Civil Rights

Failure of Leadership: Money, Power, Privilege

RadicalMoiI'm generally a big picture kind of person, though my own focus for activism right now is pretty narrow. In case you haven't been watching my every move, I've been spending the last couple of years concentrating on education labor activism but my personal impulse is to be outraged by every sort of injustice: racism, sexism, homophobia, economic inequality, war, greed, you name it, I'm pissed about it. I've always believed that everyone should have equal opportunity, a fair and level playing field, and the right to be treated in every way with dignity as fellow human beings.

I have to give my parents credit for that. In many ways, they were a lot like Alice Dreger's Polish emigre parents. My dad was a working class, old school FDR/JFK Liberal and my mother was a deeply religious woman constantly outraged by injustice. Dad's belief in civil rights and free speech were unshakable and he had a real soft spot for underdogs, even if it did take him a while to come around to feminism. Mom was more the avenging angel type and would have gladly carried one of those Biblical flaming swords, had they been issued to mere mortals. So I grew up in a kind of Truth, Justice and the American Way household, without the jingoistic patriotism. In my house, everybody deserved respect and a fair break. Is that so hard?

It sure seems to be. And I've been thinking a lot about why, lately, as I get ready to teach my research course that focuses on economic inequality this summer. Human failing is the obvious "Duh!" reason for injustice, or what we more frequently call human nature. We have it in us to be absolutely selfish, vile shits, but we also have it in us to be amazingly altruistic. The sheer number of beautiful, generous, uplifting things we do for each other is one of the best parts of the internet, along with cat videos. We make cheap artificial limbs for kids and dogs. As individuals, we collect massive amounts of money for the victims of natural disasters. We turn our ingenuity to making the lives of refugees and the poor easier. We get out in the street and protest injustice even when popular opinion is against us, changing those opinions in the process.

OutofbalanceAnd still, what we see in the news, and in our lives, is a grossly unequal and unjust world where far too few people hold not just most of the money, but all the cards. Two immediate examples, one petty, one part of an ongoing battle: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's administration spawned, among other scandals, something called Bridgegate, in which Christie's cronies "conspir[ed] with Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly to close the lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 to 'punish' the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie in his re-election bid." This doesn't sound like much; traffic sucks in New York and New Jersey most of the time anyway. But this was an intentional obstruction that created a public safety hazard and held up EMS vehicles, resulting in at least one death. Christie and his cronies grossly inconvenienced and endangered thousands of drivers and helped cause the death of a 91-year old woman because somebody didn't play pattycake with them.

I'll just let that sink in for a moment.

The second example, much more immediate and appalling is the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department. Charges have just come down today against six police officers who not only illegally arrested Gray, but then proceeded to beat the crap out of him somehow in the back of the van he was being transported in. It's too early to say exactly what happened, but it seems clear that neither Mr. Gray's safety nor dignity were paramount in the minds of the cops who picked him up. His pleas for help were ignored and he was not secured safely in the back of the van. Somehow, he acquired a spinal injury that killed him between the time he was cuffed and when he arrived at the station. The New York Times has highlighted a practice called the "rough ride" or the "nickle ride" used all over the country to rough up suspects without having to physically touch them, a form of torture not quite as egregious as that practiced by the Chicago Police Department but nonetheless abhorrent.

A third example, larger and even more systemic than the deaths of black people at the hands of police, is the denial of living wages to workers all over the world, and the sequestration of the majority of wealth in the hands of a few, and the way that gets talked about by others with relative privilege. Far too often, as in the case of this white, male, privileged tenure track asshat, it leads to a rhetoric of blaming the victim for the very injustices under which they are suffering. Likewise this equally phantasmagoric piece by David Brooks, in which he asserts that poverty is not really about lack of money but social psychology. The poor are poor because they want to be, because they're lazy, because they're incapable of taking "advantage" of a broken public school system handed over to shysters, an overpriced higher education system that leaves them tens of thousands of dollars in debt, or of non-existent living wage jobs. Meanwhile, living in poverty has a whole host of deleterious physical, psychological, educational and social effects. So, we fuck children up by not helping to provide secure, healthy living conditions and then blame them for failing. It's a brilliant strategy with all kinds of denial of responsibility built in.

This is where we come to the title of this post. All of these examples illustrate a failure of leadership—or the success of a certain kind of leadership inimical to the welfare of the people these leaders are supposed to be serving. If we posit the idea that political life in a democracy (hell, any political life), especially leadership, should be grounded in morality, compassion, and justice, then the leaders have, in these cases, failed spectacularly. Or succeeded in upholding a morally bankrupt, bigoted, unjust social order. Take your pick.

Humans are herd animals, by and large. We like to be together, we like to be led, we like to follow for the most part (see also: crowd theory). Even so, we are rightly suspicious of the motives of leaders who emerge from the crowd. Lord Acton famously said "Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." What seems to actually be true is that the exercise of power heightens already existing personality traits. If we are compassionate, moral people when we're given power or find ourselves in power, we tend to exercise it with those qualities in mind to the best of our abilities. Nobody's perfect, but we've had some truly compassionate presidents in my lifetime, and before (FDR, JFK and Jimmy Carter all come to mind, despite their human failings). We've had plenty of the other kind too: the sorts who are more interested in power and personal advantage than they are in service to their countrymen or anyone else. I don't think you need examples of those. *Cough*Bush-Cheney*Cough*

Money, however, seems to have a more universally deleterious effect on people. Money creates a buffer between us and the rest of the world. When we have enough of it to live comfortably, it reduces stress and makes our lives easier and healthier (see above). It also allows and encourages us to be generous. Poor and middle class people give larger percentages of their income to charity than the wealthy and uber-wealthy do. Anything in excess of a comfortable income seems to turn us into greedy asshats for whom there is never enough money. We think, hey, I've made it; I don't care about the rest of you. This kind of contempt is the polar opposite of what we should want from our leaders, whether they are political, financial, or intellectual leaders. Sadly, that's mostly what we've got now: police departments that see a large proportion of the people they serve as insurgents; educational leaders who see children as nascent criminals and sources of income; political leaders who see citizens as potential terrorists and their own nation as a battleground; business leaders who see natural resources as exploitable commodities.

