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Monday, September 12, 2016

Feminism, now more than ever

Hillary Clinton is vilified as untrustworthy and unlikeable, and Phyllis Schlafly gets the last laugh. It makes me wonder what’s happened to feminism over the years. What explains the persistence of the idea that women are weak, unreliable creatures fit only for domestic life? Why do people — even women — so easily accept the narrative that a strong woman is bitchy and false? Why don’t people recognize the blatant sexism? Why do so many women see marginal improvements in our status as total victory, and then abandon the struggle? Did everyone just fall for the “You’ve come a long way baby” ads and the pseudo-women’s lib of “Sex and the City”?

Before I go any further, let me get one thing out of the way.

Victim blaming is deplorable. I’m starting with that because I know that, by the time I’m done, someone is going to call what I have to say victim blaming. No woman deserves to be the object of sexist ideas or actions, no matter how she chooses to live her life. Bigotry is the fault of the bigot.

But that doesn’t mean that women should be complacent. If we should learn anything from Phyllis Schlafly, it’s that all the gains women have made over the past few decades could evaporate in a heartbeat, because old-fashioned notions about women’s “proper” role are alive and well and waiting in the wings to make a comeback. And if the Trump candidacy teaches us anything, it’s that the embers of bigotry can be fanned into a roaring flame a lot more quickly and easily than we might think.

Challenging ourselves to buck expectations is not wrong. Putting conventional notions of femininity under a critical microscope is not self-hatred. Recognizing the toxic messages we’ve internalized since childhood is not victim blaming.

If anything, those are the ways we seize the agency we need to create change.

There’s a tendency nowadays to see old-school feminism, with its rejection of traditional femininity and its focus on the evils of objectification, as unpleasantly strident and even self-hating. Some look at the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, which turned against a lot of the outward trappings of femininity, and ask, why do advocates for women seem to hate actual women? It’s a fair question. When anger and disapproval are aimed at things closely associated with womanhood itself, from bras and makeup to mothering and homemaking, people feel attacked. It becomes impossible to have a free and open discussion about choices and messaging. The sense that feminists are a small subset of women who hate most women is understandable. Utterly wrong, but understandable.

The problem is, how do you stand up against a widely accepted, oppressive, male-privileging definition of femininity without criticizing the outward manifestations of that definition and, by extension, the people who embrace them?

When we value how we look over what we know and what we do; when we police our own behavior to avoid seeming aggressive or unlikeable; when we accept the notion that we are delicate, fragile, and weak; when we project the idea that our bodies are tools for sexuality and little else; when we spend our precious time highlighting culturally privileged physical characteristics of whiteness, thinness, and youth — then we perpetuate what oppresses us. And that’s where the idea of victim blaming comes in. To say that women should be doing something differently in order to save themselves from a great evil sounds an awful lot like saying we are responsible for the great evil.

But in truth, those two things are worlds apart. When we lift ourselves up, we do it for ourselves. When we break out of the prison, it is to seize our freedom. It’s not the fault of the unjustly imprisoned that they have been imprisoned, whether they have the will to break free or not. Nevertheless, it’s the will to break free that will force change. And every little act of defiance breaks a link in the chain.

There is plenty of room for women of good faith to debate what constitutes an act of defiance. Is it refusing to support the “beauty” industry by eschewing its standards, or is it subverting that industry by taking control of it and broadening its standards? Is it taking control of our sexuality by being unabashedly sexual, or deemphasizing our sexuality in favor of traits we’ve long been denied the right to celebrate, like intelligence and strength? Is it succeeding in male-dominated fields, or elevating female-dominated ones? Are these either/or choices or false dichotomies? These are valid and important questions. The key is remembering that we all share the same goal in asking them: to change a system that prevents us from achieving the personal fulfillment that is every human being’s right.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Remembering My Spock

