Hotter Water

How are you all doing?  The terrible news across the globe has me low, but then I think about the people directly affected by all the news and how they must be doing.  I’ve asked many times here on the blog how much lower we will have to go before we can effect true change, and I sincerely wish I knew the answer.  For this week’s blog, I’m just writing about local events because I don’t know yet how to tackle the national and international ones.

I’ve been wondering:  When you’re in hot water, and things get more dire, is the water hotter or deeper, or both?

As you likely know, the Gender Shrapnel Blog emerged from my book, Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace (Palgrave, 2016).  The university where I work has predictably had a conflicted relationship with this book, which critiques colleges and universities for not fixing problems of gender (and race, class, parental status, among other intersectional categories) and, in some cases, for exacerbating these problems.  I understand my university’s relationship with Gender Shrapnel (after all, I wrote a book about it) and am wholly unsurprised by the book’s reception on campus.  Nevertheless, since the job of the book and this blog is to provide information about, analyze, and suggest remedies for cases of gender and intersectional shrapnel, I am compelled at this moment to take a look at the book’s reception and to link the reception to other lukewarm (or maybe lukecold) responses to local shrapnel incidents.

Although folks might bristle at my calling out my institution on gender shrapnel, I hope they know that I’m speaking again of accumulated incidents over several years’ time.  The incidents demonstrate that intersectional shrapnel still flies and lessons aren’t learned.  Codes of civility (*addressed in this post) might have me silence these facts, but silence doesn’t get us where we need to be.  The driving force of the status quo makes any person, comment, question, or protest who/that challenges it seem “uncivil,” and this silencing moves us backwards.  Some readers might suggest that, if I don’t like where I teach, I should get out.  Please know that, for the most part, I actually do like where I teach.  I like what I teach, whom I teach, where I teach.  (I do like green eggs and ham.  I do like them, Sam I Am.)  Twenty years at one place can create deep ties and affectionate sentiments, and also a long-term perspective about the need and potential for real change.

At the university where I teach, professors’ books are usually highlighted on the university webpage and in the Alumni Magazine.  Many kind people in our publications office made sure to include mention of Gender Shrapnel in these venues last year when the book came out.  Instead of being interviewed about the content of the book for the website piece, though, I was asked to focus on the advising work I do with students.  The book was certainly mentioned in the piece, no problem, but it wasn’t supposed to be the centerpiece.  I should have rejected this approach, but didn’t.  It is hard to reject these approaches when they are suggested by people you have liked and respected for two decades.  I never saw the piece actually featured on the website, even though I check the site daily.  It must have flown in and out rather quickly.

More recently, an excerpted section of this blog post about Mark Lilla and campus politics was published as a letter to the editor in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  The blog post and excerpted letter defend contemporary college students from Lilla’s accusations that they are overprotected and disengaged from the communities around them.  This is the kind of piece (a letter to the editor on a higher education issue) usually posted somewhere on our website, even if a few layers deep, but it never made it on.  I can’t tell if it’s because it doesn’t rate or is linked to the blog itself.  A link to the blog, which mentions university unmentionables, is likely to be avoided at all costs.  I get that the university website serves to sell the university to its many constituencies, but I don’t understand why we don’t actually celebrate our ability to engage in disagreement and be richer for it.  I’ve heard myself say several times lately that the university (not just mine; probably all) gives and then takes away.  University officials assure us that we are addressing diversity issues head on, and then we slow things down.  I can’t imagine how presidents can balance pleasing all constituencies with making real change, but I can imagine how presidents actually make change.

I am not certain what I think about the representation of people of color on our website.  Students of color are featured somewhat often, I think, but I rarely see notices about staff and faculty of color.  We have trouble hiring and retaining people of color for a host of reasons.  We recognize many of these reasons (our name and heritage; homogeneity; rural Virginia; KKK leaflets on front lawns; flaggers marching down Main Street; and a long etcetera), but seem to have trouble grappling with them in forthright conversations and calls for transformation.

