I’m Worried

The “Loving People” post from two weeks ago ends with questions about how we navigate our world and if we can do so in more universally loving ways.  In that post, I expressed anguish over the hazing death of a Penn State student and the unbelievably cruel, violent, and callous response of the student’s “friends,” or “brothers.”  As I write this week’s post, I realize that I can’t stop thinking about that example of cruelty and applying it, in a variety of ways and with more complex social justice concerns, to the murder of Bowie State University student Richard Collins, a black student killed by a white University of Maryland student who is a self-declared white supremacist.  I am thinking about the cruelty inherent in Trump’s bombing of Syria as he tucked into dessert at Mar-a-Lago.  I am connecting the callousness to the ICE agents in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who ate breakfast at a diner where they subsequently staged a raid.  I am worried.  I am deeply worried every day about the vertiginous race to the lowest place we can be.  (This was probably the wrong week to start watching “The Handmaid’s Tale.”)

When I was little, I worried a lot, as I think many kids do.  I worried that my parents would die, that a sibling would fall ill, that a classmate would suffer hardship.  When I was eight and my family no longer even flirted with going to church, I had a weird, unindoctrinated, and fervent system of prayer that included a roll call of a lot of people and some obsessively repeated motions.  At that age, too, as I recall, I was in an experimental, ‘70’s-style, mixed third and fourth grade class, in which the third graders had the task of teaching material to the fourth graders.  I was always worried that “my” fourth-grade charges weren’t learning the material thoroughly enough.  I used to write study guides and practice tests and go over them with my classmates, hoping they would be prepared enough for upcoming assignments and tests.  When my brother had a slumber party for his birthday, I worried that one of the guests wasn’t involved enough with the group and got him to join the wiffleball game (maybe much against his will, I don’t know).  These actions might have resulted from a strange combination of extreme sympathy and a savior complex.  I didn’t quite make things up to worry about, but I certainly found them everywhere I went.

Many children let go of obsessive behaviors as they come to understand the shape of their world and to predict outcomes and consequences, and I think I did the same.  (Playing basketball all the time probably helped, too.)  Other people revealed their thoughts and obsessions, and I realized that living is a more intensely shared enterprise than I had recognized, that we take care of each other through actual administration of care, sympathy, and humor.  This was a relief.  It allowed for more laughter and company, but didn’t dictate less care of others.  There have been many carefree and happy-go-lucky times.  That makes me fortunate, I know.

The accordion of emotions, however, continues its expanding and contracting tune.  I am really worried again, and my current actions are analogs of the weird prayers, practice tests, and wiffleball politics of my youth.  Learning new software programs, figuring out fundraising strategies, meeting with small and large groups every day of the week, speaking and working with other political activists, reading books about it all—this is the job after the “day job.”  It’s the extra job of education, protest, and activism that comes from heightened worry, or anguish.

I am worried that in the United States we buy far more guns than books, that we are going to lose our public school teachers in the face of budget cuts and complete lack of support, that we are privileging health care for some over the possibility of health care for all, and that we are sanctifying meanness, cruelty, and violence.  I have these constant images of our nation as MASH unit, with the White House staff trying to stay ahead of each new gaffe and cruelty of their leader and much of the rest of the nation tending to people and groups who are bleeding in both all-too-real and metaphorical ways.  As an adult, I also want to be attuned to how individuals and groups might want or not want the care offered.  This is a delicate balance, one that requires awareness, research, specific goals and actions, and time.

This all means that I, and maybe we, need to gauge the placement and level of worry over the short and long term.  I need to figure out how much of the worry to invite in so that I can be a citizen who is aware of the increased limitations and dangers around us, but who is also capable of having clear goals—local, regional, national—and taking smart actions.  The murder of black individuals, mortgaging of women’s health and lives, limitation on the movement and autonomy of the LGBTQIA+ community, and raids on hard-working people and families cannot be what defines us, and so changing these trends must be a priority.

The example of tucking into a meal before destroying other human beings cannot serve as a “new normal” in the United States.  I am deeply worried.

Lock Her Up

(Remedios Varo, Witch Going To The Sabbath [1957]; https://www.wikiart.org/en/remedios-varo/witch-going-to-the-sabbath-1957)

As I drive south on I-81 in Virginia towards my home, I pass an old barn with a giant “Lock Her Up” sign nailed to the top.  The barn serves as a homemade billboard, publicizing its message for thousands of cars and trucks passing by each day.  The billboard reminds me how Michael Flynn led chants of “Lock Her Up” at last year’s Republican National Convention.  Oh, the irony.

A friend drives her car behind a truck with a multitude of stickers.  One of them is an exaggerated, Barbie-style female shape, in a sex pose, colored in with the confederate flag.  The caption is “Southern Style.”  Other stickers on the truck boast of the truck owner’s military service.  The sticker reminds me of how the confederate flag imposes racist, and now also explicitly sexist, messages masked as nostalgia for the past.  This is a past for which many people feel nothing akin to nostalgia, due to the overriding and violent oppression they and their ancestors experienced in that past, a past which resembles in too many ways the present.