Leaders like Chris Christie and the chiefs of particularly abusive police departments foster an atmosphere of contempt in which abuse, selfishness and cruelty thrive. Christie is known for being a particularly petty jerk who verbally abuses constituents who challenge his god-like self image. It's not surprising that his administration should cook up a juvenile scheme like Bridgegate. That's the kind of tone that Christie sets; he has all the diplomacy and maturity of a 12-year-old schoolyard bully. Likewise, the kinds of police chiefs who look the other way when their officers brutalize or racially profile the public they're supposed to "serve and protect" foster contempt for their own communities. Broken Windows policing sounds good in theory, but without including respect for the people in those communities, it fosters the idea that everyone who lives there is currently a thug, practicing to be a thug, or used to be a thug and might be again at any moment. We then stray far from the principle of innocent until proven guilty and common sense, not to mention the spirit of the law. And if our elected leaders allow the (often useful) paranoia of intelligence agencies to be the pervading attitude toward our nation's citizens, that fosters distrust, hatred, and disrespect of everyone who does not look like "us." Who that "us" might be in a nation of immigrants from all over the world eludes me, but there are plenty of "others" to go around in the minds of the frightened. Right now, it's Muslims who are the potential terrorists of choice, even though lone wolf homegrown white supremacists like Timothy McVeigh are far more dangerous.

What concerns me most in all of these examples is the almost complete lack of compassion for our fellow citizens. More and more we as both nation and individuals are exhibiting not just a lack of compassion but an outright contempt for others who have less power, less money, less luck, less stuff, less education, less privilege than we do, whoever we are. We are "punching down" more instead of lifting up. In the courses I teach, we talk about inequality and social violence of many kinds. Most of my students are first generation college students (like me); many are first generation Americans (like my dad). Most of them buy into the "work hard, get ahead" American dream and are shocked to discover it is out of reach for most of us. But when they read about the fraying safety net we have, they immediately bring up welfare queens and foodstamp fraud, even though many of them have used those services themselves. The rhetoric of our privileged leaders is teaching these kids not to work hard but to hate themselves and their families for failing when they can't realize the return on their own investments. It's hiding from them who the true culprits of their oppression are and turning them against each other. It's an excellent tactic for social control and our leaders are making very good use of it.

But this doesn't let the rest of us off the hook. We're currently living in a society that lionizes socio- and psychopathic personalities. If you think I'm exaggerating, think about who we admire most: hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, bankers—none of whom actually produce anything—the Forbes 400, most of whom (with some notable exceptions) are vile, exploitative creeps. Example: The Koch brothers (numbers 3 & 4), the Walton family (numbers 6, 7, 9 and 10). Even when they mean well, as I suspect Bill Gates (#1 with $81B) does, money seems to give them an excess of paternalism that is completely misplaced, as though knowing how to make a fortune means you have the intelligence to solve all the world's problems, or even know when there is a problem. Gates's meddling in education is a prime example. According to Bill, our public education system is failing and needs the expertise of Microsoft's genius to fix it. Instead of listening to actual experts in the field—you know, people who've been educators their whole lives, who have degrees in it, and years of study and experience—we should let Bill tell us what's wrong and how to fix it. And now we are eviscerating public education, and firing our best teachers on the basis of an untried testing regime that makes kids hate learning. But that's another post.

Worse than the moneymakers are the politicians, like Christie, that they buy with those billions: ultra conservatives like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Michele Bachmann, Bobby Jindal, the Bush boys who apparently really hate poor people, women, minorities, immigrants, or anyone who can't give them money for reelection. Why do we elect these people? Evil must have better PR. We're not just voting for them though. We're validating their frightened, narrow, cruel worldview and often parroting it. We're encouraging their failed leadership and becoming part of the problem.

Stop voting for petty, mean, selfish assholes, people, lest you become their victims. Better yet, maybe it's about time the compassionate, honest people who care about justice showed the leaders we've got now how it's done.


Thinking about the UIC Strike

BadGirl Moi @workRight now, professors and adjunct professors at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) are on strike to (among other things) protest the lack of a contract they've been trying to negotiate for more than a year with the administration. There was a time when higher education didn't need unions and when professors largely took care of the internal governance themselves, so the necessity of strikes was small. Now, everything has changed because universities and colleges are increasingly being run on a business model. But that model, clunky as it is elsewhere is a particularly bad fit for education institutions.

Why does our society only have a worker/manager dichotomy to describe how we make a living? It clearly doesn't apply to all the ways we work. Part of the problem with organizing the work of universities is that the law sees professors as managers. Who are we managing? Students? They're not workers; they're "consumers." Each other? Then how can we be managers? Oh, wait; that leaves the *adjuncts.* They don't manage anything and all they do is work. But what do the administration do? Aren't they managers? What are they managing? They're not managing the professors because we manage each other. They're not managing students because students are consumers. Oh wait: that leaves the *adjuncts.* No wonder administration wants more adjuncts. It makes the worker/manager delineation clearer for them.

Fund or RefundAnd this is why a business model for education does not work. Education is a co-op. There is no owner of an educational "company" at a university. We see how poorly for-profit schools where there is an owner do the job. Boards of trustees exist to insure not just the financial health of the institution, but its ability to carry out its mission. Administration is not "in the business" of providing education, because education is not a service or a product. It's a cooperative endeavor between student and teacher with a largely intangible, unmeasurable result: the creation of knowledge. You can't "sell" that. You can only acquire it through personal investment of time and skullsweat, while others help you develop it and nurture it. When you pay teachers, you are supporting them in "work" that's intangible and unmeasurable, but which has a social value beyond any product and which forms the basis of all other tangible products. Starve teachers and you starve the nation and its economy. Fail to support teachers, whether K-12 or higher ed, adequately, and you do the same.


