Sarah Huckabee Sanders: Dining and Deceit

 

“We just felt there are moments in time when people need to live their convictions. This appeared to be one.”

I live in Lexington, a small town in southwestern Virginia that used to be rather sleepy but has been awakened (but far from “woke”) by several incidents over the past few years. These include a successful campaign to have the Lexington City Council prohibit flying the Confederate flag from city flagpoles (2011), a protest by students from the Washington and Lee University School of Law to have Confederate flags removed from the university’s Lee Chapel (2014), the 2017 and 2018 Martin Luther King, Jr., parades sponsored by the Community Anti-Racism Effort (CARE), and the racist events in Charlottesville on August 11-12, 2017 (*see a related Gender Shrapnel Blog post here).

Many of you have heard by now that Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a popular Lexington restaurant, the Red Hen, on Friday night.  This well-known, highly-respected farm-to-table restaurant, owned by 22-year Lexington resident Stephanie Wilkinson, employs a small crew of talented chefs, managers, and wait staff, whose culinary work has been featured in The Washington Post, Southern Living, The Wall Street Journal, The Roanoke Times, Edible Blue Ridge, and Virginia Living.  The restaurant is small and elegant, and its owner makes every effort to honor farming traditions of the Shenandoah Valley.  The staff is known for special touches, such as little anniversary cards for celebrating couples or a delicious birthday treat for an unsuspecting customer.  The restaurant not only tries to get it right; it does get it right, and it has done so for ten years.  Such is the case in the owner’s actions of this past Friday night.  I will get to this point in a moment.

Our community has demonstrated on many occasions the high esteem in which it holds Stephanie Wilkinson, who has advocated for small business development and has worked tirelessly to raise funds, write grants, and organize community events to make Lexington both a wonderful place to live and an inviting place to visit.  Small towns can experience great struggles to thrive, and this is certainly the case for small towns with small colleges whose students are away three or four months of the year.  Such a town flourishes only with real vision, community connections, and disciplined work.  Our little town has thrived in no small part due to Stephanie Wilkinson’s work and planning.

On a more personal note, I have rarely met a smarter, more generous, or more measured person.  Stephanie has a kind word for everyone, and she cares about the well-being of people she knows and doesn’t know.  That is why it is not surprising that Stephanie Wilkinson’s words in yesterday’s Washington Post article reflect her kindness and ethical standards: “I explained that the restaurant has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation.”  The Washington Post piece carefully portrays Wilkinson’s equanimity in this tense situation: she spoke to her staff to understand their preferences; she considered Huckabee Sanders’ record as a purveyor of untruths for the Trump administration; she discreetly asked Huckabee Sanders to speak with her on the patio; she asked Huckabee Sanders to leave and explained why she was doing so; she charged Huckabee Sanders’ party nothing; she left it at that.

In summary, Wilkinson confronted a tense situation with thoughtfulness and grace, applying her own ethical standards and explaining the rationale.  I wish we all gave such full, careful thought to the world around us and made such brave decisions on behalf of ourselves, our employees, and our communities.

At this particular moment, individuals who identify as LGBTQIA see their own rights limited through ever-changing and unjust legislation concerning transgender rights in the military, service in stores, and Title IX.  LGBTQIA individuals are a protected group under several United States laws, especially Title VII.  (*See this useful site from Harvard University for more information on equal opportunity laws.)  While I have heard people near and far declare that Huckabee Sanders also deserves to be served, she does not belong to a protected category under civil rights law.  The category she does belong to is one of great privilege in a highly polarizing administration that is currently waging an immigration war on children and their parents. (*See this short video [Washington Post] of Huckabee Sanders in which she both justifies family separations and tells the journalist who has asked the question that he might not be able to understand long sentences.) Huckabee Sanders’ role as presidential and GOP spin-master makes her an extremely powerful person in our government, one whose lies have been documented time and again.  (*See this op-ed from The Boston Globe, this one from Politico, and many other news pieces from periodicals such as The Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, and The San Francisco Chronicle.)

Yesterday, Huckabee Sanders issued a tweet that revealed how well she has mastered the spin machine.  She says that she always tries to treat people respectfully, even the ones she disagrees with.  If you watch the video cited above, you will see Huckabee Sanders, on June 14, treat a journalist with great disrespect.  In her tweet, she used the name of the restaurant to impugn Wilkinson’s reputation and to use her government-issued power to cast the restaurant in a negative light.  Huckabee Sanders’ father, Mike Huckabee, similarly used his political power to pile on in his own tweet.  Walter Shaub, known as the expert on government ethics violations, tweeted yesterday that he saw Huckabee Sanders’ tweets as a clear violation of 5 CFR 2635.702(a), “referencing the law that states government employees cannot use public office for private gain,” as reported in this piece from The Hill.