A few days ago, I drove behind a truck that had a sticker that recommended that its readers, “Ditch the bitch.  Let’s go goose hunting.”  This prompted me to wonder who “the bitch” was and why the ditcher would engage in a what appears to be an unsatisfying relationship with the ditched.  Things might work better, I thought, if the ditcher skipped the unwanted union with the “bitch” and just went directly to killing birds.  The bumper sticker evokes a general misogyny that seems even more unleashed than usual over the past year.  (*See this Gender Blog post on the “B-word,” used in reference to Hillary Clinton frequently during the campaign season.)

This past week, Donald Trump claimed to be the victim of a witch hunt.  He tweeted, “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”  According to this article from the Smithsonian Magazine, tens of thousands of women were executed in witch trials in Europe between the late 1300’s and the late 1600’s, and of course most of us are familiar with the Salem Witch Trials here in the United States in the 1600’s and 1700’s.  History professor Mikki Brock’s interview in Motto is an excellent critique of Trump’s use of the term ‘witch hunt.’  The Motto piece states: “One of the great ironies of this of course is that Trump is not someone who has an especially high view of women,” Brock said. “For Trump to co-opt that term to paint himself as a victim shows a total misunderstanding and woeful ignorance of women — but also an unwillingness to see how power structures work and to be sensitive to the deep meanings behind this terminology.”

In this May 18, 2017, article in The Atlantic, Yasmeen Serhan speaks with historian Mary Beth Norton about witch hunts and witch trials.  Norton sees the witch hunt as “an expression [more] of military fear” in which white citizens believed the devil controlled Indians and witches.  Norton adds, “The problem that I set for myself as a historian was figuring out why Salem was so different, and my answer was fear of Indians and the Indian war and how the fear of the Indians got conflated with fear of the witches.”  Historians Brock and Norton tell us that the key to the witch hunt is the idea that a person is unfairly targeted (made “other,” as in the case of Native Americans and many women) or falsely accused.  Of course, then, we have to see Trump’s use of this term as analogous to his claims of “false news” for any media outlet that tarnishes the overblown image he has of himself. The man who just takes what he wants sees himself as unfairly targeted.  The man who encouraged, rally after rally, to have supporters chant “lock her up” sees himself as unfairly targeted.  Oh, the irony.

The “Lock Her Up” metaphor stretches to other women-punishing policies of the Trump administration, including the AHCA and the Global Gag Rule.  See this April 4, 2017, Foreign Policy article for more information on Trump’s anti-woman policies.

Politics seems to breed corruption. I’m not a political scientist and can’t speak to the history or statistics of this statement, but it certainly seems true to the casual observer of the political sphere. In this sense, if corrupt practices are part and parcel of how business is done, then I am concerned that women presidents and prime ministers (and potential presidents and prime ministers) are held to significantly higher standards than their men counterparts.  Former Brazil President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from office last year, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye was impeached and removed from office this year.  This is a high percentage of specifically women leaders to be impeached!  (*The Pew Research Center reported on March 8, 2017, that “There are 15 female world leaders currently in office, eight of whom are their country’s first woman in power, according to our analysis of data from WEF and other sources. While the number of current female leaders – excluding monarchs and figurehead leaders – has more than doubled since 2000, these women still represent fewer than 10% of 193 UN member states.”)

(https://www.usnews.com/news/sports/articles/2016-03-23/political-crisis-relegates-rio-olympics-to-an-afterthought)

By many accounts, Dilma Rousseff and Park Geun-hye seem to have been engaged in corrupt practices, practices that are a part of the system in which they move.  I am not saying that impeachment wasn’t (or was) appropriate in these two cases, but I am saying that male colleagues seem to escape the intense scrutiny to which high-level women leaders are subjected.

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who seems only to have done an exemplary job in her office, illustrates the “Lock Her Up” metaphor even more clearly.  As she provided constitutional rationale both for criticizing Executive Order 13769 and for warning of Flynn’s compromised position, she was accused by Senator Charles Grassley of leaking information to the news media and scolded by Senator John Cornyn for making an “enormously disappointing” decision about the travel ban. (*See this The New York Times opinion piece from 5-11-2017.)

Remember, too, that Code Pink activist Desiree Fairooz was arrested for laughing at the confirmation hearing of Jeff Sessions.  The New York Times reports that Fairooz and two other protesters face “up to 12 months in jail, $2,000 in fines, or both, depending on the outcome of a June 21 sentencing hearing.”  “Lock Her Up” apparently extends from e-mail servers all the way to laughter.

What and whom do they want to lock up?  It seems we are somehow still afraid of women’s authority, success, irreverence, and genius.

Loving People

When I was young, my family of nine had little money.  This meant a lot of things.  It meant that “making it to month’s end” was just a way of life.  It meant that all clothes were hand-me-downs.  It meant that birthdays and Christmas brought necessities—underwear and socks.  It meant that my brothers and sister and I saved the brown paper bag in which our lunch was graciously and lovingly packed by our mother for the first day of school, and we saved it every day thereafter until the threads could no longer carry a sandwich.  I don’t think we thought about this much back then.  It’s just what we did, how we lived.

