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.

Charlottesville (and Lexington)

(Photographs of “flaggers” in Lexington, Virginia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Worried

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civility

A few months ago, I delivered an impromptu anti-Trump rant at the dinner table.  The rant was rambling.  It covered the imprudent proposal to repeal the ACA, racist and anti-immigrant policies, sexist comments, and a general and increasing concern about the candidate’s sanity.  When I finished, my daughter said scoldingly, “Mo-oooom.  Opinions!”  I retorted, “Yes, I have a few.”  My daughter’s comment and rolling eyes shouldn’t surprise any of us who know what 12-year-olds are about, and I appreciate my daughter’s sense of challenge and feistiness.  At the same time, I do wonder if her desire for me to express fewer opinions comes from the social inculcation of a woman’s place, niceness, and civility, all of which seem to nudge people to make women “behave.”  Like most young people, my daughter is learning to navigate gendered impositions of speech and silence, while also figuring out how to police these very same elements.

The exchange reveals how we can feel discomfort when we hear strongly stated opinions and how that discomfort can result in an urge to silence another person.  We have likely all silenced a person or an idea, as we instinctively protect dearly-held beliefs and opinions and/or an internally set sense of how things should be said or done.  In other words, we have a built-in sense of civility and its relevance to certain social or political contexts.  Popular culture breaks with some of these gendered norms, but often at a cost.  For example, Leslie Jones starred as part of the all-star cast of the remake of “Ghostbusters” but suffered a ridiculous chain of insults based on her race and gender.  The racism and misogyny of those who criticized her probably stemmed in part from their desire to remember “Ghostbusters” as a dude-centered and incredibly successful ‘80’s movie.  The intrusion of women, including a woman of color, on that hallowed ground of pop culture stirred anger and hostility directed primarily at the person whose profile is the most apparently intersectional.

What is civility, if not a list of rules to live by?  Who writes the rules, and who suffers more if they break them?  At Billboard’s Women in Music event back in December, Madonna addressed gender disparities in the music industry:  “Thank you for acknowledging my ability to continue my career for 34 years in the face of blatant sexism and misogyny and constant bullying and relentless abuse.” She discussed her muse, David Bowie, who “embodied male and female spirit” and “made me think there were no rules. But I was wrong. There are no rules – if you’re a boy. There are rules if you’re a girl.”

Those rules are as follows: “If you’re a girl, you have to play the game. You’re allowed to be pretty and cute and sexy. But don’t act too smart. Don’t have an opinion that’s out of line with the status quo. You are allowed to be objectified by men and dress like a slut, but don’t own your sluttiness. And do not, I repeat do not, share your own sexual fantasies with the world. Be what men want you to be, but more importantly, be what women feel comfortable with you being around other men. And finally, do not age. Because to age is a sin. You will be criticised and vilified and definitely not played on the radio” (cited in The Guardian, 12-12-16). Traditional race and gender norms rely on codes of civility for their survival.  The more we follow civility rules and tacitly or explicitly police others’ behaviors, the more we reinforce the damaging status quo of oppression.

At many universities with honor codes or systems, the word ‘civility’ accompanies the word ‘honor,’ thus recalling centuries-old (millennia-old) systems of behaviors based on expectations of gendered norms and scripts and enforcing those norms with a code of civility, which silences anything or anyone approaching reasoned protest.  In fact, my institution still uses the phrase “conduct unbecoming a gentleman,” thus entrenching behavioral codes and implying that those who break them (according to whom?) are somehow less attractive, less lovely, less in the box in which they belong.  We have to question more fully why it is considered “unattractive” to call out injustice and ask for change.

The questioning of civility codes often falls disproportionately on those who have less power in hierarchical situations, thus allowing the people with more power to retain it in what appears to be a morally superior, more “becoming” way.  Steven Mintz, a professor from Cal Poly who calls himself the “Ethics Sage,” wrote this 2012 blog post about civility.  Mintz contributes to the entrenchment of gendered civility scripts by expressing surprise that girls and women are also capable of civil “mayhem”:  “Have you checked out You Tube lately? More and more we see video clips of teenagers attacking one another and there seems to be a marked increase in girls getting involved in the mayhem. I suppose such actions were the motivation for the Oxygen network developing a television program called Bad Girls Club that is in its sixth season.  Sigh.”  He concludes the post by saying, “Civil discourse was an important value to our founding fathers. Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best: ‘There can be no high civility without a deep morality.’”

There were founding fathers who owned slaves and raped women, which should tell us once again to question postures of moral superiority cloaked as civility.

People should have stark opinions, and disagreement should make us stronger.  I want us to have a thoughtful rationale for those very opinions, a rationale that has taken into account data and multiple viewpoints.  I want us to state opinions thoughtfully but also forthrightly, and this is a lifelong challenge for most of us.  I want opinions not to translate into universal truths that end up harming people and our planet.

This means that I want Trump to get the hell off Twitter (I know, “Mooo-ooom.  Opinions!”) and for us to dismantle his platform of selfishness, lies, and violence.  How can we have these conversations in a respectful way that doesn’t water down the real danger that many of us observe and feel and doesn’t silence individuals or groups?  Is it more “civil” to maintain an unfair status quo by silencing others or to voice unequivocally what is wrong with the status quo?

(See this 5-11-2003 NPR piece on George Washington and civility.)