Back when Gender Shrapnel was published, the library staff generously asked me to do an author talk, and there was not even a whiff of censorship in that venue.  Librarians like books, and I believe they like information and respectful debate.  Several administrators, some staff members, and many faculty members have read, thought about, and encouraged the work on gender shrapnel.  I am not writing this post because I feel the book has been wholly neglected.  I’m writing it because I believe the areas in which the book has been neglected are precisely the areas in which our university needs to do the hard work of recognizing a racist and misogynistic past in order to make smarter decisions about the current state of the school.

At that same time, over at the university bookstore, in the faculty publications section, I noticed that Gender Shrapnel still had not appeared and that books that were a decade old were still featured front and center.  Even though it’s embarrassing to have to ask your own bookstore to pay attention to your publication, I mentioned to the managers that I would appreciate if they could include my new book in the faculty publications section.  They kindly agreed.  A few weeks later, I saw the bookstore’s special exhibit on banned books.  The bookstore had one or two shelves dedicated to Catcher in the Rye, The Call of the Wild, Catch-22, and Beloved, all books that had at some point been banned.  At that point, when I looked for Gender Shrapnel, I found it on the bottom-most shelf of the faculty section, in the left-hand corner, alongside a co-edited volume of mine from six years before.  It was hard to find the co-edited volume or the new book because placed in front of them was a large hat rack with men’s straw hats with the school’s ribboned insignia.  The university has found ingenious ways to comply with equitable treatment without actually complying with equitable treatment.  (*See photos.)

Like many of us, each morning I visit about six websites (banking, news, you know the drill), and one of them is my university’s website.  This summer the website featured the same white men for three months.  I like these men and respect their work very much.  I want to see them and their work featured on the website.  But I also want the institution to understand the message it sends, day after day for at least 90 days.  It is telling us that white men’s work matters and is to be featured.  The absence of features on the accomplishments of people of color and women just seems to communicate that people of color and women don’t do work that matters.  The omission reminds many of us that what we read about bias in student evaluations (*see this report; this one; this one; and this one, for example) is easily reinforced through broad institutional messages. Women are “helpful,” and men are “brilliant.”  Men are the doers; women and people of color are the helpers.

I strongly believe that some of these actions are deliberate—carefully protected messaging to a high-traffic site—and some are accidental—a constant forgetting that women and people of color actually exist and achieve.  In Gender Shrapnel, I say over and over that, in the end, intention or lack of intention matters not.  The effect is the same.  This is exactly what Dr. Wornie Reed said in his talk here in Lexington when he gave statistics on unequal policing across the races on Virginia highways.

Invisibility and visibility were themes of this Gender Shrapnel Blog post about a year ago.  Invisibility reigns when people of color and women accomplish big things.  People of color and women gain visibility when seen as appendages to others or when they/we are criticized for stepping out of line, for calling racism and sexism what they are, for protesting centuries of injustice.  (*See this blog post that briefly discusses Colin Kaepernick’s case.)  While Gender Shrapnel has been somewhat invisible in some campus and electronic locations, the blog has been visible enough to get me in hot water.  This post and this one must not have sat well with somebody, somewhere, because I was called in to an administrator’s office for a conversation about them.  This revealed the institution’s uneasiness on some level with frank discussion of the problematic history and recent events of our institution and our area.  I worry, too, that this action was an attempt to “manage,” or control, conversations that seem too out of tightly controlled bounds.

At the same time, individuals and groups from many corners of the institution where I work seem sincerely committed to understanding legacies of slavery, racism, and white supremacism.  This heightened awareness is to be embraced, but it is not enough, and it is not intersectional enough.  As demonstrated in this NPR piece of 2014, the institution already knew it had work to do three years ago, and we/it has a long way to go.  The formation of a commission to examine all the issues proves an excellent step, but we have to be careful not to give with one hand and take away with ten.  Citing Robert E. Lee at big events, celebrating alumni who use traditional women’s garb and Confederate flags as “just a joke,” and reinforcing millennia-old gender scripts through published materials detract from the good work and good words being done elsewhere.

Day of Reckoning

Every so often we need to list actions that are insane, inane, and inhumane.  Today, let’s do some accounting.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and José are not just a part of hurricane season.  They are part of an ever more worrisome chain of cataclysmic events caused by climate change.  Yes, we should care about the people affected—those who have lost life, property, livelihood, and clean water—in every way we can, and we have to stop causing these events, then throwing up our hands as if we don’t understand their origin, and then calling upon people to clean up the messes.