What this mostly meant, though, was giving a lot and not expecting much in return.  Then you would be surprised by how very much you got in return.  We had (and have) loving parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and siblings.  That is the biggest gift of all.  We played all the time when we were really little.  We always had companions.  In fact, quiet space was at more of a premium than companionship, which was freely and abundantly given.  When we were a little bit less little, we started to work to earn money for clothes we would buy ourselves and for going to the movies and such.  We did so willingly and capably, and then we were grateful for every moment of spare time we had to read, play, and hang out.  Our parents told us about this thing called college—my dad had gone, and my mom had worked to pay for two brothers to go—and they told us it was worth saving our money for it.

When I was in college, I ended up majoring in French and Spanish and minoring in Italian. Somehow I knew that all the people with whom I wanted to speak in the world and all the texts I wanted to read would not come from the English-speaking world.  I didn’t know how to be career-driven, to think that I could or would just have any career I wanted.  I didn’t know what an internship was because I still worked my minimum-wage job in the hospital microfiche department during every school break.  I didn’t know how to “package” or “sell” my experiences to make them a coherent whole.  I was a coherent whole, the sum of my loving family, my experiences, and my developing opinions about the world.

I did, however, imagine the wonders of studying abroad, of living in Canada or France or any one of the Spanish-speaking Latin American countries or Spain.  Financial aid didn’t travel abroad back in those days, so I made do.  Making do was hearing a language I spoke and wanted to speak better and going to speak it with the person (intrusive, I know, but I didn’t see it that way back then).  It was reading books in French and Spanish out loud to myself to practice my accent and think it was normal for me to be speaking in another language.  This was long before the Internet would explode with resources for people like me.  Making do was seeing college friends study, work, and travel abroad and tucking the possibility away for a day when I could pay my way.

I remember when I was asked in the interview for my first job after college what I thought of all the students at the school being wealthier than me.  I shrugged (not a great interview response) and said I didn’t give those things too much thought.  The person who asked the question and I both laughed about it months later when my first car ever, a boat my dad insisted I buy so that I’d be “safe” on the roads, needed a jump in the school parking lot long after everyone had gone home.

At the age of 22, I went to a Grateful Dead concert.  I had spent my life listening to Motown, funk, rap, and Latino music.  While kids at my high school sported black concert t-shirts from iconic ‘80’s groups, I was forbidden to go to rock concerts because they were “a den of iniquity” and “a waste of hard-earned money.”  To this day, though, I’m both amused and thankful that I was allowed to go to all the Philadelphia Orchestra concerts I wanted.  This got me going into a lively city and realizing I had a city vibe waiting to be awakened.  It got me trying new things with dear friends for life.

As I was saying, though, Grateful Dead space jams were decidedly not my thing.  Nevertheless, when I arrived at the concert, I was taken by all the loving people.  I really was.  Everybody just sporting their tie-dye, weaving and dancing, wishing each other “a good show.”  Tens of thousands of people (yes, drunk; yes, stoned) peacefully gathering together made an impression on me.  I guess it made me understand the giant flowers my mother’s young sister had painted on the walls of her room in the late ‘60’s and the stolen kisses she shared with her then-boyfriend, now-husband of 40 years.  I did also develop an appreciation for “Shakedown Street,” which is by far the best and funkiest of the Grateful Dead repertoire.

I’ve buried the lead here because, as you can see, I’m profoundly grateful for the family, friends, teachers, and colleagues who shaped my early life.  At the same time, as a mature adult, I’m deeply distressed by how much hatred I see in the world.  Besides the abominable political scene, which this blog takes to task for many of our politicians’ cavalier, me-first, discriminatory, and violent practices, I have been so distraught by the continued violence against black lives and the now-entrenched marginalization of people who are not white, male, or Christian.

I also have read the accounts (ABC News; The Chronicle of Higher Education) of the most recent hazing incident at Penn State and I can’t shake the images of the night’s events.  (Here is an ABC News piece on hazing incidents across the U.S.)  The “brothers,” now charged with involuntary manslaughter, seem never to have loved anyone, never to have given without expecting something in return.  Their hazing practices are not rooted in true brotherhood or humanity or love for another.  They are rooted in hatred and violence, and I just don’t understand these systems that foment violent, white male power and enact it in cruel and deadly ways.

What makes people open to loving others and adventurous about who the others might be?  What makes people assert their own domination over others, never learning to truly love?  How does this translate into a world view, a way of loving people and knowing people who love?  How does it translate into the work we do, the work we do beyond the work day, the way we love this work because it makes a difference for people?

Is this not a way to exist in the world? And, if so, why aren’t we electing more of these loving people who will give and give and not expect much in return, only to find that they get very much in return? 

AHCA B.S.

How many of you out there have a pre-existing condition or know someone who does?  Hmm, let me count, yes, that looks like, well, everyone.  Do you have a father with prostate concerns or diabetes or a weak heart?  Do you know women who have given birth? (I’m guessing you know a few.)  Have you ever heard of a newborn with a serious medical condition?  Do you have or know children with special needs? Are you someone or do you know someone who has limited funds for routine care and/or unexpected medical needs?  Do you live in a state that has rejected federal funds for Medicaid expansion?