The Huckabee daughter-father tweets are an unethical use of political office to bully and harass, in the most public of media, a private citizen and business owner.  Compare this to a quiet conversation on the Red Hen patio and an assurance that the bill was covered—a simple act that reveals how a person stands by her staff and her own belief in the public good.  Those who say that Wilkinson should have been silent reinforce how civility codes fortify the status quo.  (*See this related piece and this one in the Gender Shrapnel Blog.)

Some people who have come to Lexington this weekend in some odd attempt to protect Sarah Huckabee Sanders, one of the most powerful individuals in the land, are waving the Confederate flag and praising the KKK.  This flag, which has so consistently demonstrated hatred of African-American individuals and signaled neofascist tendencies and whose symbolism has so marked this town, has resurfaced in the Huckabee hullabaloo.  A fake website pretending to be a downtown historical association has also followed the Huckabee Sanders spin machine, empowered by the press secretary’s tweet and expanding her network of spin, subterfuge, and slander.

The Red Hen’s owner acted quickly, forthrightly, gently, and morally, and she explained her actions thoroughly and thoughtfully in the Washington Post piece.  I wish our town, state, and country had more role models like her.

Family Values?

(Poster from a vigil/protest, Lexington, VA, June 14, 2018)

Last week, I was walking our dog past a neighbor’s house.  I called a “hello” to the elderly neighbor, who sat in a chair under a tree in his beautifully tended garden, a garden I have watched him plant, water, and weed for over two decades.  He said “hello” and then asked if I was a teacher.  When I said “yes,” he asked what I taught, and I replied with the simplest answer possible, “Spanish.”  “Damn Mexicans,” he said.  I walked on, feeling shocked (even though of course I know how many people in this racist country subscribe to such beliefs), hurt (in a representative way, knowing that this comment towards me is nothing compared to comments made against others, which are absolutely nothing when compared to real acts of hatred and violence committed against real people), and angry (why wasn’t my dog pooping in the beautiful garden at that very moment?).

This little comment from a neighbor who I thought for years was a kindly old gardener should give us every bit of evidence we need that the United States has taken a more dramatic turn, almost two years into the Trump regime, towards violent, racist acts and, in particular, significant gaslighting effected daily through the fast-paced, absolutely wacked GOP spin-machine.  The New York Times reports (6-15-2018), “’I hate the children being taken away,’ Mr. Trump told reporters on Friday morning in front of the White House. ‘The Democrats have to change their law — that’s their law.’  A short time later, he wrote on Twitter, ‘The Democrats are forcing the breakup of families at the Border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda.’”  The very next line of the The New York Times piece says, “But Mr. Trump was misrepresenting his own policy.”  The GOP spin machine does not even realize how good they have it, when newspapers such as The New York Times continue to soft-pedal the language of Trump’s lies, which, in turn, normalizes his racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, and blatantly anti-family platforms and actions.  While Trump voters continue to sport bumper stickers that say, “Don’t believe the liberal media” and “NRA.  Don’t let them take your guns away,” the so-called liberal media is struggling to keep up with reporting and rebutting the extensive lies told by this dictator and his kleptocratic cronies.  (*See this 6-14-18 related piece from Slate.) The lies run so long and deep, and their reach allows the regime’s inhumanity to stretch to every corner of the United States and to many corners of the world.

I probably do not need to remind you that on this day, Fathers’ Day in the United States, the Trump regime is actively separating children from their mothers and fathers at the borders, placing children in privately-owned detention centers, and constructing an actual tent city for these young children left alone in western Texas.  We see the news—not fake, completely verified—in every outlet and confirm the stories—that 1,995 children have been separated from their parents over the last six weeks; that a Honduran man committed suicide after being separated from his family; that a Guatemalan woman was picked up by ICE and deported, leaving her young child alone.  These stories are heartbreaking in the aggregrate—the staggering numbers of separated families—and in the particular—each and every case of a parent separated from a child for a minute, a day, a week, indefinitely, and often at great and likely insurmountable geographical distances.

In addition, recent news from the Department of “Justice” reveals that the United States will no longer grant asylum to victims of domestic abuse or of gang violence.  These policies demonstrate again the entrenched racism and misogyny of the Jeff Sessions DOJ.