Another Adjunct Story

Depressed MoiI've been teaching as a regular career again for about five years now, occasionally supplemented by freelance work, and been an activist and vocal shit-stirrer on behalf of adjunct faculty for about two years, beginning when I joined the union at New Jersey City University. In some ways, I'm not the typical adjunct story: I've worked in industry and made a good living, even working part time; I have a Master's degree (an MA, not a terminal MFA) not a Ph.D., which means that I'll probably never get any kind of tenure; I like teaching the general ed courses of composition and intro to lit and could settle down there happily. What gives me common cause with my Ph.D.-bearing sisters and brothers is the shit pay we get for the jobs we do, and the lousy working conditions that affect not just us, but our students. But before this, I've never really felt like I had a personal reason to complain, beyond that. I didn't have a dramatic story of deprivation. 

Until my landlady decided to sell the condo I'm renting from her. Now I have a story.

I moved in here ten years ago when I was working part-time as a marketer for an environmental consulting company doing booming business. I didn't have benefits, but I took home $48,000/year and was vested in the company pension plan. I travelled a bit, bought some nice furniture, made a nice home for myself. That all changed, as it did for many people, around 2008, which is when I got downsized and started teaching again. My savings dwindled because I was making about half of what I had been, and my previously non-existent credit card debt shot up. And I don't mean it shot up because I was buying stuff I didn't need. It shot up because I was buying food and paying for medical care, which starts to happen more frequently when you're staring down or staring at the back side of 50. But even with my credit cards, I'm in less debt than most people. I live pretty frugally. I don't have dependents (aside from my elderly and temperamental cat, but that's another story). I don't even want a lot of things anymore. My major purchases now are books and cheap stuff to make art with, and the occasional train ticket to Maine. My credit card debt is my only debt (no house, no car, no education debts), but I can't get out from under it because of how little I make, and I keep racking it up, also because of how little I make and the precarious nature of the work I do.

But now that my landlady is selling, I don't have the money for a new lease (first and last month's rent, security deposit, broker's fee) saved up, or money for movers. Fortunately, my landlady is also a good friend and she and her wife are helping me out with fees and such, and other friends are loaning me money for moving expenses, because at 53, I'm too damn old to do UHaul. If it weren't for my friends and landlady, I would probably be SOL and have to sell or store everything I own and move to a tiny, shitty studio.

This is a story that a lot of people can tell you, about the slide down the financial ladder from the middle class. I was never very far up that ladder to begin with, which was fine, but when you're not, the bottom is a lot closer, and lot easier to get to, and my education was supposed to be what kept me off the bottom. But now, in our free-market world that rewards greed as "hard work," my hard work and education, and the hard work and education of millions of others, goes unrewarded, and in the case of students and especially those who go for advanced degrees, it's now punished with enormous amounts of debt.

I was lucky to escape that bit, but I'm being screwed, like so many others, by the new mantra that the business world has made sacred: profit at all costs. And that profit is not to the people who do the actual work. It's profit for people who already had money to invest in other people's work. It's profit made on the backs of all kinds of working people, from Wal-Mart's obscene billions subsidized by government aid to its workers who live on subsistence wages, to trained freelancers bilked of wages or made to wait months for payments and having to fund their own retirement and healthcare, to highly educated college professors whose wages are stolen from us by the lie that we only work in the classroom, and by a low value on that.

There's a rather naive tendency in this country to tell people like me to just shut up and get another job, without realizing that many of us have sunk years of our lives into educations to do this job. It's not like we all graduated at 22 and went out into the work world. Our training goes on far longer than in most professions and our careers don't even get started, if we go straight through with no breaks to raise more money, until we are in our early 30s. Many of us, like my friend Rob who just got tenure for the first time at the age of 50 didn't start our teaching careers fully until we were into our 40s, because of the prevalence of contingent labor like me. That contingent labor exists, not because there's a plethora of cheap labor as the freemarketers would have you believe, but because there is a dearth of funding for the full-time jobs that should sustain the educational enterprise.

Where's that funding going? Part of the problem is lack of funding from the government for education, except when it comes to profitable student loans. But a good deal of tuition, which has been rising faster than inflation, goes to administration salaries (some of them exorbitant), luxury campus buildings, and high-tech teaching tools which are often invested in with the final goal of replacing those pesky human teachers. And it goes into the pockets of trustees who are turning our universities into job training camps for their industries, and saving them the cost of having to train their workforce, and who sell the universities buildings and tech they don't need.

I'm not talking about fairness here. I know life isn't fair; but neither does it need to be nasty, brutish and short anymore. I'm talking about morals and ethics and the kind of civilization we want to be living in and building. Or perhaps I am talking about a particular kind of fairness. Educators and working people are not asking for excessive amounts of money. We're asking to be compensated fairly for the work we do. "Fairly" in this case, means a sustainable, living wage for everyone, so that no one requires a government subsidy unless something catastrophic happens. My fellow educators and I have invested a great deal of money and time in making sure we are equipped to do one of the most vital jobs of civilization, especially a democratic society: not job training, but the education of citizens and the collaborative creation of new knowledge that drives advances in technology, medicine, law, and the other engines of a civilized world. Business and money alone do not create civilization, clearly. But well-educated citizens do.

What this means for me, personally, is to have some job security, a regular paycheck for more than 8 months of the year, to make wages on par with my full-time colleagues, to be able to participate in the educational community of the university I work for, to buy books without counting pennies, to be able to move without borrowing money from friends who work in the business world, to be the best educator and person I can be with the skills that I have. I would like the "luxury" (and it has become a luxury now) of being able to contribute to the future well-being of my society by educating young minds without going into debt I can never repay, relying on a government handout, or living with the threat of homelessness.

If that seems like whining, you're probably one of the barbarians at the gate.


New Year, New Focus

NYCMoiIt's been almost a year since I blogged here and I admit I've kinda missed it. I like writing, and I've been doing a fair amount of it (novel, poems, diatribes, conference papers), an awful lot of it on Facebook. In case you haven't been keeping up there, I've gotten myself neck deep in activism of various kinds, mostly the petition signing kind for human rights, environmentalism, social justice of various sorts. But I invested in a pretty big way in the labor movement too, especially educational labor.