As I write this, the roll call of House of Representatives votes on the American Health Care Act (AHCA) is in.  217 Republicans in the House voted to pass it.  Not one Democrat did.  Final tally: 217-213 (with 20 Republicans voting against and one no vote).  *See this link for the full list: http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2017/roll256.xml.  Excuse my French, but this is absolute bullshit.  Hyperpartisanship is killing the United States public.  I’m no longer just speaking metaphorically.  This health care act is killing us.  (Remember: The ACA was helping us.)

The representative from my district in Virginia, Bob Goodlatte, declares himself proud to appear on the list of “ayes.” He is, kindly put, a Trump lapdog.  Goodlatte, in the company of mostly white, male, and Christian Republicans (*see this slideshow for the demographic breakdown of the Congress: https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/slideshows/the-115th-congress-by-party-race-gender-and-religion), has again chosen to ignore the constituents of Virginia’s Sixth District in order to pander to national, damaging trends.  Why do the demographics of our members of Congress matter, you might ask?  They matter because Trump and the trumpkins continue to push a traditional supremacist agenda that benefits them and their cronies and deeply damages the lives of those who are not like them.

We know this to be true if we do our own sample roll call of executive orders given since January 20, 2017:

“Implementing an America First Offshore Energy Strategy” (4-29-17)

“Buy American Hire American” (4-18-17)

“Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth” (3-28-17)

“Revocation of Federal Contracting Executive Order” (undoes fair pay and workplace regulation work done under President Obama; 3-27-17)

“Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch” (seeks to give more power to the executive; 3-13-17)

“Preventing Violence Against Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Law Enforcement Officers” (ignores completely [and repackages in the reverse] violence against black people and black lives; 2-9-17)

“Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” (1-27-17)

“Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements” (1-25-17)

“Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” (crackdown on sanctuary cities; 1-25-17).

Many of the executive orders emphasize an expansion of executive power.  Look at the words.  Pay attention to the rhetoric, which both discriminates and co-opts language from the left. If you’re not a trumpkin, you are less than human.  If you are black, LGBTQIA+, Muslim, a woman, Latinx, or from another nation, you don’t deserve to live here, work here, love here, or be cared for here.

Make sure to take a look at Alabama’s H.B. 24, which was signed into law two days ago.  The bill allows “some state-licensed adoption and foster care agencies to reject qualified prospective LGBTQ adoptive or foster parents based on the agency’s religious beliefs” (cited here on the Human Rights Campaign website).  It is challenging and soul-sucking to absorb this bald discrimination and hatred.  Furthermore, again, look at the words.  Pay attention to the rhetoric.  This bill is called the “Child Placing Agency Inclusion Act.”  The use of “inclusion” co-opts language from the left and can easily lead to false conclusions about the legislation itself.  There is nothing inclusive about this legislation.  It excludes LGBTQIA+ individuals and couples from adoption and fostering.  It reduces the pool of prospective parents and excellent caretakers for children in Alabama.  It is bullshit.

The partisan Indivisible guide provides information here about the AHCA, or Trumpcare.  They state starkly that there are 10 principal reasons for which we should worry about the AHCA.  I am copying and pasting them here because we need to see the numbers and read the discrimination, and we’re going to need to keep bringing this proposed (and half-passed) devastation to the attention of people in the United States:

IF YOUR REPRESENTATIVE VOTED FOR TRUMPCARE, THEY VOTED TO:

  1. Take away health care from 24 million Americans. This is according to nonpartisan estimates by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). This will result in 24,000 – 44,000 more Americans dying every year from lack of insurance. Not to mention medical bankruptcies, lost wages, untreated illnesses…
  2. Hike deductibles by $1500 on average. TrumpCare pushes Americans into low-quality, high cost-sharing health insurance by providing meager tax credits compared to the Affordable Care Act. This is the opposite of what Trump promised in his campaign.
  3. End the federal protections for people with pre-existing conditions. TrumpCare incentivizes states to drop consumer protections, meaning insurance companies will be able to charge people more if they have a pre-existing condition. 130 million Americans have a pre-existing condition. People could face premiums well over $100,000 a year.
  4. Allow insurance companies to charge older Americans significantly more for their health care. A single, 64 year old adult making $26,500/year would have to pay $14,600 in annual premiums—a 750% increase from current law.
  5. Cut $880 billion from Medicaid, a program that more than 70 million Americans, half of which are children, rely on. TrumpCare cuts federal funding for the program, which will result in states having to ration care and cut the quality of services.
  6. Put lifetime and annual benefit caps back on the table for even those with employer coverage. This means a baby with a serious medical condition could use up its lifetime limits in the first month of life under TrumpCare.
  7. Make women pay more for health insurance than men. Because insurance companies could charge more for pre-existing conditions like breast cancer or assault survival and because pregnancy care no longer would be a required benefit, women would once again pay morefor health care than men.
  8. Defund Planned Parenthood. Nearly 3 million Americans, especially women and families, receive affordable health care services annually at Planned Parenthood facilities. TrumpCare prohibits any funding from going to these clinics.
  9. Harm children with special needs by cutting Special Education funds for schools. Medicaid funds a large portion of education for students with a variety of disabilities. Buried in the bill is a provision that no longer recognizes schools as required Medicaid providers, on top of the massive cuts to the program.
  10. And, it does all of this in order to pay for $600 billion in tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations.