The academic realm offers us many lessons about and depictions of the gradual erosion of civil rights and democracy.  We do not have to dig too deep to find acute moments of U.S. history at which parents and children have been separated: the institution and business of slavery and separation of African-American parents from children; the creation of “Indian schools” to separate Native children from their parents and force them to assimilate into white culture; United States internment camps of Japanese individuals and families.  This 2016 article from Human Rights Advocates (University of San Francisco School of Law) details the steps in denying civil liberties, which lead to the dehumanization, torture, and sometimes death of specific groups of targeted peoples.  Chilling subtitles of the article include: “Arbitrary Deprivation of Liberty”; “Structural Violence and Discrimination”; “Degrading Treatment” (health concerns; sexual abuse; immigration workers); “Right to Counsel” (beware the officials who believe that migrant children make good immigrant rights lawyers); “Private Detention Facilities.”  Note this warning by the authors in their conclusion: “Accountability for violence against children in these detention centers is difficult to achieve because the actors are private businesses and not the State. The incongruity here is that the government contracts private companies to deal with social and economic issues that are entirely the concern of the State. This unique task blurs private and State responsibilities. This issue should be included in national action plans on business and human rights in efforts to implement the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”

*Consider the historical context of this 1941 Dr. Seuss piece and relate it to today’s realities.

Add to all of this the multiple reports (including this one) that Trump will withdraw the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Council, and you find an even more deliberate and dire picture of the politics of inhumanity in these United States.

The heroic work of the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (CAIR), the thousands of Indivisible groups across the nation, and many other major legal and political resistance groups is not enough to get us away from this regime.  We need Republicans—politicians, party leaders, voters, Republican-leaning people just going with this flow—to decide finally that it is time to express vociferously their discontent with the Trump regime.   I know many of you.  I am your neighbor. I am related to you.  I work with you.  I cannot accept that you accept this increasing dehumanization and cruelty.  When will you decide that enough is enough?  This is not just one person (me) moralizing about others’ lack of action, but rather a whole nation watching the corrosion and corruption of its high-level governmental officials, watching the erosion of civil rights and democracy, watching itself implode.  This cannot possibly be what good people want for themselves and others, can it?  This cannot possibly be what people mean by “family values,” can it?

The Peter Principle

(I can’t find a pertinent image for this week’s post.  Here is our sleeping puppy.)

“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence,” wrote Dr. Laurence Peter in 1969, the year his “Peter Principle” went viral, 1969-style.  This recent piece from Forbes supplies information from an academic study, published 50 years after the initial assertions by Dr. Peter, which finds the basic premise of Peter’s statement to be true.  Summarizing the results of the study (run by Professors Benson, Li, and Shue), the Forbes author writes, “The data show that the best salespeople were more likely to a) be promoted and b) perform poorly as managers.  The Peter Principle is real.”

After just a little poking around the internet, I have found very little information about how the Peter Principle functions for people of color and women.  Tom Schuller has a book titled The Paula Principle, but the five points outlined on his website do not reassure me that the gender work on this issue is thorough or free from its own kind of bias.  Is Dr. Peter’s 1968 assertion principally about white men?  If so, we need to think more about how white men benefit from the assumption that they should be promoted, how people of color and women are placed at a disadvantage through this assumption, as they are not automatically promoted, and, perhaps most invisibly, how people of color and white men and women prop up the men who have been promoted to a position whose responsibilities they cannot handle.

In Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, I treat the issue of looks-like-me hiring and promotion.  A colleague once said that he wanted to make a particular hire because the candidate looked like the professors he had had in graduate school.  The more that white men believe in their own competence and privilege, the more they instill this value in colleagues—making the hire or promotion of someone like them seem “natural” or “right.”  Sometimes the person hired or promoted is entirely competent and wonderful at his job, and sometimes he’s not.  Nevertheless, the increasingly ingrained assumption that he will be contributes to gender, race, and gender-race pay gaps, which we know to be significant (cited in many posts in the Gender Shrapnel Blog; for example, here; see also this link from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research).  The assumption also contributes to the promotion problems of the glass ceiling (for white women) and the cement wall (Buzzanell and Lucas’ term for the lack of promotion of people, and especially women, of color).

In this poignant op-ed in the 1-11-18 issue of The New York Times, Charles Blow says of our “president”:  “Trumpism is a religion founded on patriarchy and white supremacy.

It is the belief that even the least qualified man is a better choice than the most qualified woman and a belief that the most vile, anti-intellectual, scandal-plagued simpleton of a white man is sufficient to follow in the presidential footsteps of the best educated, most eloquent, most affable black man.”  Indeed, we have elected a man to the highest post in the land, a post for which he had already demonstrated a lack of interest and a severe lack of preparation and for which, since the election, he has revealed previously unimaginable inability and dysfunction.  As Charles Blow signals, “Trump’s supporters are saying to us, screaming to us, that although he may be the ‘lowest white man,’ he is still better than Barack Obama, the ‘best colored man.’”

