Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Oklahoma Goddam, or the Whole Damn System

One thing I can't let go of from this latest macabre murder (Oklahoma Goddam, as Nina Simone would christen the incident): The officer who fired the fatal shots is a woman. Statistically, female officers are involved in very few such shootings. Given this fact, some experts have recommended increasing the number of women officers as one way to potentially eliminate these murders of civilians.
My read: the impunity granted to police officers, security guards, neighborhood patrolmen, and gas-station vigilantes who kill people from historically marginalized groups is corrosive and corrupting. An increasing number of combatants are being recruited to assist in the containment of those people--in the ghettos, in their social, economic, sexual, and psychological place. The reason is uncomplicated: there is not sufficient political will to hold them accountable.
It isn't the training. It isn't about cameras (they haven't produced any convictions, since the days of the Rodney King video). It isn't even about racism, as a matter of the individual heart. Or fear. It's about selective impunity. Police are professionals. They have a job to do and codes that can be used to evaluate the way in which they choose to do it. Every one of us who works knows that, if we know our job is on the line, we can suddenly summon up politeness and squeeze out a smile, even with people we don't like. Because the alternative is to be jobless and starving.
As far as I'm concerned, the goal is not to find out whether an officer "is racist." I'm not interested in "state of mind." I don't care what you're thinking; I care what you do. I care that your fellow officers file false reports to help you cover it up. I care that your superiors and internal affairs find no wrongdoing in their investigations. I care that prosecutors do not fulfill their sworn duty of advocating for the people and, instead, present exculpatory evidence to exonerate police officers (when they never do the same for other citizens). I care that judges (and appeals courts) allow bench trials, so that the few officers who are indicted do not have to face a jury of their peers. I care that grand juries and trial juries decide to "believe" that someone who is fleeing, at one moment, returns to kill his pursuer the next... or that a man can be held liable for attempted murder of one passenger in a car but not guilty of the murder of the unarmed driver of the same car.
The most memorable chant to me, from the BLM marches has been this: "Indict. Convict. Send those killer cops to jail. The whole damn system is guilty as hell." Until the state holds officers accountable, the number of additional people deputized to keep those people contained will expand and the means of containment will also expand. This is not an anomaly; it goes to the core of who our nation thinks has a right to be, to move, to be protected, and who must be a threat, even when they are surrendering, fleeing, being beaten by four officers with clubs; when they have already when hit by two bullets, when they actually called the police for assistance, when they are having a cigarette in their car or holding their child on their lap.
In order to maintain any credibility whatsoever, the government of this nation must apply the law to police officers as it does to any other citizen. Indict. Convict. Levy appropriate consequences. Upholding the illusion that black people, Latinos, Muslims, and Native Americas are demons, drug addicts with superhuman strength, whores, or ball-busting women--all of whom had it coming--is simply too damaging to both government credibility and the national psyche.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Soapy Odysseys

While I cranked up Season Three of Game of Thrones for a Thanksgiving Binge-Watch, a was visited by a thought: Mad Men is a soap opera. I think the chain of associations ran something like this: I am suddenly quite interested in Game of Thrones and definitely looking forward to more Justified and Archer in January. However, I could not be less interested in what happens next on Mad Men.

Clearly, my tastes are not squarely aligned with the Golden Age of Television favorites. But why did I become less interested in Mad Men? Why was I disappointed by the final season of Breaking Bad? Why does the US version of House of Cards leave me utterly cold?

I think part of my response has to do with the overwhelming air of seriousness and self-regard these shows muster. If you're going to tell me--with lighting, sound, pacing, and plot--that you are the most important television show of our times, then you had better live up to it. If, however, you admit that you're for tossing back popcorn as much as for any greater insights into humanity, then I have a lot more patience with you.

Let's be honest. Mad Men lost the plot long ago. The show is no longer about one man's secret: Don's identity has been revealed many times to many people. Nor is it any longer about the fortunes of an advertising agency: it has been unclear for much of the last two seasons just what kind of financial shape SCDP is in. At this point, characters seem to be introduced and plots launched simply to keep the show afloat and mobile--and not for any greater reason. The writers are simply giving the characters additional things to do--without, in many cases, addressing the conflicts that were at the heart of such characters from the show's debut. (The sidelining of Roger is a prime example; the unraveling of Pete Campbell an admirable exception).