For instance, over the summer, I went to the UALE/Cornell Summer School for Union Women, which was a fantastic experience, and at which I made some great friends/contacts. My local, (or one of my locals) AFT 1839 at New Jersey City University, where I'm part of the executive committee, footed the bill, for which I'm extremely grateful, as I couldn't have done so myself. I was on employment for the first time since 1992 because even freelance work is thin on the ground right now. While I was up at Cornell, I met women from all kinds of unions and labor organizations, from all over the world: retail workers from NYC, telephone workers from Africa, forensic lab techs from Puerto Rico, make-up artists, auto workers, housekeepers, cafeteria staff, and a number of faculty members, many of them from CUNY's Professional Staff Congress (PSC) and from SUNY's UUP, both unions I also belong to. I quickly became known as the three-union woman, because I was the only contingent faculty member there (I think). It was a warm, fierce group, and I thank Marcia Newfield of CUNY's PSC for suggesting I go there.

Also on Facebook, I've been doing a lot of national organizing and this last summer, nearly became an oAdjunct working conditions postern-the-ground organizer for SEIU upstate, at the urgings of my new best friend, Teresa Mack-Piccone, Texan English Ph.D. extraordinaire, who's organizing for them out of Albany. I think 25 years ago I would have been all over that job like white on rice, but I'm pretty sure I don't have the energy for it now. So my organizing has been quieter and a little more subversive. For Campus Equity Week, I plastered my New Jersey campus with signs that said A is for Adjuncts: Our working conditions are Student Learning Conditions, and encouraged folks to post how many adjuncts shared their office or where in their department in very public places. I'd like to follow that up this semester with some agit prop theater in the commons, but I'm not teaching there this time around, so we'll see how that goes.

In the spring. Teresa invited me to give a conference paper with her at the Washington DC SEIU HQ, where I got to meet Joe Berry of COCAL, Maria Maisto of New Faculty Majority, and reconnect with the inimitable Anne Weidner of UUP. We dragged along one of the few vocal tenured allies I've met, Seth Kahn of West Chester U, someone else I met through Facebook, and again met some amazing people fighting to get decent working conditions for adjuncts across the country. I really have to give kudos to SEIU, which is one of the few labor unions in country that's actively organizing adjuncts. The Steelworkers in Pittsburgh were chosen by the adjuncts to represent them, and the same with the UAW in Michigan, but SEIU has gone into DC, Boston, LA and now into New York and actively organized adjucts in a campaign that has been met with as much hostility as any mineowner's, including the hiring of union busting law firms. There's a good use of tuition and endowment money.

And the conditions, make no mistake, are killing us. In September, what I still think of as my semi-hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, ran a story called "Death of an Adjunct," detailing the miserable conditions 25-year veteran French adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko died in after not being rehired. I don't know an adjunct who isn't terrified that this might be us. More than a few of us are graying (remember, academic careers often don't even start until you're in your 30s or 40s), many of us have chronic conditions, children with chronic conditions, or have been struck down by cancer or other illnesses without any health insurance. Thanks to ACA, that might change, but that doesn't absolve the institutions we work for from treating us with the dignity we deserve. If you can pay for administrators, who add very little to the intellectual reputation of the university, you can damn well pay for the people who make or break your reputation as an institution of learning. More on that in later posts.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say here is that somehow I'm becoming the activist I always wanted to be. I have a cause (several, in fact) and have found my voice, and don't have any fear about using it out loud anymore. I don't have to hide my outrage, and I can use my writing as a way to accomplish something good in the world. This doesn't mean I've given up the creative part; far from in it. In fact, I stumbled into a great writing group and have managed a rewrite of the novel I've been working on forever, and I've been writing a lot of poetry. So this change I've been undergoing, from silent, not very good Christian person, to vocal, skeptical Buddhist fellow-traveller proceeds apace. I like where it's going.

Stay tuned for more about education and activism and education activism.

 


Keep it Secret

WorldWearyMoiShort article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed today about students sharing personal information. I'm a little surprised that this professor is shocked by what his students share in class. When I first started teaching in the early 80s, my students kept journals. One of the things you discover as an English teacher is that the moment you give students a written outlet for their feelings and personal problems, they'll use it with a vengeance. For many of them it's the first time they've had a written outlet and they find it as satisfying as the rest of us who've been doing it for a long time. I kept a journal from junior high through my first years in the working world in my late twenties and then took to blogging (I'm being meta here, see?) and online forums like the proverbial wet duck, and was thus not as surprised as this guy seems to be.

Writing can be an act of catharsis, and once you've written something down, it no longer "owns" you. You're free of it; you don't have to hide it and it doesn't have to rule your life as a shameful secret anymore. And once you share it in writing online, something wonderful happens; you get instant feedback: support, love, and the knowledge that you're not alone, that other people have shared or are sharing your experiences. You also get people trying to help you fix your problem: they suggest therapy, good local therapists, rehab programs, coping strategies, resources, and share their experiences with various treatment regimens. Sometimes they just offer good life skills advice. They give you links to online resources, they even, sometimes, help you pay your bills. (You also get trolls, but that's another story.) From our teens at least through our twenties, we're trying to figure out who we are and how to live our lives. Sharing that struggle makes it easier. With luck, we can learn from others' mistakes instead of our own.

I also think it's good that some of this stuff comes out in public. The politie middle class society I grew up in hid a lot of nastiness: child abuse, spouse abuse, ugly marriages, alcoholism. It never got fixed because no one talked about it, and there was shame in talking about it, as though, even if you were the victim, you had somehow let the community down. It's as though we were all striving to be Mayberry in our little town, and the people who wouldn't do it anymore and spoke out were somehow bringing shame on us. Everything had to be a secret. This wasn't just my little town either. It's one of the universal fictions that the Civil Rights movement and feminisim gave the lie to, that we all lived like "Leave It to Beaver" and the "Brady Bunch."

If my students had not had the courage to share their stories with me, I would have a very different view of life than I have now. That comfortable middle class home I came from gave me very little knowledge of the suffering other people go through. Hearing my students' stories about abuse, rape, abortion, misogyny, discrimination, drug addiction, alcoholism, poverty, and the struggles of their day-to-day lives has made me a very different and hopefully more empathetic person—and it made me angry that they have to live like this. It also made me immensely proud of the students I had who were overcoming these hurdles in their own lives. The first step in changing anything is to admit there's a problem, and for too long, most of these problems have been underground, hidden by the polite fiction that they're things we just shouldn't talk about.