Indeed, even attempting to put politics aside and to focus on presidential job descriptions, much of the United States population must understand that oratory—having ideas and being able to transmit them orally in a compelling and inspiring manner—is a fundamental job requirement for the presidency. President Obama demonstrated time and again consummate oratorical skill (gained, perhaps, through profound thought, significant practice, and natural talent).  On the other hand, Trump’s communications reveal his lack of skill in this area and, I would submit, this oratorical incompetence lands our nation in significant and frequent problems.

Trump’s Peter Principle-style incompetence unfolds exponentially, as he hires men with a similar profile who are similarly unprepared to do the jobs for which they are hired and promoted. In addition, large cadres of individuals follow behind the so-called president, spending their valuable labor hours cleaning up small and large messes occasioned by colossal incompetence. The level of mismanagement boggles the mind and cements the idea of Peter Principle privilege.

This article from The New York Times (3-16-2018) reminds us that women and men already imagine men when they picture leaders, thus contributing to the power of the Peter Principle (i.e. fomenting the “natural” notion that men, especially white men, deserve to be promoted).  Our compass north is men in charge.  Even when we make workplace changes to open the pipeline, hire and promote people of color and white women, we always creep back to that compass north.  Changing perceived and real status quo remains a gigantic challenge.

The April, 2018, issue of The Atlantic features Peter Beinart’s piece titled “The Nancy Pelosi Problem.”  Beinart outlines Pelosi’s numerous successes as House Minority Leader and applauds her speaking, legislative, and fundraising abilities.  He also points out that the GOP used Pelosi’s image as a target, emphasizing time and again that women are not supposed to be in positions of power: “In the run-up to the 2012 elections, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, Republicans invoked Pelosi in television ads seven times as often as they invoked the Senate’s Democratic leader, Harry Reid. Four years after that, in the run-up to 2016, they invoked her three times as often.”  Beinart asks and answers many questions about Pelosi’s supreme competence and the myriad ways the image of her and her competence are undermined: “Why so much discontent with a woman who has proved so good at her job? Maybe because many Democrats think Pelosi’s unpopularity undermines their chances of winning back the House. Why is she so unpopular? Because powerful women politicians usually are. Therein lies the tragedy. Nancy Pelosi does her job about as well as anyone could. But because she’s a woman, she may not be doing it well enough.”

I’ve written before about workplace “clean-up”—the often invisible ways in which lesser-paid employees (often people of color and women, as statistics repeatedly bear out) do the work of the greater-paid employees (often white men, as statistics repeatedly bear out) and make them appear more competent.  These tasks range from managing people and work responsibilities to writing speeches to running meetings.  Even as the Virginia Department of Education unveils its “Profile of a Virginia Graduate,” with an emphasis on job readiness, it continues to hire and promote superintendents, assistant superintendents, and middle- and high-school principals who in this part of the state are often white men, some of whom (not all!) lack real training to manage people, deliver speeches, run meetings, demand reasonable budgets, and generally do the work for which they were hired.  The more we subscribe to the Peter Principle, the more we inculcate in our young people the supposed naturalness of promoting white men and render invisible the work of people of color and white women.

Soccer great Abby Wambach touched upon many of these issues in her powerful and inspiring 2018 commencement speech at Barnard College.  We can all learn something from Wambach’s words and her real, practical advice for greater workplace fairness.

Dignity and Indignation

(White House website)

Commencement, the old idea that the end is not the end but a new beginning, delivers pomp and circumstance (the actual song and the ceremony), folding chairs, speakers’ platforms, honorary degrees, family lunches, sweaty black robes, grandparents seeking refuge from humidity, diplomas and brief swaggers on stage, caps tossed in the air, reminiscence, recognition, encouragement, celebration.   In a way, this ritual is a collective Bar or Bat Mitzvah in its excited anticipation of the people these youngsters have become and the older adults they will be.  Commencement is excitement, hope, and love.

This year I will attend our university’s baccalaureate service, a special ceremony for some of the seniors, the formal graduation, my daughter’s 8th-grade graduation, and the high-school graduation of dear friends.  That is a lot of commencing packed into three short days, and I’m looking forward to it, in no small part because I am so happy for these people and glad for their next adventures.  When I was younger, I thought rituals rather silly; the predictable garb, incantations, and seasonal speeches seemed to pale in comparison to simply being with the people you loved and wanted to celebrate.  My brother-in-law once reminded me that people need rituals in order to acknowledge beginnings and endings, to come together as a community, to observe the different ways in which time passes.  He is right.  These rituals allow us to tell each other of the respect we feel for one another.  They underscore human dignity and, when done right, also nudge us towards indignation in the face of injustice.  Simply put, injustice erases human dignity; it tells us that some humans are more worthy than others.  Commencement should remind us that we have learned otherwise.