So, what's left of the show's original draw? Well, the show remains an opportunity to immerse oneself in--and criticize--the intrigues of the rich. Similarly, it remains a visually captivating period drama, in costume.

What, then, makes it so difficult to see that Mad Men, despite all its pretenses, is still, in part, an heir of Dynasty or Dallas--not to mention kin to The Tudors and Game of Thrones?

I'm certainly not the first to say so: it's the show's focus on its male stars. We do not have a genre called "straight male soap opera." Therefore, the show automatically gets granted status alongside something like The Odyssey--with Don Draper as the lost, sojourning man. He is imbued, by the viewer, with great psychological depth and complexity. We read all of this from Jon Hamm's pressed lips and tight jaw. Yet, when (at the end of last season) he finally seeks to reveal to his daughter  his hidden roots, I find myself yawning. First, this offer of biographical truth is beside the point. Teenage Sally is angry with him because she caught him committing adultery with the mother of a boy she liked. He never apologizes for what she witnessed. The looming, ramshackle house where he was born is supposed to speak for him. Second, from a dramatic standpoint, the show has already revealed to viewers much of Don's early years. So, we aren't really hungry to know (hence, the credits begin to roll before he can begin to explain to Sally what we already know).

I think the continuing appeal of Don and company (and I'd extend this claim to BrBa's Walter White) lies in vanity. Viewers like Don because they ascribe to him an endless depth of personality: a depth they either fancy is akin to their own or, instead, want to understand and, perhaps, repair, like a therapist or a mother. My own sense, from dealing with people of the first ilk, is that they are absolutely detrimental to be in relationship with. It's impossible to achieve their regard, to have one's own complexity or concrete needs acknowledged. Unless acknowledging you suits the story they like to tell about themselves, forget it. Now, of course, we all have the capacity for extreme self-involvement. In fact, sometimes the acts we tell ourselves are good for others can be based on a confusion of their concrete needs with our psychological needs. It seems to me, though, that the strong, silent type also feels justified in demanding that you go hunting for his psychological complexity, his reasoning, his feelings of remorse. There's a great power in withholding--that is, until the other person decides they can live without whatever you're holding back. And that, dear friends, is where I am with Mad Men.

I was trying to imagine a narrative about adult women that featured such a character and drew such intense loyalty and vaulted praise. I can't think of any examples. Indeed, I find myself recalling the scholar Jennifer Rycenga's observation that Joni Mitchell's songs are so rare because they are told by a woman who is no man's wife or courtesan. Surely, even in Game of Thrones, wives and courtesans are the primary possibilities for women. And even novels written by women often speak more of frustrated odysseys than of women on the move. Toni Morrison has famously been trying to tell stories of women's adventures since Sula (1973), which famously omits the title character's journey away from her home in The Bottom. After several novels in which women journey from one domestic space to another (such as Beloved and Paradise), she may have finally succeeded in A Mercy (2008), whose protagonist strikes out in search of love but, failing to find it, must journey on. Of course, Morrison's Florens is strong but anything but the silent type. We are not asked continually to seek emotional dispensations from a withholder. Rather, she offers us that which she knows how to say. Even a younger novelist, Stephanie Grant, gives us a truncated journey in her award-winning Map of Ireland. While the young white lesbian at its center wants to leave racist 1970s Boston and journey with a shadowy black militant group, in the end she just can't. The female Huck Finn novel barely gets going "downriver" before the getaway car stalls and she returns home. What are the stories in which a woman embarks on a journey--perhaps one with an indefinite destination--on which she encounters an array of personalities and societies? A sort of female Odysseus--or Gulliver? And, more important, when such a woman presented herself in a fiction, who has heralded her?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Womb Privilege: The Last Frontier in Equal Rights

Aint Studying You received this letter in response to the proposal that we reconsider the use of the term White Privilege in 2013.