As my social media feeds fill up with posts about Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, I find myself remembering Spock.
Not the original-series Spock. Not Leonard Nimoy. My Spock. A long time ago, when Star Trek and I were very young, I had a best friend. Her name was Rifka. I was Kirk, and she was Spock. That pretty much says it all.
Rifka and I fell in love with Star Trek when we were about 10 years old. It was the early 70s, a couple of years into Star Trek’s seemingly endless syndicated run on Channel 11 in New York. I’m pretty sure I was the one who started it, having been introduced to Star Trek by my older brother, but our passion for the show soon surpassed his. It surpassed that of everyone we knew.
The Star Trek universe was our universe, or at least, everything we wanted our universe to be: exciting, dangerous, just, beautiful, honorable. It was how we saw ourselves. Star Trek wasn’t just what we watched, it was what we did. For the next few years — long past the age either of us would have willingly admitted — Rifka and I spent most of our time together playing Star Trek. We played other things from time to time — the Hardy Boys, Lost in Space, board games — but at least 90% of our time together was spent playing Star Trek. And always, always, I was Kirk and Rifka was Spock. At school, there were others who joined our game. Scotty, Bones, Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu were divided up among whoever else wanted to play. Interestingly, the one boy in our group, Arthur, always played the alien. (There’s probably a whole dissertation to be written about that, but I’ll just leave it there.) But Rifka and I were tyrannical in our control of the lead roles. She was Spock, I was Kirk. Always.
The funny thing is, I don’t think we had any clue just how accurately those roles reflected who we actually were.  I was brash, she was measured. I was smart, she was brilliant. I was impulsive, she was thoughtful. I was the tomboy, the risk taker, the girl who wanted to beat the boys at everything. Rifka was the hard worker who mastered everything to which she set her formidable intelligence. And in the world of our Jewish day school, my faith was showy but shallow, where hers was quiet but deeply spiritual.
As we moved into adolescence, the very things that had drawn us together began to drive us apart. In high school, I wanted to reinvent myself. I thought of  myself as a rebel, a rule breaker, a free spirit (though looking back, it was all rather tame and pretentious). Rifka remained cautious and studious. We were still friends, but we were no longer inseparable, complementary, flip sides of the same coin -- Kirk and Spock. As the years went on, we spoke less and less. By the time we went to each other’s weddings, we hadn’t seen each other in years.
And then, in 2002, some three decades after Rifka and I began playing Star Trek, word reached me that she was very ill. Rifka had cancer.
The news kicked me in the gut. All the stupid stuff that had ever come between us fell away, and the realization of all the time wasted, the friendship I should have cherished but instead allowed to wither, stood stark before me. So I did what I should have done years earlier: I wrote her a letter.

Rifka was a writer, too. By then, she was a columnist for the Jewish Week. This is what she wrote in June 2002 in a piece about the Beatles, another passion we shared (later published in an anthology of her work):
“Perhaps the only silver lining to having been diagnosed with cancer several months ago is that I have reconnected in unexpected ways with people from all walks of my life, but most particularly, with old, dear, and long out-of-touch friends.
“If I may quote from a recent letter from that same best friend who introduced me to the Beatles so long ago — and with whom I have not been in touch in years: ‘For me, talking to old friends has this kind of magical power to make me real — not just me, sitting here at this moment, but the me that’s been me all along, since the very beginning of me….Whatever else we may be today, the two little girls we were then are here with us now. They never left us.’”
A little more than a year later, I saw Rifka at her father’s shiva. He was a Holocaust survivor, a businessman, and a lovely human being, but the massive turnout at his shiva was not entirely for him. For so many of us, it was an opportunity to see Rifka without having to say what was readily apparent: one last time. In a stroke of luck, when I arrived at her brother’s house, I found that our alien friend, Arthur, whom I hadn’t seen since elementary school, was there as well. The three of us sat and talked for hours. Rifka was tired but still very much herself, her wit and insight as keen as ever. Her husband and children were there as well. As the other shiva callers came and went, I lingered, soaking her in, until finally I had to go home to my own young children.
Rifka died just a few weeks later at the age of 42. The injustice of it still makes me weep bitter tears. For my Spock, there was no Genesis planet, no katra, no miraculous resurrection. She lives on only in the memories of those who loved her.
I never think of Star Trek without thinking of my Spock. And when I say never, I mean never.
Last weekend, four decades after Rifka and I went to some of the earliest Star Trek conventions together, I attended the 50th anniversary Star Trek Mission convention in New York. As I entered, I saw this banner.

I stopped to look at it awhile, and yet again, I shed tears for my Spock, who did not live long enough to see this day. I miss her. I have been, and always shall be, her friend.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Sign of the times

When I drove past this sign this morning, I had to stop and take the picture. It tells an entire tale about how education is creating new rifts in a society already characterized by vast inequality.

“Mendham Country Day School. Advanced Educational Opportunities. Teaching to the student NOT the test. NO Common Core. NO PARCC Testing.”

This private, $20,000-a-year K-6 school knows exactly how to grab the attention of affluent parents who are likely to send their kids there -- parents who either have direct experience with or have been hearing a lot about high-stakes standardized testing in public education. The four words, teaching to the test, speak volumes, and none of it good. They suggest that public school offers mechanistic pedagogy designed as a very limited tool to do one narrow task -- prepare children to pass a specific test  -- rather than the kind of teaching that inspires creativity and original thinking,  promotes intellectual curiosity, and develops the power to reason. Teaching to the test gets kids over an arbitrary hurdle placed in front of them in one given year. The implication is that this school will instead give kids the tools they need to be more broadly successful throughout their education and beyond.