Bullshit.

There's nothing shameful about taking medication for mental illness and struggling to get the dosage right while carrying on your life as best you can. There's nothing shameful in needing an abortion, except, perhaps the lack of available cheap birth control in this country. There's nothing shameful about admitting your relationship isn't going so well. There's nothing shameful in talking about your upcoming surgery (old people do this all the time, don't they?) no matter what part of the body it involves. There's nothing shameful in having thrown out your abusive boyfriend, or having to go to a shelter to get away from him (except for the boyfriend's conduct). There's nothing shameful in talking about your eating disorder, or the fact that you're still uncomfortable with your body, or even (gasp!) acknowledging that "hey! I'm fat!" There's nothing shameful about not being able to afford your books for school yet because your kids have to eat.

Screw all that embarrassed secrecy. Air it all out. Make people look at the consequences of poverty, bad political policies, misogyny, and racism. There are politicians, especially, who could use a good dose of Facebook realism.


Day of Activism against NDAA

RadicalMoiThought you were safe from indefinite incarceration because of the Constitution?

Thought it was illegal to call in the army for domestic action?

Thought your goods and services were safe from seizure by the government if you were a law-abiding citizen?

Not anymore.

These are powers now vested in the president's office, not just in Obama's hands. Imagine someone like Dick Cheney with these powers. Think Fascism can't happen here? It already has.

Learn about it and and speak out. Before they use it to take your voice away.

;


Occupy Wall Street I—A Personal Story

Protestor I've been trying to get to these rallies for the last two weeks and can't seem to shake the cold I've gotten from getting up at 5:30 and getting home at 10:30 twice a week to work two jobs. So I thought I'd use my powers for good, and at least write about why I support them. Unlike a lot of people, I'm not really hurting, or don't consider myself one of the hurting, anyway, in part because I've made certain choices about my life that helped put me where I am. Unlike the so-called 53 Percenters, I realize that no matter how lucky or content I consider myself, this is not what the American Dream is supposed to be.

Despite this cold, I realize I don't have it that bad, so I'm not complaining. I could be doing this five days a week, or seven, like the English department secretary at NJCU, who works at Home Despot or some other big chain store on the weekends. I also don't have a lot of debt, and what I do have is less than five figures—less than most people pay for a car. My student loans were small and are paid off, despite the fact that I went to an expensive private school for my undergrad degree, where I accrued those debts. I had a teaching fellowship at the state school I went to, and I paid tuition there too (which seems unfair when I was also working for the university), but it was in-state tuition and I had no loans. I feel like I live pretty comfortably, but my standard of living is well below what my parents enjoyed, even though neither of them went to college and my dad was a blue-collar worker. I don't own a house or a car, don't even own my apartment. I've got next to nothing in the bank, and a very small retirement fund. Even so, I'm better off than many, and have a lot of freedom and time to myself.

So why am I supporting the protesters at Occupy Wall Street? Because I'm both taking responsibility for my choices and acknowledging that lots of other people don't have that luxury, and/or didn't even make the choices I did and yet find themselves in much worse shape.

As I said on a sign I made for the rallies, I'm a 51-year-old single woman with no dependents (other than my nagging cat, whom I will not have to send to college) and a Master's Degree. I haven't had health insurance since I left school for more than a a few years at a time. I worked full time for a while out of grad school, and a couple of places where, despite my education, I was treated like both an idiot and a flunky, for barely a living wage. Every year, I used up all ten of my sick days in one shot with bronchitis, and spent my two weeks of vacation with my parents. I'd come out here to go to grad school at NYU, where I had no scholarship, so I had to pay for my exorbitant tuition by working full time. About halfway through the second master's degree I was working on in a new field, I realized that several things were going to happen: I would probably have to take out loans to get through the Ph.D., because I was having enough trouble doing the kind of work I knew I was capable of while working full time. The doctorate was going to cost me a fortune and there were no guarantees of a job when I was done. If I did get a job, it was likely to be in the middle of freakin' nowhere, and certainly not in New York City. I wanted to stay here more than I wanted to get a Ph.D., and I wanted to write more than I wanted to be an academic. I hadn't written anything but graduate school papers while I was working full time, and it was killing me. So I totally rethought and refashioned my whole life.

Annoy a ConservativeI left school, I quit my full time job, and I started temping and freelancing and working part time. In a lot of ways, my life improved drastically. I was happier, I didn't get sick, I did a lot of writing and started to get published. I had the luxury of taking poorly paid teaching jobs because I was doing other things too, and met some great people along the way, some of whom became life-long friends. In other ways, it was not so good. It was a good thing I didn't get sick or hurt, because health insurance eventually doubled from an affordable $245/month to something astronomically out of reach. Money was very tight, even though my folks helped out, and I learned to live pretty frugally. Even so, there were three years where I couldn't afford to pay the taxes I owed, and didn't file. I also got into some serious credit card debt. The low point was the infamous neck bone stew I made when I was down to my last couple of dollars and waiting for a client to pay me.

To make matters worse, at the time, even when I did get a paycheck, it took days to clear, and often I didn't actually know how much money I had in my account. In nine years of undergrad and graduate school, I'd never bounced a check. Now I did it with alarming frequency because my tally never matched the bank's: not Citibank's, Chase's, or Chemical's. That was because of banking regulations that allowed them to hold even local checks drawn on their own banks, for three days before releasing the funds, instead of making them available right away. Thankfully, that finally changed, but before that, I found a bank, HSBC, that didn't try to screw me with overdraft fees by playing with my balance. I've bounced only one check in the 12 years I've been with them.