Dear Aint Studying You:

I am a single gay male in my mid-thirties. I want a child--well, a child that I don't have to be financially responsible for. So, I want a friend's child to be named after me.

One of my longtime friends, a lesbian, is having one--any day now. Said lesbian friend rejected me long ago as a sperm donor, despite the fact that I fit her IQ and demographic markers for the position. She said she just thought it would be too weird and "incestuous" because we're such good friends and also because she was afraid I might not renounce all paternal rights. Such a  litigious mind! (Quiet as it's kept, I think she didn't want the baby to have a gay father. Oh, but two mommies are ok?! The irony!) I swallowed the rejection and soldiered on.

As a consolation prize, I requested, in honor of our decades-long friendship, that she name the child after me--male or female. After all, I will certainly bear no children and I will likely not sire any, either. But in a display of what can only be understood as middle-class, cis-gender, lesbian feminist privilege run entirely amok, she has refused the naming request categorically. As I was thinking about being frozen out of this ceremony, I realized we are going to need a name for a phenomenon far more powerful than white privilege or male privilege, which are so clearly on the wane in the age of Obama. WOMB PRIVILEGE: the power that all women exercise over all men--but especially the socially vulnerable, nonreproductive population of gay men with college educations and jobs but no children. WOMB PRIVILEGE: it's mothers acting as monopoly capitalists, using their uteruses to enclose the commons of the child (whom the village, after all, is raising), to turn a human being into her private property, and then assert naming rights.

It's neoliberalism, homophobia, and reverse sexism unleashed and on the rampage. Therefore, I say, let womb privilege be the new target of our collective radical ire.

Because Matthewsula is a wonderful name.

P.S. She's light-skinneded, too.

Monday, September 9, 2013

That Man is Not Your Maker

It's a mistake to think Robin Thicke spoke the first word of patriarchy. I explain why below...

For some time I have been saying facetiously that not everyone should go to college. Or, put another way, college should not be the prerequisite for entering such a wide array of jobs.

I am not alone in having a moral objection to the ways that college serves as an economic gatekeeper, imposing debt as a precondition for entering the workforce. But I also have a more petty objection to college as a universal.

Because college also serves as a cultural gatekeeper, even when it does not guarantee employment, it tends to produce a certain smugness that comes from believing one holds the key to decoding all of the meanings in life. Witness the student who, after taking an introduction to women's studies or ethnic studies, becomes the resident expert on what is *really* sexist or racist. Note that this phenomenon can occur whether the student accepts or staunchly opposes the definition offered in the course.

This smug certainty is not unique to the humanities, as one might expect. Indeed, if I may be forgiven a gross generalization, those who believe that what they practice is a science (from physicists to Marxists) tend to be serious table-pounders. That is, while most of the rest of us must declare a position that might be assailed from the beginning as tainting, they get to pass as unbiased observers without much care for how their evidence is produced, gathered, framed, and interpreted.

However, rather than re-fighting the science wars, I would like to turn to the response to Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" as promoting rape culture. The primary culprit is its red-flag line "I know you want it." Reading any number of posts or comments will lead you to people flagging this line as "rapey." First, I would hope we can agree that rape is a term that doesn't need a cute diminutive. Rape would seem to be an absolute. But perhaps "rapey" conveys a certain discomfort with forcing Thicke into the role of Grand Marshal in the Sexism Parade.

Let me be clear. I have never liked Robin Thicke. Furthermore, I do believe the song has sexist elements. My problem is with suggesting that in removing the phrase "I know you want it" from our repertoire, we can quarantine rape culture. That solution conjures for me a game of whack-a-mole with an expanding list of newly banned phrases. However, proceeding in that way grants patriarchy more power than it could ever have. Patriarchy's arrogant gestures are not proof positive of men's absolute dominance.

What many seem to have forgotten, temporarily, is that cocky quips do not exist in a vacuum. They respond to and anticipate dismissive responses. That is, the pushy come-ons are a sign of weakness, of need. The issue, then, is not that Robin Thicke sings "I know you want it." The issue is not the speech, it's when one has the situational power to turn that speech (or unspoken thought) into the law of someone's workplace--or, in fact, the last words they hear before they are assaulted or killed.