Colin Kaepernick and dozens of other NFL players are not just well-paid professional athletes with a bone to pick.  They are brave individuals who are responding to a system of oppression that we white people have created and perpetuated.  We have all witnessed the excessive use of force on African Americans, resulting in death, incarceration, and entrenched patterns that we are only now starting to acknowledge.  We shouldn’t foment racism and then criticize those who protest it, those who have a legitimate cause to question allegiance to a flag whose country has never chosen to represent their interests.  Colin Kaepernick should have a solid Title VII case working, especially given the retaliation he has suffered for his important gesture of resistance, a gesture made in a context highly visible to white men, the group perhaps most in need of lessons about United States history and present-day realities.

The events of Charlottesville didn’t happen in a vacuum.  We have spent too long neglecting the evolution of the First Amendment and indulging a long outdated interpretation of the Second Amendment.  Jeff Sessions is busy accusing college and university campuses of serving as echo chambers for people with homogeneous opinions and fragile egos, hearkening back to some mythical good old days when tough people argued out tough opinions.  Whatever good old days he may be referring to were days when colleges and universities had not yet opened their doors to many people who weren’t white or male.  Not all white males have the same opinions, but an environment that welcomes them and them only also protects them from heterogeneity and challenges to their privilege.  It creates power systems for them and them only, power systems that manifest themselves in the very type of government that is not working for many of us at this moment.  The powerful weapons available to the common person give the Second Amendment a ferocious sway over the First, as we witnessed so clearly in Charlottesville.  Open-carry laws on campuses such as The University of Texas certainly chill free speech freedoms and impulses.

It is no coincidence that Betsy DeVos is unraveling all of the equality work done by President Obama.  We created Betsy DeVos, and her toady, Candice Jackson, by allowing attack after attack on the character and actions of the most qualified candidate for the presidency, demonstrating that we can’t stand women who have earned power, and giving power to someone wholly unqualified to be Secretary of Education just because she is (1) a billionaire and (2) willing to assume that women who have been raped are liars and to give alleged rapists (Brock Turner, for example) the overwhelming benefit of the doubt.  DeVos serves to dismantle Obama-era protections, yet another demonstration of the racist need to undo all the good work done by a black president.  Trump’s proposal to Congress to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) again erases an Obama-era program and, according to this article from The Atlantic, reverses upward mobility for many of the nation’s young people.

The travel ban imposed upon Muslim-majority nations, a ban rearing its ugly head anew, now includes Chad, North Korea, and Venezuela, much to the confusion of most people who are experts in information-sharing among nations with an interest in eliminating state-sponsored terrorism.  Chad’s inclusion, even in a Trumpian worldview, is quite confusing. Trump has baited North Korea and then blamed the nation for its (admittedly) dangerous and (hopefully) unwarranted missile tests.  The ban of Venezuela, whose citizens are suffering in many ways, including vast food shortages, seems cruel and, to put it lightly, un-neighborly, especially for a nation that offered aid to the United States after Harvey and Irma. The inclusion of non-Muslim-majority nations represents a chess move on Trump’s part to attempt to make the ban appear less targeted at one religious group.

Despite recommendations from his top military advisers and servants, the “president” continues to insist that transgender individuals should not serve in the military.  We shouldn’t have to be in an uproar about having a president treat people as less than human for their race, religion, national origin, and gender identity.  These groups are supposed to be protected under the law (Title VII, 1964, and Title IX, 1972) of the United States and are now targeted by the government of the United States.

What happened to infrastructure and jobs?  Why have the “president” and Congress spent nine months trying to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, only to find that it is the best solution we have so far?  (They could have spent those nine months fixing certain elements of the ACA to make it even stronger.) Where are the “progress” and “greatness”?  What is beneficial, humane, kind, generous, or noble about the way the United States is conducting business these days, within the country and beyond it?

Even Forbes has a list of the ten most offensive tweets from our “president.”  A man who uses his Twitter account and the Oval Office as a policy machine, bully pulpit, and series of contradictions is running our country into the ground.

Two Months and Five Days Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impatience is a Virtue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking Fast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labor Day, 2017

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lilla Again: Campus Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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