I also finally found a great part-time job that I stayed at for just a little more than ten years before there was a mutual parting of the ways. I still had no health insurance, but my bosses treated me with respect and it gave me a lot of freedom and a little 401(k) that I put into a high risk fund to earn some quick dough while my very safe TIAA-CREF fund slowly built up through ultra safe investments. That 401(k) disappeared when the housing bubble burst and the stock market crashed. I cashed in what was left—less than $2,000—because I needed it for living expenses. Since then, I've been freelancing and teaching again, which I love. But I discovered that in the ten years I'd been working part time and only occasionally freelancing, rates for editing and writing have not risen at all. Not even to reflect the cost of living or inflation. In fact, if you consider those two factors, they've actually decreased. There's a lot of work out there for freelance editors, but you should see the griping on the discussion board of the Editorial Freelancers Association.  It's not that we're unhappy about the amount of work, but we're really unhappy about what people want to pay us for our skills and years of experience, and the fact that so many of our clients, even big publishing companies, make us wait 30 to 90 days after submitting an invoice for a paycheck. Until recently, freelancers have had no union or organization to protect them, and why should we need one? Because too many employers want something for nothing.

That's not even my main source of income now, nor the one that concerns me most. My real complaint is the structure and disparity of pay in the post-secondary educational system. This is just one of many places where the capitalistic model has run amok. When I was in grad school in the early 80s, very little teaching was done by adjuncts. Community colleges were populated by teachers with master's degrees, and the PhDs taught at 4-year and graduate institutions. Now, there is such a glut of doctorates (thanks in part to the misleading advising of professors, who seem not to realize that the market isn't infinite), that community colleges regularly require a doctorate for new hires. Worse, as much as 60% of any department's classes are taught by adjuncts now, people with advanced degrees who are limited by policy from most of the rights and privileges of being an academic: no tenure, no job security, no opportunities for research support, and most importantly, no employment benefits. Oh, and did I mention the the wretched pay scale?

When I worAdjunctsked in industry, my skills as an editor and layout designer were billed out at between $60 and $90/hour. Obviously, I didn't make that much myself, but that's what I was worth. Most editorial work goes for about $35/hour, unless it's highly technical or science editing which is far better paid. When I first started teaching as an adjunct at a community college in New Jersey in the 90s, I was paid $1200 for a three-credit class running four months and meeting for 180 minutes a week, and that's not unusual. At one school I recently taught at, I was paid about $1800 for a four credit course that met for about the same number of minutes each week. That's just the gross pay, not the net. and that amounts to about $30/contact hour, the hours I'm actually in class—far less if you include the hours I work outside of class. Neither of those jobs provided me with an office where I could meet students or keep my books or even required me to keep office hours, much less paid me for them. But good teachers always have office hours, always make time to see their students. I can't tell you how much totally unpaid tutoring I've done.

At universities with unions, the pay is much better ($1200 a credit, rather than a class), and so are the working conditions. But I still have no access to affordable health insurance, no job security of any kind (imagine not knowing if your job was going to disappear every four months), and often, my schedule is so crazy that I spend four to six hours on the road just getting to the various places I teach. Needless to say, this makes going to faculty meetings or seminars or anything that might make me better teacher nearly impossible. Not to mention how it isolates you from the rest of the faculty. Just as an example, a couple of years ago I was teaching in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, not all on the same day, but the Staten Island and Bronx jobs were. That meant I left the Bronx in the morning, took a train and an express bus to Staten Island, where I also took a campus bus to my class, taught a three-hour class, had office hours, and took the bus, a ferry, and another train to the Bronx, taught another three-hour class, and took a bus home. If I didn't catch the right ferry, I was late for the Bronx class, so it was always stressful. And the commute was never less than two hours. Now, I have an hour and a half commute to New Jersey for a job that pays well, but not well enough for me not to have to teach somewhere else too, because I'm restricted to 6 credits or two classes. With three, I could actually make a good living.

The adjunct system is good for university endowments, and bad for its students and faculty. The constant searching for, hiring, and class observations of adjuncts, most of whom are transient doctoral students, takes time that department heads and committees could better spend on department administration. Adjuncts are less available to their students, and have less time to spend developing their courses or teaching methods. Many of them are untried as teachers, and don't have much supervision the way we did as teaching assistants at Michigan State. But by god we're cheap, and the administration likes that. In many places, we're as faceless and interchangeable as factory labor, without unions to protect us from lousy pay and long working hours.

Replacing regular tenured faculty with the cheap labor of adjuncts is the equivalent of outsourcing jobs overseas, or hiring illegals to pick your produce. But we're not talking about consumer products here. Education is not a consumer business, though we've led students to believe it is. "I pay this much tuition, I damn well better get good grades," many of them seem to think. They've been led to believe that the value in what they're getting is in their GPA, not in gaining skills or knowledge or learning how to think for themselves. In part, that's another issue, but it's one that has sprung out of the idea that the education is a business, not an art or a service. The product model of education is bankrupt and is bankrupting our future by making students believe that we can just "give" them an education, that they can just "buy" it, not that they have to work for it. Using adjuncts to replace tenured faculty exacerbates this attitude by offering them sometimes-shoddy teaching, and removing the opportunity for them to develop any kind of mentoring relationship with someone they may really feel they learn from. Many of the students I taught in the Bronx were deeply disappointed that I wasn't going to be there this semester to teach a required class I usually teach. One of them begged me to let her email me her paper for some help. How could I say no? I love working at that school because of them, but I can't afford to work there because, even with the maximum number of classes, I can't pay my bills each month.

Let me repeat that, because it's what's fundamentally wrong here: Even if I teach the maximum number of classes (3) I'm allowed, even with with a special dispensation for an extra class, and a class or two at another institution, I cannot pay my very modest bills, let alone save anything, or afford health insurance. Four to five classes are considered a full-time load. Even with that, I am barely getting by.

This is what the 99% are pissed about.

The social contract used to be that if you worked hard, got an education, and found a job, you could make a decent living. That is no longer true. You can work hard, get an education, find not one job, but two or three, and still live at the poverty level with no sense of security. Now, my choices to work part time instead of full time earlier in my life have given me less security for the future than most people, and that was my choice. I'm not complaining about that; I knew what I was doing when I did it. What is deeply wrong, however, is that so many of us must work extravagant hours well beyond the 40 hour work week to even keep your head above water. There is no getting ahead anymore, except for a very few. Costs have risen, wages have fallen, and the middle class seems to be paying for almost everything.