I’ve said this several times in this post.  Look at the words. Pay attention to the rhetoric.  And then call out the bullshit for what it is.  We must stop moving dangerously backwards.

One Hundredth Day Stream of Consciousness

As you all know, this Saturday, the 45th president of the United States hits his 100th day in office.  This week I’ve written a fictional internal monologue of the “president” as he regards himself in the mirror on the morning of his 100th day.  I have to admit, it was difficult to break down the language enough to have it sound like the “president” could be thinking it.  My goal was to keep it up for 1000 words.  I didn’t make it.  Here goes:

 

Donald Trump, looking in the mirror, as he prepares for his day.  It is 10:00 a.m. on a sunny day in Florida.

(http://blackexplainer.com/millions-americans-see-trump-look-mirror/)

Jesus, my hair, it’s a disaster today.  Oh, the 100th day doesn’t matter.  Yes, it does!  It does matter because I’m doing great, just great.  I mean, I’m a really top-notch guy.  The hair is doing just fine.  I think I’ll play golf today, or maybe just grab some pussy, not sure.  Oh, that’s right, I’m the president.  I might have to go to work.  Who’s on my staff at Mar-a-Lago?  Maybe they can take care of this for me.  Where is Melania?  I know I saw her somewhere lately, just not sure where.  Was she on Air Force One with me?  Not that I can remember.  Hmm.  No calls from Russia today—I need to not pick up the phone when those guys call me.  But that Putin, he’s such a powerful guy.  He may not play golf, but I’m told he does ride horses.  If he calls, I’ll take it.  But if that Merkel wants me to shake her hand, no way.  I mean, she is bad, really bad.  Once I’ve got this hair combed down, I think I’ll sign a few more executive orders.  I’m told there have to be some huge Muslim countries I missed in the first ban.  And the wall, oh the wall, what a tremendous thing.  I mean it’ll keep all the nature out, and the people too.  We’ll get someone to pay for it.  I think it should be made of gold on the U.S. side.  Doesn’t that sound right?  Golden.  If those stupid Democrats shut down my government, I’ll have something to say about it.  The wall is happening, people, it is happening.  Next week, even though it’s after my 100th day, I know we will repeal Obamacare and replace it with something.  A little complicated, yes, you know, I’m told healthcare is kind of difficult, but we will replace healthcare with something, I know we will.  You know?  I wish I could have another inauguration day.  That was big, really great.  I mean, the greatest number of people ever to attend or watch an inauguration.  I am amazing.  Who doesn’t want to watch me?  I mean, I am shaking things up.  I know how to do this.  I do.  Maybe I should play a round of golf today. Hey, maybe we could replace the U.N. with just some rounds of golf and then bring the NRA along for some peacekeeping missions.  Wait, what?  That doesn’t make sense, I’m not about that pussy peacekeeping.  Okay, I will play golf today.  And then grab some pussy.  All right, my calendar is set.  I can sort through alternative facts once I’m out on the links.  As long as the goddamned media doesn’t report again on my leisure time.  Who doesn’t do business on the golf course?  I mean, the rolling greens and expensive fees are for everyone, aren’t they?  The media just needs to keep its mouth shut about my golf-playing, and everything, really.  I wonder what Frederick Douglass is up to today?  I gotta see if that guy is free to play some golf with me.  And Sally Yates?  She can go “f” herself for being disloyal to America and making America great again.  I mean, that woman, that woman makes America suck.  Damn it, this one side of my hair will not flatten down.  I wonder if I can start a nuclear war.  That would definitely put America on the map.  I mean, we’re already on the map since January 20, but I mean even more on the map.  I have to remember to tell people to make sure to buy Ivanka’s clothes.  She is so great, so–, I mean she is such a tremendous person.  My White House is a fine-tuned machine.  It really is.  I should stop by there sometime.  It’s probably an all-right place to work.  I wonder if Obama can hear me thinking?  I mean, has he tapped my mind?  No, he can’t, no, I guess just my phones.  Where is that guy?  He doesn’t seem very macho.  What’s all that crap he says about women’s rights and immigrants and blah-blah-blah?  Don’t worry about Spicer.  He’s just doing his job.  Chemical weapons?  Spicer knows what he’s talking about.  I’ll keep him front and center for now.  Helps me get to the course and whack the shit out of the ball.  That’s really what it’s all about. I can dominate that ball, I can.  Hey, I wonder if I can launch a TV show about myself.  “The President.”  I like that.  No, wait, they might not know it’s me.  How about, “The World’s Leader Making America Great Again?”  Too long maybe.  It’ll be great, top-notch.  I can hire and fire people and make money as we go.  Hmm, my skin.  It needs a little pick-me-up.  No, it’s just this damned mirror.  It must have an orange tint.  These people around me, can they not supply a decent mirror?  I’m going to have to grab their pussies.  I can, you know.  I can just move on them.  I tried to f*$k those women.  They were married.  After I play golf today, I’ll move on someone like a b*&%h.  Melania said this was okay.  Where is that Melania?  I know I had her somewhere.

