler’s “Dear Bob” blog.  This is an amazing undertaking, which has allowed Chris to become extremely well-versed on our regional and national political issues, educate others on what he has learned, and take daily action.  The Goodlatte staffers all know who Chris is, and they have met with him on several occasions.  In his blog, Gavaler often signals the absurdity of Goodlatte’s responses to him. The responses sometimes don’t address at all the issue raised by Chris; sometimes they pretend to address Chris’s question but go in a conveniently different direction; the responses usually reassert Goodlatte’s supposed moral superiority over everybody but Donald Trump, who, for Goodlatte, is a paragon of virtue.  Gene Zitver, also from our area, maintains the “Goodlatte Watch” blog.  The Gender Shrapnel Blog has also  looked at Goodlatte’s political and communication shortcomings in several posts (Theatre of the Absurd; Bob Goodlatte Does Nothing Again, Only it’s Worse; Bob Goodlatte Needs a Better Job Description).

Over the phone, by formal petition and e-mail, and in person with Goodlatte staffers, I (along with a good number of people in my area) have protested many actions taken by the congressman and his party members. These actions include, but are certainly not limited to, refusing to execute duties as Chariman of the House Judiciary to investigate ethics violations of the current “president,” Goodlatte staffers’ composing the Muslim travel ban order, supporting any and all repeal and replace efforts proposed by the GOP, running sham “telephone townhalls,” and never appearing in person at the meetings scheduled by his staffers to meet with constituents throughout the 6th District.  I’ve received many replies from Goodlatte staffers, in both paper and e-mail forms.  They are predictable in their bureaucratic rhetoric, verbosity, and tone of patronizing superiority (a kind of “sit next to me and let me explain a few things to you, little girl” tone).  Sometimes they address the issue I raised; sometimes the letters have nothing to do with the concern I articulated.

Here I offer a close reading, paragraph by paragraph, of the most recent response I got from Congressman Bob Goodlatte.

Salutation: “Dear Dr. Mayock” –Good start!  I do have a Ph.D., but I don’t usually ask people to call me “Dr.”  On the Goodlatte web form, choosing a title is required.  I sometimes choose “Mr.,” sometimes, “Reverend,” sometimes “Dr.”  Just depends on the mood of the day.  I always figure I’ll get a quicker response if my chosen title seems to indicate to Goodlatte and his people that I’m a dude.

Paragraph 1: “Thank you…” I appreciate the polite acknowledgement of my contact with Bob.

Paragraph 2: “No matter where we stand on abortion as individuals, we can agree that 1.6 million abortions per year is an American tragedy…”  I have actually never addressed the abortion question or anti-choice legislation in any of my communications with Goodlatte.  I have only stated that the proposed ACHA would defund Planned Parenthood, which plays a fundamental role in healthcare for underserved communities.  Planned Parenthood does not equal abortion services, but I’m sure glad they exist to provide abortion services when so few other resources are available.  Why?  Bob, come sit by my side, and I’ll share the following reports with you!:

Making Abortion Illegal Does Not Reduce Number of Women Having Terminations, Study Concludes (Independent, 2016)

Planned Parenthood Means Fewer Abortions  (New Yorker, 2015)

U.S. Abortion Rate Reaches Record Low Amidst Looming Onslaught Against Reproductive Health and Rights (Guttmacher Study, 2017)

New Study:  Anti-Abortion Laws Don’t Reduce Abortion Rates.  Contraception Does. (Slate, 2016)

Unsafe Abortion: Unnecessary Maternal Mortality  (NCBI/NIH, 2009)

5 Facts About Abortion (Pew Research Center, 2017)

Paragraph 3: “I believe that we would agree that the solution lies in providing better education and more compassion to all involved in this difficult experience.”  Bob, stop assuming you know what I believe.  This rhetoric is bossy and manipulative.  I do not agree with you because abstinence-only education is woefully insufficient and because people don’t want your compassion (again, you’re imposing moral superiority), but rather viable solutions.  The White House has amplified the religious refusal rule, and Congress is working to weaken or completely undo Title X, a major family planning program that includes contraception.  In addition, the global gag rule could soon apply here in the United States as well.  None of this demonstrates one iota of compassion.  These anti-women measures, pushed by all-men bodies, are misguided, shortsighted, and discriminatory.

Paragraph 4: In this paragraph, Goodlatte criticizes the Affordable Care Act, saying, “It’s easy to see why this mess of big-government mandates and red tape has not provided the health care solutions so many families need.”  Actually, Bob, if you had advocated for Medicaid expansion, a fundamental part of the ACA, in Virginia, then there would be far fewer families in need.  You are creating a problem and then blaming it on the ACA and Democrats.  A crafty move, but dishonest at its core, and also absolutely detrimental to hundreds of thousands of Virginians.  Furthermore, hasn’t your party just spent six months and billions of taxpayer dollars to try to pass the shoddy AHCA and its ridiculous offshoots?  That sounds a lot like big government and red tape to me.

Paragraph 5: “For years, the majority of my constituents have told me that Obamacare does not work for them, and I agree.”  Can I please see the data?  I know plenty of constituents who have attempted real contact with you on this issue, who disagree with your assertions, and who are unable to get an audience with you.  You are cherry-picking here, Bob.

Paragraph 6: “I am committed to ensuring that those in Virginia’s 6th district have a choice in selecting insurance that fits their needs and their budget and urge my colleagues in the Senate to come together and put together a reform bill that has patients at its heart.”  Really, Bob, “fits their needs and their budget?”  These do not go together when we are talking about the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries and their powerful lobbying efforts.  Check out this post to see why the AHCA had patients very far from “its heart” and very much in its pocket.

Goodbye:  Standard fare.

This one sample of the many letters I have received from Congressman Goodlatte reveals the machine behind the man, a machine composed of the GOP’s overreach into people’s personal lives, gaslighting rhetoric, and false concern for real people.  Goodlatte is so busy kissing the “president’s” posterior that there is no way he can actually listen to the people of Virginia’s 6th District.  This is not governance, Bob.  It’s a waste of all of our time and money.