I am not arguing here for "nuance." It's just that the lyrics are contradictory. For instance, "that man is not your maker" tends to empower the woman who has submitted to "that man's" attempts to "domesticate" her. If I were to take issue with a lyric in Thicke's infernal, ubiquitous song, it would actually be "just let me liberate you"--because the line suggests that the male singer--and not the woman herself--will be the agent of her liberation. In positioning himself as the person who can free her, he sets up a savior story, starring his power and not hers.

Of course, all of these lines include fairly clever rhyming. And sometimes the logic of the song is driven as much by a patriarchal agenda as by outrageous wordplay.

OK now he was close, tried to domesticate you
But you're an animal, baby, it's in your nature
Just let me liberate you
You don't need no papers

That man is not your maker

I never thought of domesticate-cha/your nature/liberate-cha/papers/maker as a potential quintet of rhymes. I must tip my hat to the ingenuity. And, it's hard for me not to think the lyrics are also making a clever reference to ex-slaves' freedom papers and even subverting (at least one) man's patriarchal rule. So, while I can see (and make) a withering, sex-negative critique of the song lyrics, I can also see that wordplay may have been a source that produced the problematic lyrics--and not just the inexhaustible well of misogyny.

But I'm even more skeptical of the harping on "I know you want it." Of course, tone matters a great deal, and Thicke has insisted that tongue was in cheek. But, be that as it may, it's important not to think of any statement in isolation. Statements are sequential; they always follow previous statements and anticipate or provoke new statements. Thus, "I know you want it" doesn't exist apart from, say, "I do want it, but you ain't got it" or any number of other retorts.

Let's not forget, Janet Jackson also had a song with a similar title: "I Know You Want This." The self-assured lover is a mainstay of song but, then again, so are the songs puncturing the balloon. Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" is the obvious example. But Tina Turner's lyrics to "Funkier Than a Mosquito's Tweeter" also come to mind: "You wanna be a graduated lover / but in reality you're just another brother.... You think you're slick but you could stand a little greasing / The things you do ain't never really pleasing."

It's only in taking male statements out of the context of an ongoing conversation that one can produce them as pure, unconquerable sexism. In reality, they are responses to a number of public questions ricocheting silently in the dude psyche: "Do you like me? Will my boys be impressed if I can talk to or bed you? How can I protect myself from the feeling of being shut down? Do I have enough money for someone that looks that high maintenance? What will I say if you shut me down? What will I do If you don't?"

A boast like "I know you want it" responds to or anticipates all of these statements. It is not a statement unto itself, the first word spoken over the vast deep, like the God of Genesis. He says "I know you want it" and then "you" are immediately a sex object in his patriarchal world? Not necessarily.

Keeping in mind this lack of God-like power, patriarchy emerges as a very real state of affairs, but one that has never been and could never be a place in which women have no power. While it is true that a rapist might say or think "I know you want it," he might just as easily not care at all what "you" want. He might enjoy the fact that he knows "you" don't want it.

Policing the language, then, seems less about effectively reducing rape than about promoting polite society. I suppose that eliminating phrases that might make a Barbara Bush clutch her pearls is a fine goal, but it's not the same as producing a society without rape. And if "polite society" relies upon a notion that women don't or can't respond effectively to boorish propositions, then no thank you. Frankly, it would seem that such a focus could even pose a problem as the better-heeled rapist--the one who has polished his language and his shoes--would seem not to pose a threat. And the true rape culture is the one that views the rapist as egregious, antisocial, aberrant--an outlier. If we make participating in rape culture about uttering forbidden phrases, we make rape the province of the dangerous stranger, poor and unschooled. If we cannot recognize sexual force in its middle- and upper-class versions--with or without indecorous language--we need to reconsider how we measure the presence of rape culture.

We should, I think, be less concerned with what men say than with addressing what they can do in particular situations--and with ensuring that women have the tools and the confidence to respond as they see fit without sex shame or fear of reprisal:

Yes, I want it.