“Nonsense,” say the data pushers. “That’s just paranoid. Common Core-aligned PARCC tests are just tools that help kids see how they’re doing and allow teachers and schools to be held responsible for their outcomes.” We’ve been hearing the rebuttals for years now: Affluent white parents are just afraid to discover their precious little dears aren’t as smart as they thought they were. They’ve been brainwashed by the teachers union. They’re afraid of change. They fail to see the big picture.

But if it’s so paranoid, why are the people behind these reforms, like New Jersey governor Chris Christie and state Board of Education president Mark Biedron, sending their kids to exactly this type of private school? They live in towns with some of the top public schools in the nation -- schools that don’t have to deal with the problems of poverty and lack of resources, but are subject to the same testing requirements as every other public school in the state. Instead, for their own kids, they choose private schools free of Common Core and standardized tests. Are these guys afraid their kids aren’t smart enough for Common Core and PARCC?

Of course not. Neither was I when I chose to remove my three children from the public school system. Sure, standardized testing soaked up a ridiculous amount of time that could have been spent on more important things, but I honestly didn’t believe those lost days would have a significant impact on my high-achieving kids over the long run. The real issue was what would happen on all the rest of the days. Even before the implementation of Common Core, I could see the harm that was being done by the high-stakes testing regime of No Child Left Behind, and later the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, which bound the fates of schools and teachers to the test scores of their students.

High-stakes standardized testing strangles learning in a number of ways. It dictates what is taught in the classroom by creating an irresistible incentive to focus on test prep. It pushes out of the classroom any subject, activity, or strategy that doesn’t directly enhance test scores in the short term. It handcuffs teachers from developing curriculums and classroom strategies that play to their own strengths as teachers and meet the unique needs of specific classes and students. It promotes mediocrity by rewarding schools and teachers for getting as many kids as possible over the line of basic proficiency rather than for driving high achievers to new heights. It drives schools to divert resources away from extracurricular and enrichment programs that keep kids engaged with school but aren’t perceived to contribute to higher test scores.

As my children moved through elementary and middle public schools, the writing on the wall became ever clearer: High-stakes testing was the new normal. By the time my eldest were entering their last year of middle school 4 1/2 years ago, it was a crapshoot whether they’d make it through high school before the shit really hit the fan. We knew that Common Core-aligned tests would emphasize close readings of informational text, which would change the way high school English was taught. We saw our school district’s excellent instrumental music program beginning to shrink. It seemed likely that PARCC would soon be a graduation requirement. Teachers, already vilified by anti-union forces who begrudged them their pensions, were alarmed at the prospect of their jobs depending on highly unreliable test scores. How would this affect our kids? Without a crystal ball, we couldn’t be sure. But we knew two things for certain: Every kid gets only one shot at high school, and all this data-driven reform was bullshit. We enrolled our kids in private school. We were lucky we could, though not with the same ease as many other parents who send their kids to elite private schools. Most people are not fortunate enough to be able to take this route.

The Mendham Country Day School sign is a pretty strong indicator that we are not alone. Other parents who can afford to jump ship are moving their kids to private school in response to high-stakes testing. Those schools are understandably capitalizing on that trend in the way they market themselves. How long before the demographic shift becomes noticeable and suburban school districts begin to feel the pinch of wealth flight?

When “No Common Core, No PARCC Testing” is a major selling point to the well-off, even as the ruling class pushes Common Core and PARCC for everyone else’s kids, there’s something very wrong. “Teaching to the student not the test” is not just a sign of the times. It’s a sign of trouble.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Downton Ranty

Spoiler warning for Downton Abbey season 6 episodes 4 and 5.

So Tom Branson, Irish revolutionary turned fortunate son, now loves American-style capitalism. BLECH.

Downton Abbey drowns in fantasy-based nostalgia for an aristocracy doomed by historical circumstance, threatened by unions and socialists out to destroy civilization, and ultimately rescued by free-market capitalism. Unlike Upstairs Downstairs, which he shamelessly ripped off and turned on its head, Julian Fellowes has no real sympathy for the lower classes, who walk a razor-thin line between menial employment and starvation; he treats their revolutionary chatter as adolescent ranting, because obviously what everyone really wants is to win the lottery like Tom Branson and get a free ticket to the good life. Fellowes is far more sympathetic to the “hardships” of the aristocrats and the threats to their social status and vast estates; all they need to do is chill on the snobbery and they'll be good peeps. Because while the servants are childishly ranting about Marx, their betters are embracing Jews and Irish revolutionaries. Because, yeah, I bet THAT happened a lot among the aristocracy between the wars.