(*Note: I just found this hilarious SNL clip of Jimmy Fallon as Donald Trump interviewing himself in the mirror.)

Witches and Warlocks

This week Fox News removed Bill O’Reilly from its roster (reported on by The New York Times here).  Finally.  After multiple complaints of sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.  (*See the Gender Shrapnel Blog post on Roger Ailes and Fox News here.)  The New York Times reported: “Mr. O’Reilly and his employers came under intense pressure after an article by The New York Times on April 1 revealed how Fox News and its parent company, 21st Century Fox, had repeatedly stood by him even as he and the company reached settlements with five women who had complained about sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior by him. The agreements totaled about $13 million.”  The New York Times reports that O’Reilly was still able to hold a meeting with the Pope this week and will not lose his book contract with Henry Holt.  Bill also keeps the $25 million (figured cited in this The Washington Post piece) that Fox News would have paid him in the upcoming year. I think Bill is doing just fine, in case you were worried.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has featured for several weeks now Laura Kipnis’ article titled “Eyewitness to a Title IX Witch Trial.”  The article, published in The Chronicle’s Review section, has given ample publicity to the publication of Kipnis’ new book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (HarperCollins).  In this blog post, I am addressing only Kipnis’ piece in The Chronicle.  I haven’t yet read the book.  I disagree with the main points of the article, but maybe the book will offer more nuance.

In the lengthy review article (about her own book), Kipnis recounts at great length the process by which Northwestern University adjudicated a case against philosophy professor Peter Ludlow.  The case has been covered in The Chicago Tribune, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Daily Northwestern.  I’m only familiar with this case through reading these articles and therefore am no expert on it.  I understand that Ludlow was accused by an undergraduate student, who had been Ludlow’s student, of forcing her to drink alcohol and making unwanted sexual advances towards her.  Soon after this became a formal lawsuit, a graduate student (from the same department as Ludlow, but not his student) accused Ludlow of raping her.  These are the two cases at the center of this story.  Northwestern University had no policy prohibiting faculty-student relations (called “dating” by Kipnis in the Chronicle piece).

Kipnis takes issue with Northwestern University’s handling of the case in the lengthy hearings of Ludlow, at which were present the faculty panel and “three outside lawyers, at least two in-house lawyers, another lawyer hired by the university to advise the faculty panel…,” (cited here) along with Ludlow’s lawyer.  Kipnis was there in the role of “faculty support person” to Ludlow.  Her account of the hearings is supplemented by Ludlow’s file of e-mails, text messages, memos, and formal university documents.  I appreciate Kipnis’ detailed account and willingness to question Title IX proceedings that are still woefully inadequate on most college and university campuses.  She believes that the university was trying to respond to unclear Title IX guidelines and that this resulted in the “witch trial” of Peter Ludlow.

Laura Kipnis is implicated in the case as well because her earlier defense of faculty-student “dating” had resulted in a Title IX complaint against her at Northwestern.  Kipnis believes that prohibitions on such behavior are paternalistic and remove sexual agency.  I believe we need to understand this entanglement to analyze well Kipnis’ highly public (and well remunerated) opinion on this case.

I would like to examine the language Kipnis uses in this piece. Kipnis remarks, “So when Ludlow’s lawyer called, of course I said yes—I was being offered a front-row seat at a witch trial.” The “witch trial” analogy seems poorly applied in the case of Ludlow, who has enjoyed great privilege and position for years.  I get that “warlock trial” doesn’t do the trick, but I’d rather go in that direction.  I also don’t completely understand the desire to witness a so-called “witch trial” because I don’t wish the pillory upon people, whether they are innocent or guilty. On the other hand, if Kipnis had made clear that her goal in being present at the hearings was to bear witness in the name of justice surrounding fraught Title IX policies, practices, and procedures, then her participation in, association with, and writings about the case to me would be more convincing.

The conflation of the term “sex” with “sexual harassment and discrimination” and “sexual violence” presents problems that weaken some of Kipnis’ arguments.  “Sex” refers to (1) biological determinations that have been appropriately complicated by gender and sexuality studies and (2) physical contact (often officially referred to as sexual intercourse, with reference to genitalia) between and/or among individuals.  Kipnis states, “I soon learned that rampant accusation is the new norm on American campuses; the place is a secret cornucopia of accusation, especially when it comes to sex” (cited in her 4-2-17 Chronicle piece).  The hyperbolic language (“rampant” and “cornucopia”) belies the realities of sexual assault on college campuses, where 2016 statistics (RAINN statistics here) still tell us that one in five women is sexually assaulted during her time at college or university.  The figures are worse for transgender, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming individuals.  Kipnis uses the bald term ‘sex,’ instead of giving it context in the hierarchical layers of colleges and universities.