Taxes that should go to infrastructure go instead to the military industrial complex for unnecessary wars. And the people who use that infrastructure the most don't help pay for its upkeep. Sure, we all use in the infrastructure: roads, dams, railroads, telecom, electricity. But without that infrastructure, no business would even get off the ground, let alone grow to become a multimillion or -billion dollar enterprise. As I said in a conversation on Facebook, shipping companies, not cars, beat the roads and bridges to pieces . Bandwidth is eaten up by corporations, not private users (it's why they're trying to suppress streaming video--because it cuts into their usage). Corporations are the largest consumers of electricity (who leaves all those lights on in the skyscrapers?). Passenger trains make way for freight, which is what the majority of rail traffic is. Harbor facilities are almost exclusively for shipping and freight now, with a little bit of passenger traffic. Even airlines make more money from cargo than passengers. And who craps up the water? I'm not dumping any chemicals down my toilet, are you? The heaviest users need to pay the heaviest "fee," in taxes, for that usage. It makes their wealth possible.

Balance-the-budgetNot to mention that we, the workers—the teachers who educate them; the technicians who keep the equipment running; the people at the CAD station doing the specs and on the production line following them; the salespeople on the road; the marketers and graphic artists who provide the sales materials; the packagers, truck drivers, train engineers, and other shippers and delivery people; the HR people who keep employees happy and bargain for the best benefits; and the people who manage these people, are all doing the actual work. Without them, commerce grinds to a halt. We're not asking for anything more than our fair share of your success, 1%. We all helped make you what you are. This goes for the Masters of the Universe who do nothing more than move that capital around. Why do they earn so much for producing nothing tangible, especially when they have the power to wreck entire nations, and aren't afraid to do it? Capitalism is as much a group effort as Socialism; Socialism just distributes the rewards more equitably. What we have now looks more and more like feudalism.

And this isn't even touching on the corruption of our representatives by PAC money, or the safety net we all, as moral human beings, owe the weakest members of our society. Without a sense of obligation to one another, we are worse than animals. This is what bothers me about the so-called 53%, many of whom have the attitude that "I work hard and get by. The rest of you are just whiners." There is a shocking lack of empathy or foresight in that attitude. How stupid do you have to be to realize that if you're hit by a truck tomorrow and paralyzed from the waist down, your working days at your three jobs are over? Do you really want your alternatives to be begging in the street or a private charity poor house? None of us are immune to disaster or misfortune. Some of us, in fact, are born into it and have no power to change it for the first 18 years of our lives. The cold-hearted selfishness of this "I've got mine, screw the rest of you" attitude sickens me, and millions of others.

I've made choices in my life that leave me more vulnerable financially than many, and I'm willing to shoulder that responsibility. All I want is the opportunity to make a decent living at something I'm very good at doing. I don't want a handout, or even a hand up. All I want, all most of us want, is a fair shake for our own efforts.


Be Subversive! Read!

LibrarianG It's Banned Books Week (Sept. 24th-Oct. 1st), again, and it's hard to believe that in a country based on free speech, we should even have such a thing. But we do. And this is why librarians have always been my heroes. Nobody protects our right to read whatever we want, no matter what age we are, more strenuously than librarians (independent booksellers are a close second). When, after 9/11, the FBI decided they wanted to see what books some people in America were checking out of the library, Connecticut librarians not only said, "no freakin' way," they filed a lawsuit to challenge that part of the Patriot Act—and won.

Banning books is a form of thought control, and thought control is an attempt to make people conform to one particular idea of social behavior. Seems obvious, right? Of course, when these protests are made, the protesters have hardly ever read the book in question in full, if at all. Someone has said this book is "obscene" or "subversive" or "anti-American" or "dangerous," and they've jumped on the bandwagon. What makes a book "dangerous"? Anything that challenges the status quo, whether it has to do with religion, sexual orientation, or political thought. So why do some people in the Land of the Free think they have the right to decide what I can read? How is that not "anti-American" in itself?

As an example of the kinds of books that are frequently challenged, there's this list of 46 of of the books on the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 novels of the 20th Century that have been banned or challenged at one time or another. Here's the list:

1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald ALA_BBW_Poster_2010_sm
2. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
3. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
5. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
6. Ulysses, by James Joyce
7. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
8. The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
9. 1984, by George Orwell
11. Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov
12. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
15. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
16. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
17. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
18. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
19. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
20. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
23. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
24. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
25. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
26. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
27. Native Son, by Richard Wright
28. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey
29. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
30. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
33. The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
36. Go Tell it on the Mountain, by James Baldwin
38. All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren
40. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
45. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
48. Lady Chatterley's Lover, by D.H. Lawrence
49. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
50. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin
53. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
55. The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie
57. Sophie's Choice, by William Styron
64. Sons and Lovers, by D.H. Lawrence
66. Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
67. A Separate Peace, by John Knowles
73. Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs
74. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
75. Women in Love, by D.H. Lawrence
80. The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer
84. Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
88. An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser
97. Rabbit, Run, by John Updike 

If books hold up a mirror to our society, some of us must not like what we see. But even if we don't, there's no sense killing the messenger.

Challenges to kids books are particularly galling to me. My parents never censored anything I read, though they would sometimes caution me that a book I'd chosen might be "too old" for me, and I might not like it, or might not "get" it. Sometimes they were right, but sometimes I wound up loving something they didn't think I would. Mom sometimes despaired of my love of comics, but basically, if I had a book or magazine in my hands, that was okay with them. I even read my dad's Playboys. And yeah, there was some good journalism in them. Seriously. Because my reading wasn't censored, guess who became the font of information on sex and reproduction and birth control for my friends in junior high and high school (and sometimes even college)? Not unusual for kids to get that information from each other, except that the information I had was actually accurate, not rumor.

According to the ALA, there were:

  • 1,536 challenges due to “sexually explicit” material;
  • 1,231 challenges due to “offensive language”;
  • 977 challenges due to material deemed “unsuited to age group”;
  • 553 challenges due to “violence”
  • 370 challenges due to “homosexuality”; and

Further, 121 materials were challenged because they were “anti-family,” and an additional 304 were challenged because of their “religious viewpoints.”