Downton invites wonder at the splendors of the upper class's vanished lifestyle -- maybe even raises questions about its sustainability -- but stops well short of indignation at the injustice of a system that supports such artful gluttony.  One wonders if Fellowes even sees the irony in Robert Crawley puking blood all over the lavish table and evening wear, which the servants will have to somehow render spotless by morning.

And speaking of irony, here's an interesting parallel to chew on:

Monday, February 1, 2016

Patriarchy and the dinosaurs

My interest in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (which I adore) and Downton Abbey (which I haven’t adored since season 1 but kept watching anyway) has led me to read up a bit about the change in women’s status in the 1920s. One refrain is repeated over and over: World War I created a sea change in the status of women, the ripples of which affected everything from politics to industry to fashion, with one of the most important results being the right to vote.

But it wasn’t until the other day, when my husband was telling me about a Nova he watched about secret tunnel warfare in WWI, which mentioned some shocking casualty statistics, that the whole thing really came together in my mind. I started looking up the numbers. I always knew that WWI was insanely bloody, but – holy shit. Between both sides, more than 65 million men were mobilized; of them, 8.5 million were killed, more than 21 million were wounded, 7.75 million were taken prisoner or went missing, for a total of about 37.5 million casualties, or 57.5% of the total force. It’s safe to assume that these casualties were almost entirely male.

And then, for good measure, 30 years later WE DID IT AGAIN. In World War II, there were 25 million or so military deaths, 70 to 85 million deaths total. Estimates vary a lot, and I won’t bother trying to look up numbers of wounded or any demographic breakdowns – obviously, a significant proportion of those deaths were women and non-Westerners – but the point is, between the two world wars, the male population of the Western world was decimated.

In other words, in order for the status of Western women to improve, it took a cataclysm that killed or maimed an incredible percentage of men – in some cases, like Germany, half or more. In a sense, WWI and WWII are like the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs: an event so deadly that a new ecological niche opened up, allowing other species to rise up and fill it. (It’s not a coincidence that in Switzerland, which remained neutral through both world wars, women didn’t get the vote until 1971! Did you know that?)

 All of this makes me ask two questions. First, why is it that the status of women in the world defaults to “super sucky” unless we start wiping out men? And second, can human beings bring about a more just world without all the killing? Please?

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

More on morons in Oregon (and elsewhere)

In yesterday’s post about the occupation by “militiamen” (aka domestic terrorists) of a wildlife refuge in Oregon, I hit the “angry white man” theme pretty hard. In thinking about their motives, I wondered, “What’s it like to be terrified to find yourself part of a society that is no longer dominated by straight, white, Christian men?” And I connected their belief system to the kind of extreme pro-gun, anti-government rhetoric we hear all too often from ideologues who preach American exceptionalism and a kind of nostalgia for a white America that never was.

It occurs to me that some might question that. I mean, why make this about race, right? Why do liberals have to keep blaming everything on white privilege? Sure, armed men occupying federal property over a land dispute might be really messed up, but what does that have to do with white privilege? You can’t just assume these guys are racists, can you?

That’s debatable. I mean, think about the extraordinary sense of privilege required to actually believe that, while non-white people all over the country are peacefully protesting economic and racial injustice, your cattle-grazing and land-burning rights are worth starting a shootin’ war over.  But luckily, we don’t have to extrapolate white privilege. These yahoos come right out and address race head-on, given half a chance -- and it’s not pretty.

Cliven Bundy, whose own run-in with the feds over land use put these guys on the media map, and whose son is one of the lead yahoos in the Oregon debacle -- and who, by the way, still has not paid the more than $1 million in fees and fines he owes, and whose cattle continue to graze on federal lands -- has spoken about driving by a public housing project in North Las Vegas and seeing "at least a half-dozen (black) people sitting on the porch, they didn't have nothing to do....Because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do? They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn't get no more freedom. They got less freedom." (source)

Yep. People like Bundy pine for the good ol’ days, when slavery gave black people a clear idea of their place in this world.