While the United States continues to allow, and too often to condone, the killing of black people, the country also sees the smaller indignities, or reductions of worthiness, in the acts of white people calling the police on black people and the police responding to these racist and frivolous calls.  These daily indignities are the everyday bits of proof of the gigantic problem of assassination and incarceration of people of color, a problem exposed through film, fiction, academic studies, and activist organizations, including, but not limited to, Black Lives Matter.  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on rarity and reporting and this one on Black Lives Matter.)  We as a nation ignore these everyday occurrences at our peril, as they must form a part of our reckoning with racial injustice and our solutions to these profound problems of humanity, worth, and dignity.

Some of you may have seen the White House website’s piece on MS-13 gang members and activity.  (See the horrifyingly official headline in the photo above.) Robin Alperstein’s upcoming article in Dame Magazine will treat this issue, and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post addresses it here.  I therefore just want to mention the MS-13 piece in the context of dignity.  Calling certain groups of people “animals” does us all a disservice.  The person who uses the term diminishes the humanity of the person being addressed, her or his own humanity, and that of all of us.  (Of course, too, this derogatory term assumes a less than harmonious relationship with the flora and fauna that make up our world.)  Ass, bitch, chicken, cow, pig, pussy, rat, shrimp, snake—when we use these animal terms against people—we are understanding those people to be less human than ourselves.  Now, let’s return to the main point:  the so-called president of the United States chooses to use this language on the official website of his office—of our nation–, thereby representing us to the world in this demeaning, demoralizing, dehumanizing way.

The website text recounts atrocious acts and attacks of Mara Salvatrucha, a large transnational gang known for its violent campaigns.  The end of the piece states, “President Trump’s entire Administration is working tirelessly to bring these violent animals to justice.”  This jarring us/them, human/animal, superior/inferior, worthy/unworthy language attempts to establish the Trump administration as morally superior saviors, at best a laughable position and, at worst, an example of generalizing, xenophobic, and violent rhetoric directed at all Latinxs.  Dionne takes on the dignity question in this way: “But both of these innocent explanations underestimate Trump’s gift for using incendiary words that send clear messages to his supporters. He is brutally calculating in finding ways of casting large groups of people as undeserving of dignity. Dehumanizing those he and his core constituents see as radically different is central to Trump’s project.”  I shudder to think about the words of wisdom this megalomaniac narcissist will offer to the students graduating from the United States Naval Academy on Friday.

The “president,”—Groping Old President, paper-towel thrower, wall-builder, dictator-lover, cheater, liar, stealer, colluding election-grabber—clearly not the best choice to lead a diverse and complex nation, is also not the ideal person to express to a large group of 22-year-olds that they can choose dignity, express indignation in the face of social injustice, and commence a much-needed wave of change in a country struggling to hold onto any shred of humanity.

(Bulletin board at the university where I teach.  Much kinder than the White House website.)

El qué-dirán (The “What-Will-They-Say”)

The Spanish language boasts its own compound noun, composed of the question word “what” (qué) and the “they” form of the verb “to say” (“decir”), formulated in the future (“dirán”).  Today’s students grasp the concept of the “qué-dirán” in a blink of an eye, understanding the power of the looming “they,” the fear of the enigmatic “what,” and the social control implied by the “will say,” or the gossip.  This concept, which appears as a fundamental two-by-four in Spanish-language literature through the ages, affects us all and takes hold through the scaffolding of the social media networks.

Many people of my generation (50-somethings) comment on the challenge our children face in navigating social relationships. Of course, relationships among adolescents are often characterized by strife and heartbreak, as young people experience many emotions for the first time.  This hasn’t changed, but the social media environment has, increasing the number of people who form the “they” implied by “dirán,” the number of people who can engage in gossip and attempt to shape others’ behaviors.  Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that I don’t gossip.  We all do.

Before the social media era, nevertheless, wasn’t it already awkward and maybe even humiliating to be in fifth grade and find nowhere to sit in the lunchroom, or to be made fun of for an outfit you wore in seventh grade or a snorty laugh you emitted in eighth grade, or to find yourself in the midst of shifting friendships in ninth grade?  To have those moments and feelings constantly and repeatedly exposed on social media, rarely with your best interests at heart, must reinforce faltering self-esteem and imposed isolation on our children.  When I see mean posts and possibly even meaner shares, I am indignant on behalf of the person who was targeted, whether I know the person or not.  Even if meanness and snark are a part of growing up, and they definitely are, their amplification via social media certainly must be having its effect on the young people we love.