No, I don't want what you've got.

Take it somewhere else, or I'll give you the beating you seem to want.*


* These last lines are not meant to place the responsibility on women for preventing rape. Surely, those who say that that responsibility belongs to rapists are correct. It is to say that the women should have every confidence in responding to the language of sexual proposition. Social responsibility pertains to the situations in which proposition overtakes request or consent.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Visible Hand of the Market: Public Inequality and Private Violence

Dear Readers,

Pardon the hiatus, if you would be so kind. I can't say that I won't go away again, but instead I will promise to post some of the thoughts I've begun but not completed over the last six months. It seems that, now, this is how I blog.

The following are notes I took while trying to think of something to move the discussion about the Supreme Court hearings on DOMA from where it got stuck--namely, in simple assertions that gay marriage is the new interracial marriage, and denials thereof.


Drawing these equations is fraught, I know. We know about the similar objections: opponents have variously asserted that gay marriage and interracial marriage are unnatural, antisocial, and confusing or outright damaging to children. Advocates for a liberalizing gesture argue that unrestricted choice in the marital arena is as much a hallmark of a free person as the ability to select any new model of cell phone.

I'd like to come at these from a different angle and talk about the shared status of both interracial and same-sex trysts as open secrets. In the spirit of the tried-and-true feminist dictum that "the personal is political," I'd like to sketch out some ways that the open secret of widely-known private affairs connects with the official world of law and economics.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

I Didn't Know Lincoln Was Jesus, and Other Things I Learned at the Movies

I may not bring 400 hundred years of slavery and  oppression to Lincoln--I'm not that old. But I do bring two films worth of acid reflux to this latest attempt by le Spielberg to deal with the Negro question. So, in addition to *SPOILING THE PLOT* of Lincoln, I fear this post may also spoil the cheering over the national reunification the film wants to praise and call forth again.

My first disappointment with Spielberg's colored people was in The Color Purple. To keep this part brief, suffice it to say that I don't mind films differing from books. I do mind when they veer from the womanist politics of the novel by having the one female character who is independent of the story's violent men turn 180 degrees for no reason to cry out "Papa, I'se married!" That's not a difference; that's a violation of the whole spirit of the enterprise.

More recently, in the days of Amistad, Speilberg said (on Oprah, with Debbie Allen near him for backup) that he wanted to create a story so that his adopted black children could be proud of their country. I kept thinking that there is another option: help create a country your adopted black children can be proud of. In any case, this desire to exculpate the nation led him to the absolutely false courtroom climax in which John Quincy Adams wins the freedom of the Amistad mutineers through an impassioned Abolitionist speech when, in fact, JQA argued that, as they revolted at sea and were not yet the property of a slaveholder in the Americas, they should be free to return home. JQA was an unlikely hero for a story of the triumph of colorblindness anyway, he who withheld his sympathy from Desdemona in a review of Othello, because he believed that nature would always punish such outrages as sex across the color line.

So I come to Lincoln not primed to be pleased.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Phrases to Consider Retiring in 2013: 1. (White) Privilege

Nothing lasts forever. Gum loses its flavor. Welcomes are worn out. In the hopes of keeping critical edges honed, AintStudyingYou is sponsoring a discussion of which phrases, memes, habits, and tendencies to consider retiring for the 1-3. Please submit your suggestions (serious and humorous, personal and public) to the comments section and we'll see what kind of series we can come up with. 

My first nominee for forced retirement: (white) privilege...

This month, I have fallen down the rabbit-hole of privilege memes. Some (like this one on literacy) I found illuminating and forceful. Still, I find myself doubting that privilege is the most accurate or useful way of approaching social inequalities. In fact, I have lost faith in these exercises of cataloging privileged groups (whites, Christians, first-worlders, citizens, thin people, straights, cis-genders) and enumerating their ever-expanding privileges.

Therefore, be it hereby stated that I, AintStudyingYou, am perfectly willing to consider retiring  all variations on the term "privilege" (white, male, cis-gender, thin, etc), if certain stipulations are met.