Nowhere in this lengthy piece does Kipnis deal with actual statistics that speak to a culture of sexual violence, embedded in power hierarchies, on our college and university campuses.  Kipnis claims that “new codes banning professor-student dating infantilize[d]students—this wasn’t feminism, it was paternalism.”  Kipnis’ foray into questions of feminism and sexual agency is interesting and necessary, but becomes much more complicated when the professor-student relationship is added to the mix.

Professors do wield power.  We design syllabi, determine the flow of class, assign grades, vote for assignment of department awards, and write (or don’t) letters of recommendation. Undergraduate and graduate students can develop a type of hero worship (something I detect in Kipnis’ enraptured tone as she describes Ludlow) that might translate as sexual attraction.  No matter an institution’s lack of policy on “dating” (Kipnis’ oversimplified term), or “fraternization” (a charged term in and of itself often used in the workplace), a professor who gets entangled in a relationship with a student in his class or department is exercising power.  Students in the same department are often nominated for the same awards, scholarships, and grants, and therefore departments breed competition, a competition that takes on a different look and a less fair landscape if a professor is sleeping with one of the students involved.

When things go wrong in the relationship (however we choose to define it), and we know they often do, this power piece is at play.  College students are often trying to figure out sexual desires and identities, and, so, yes, questions of power and sexual agency are more than just a little complicated.  If and when students and professors sleep together, structural systems of power become even more apparent.  Kipnis’ use of the term ‘sexual paranoia,’ in this review piece and in the book title itself, trivializes this important developmental stage for 18-22-year-olds and conflates sexual exploration with sexual discrimination and violence.  Kipnis also reduces real concerns about rampant sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation and about rape and sexual violence to one oversimplified, offensive phrase, ‘sexual finger-pointing.’

Kipnis praises Jessica Wilson, a philosophy professor and former student of Ludlow, and Wilson’s character defense of Ludlow at the hearings.  Kipnis writes, “Like a great teacher, Wilson flipped the question [about Wilson’s own account of “unwelcome behavior” from a different former professor] around.  She’d been speaking from her own experience, she pointed out.  Yet didn’t the panelists have to ask whether she was telling the truth?  They hadn’t been there, so how would they know?  And if she were being entirely honest, she herself wasn’t sure if the disturbing thing was a professor trying to kiss her, or simply that she was getting unwanted attention that she ‘wasn’t participating in.’”  Kipnis neglects to make clear that “getting unwanted attention that you’re not participating in” can be or can easily lead to real violation.  In addition, Kipnis replicates sexualization and hero worship in her description of Wilson: “Here was a smart, attractive, successful woman from one of the top philosophy departments in North America who revered Peter Ludlow.”  She later remarks that, after Wilson completed her testimony, “it felt as if there were an erotic current in the room.”

Kipnis also tires of “exhausted clichés about predatory males and eternally innocent females…”  I think it’s fair to say that anyone who follows the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and the major national dailies might find these “clichés” to not be exhausted enough.  Of course it makes sense to get away from the polarized language Kipnis critiques, but college and university campus statistics and the underlying realities of sexual violence on campus are still acutely bad.  The tone Kipnis uses when speaking of the two complainants is condescending at best.  When Kipnis blames herself for not coming to Ludlow’s defense in a particularly tense moment in the hearing, she wonders if she hadn’t done so because she was “so shaken [her]self, so frozen and appalled” that she couldn’t.  This is exactly what happens to many people who have experienced aggression and assault (and to some who have witnessed it), just like the two complainants in this case had claimed themselves.  If the two complainants are deserving of scorn, I would like more information to understand why.

The strength of Kipnis’ article (and, I surmise, her book) lies in the legitimate questioning of the efficacy of legal processes in Title IX hearings on college and university campuses.  She rightly criticizes Northwestern for running hearings soaked with lawyers from all sides, hiring an outside lawyer to advise the university panel, and worrying more about image than justice (Kipnis writes: “Ludlow was bad for the brand.”).  Kipnis also says that she “was being warned off the subject,” and I am certain that was the case.  Universities have many direct and subtle means to silence unpleasant subjects and cases that sully the brand.  My simplified view of the stance that universities adopt is that they support the side that brings the fewest monetary and public relations risks.  Oftentimes this means that complainants are silenced and run off campus, and, on far fewer occasions, it means that alleged perpetrators are.

We should all be wary when a university hires outside counsel to “advise” an internal panel.  The advice provided stems from whatever is in the university’s best interest.  At that point, the university can be considered wholly separate from the complainant and the alleged perpetrator.  Kipnis points to the fraught intervention of universities in their own processes when she writes, “The university was set on getting rid of Ludlow, and the hearing was a formality.  I also knew enough about the procedures to know that the faculty panel’s vote was merely advisory; the provost would make the final call, and it had been the provost’s decision to put the dismissal machinery in motion to begin with.”  Exactly!  This is a profound problem not only because it is evidently unjust, but also because it exploits student, staff, and faculty labor and their potentially sincere belief in the benefits of university adjudicative processes.