Friends’ and family members’ perceptions of us during adolescence contribute to our self-perception, I think for life.  What are the stories or phenomena of your childhood about which you’re still particularly sensitive?  I have two, neither of which is anyone’s fault, but each of which likely takes turns driving the car of my personality. (*Please see this “Loving People” post , which celebrates the many positive elements of my childhood.  I just realized that I wrote that piece one year ago. This time of year must have me reflecting on youth, love, and challenges.  Or maybe it’s moralizing May.)

The first formative element comes from inside the home, where I grew up as one of two girls in a family of seven children.  Busy days and crowded dinner tables made for some single-tracked conversations of which I (and probably my brothers and sister, too, at different times) often did not feel a part.  The single focus and the resultant lack of variety in conversation topics made me hunger to learn everything I could about other things when I was at school and/or on my own.  I still love the family conversations we had (often sprinkled with hilarious word play and almost always demonstrating profound affection), and I still love sports—part of my training—but I definitely like embarking upon deep conversations about other parts of our lives. My husband’s family was steeped in Philadelphia politics, a hot topic at their home, and those conversations, along with the lack of fear of disagreement or discord, appealed to me tremendously when I first started hanging out at their house.

The second item about which I’m still sensitive arose mostly outside the home.  At home, my parents, sister, and brothers expressed frequent and generous praise about my interests and endeavors (how lucky to have been surrounded by people who took a genuine interest, despite all I just said above about our conversational compass).  My parents also imposed what some would deem a militaristic discipline: up early; get to school; work hard; go to practice and work hard; come home, eat dinner, do chores; do homework; practice the instrument (generously provided by public school education); no television; go to bed.  On the weekends and in the summer, there was no lounging around in bed and there was always a list of chores prepared for each person.  We had a lot of fun, too, constantly playing and making up games and interacting with our siblings’ friends.  The ethos of the house was definitely “work hard, play hard,” and the work always came first.  This is how we were raised and what we were taught to expect and respect, and I think each of us kids brought it to much of what we did, and certainly into our adult work lives.

Therefore, when, especially in middle school, but also in high school, classmates decided my good grades were a result of hard work and no missed school days (ah, how I remember the ignominy of getting the perfect attendance award along with the highest grade award in 7th grade), I was unsettled in a way I couldn’t articulate until later.  At the time, I did not know how to analyze these comments, and I mostly left them alone. Later, though, I thought defensively, “I do work hard, but I’m also kind of smart, I think.”  It was a weird moment when I realized I had to defend working hard and assert that some academic skills came naturally to me.  I didn’t go around saying these things, but I learned to confront the strange criticism that someone who works hard must not also be intelligent.  Working hard to me meant, and still means, that I am serious about the endeavor before me, there are things I don’t know, there are talents I can bring to the project, and the hard work might bring joy and passion.  Hard work and working hard also mean that we occasionally learn to think more critically about social justice, effecting change, and being in the trenches with others who are willing to do the same.

My husband works incredibly hard and is a sophisticated thinker, passionate about what he does and says.  His strong personality makes him a force for positive change. (Hey, wait, have I been writing too many letters of recommendation this month?) My husband just recently told me, for the first time in our 26-year relationship, that he also was marked by the “you’re not smart; you just work hard” criticism leveled at him through grade school and high school. We hope that our children, whose work habits have been dictated by us but also cultivated by them, haven’t inherited this criticism, that they haven’t been the object of similar comments.

I leave you with two points today.  Social media make everything more complicated.  There is much to be learned in hard work—actual information and skills, collaboration, passion.

Funny Women

Old joke: Question: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: That is not funny.

It turns out: Feminists are damned funny.  This includes Michelle Wolf.

Confession: For about five years now, I have wanted to learn how to write, launch, and perform a stand-up routine.  That’s why I’m fascinated with the television show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” created by Amy Sherman-Palladino and starring Rachel Brosnahan.  In the show, 1960s upper-crust housewife and mother Midge Maisel learns to fashion “the tight ten,” the perfectly pitched ten-minute routine of the stand-up comic.  I am not hilarious, but I am sometimes pretty good at recognizing and recounting unusual stories, which might work towards a tight 45 seconds.  Gender-bending situations, misunderstandings between and among languages, and mishaps of menstruation, maternity, and menopause would have to be developed to get the other nine minutes and 15 seconds.  I would want to undo some of the work of the Andrew Dice Clays of the world and celebrate the hilarity of more contemporary comedians, who are accomplished and much less overtly misogynistic, if not outright feminist. Who knows, a girl can dream, right?