But surely, that kind of thinking doesn’t fly on the more liberal East Coast, home of New Jersey state Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, whom I quoted urging Americans to arm themselves against potential government tyranny and to stand willing to shoot at soldiers should the (ill-defined) need arise. Well, apparently it does fly if you live in affluent Republican enclaves like Morris County, where, I suspect, the majority of voters don’t much care what a local politician says, as long as he promises not to raise taxes. The only national attention Carroll’s ever gotten was when he said this:

"If slavery was the price that a modern American's ancestors had to pay in order to make one an American, one should get down on one's knees every single day and thank the Lord that such price was paid." (source)

Once again, when it comes to black people, slavery is better than the alternative. Spot a pattern? Hint: The belief that slavery was a favor to black people, who otherwise would be lazy leeches in America or savages back in Africa.

Of course, neither Bundy nor Carroll would ever admit that their views on race, guns, and land are connected by their longing for an America where rugged (white) individualists live free (manly) lives, bearing arms to protect the land (that they took by force from the Native people who were there first).

Oh yeah -- I forgot to mention -- the occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was once a Native American reservation. President Ulysses S. Grant established the Malheur Indian Reservation for the Northern Paiute in 1872; the Bannock War in 1878 ended with surrendered Paiutes and Bannocks on the reservation being removed and forced to move to Washington Territory. (source)

I feel fairly certain that the irony of this is completely lost on the angry white morons involved.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

What's goin' on in Oregon?

Why do a bunch of angry white men out West see it as their right to take up arms against a democratically elected government? Why do they think their ideas on land use, or anything else, can justifiably be promoted at gunpoint? Where does such a staggeringly misguided sense of entitlement come from?

I wonder what it’s like to believe with the certainty of divine revelation that you’re supposed to be the top dog in the most powerful nation on Earth, and that anything less is a threat to the very order of the universe? What’s it like to be terrified to find yourself part of a society that is no longer dominated by straight, white, Christian men? I expect these are the feelings that have made the guys occupying a wildlife refuge in Oregon so vulnerable to manipulation by those who profit, both financially and politically, from gun culture, and to the dangerous rhetoric of ideologues who live in a fantasy world of American exceptionalism, rugged individualism, and white Christian privilege.

Who are these batshit, paranoid ideologues who promote the fantasy that accumulating a personal arsenal in modern America is exactly like the American Revolution, because TYRANNY, FORSOOTH!? Don’t they care that their paranoid rhetoric is routinely transformed by the people who swallow their crap into lunatic conspiracy theories about the government carrying out false flag operations to pave the way for martial law and concentration camps and such like?  No, this doesn’t seem to bother the mouthpieces of right wing extremism, probably because it serves their purposes to whip up fear and loathing in their core constituency. (Though I have to wonder, does it really serve anyone’s purpose to make people vote for Donald Trump -- other than Donald Trump’s, of course? But I digress.)

Anyhow, far be it from me to pass up an opportunity to flog my favorite hobbyhorse: that embarrassment of a politician who represents me in Trenton -- New Jersey’s own gun-lovin’, liberal-hatin’, Revolutionary War reenactin’, somewhere-to-the-right-of-Attila-the-Hun, extremist ideologue, Republican Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll. Because this speech of his is a great example of the kind of rhetoric behind what’s going on in Oregon.

    “The American revolution would have been impossible were America not a nation of armed citizens. The framers knew that tyranny is always possible, even here, and that tyrants rarely go peaceably into retirement. A people who only stay free so long as they retain the ability to defend that freedom. Put simply, in America, we trust the people. We do not put the entirety of our faith into parchment barriers against tyranny. In many places throughout the world, throughout history, people lived in fear of their government. Our founders understood that prospective tyrants should live in fear of the people, not merely willing, but fully capable of defending that freedom. The idea that we are somehow safer if only folks who possess firearms, the means of defense, are armed bands of disciplined young men working for the government and trained to follow orders without question is so obviously delusional that it’s amazing that somebody could advance it in good faith....
    "Let me ask you one simple question: If your neighbor cannot today be trusted with a firearm, how does donning a uniform change anything?  Now we are one of the very few nations in the world that celebrates a heritage of shooting at soldiers. God willing, no further poet will ever immortalize the deeds of private American citizens fomenting a successful revolution against a homegrown tyranny. But it behooves a free people to be prepared for that eventuality. We don’t celebrate firearms freedoms for their own sake, but for the legacy of freedom and independence that an armed population produced and will if necessary, defend. Firearms freedoms ensure that Americans will be governed, but we will never be ruled.”

Translation: Of course, we don’t want to shoot at our own soldiers, who work for the government and therefore cannot be trusted. But when -- ummm, I mean if -- we don’t like the government anymore, let’s not hesitate to occupy something and wave our guns around like idiots, ignoring the social contract, the rule of law, the principles of democracy, common sense, and any semblance of reason. With liberty and justice for all. Amen.