No matter where we readers fall on matters of sexual agency and exploitation of professional power, we can certainly question the Big Brand Machine of colleges and universities, whose students and employees have become little more than additional institutional risks.

The Chronicle has featured Laura Kipnis on several occasions and for several weeks running.  It might be a good moment to consider other editorial decisions that take into account real statistics and violations of actual people.

Who’s Sorry?

Over the past ten days, I have had lots of exposure to airline companies of the United States.  As a person with a ticket to ride was being dragged off a United flight, I was trying to make it to Portland, where I would see old friends, give a talk, and meet colleagues whose work I admire.  I never made it to Portland.

On Wednesday, we were boarded onto the plane, only to sit on the runway for just under two hours and then be told that the flight was cancelled (no refunds for paid-for checked bags).  I was rebooked for the same flight the following day.  At 10:00 that night, however, I received a text telling me that the next day’s flight would also be cancelled and that I would receive notice of rebooking.  That notice never came, so I spent just over four hours on Thursday trying to get booked on a flight for Friday.  Once I had that flight, whew, I could rest easy, despite having had to juggle plans several times already.  When I arrived at the airport on Friday, the flight was delayed.  I would therefore miss the connecting flight and was told there was not one seat on any plane of any airline available to get me to Portland.

Who was sorry?  Every person I dealt with at ticket counters was a young, African-American woman.  To a person, they were knowledgeable, patient, and unfailingly polite.  They had to express to each new disappointed, frustrated, or angry customer that they were very sorry and were doing the best they could under the circumstances.  I started to think about how airlines operate.

We have all seen passengers lose their calm, become visibly agitated, raise their voices, and even threaten gate agents. The bigwigs (CEOs) are men (only 5% of all CEOs of all airlines in the world are women; none of these airlines are in the United States).  The pilots are usually men and usually white (see 2011 statistics from CNN here; this 2016 CBS piece reports that 6.5% of U.S. pilots are women).  The flight attendants and gate agents are usually women (in 2014, 75.8% of flight attendants in the United States were women; I haven’t yet found data on gate agents).  Men get to hide from the problems of the airlines, while their lesser-paid and more visible counterparts, predominantly women, are on the front lines.  When things go wrong—major weather systems, mechanical failures, absent flight crews–, passengers are often the last to know, and the visible front-line people are the first to have to apologize for natural occurrences and administrative mistakes that are not their fault.  In sum, the United States airline industry puts its men in the cockpit and its women in a “pink ghetto” (1983 term coined by Stallard, Ehrenreich, and Sklar and cited in this 2010 Washington Post article; historical background available here) of apology politics.

Last week Elle (even the beauty mags are getting more feminist in our current climate) featured an article by Sady Doyle titled “Women Don’t Need to Apologize Less—Men Need to Learn How to Apologize” (4-13-17).  In the article, Doyle cites research that confirms that women apologize more than men, but also expresses frustration that this is often erroneously attributed to women’s low levels of self-confidence.  She stresses that the research signals that “the disparity arises not from the fact that women are socialized to apologize ‘too often,’ but from the fact that men are not socialized to apologize at all.”  Doyle then underscores how problematic this is when a Sean Spicer needs to apologize for deeply misinformed and insanely insensitive comments about Hitler and chemical weapons and doesn’t know how to.  A life of privilege is a life of not having to say you’re sorry.  Doyle sums up Spicer’s “manpology” problem in this way:  “Sean Spicer has spent hours of his life flagrantly not apologizing for something he has clearly gotten wrong.”  The airline miscommunications I experienced ten days ago were the result of too many higher-ups exploiting too many lower-downs—their own employees and their customers.

This apology differential works in physical space as well.  You recall that I was desperately trying to get on a flight ten days ago.  When I did finally get on a flight (not to my original destination), I sat in the middle seat with men about twenty years younger on either side of me.  They were generally nice, and we shared mints and pleasantries.  Nevertheless, each assumed that the armrest was his, one constantly jabbed me in the side with his elbow, and the other rested his bare foot on my seat tray.  No apologies, no “excuse me’s,” no recognition that this shared space should be truly shared.  Meanwhile, two inches over, in the aisle, the flight attendants were moving heavy carts through tiny spaces, saying all the while, “Excuse me.  Sorry.  Watch your elbows.  Careful with your shoulders.  Please move your feet.  Excuse me.”

I offer one final example of the uneven apology culture.  A colleague of mine stated last year that she was told her e-mails were too long, “just like most women’s.”  She decided to limit her e-mails to three lines so that they would be edited for appropriate brevity and could be read more like the e-mails of male colleagues.  In a sense, her self-editing was an apology for an e-mail style she had obviously developed over decades.  I have always found this person’s e-mails to be clear, thorough, and polite, and, therefore, to not need much follow-up.  To me, this approach requires no apology.  In fact, it’s a solid way to get the job done.

Homework assignment:  Figure out how much “I’m sorry” has to do with civility impositions.