Full disclosure: I think it would be funny for a 52-year-old woman to start with, “So, I went to the dentist and the gynecologist today.  Only two cavities.”  I can hear your groans from wherever you’re reading this, but wouldn’t the shock of a large-bosomed 52-year-old woman saying this make it even funnier?  Okay.  A large-bosomed woman can dream.  Isn’t it funny to use the term “large-bosomed” more than once?  Not a single person I know—not even the kindest and most loyal among them—thinks this dream of mine is a good idea, so that should probably tell me something.

For these reasons and more, I have been following with keen interest the kerfuffle surrounding Michelle Wolf and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD).  I didn’t know of Michelle Wolf before this occasion, but I sure do now, and I would bet many people could say the same.  She is really funny.  Her irony and deadpan delivery slay.  She is a comedian, and so she is supposed to be funny, edgy, surprising.  The WHCD allowed her to display all of these talents, which she has developed over the past few years through improv classes, writing for and performing on Late Night with Seth Meyers and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, doing her own HBO Comedy special, and now having a regular comedy show on Netflix.

If you didn’t catch the full routine or haven’t seen snippets of it, where the hell have you been?  Just kidding.  You can check out Wolf’s own website, which offers the night’s highlights by category: Sarah Huckabee Sanders; Ivanka Trump; Donald Trump; Democrats; the media.  The website also emphasizes the ultra-serious conclusion of Wolf’s routine, “Flint still doesn’t have clean water.”  In this piece from Cosmo (4/30/18), Jill Filipovic astutely examines the White House’s hypocritical response to Wolf’s remarks in the context of the WH hostility towards the press/media and the increased danger for the press corps during Trump’s time in the presidency.  Filipovic writes, “Flint still doesn’t have clean water. That line was in the same speech as the one that mentioned eye shadow and Aunt Lydia. Only one of those things is truly offensive, and it didn’t seem to register on the list of outrages felt by members of the White House Press Corps. There are wives and mothers in Flint, too – if Michelle Wolf talks about their eye makeup, will we finally care about them?  Reporters should make the powerful very uncomfortable. Their obligation is to reveal the unvarnished truth, no matter how awkward the facts are or ill-mannered one seems for delivering them.  Luckily, someone at the White House Correspondents Dinner did that. It just wasn’t any of the journalists.” The beauty magazines definitely understand fashion, and it’s clear that, in the age of Trump, Vogue, Teen Vogue, and Cosmopolitan see feminist protest and humor as appropriately fashionable.  (I won’t get into the multiple hypocrisies of this in today’s piece.  I’m busy trying to figure out eyeshadow names, like “Smoky Ash” and “Large Bosom Gray.”)

Comedian Elayne Boosler also rises to Wolf’s (unnecessary) defense in this Time Magazine piece (5/1/18).  Boosler has it right: comedians are to be judged on the quality of their humor.  I would list intelligence, surprise, bite, and social commentary as key elements to be critiqued.  Boosler says, “Outrage is how you know you did well.”  This Washington Post piece (4/29/18) also claims that “Michelle Wolf got it just right.”  Indeed, she did, and I love that each negative comment about Wolf makes this talented comedian more certain that her performance achieved exactly what she wanted.

In this interview (5/1/18) with NPR’s Terry Gross, Wolf says, “I think sometimes they look at a woman and they think “Oh, she’ll be nice,” and if you’ve seen any of my comedy you know that I don’t — I’m not. I don’t pull punches. I’m not afraid to talk about things. And I don’t think they expected that from me. I think they still have preconceived notions of how women will present themselves and I don’t fit in that box.” Indeed, Wolf’s high-profile performance allows her to remove the box, occupy a physical and metaphorical space most frequently inhabited by male comedians, give voice to funny women, and remind us of severe social ills.  Those who want her to play nice have to undo their own biases, as Wolf seems to take on the cloak of irresponsibility so celebrated in the context of men comedians and so little appreciated among funny women.  Of course, age-old tropes tell us that “public women” are to be feared, silenced, and placed back into the box.  Wolf’s principal transgression seems to be her refusal to comply with these antiquated expectations.

Question: How many feminists does it take to turn on the lights?  Answer:  All of us.

Stop Soft-Pedaling Rape and Rapists

(From elconfidencial.es)

Many of you have read about the resolution of a criminal case in Spain last week.  The case, described thoroughly in this The Guardian article from last Thursday and this December, 2017, article from El País, involves an 18-year-old woman who was at the Pamplona Running of the Bulls (“los sanfermines”) on July 7, 2016, and was approached by five men in the early hours of the morning.  They offered to walk her to her car, but instead took her to a lobby of a nearby building, where they raped her and filmed the gang rape on their cell phones.  One man stole the woman’s cell phone before leaving the scene of the attack.  The five men, self-named “La Manada,” or, “The Wolf Pack,” planned and filmed the attack.

Last week, the five attackers were not convicted of rape, but of “sexual abuse,” a decision that brought a lesser punishment of nine years in prison (five years to probation) and a 10,000-euro fine.  One of the magistrates, Ricardo González, deemed that the event was consensual from start to finish.  His questions and comments sexualize, rather than criminalize, the case, thus demonstrating his inability to make fair judgment and the ease with which more than insensitive legal actors can influence outcomes and retraumatize individuals attacked in violent cases.  In addition to harming the survivor, the blame-the-victim line of questioning does further harm to any person who has experienced such violence.  The distinction made by the Spanish law and the court, in this case, is that sexual abuse does not involve violence or intimidation.  Upon hearing the decision, thousands in Spanish cities big and small took to the streets, in a wave of protest, to decry the utterly unjust verdict and the revictimization of the young woman who survived the brutal attack. (*See the BBC’s report of the protests here.)

Were any of you stuck in the last paragraph at the mention of “sexual abuse does not involve violence or intimidation?”  First of all, I would think that both sexual abuse and sexual violence involve violence and intimidation and that the impulse to distinguish one from the other here is an impulse to say that boys will be boys and, well, rape just happens.  Second, when a single person, armed with only a cell phone, is surrounded, stripped of her clothing, and raped by five grown men in a building lobby, we can clearly say that person is being both intimidated and violated.  It is sheer insanity to say otherwise. Saying otherwise reveals the depth of our (us, our cultures, our laws, the people we know) willingness to allow violent, insecure men to take and keep control of others.

At the very least, this case is forcing Spanish legislators to reckon with these laws and is demonstrating how thousands of Spaniards are willing to protest this toxic masculinity embedded in the law.  Protests of “No is No,” “We are All the Wolfpack,” “I Do Believe You, Sister,” and “Justice Now” contribute to a public display that might help to move the legislative needle in the centuries-overdue right direction.  The President of the High Tribunal for Justice in Navarra, Joaquín Galve, has criticized protesters for being out of control, and yet has no comments about the out-of-control verdict handed down last week.  This is yet another case of embracing a centuries-old status quo and blaming the wrong group of people—those who are appropriately protesting profoundly unjust laws. (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on the status quo, this one on civility codes, this one on rape as violence against a real person with a real body, and this one on gender-based violence in Spain and elsewhere.)

As were many people, I was particularly touched to see a group of Carmelite nuns from the north of Spain write and post a communiqué on Facebook to protest the decision and express support for the young woman in the case.  According to this piece (the translation is pretty close to what I read in the original Facebook post in Spanish), the nuns write: “We live in closure, we wear a habit almost up to our ankles, we do not go out at night (more than to the Emergency Department), we do not go to parties, we do not drink alcohol and we have taken a vow of chastity.  And because it is a FREE option, we will defend with all means within our reach (this is one) the right of all women to FREELY do otherwise without being judged, raped, intimidated, killed or humiliated for it.”

I will leave it to Spanish critics to determine the significance, if any, of the occasion of the sanfermines, a runaway seven-day fiesta that caters largely to foreign tourists wanting to drink until dawn and then run the streets with the bulls.  Perhaps this celebrated tradition has a deep-rooted masculinity at its core that has dictated to young men that bulls and women are to be taunted, maimed, and killed.

No expert in Spanish law, I still believe that legislators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges have a long way to go in terms of understanding how legal precedents based in the Napoleonic Code (think of Emilia Pardo Bazán’s tremendous short story, “El indulto” [“The Stay of Execution”], which criticizes both perpetrators and legal codes designed to allow them to keep committing crimes) dictate patriarchal power that continues to be extremely difficult to undo in the courts.  In addition, lack of representation of women in powerful legal and judicial positions (*see this 2017 article with statistics) limits the likelihood that new perspectives will be introduced and taken seriously, thus confounding the initial problem of legal history and stagnation in legal reform.  On-the-spot protests like we see happening throughout Spain, along with sustained protest movements like “Ni Una Menos” in Latin America, must continue to gather steam, push legislators and judges, and change the deep acceptance of gender-based violence still so prevalent in this 21st century.

Rape is rape, not “sexual abuse.” Rapists are rapists, not “sexual abusers.”  Let’s call it what it is, ensure there are real consequences for the crime, and effect lasting cultural change.