With kids, the fear at the heart of banning some books is that your children might somehow be harmed by being exposed to ideas about sex, gender, nonconformity, death, suicide, drugs, or actual cuss words. That's right: real, live cuss words. I'm sure they've never heard those before in movies, on TV, on the playground or at home. I'm insulted on behalf of children that parents like these think their kids are that dumb, or that mentally fragile, that they think their kids are incapable of telling fact from fiction, or have never let their pure minds wonder about sex, death, drugs or what life is all about. Honestly, grownups are so stupid sometimes.

 


Ten Years Later—Light and Shadow

9-11Moi So it's ten years ago today, as the media has been pounding home to us for at least a month. I know everyone has been thinking about it though, regardless of the media. Decades seem to have a special significance for us. Me, I'm avoiding all the commemorations like the plague. Not because I'm indifferent, but because this still bothers me a lot more than I thought it would, ten years later, and I don't like sobbing in public with strangers. So I'll stay home and write about it, instead.

Rubble-public domain-Michael RiegerIn the early days just after Ten Years Ago, the first thing I would do in the morning is open the curtains wide and pull up the shades to let in the light. The weather was glorious: mild and sunny and dry and the breeze carried the smell of burning electrical systems and worse things over the river and into my top floor apartment. My windows faced east and west then, so I couldn't see the smoke, but that didn't keep it out of my apartment. Ten years later, I wonder how many toxins I absorbed then, and how much of other people's DNA ended up in my lungs. Not enough to make me sick, like many of the people who worked at the site without respirators or even masks afterwards, but enough to make me, all of us who breathed that in, funerary vessels.

Letting in the light seemed so important to me that I was almost frantic to do so every morning. I think I knew even then we were heading for some dark times. Bush and Cheney et al were still unknown quantities, but the bumbled reaction and instant jingoism didn't bode well. Already there were stories of people beating up anyone who looked like they might be Muslim. I'd read enough history by then to know that the first thing people do in this kind of situation is look for scapegoats and someone to blame. And the more people to blame, the better. So hating Muslims was suddenly "in." All those windows in the Towers shattering suddenly sounded like a Kristallnacht for Muslims.

When I called my folks and let them know I was all right, my dad answered in a voice I seldom heard him use, unless he was telling unhappy war stories, the ones that didn't involve bars and Herman Caretta, his drinking buddy. I think he'd seen the handbasket arrive, too. Mom felt sure this was a preview of the Apocalypse and I had to be ready for it. I remember yelling at her, "You can't prepare for anything like this!" And you can't. Even if you know, rationally, that it might happen, that doesn't prepare you for the emotional response to it. Nothing can. It's purely visceral, glandular, the reactions of the lizard brain.

All you can do is search for the light, afterwards.

Unfortunately, there was a lot of darkness. Not just the knee-jerk bigotry, but an unscrupulous grab for unprecedented power by a few people in the government and trampled civil liberties: warrantless wiretapping, an attempt to get booksellers and librarians to spy on their customers and patrons, the other dangerous absurdities of the grossly misnamed Patriot Act, and worse. Guantanamo Bay. Extraordinary rendition. Water-boarding. Flouting the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. The U.S. sliding slowly into Fascism and hate. The invasion of a whole nation in a hunt for one man. Not to mention blind support for an ill-conceived war undertaken under false pretenses. That we started. We started a war.

Ten years later, we finally got the great thinker behind the act. And the terrorists have decided they'd like to mark the anniversary with another attack, so there are armed soldiers and police everywhere. But the "War on Terror" has become a permanent fixture, with no end in sight. The new normal. This all seems strangely familiar to a child who grew up in the 60s with a father working for the military.

What's missing this time around seems to be the outrage. At first, fear kept many of us going along with the government, doing exactly what Benjamin Franklin warned against when he said, "They who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Cops and firemen and Cantor Fitzgerald didn't die so the government could take away our rights to free speech, protest, assembly, and privacy. Why are we not more angry about that? Dissent is not treason or unpatriotic. Lack of dissent is. Blind patriotism is the tool of dictators.

Not only did our civil rights come under attack so a small group of ideologues could expand their powers, but those same ideologues outright lied to New Yorkers about the health risks of the aftermath. I was working at an environmental consulting firm (who later wrote the environmental impact statement for the rebuilding of the Towers), and by then I knew enough about what goes into buildings to know that air couldn't possibly be safe to breathe. The first thing our company did was hand out the respirators and masks we had to workers down at the Pile. The buildings were full of asbestos and dioxin. Even the concrete particulates in the dust was dangerous in such concentration. Here's how Scott Simon describes the air down there in his report for NPR:

The air downtown: thick, stinging, gritty, and filled with fragments of life still floating from the world as it was shortly before 9 a.m. on 9/11. Atomized smithereens of bricks, glass and steel, office papers, coffee cup lids, half-bagels with a schmear, Yankee hats, wedding bands, sugar packets, shoes and human slivers in a stinging, silvery vapor that made you cough and cry.

New documents are still surfacing that show the federal response to monitoring was disingenuous at best, and completely false at worst. You can search the original documents here, thanks to Pro Publica. Mother Jones points out that,

Within days of the twin towers' collapse, when the air was heaviest with asbestos and dioxin, a warning that office workers in New York's Financial District might be at risk if they returned to their workplaces was removed from public statements at the request of the Council on Environmental Quality.

Better to keep up a good image and hurt your own people than admit that the terrorists really fucked us over. This is something that dictatorships often do: they, like the Wizard of Oz, want to make the rest of the world think that they're infallible and all-powerful and they've got everything under control, even in a disaster. China and North Korea both do this on a regular basis. There, I suspect it's more about losing face as leaders than here, where it is an attempt to whitewash incompetency (cf. Hurricane Katrina). Before analyses could even be completed, Christie Whitman, then head of the EPA, was telling us the air was fine. Hard to backtrack later and say, "Whoops, we were wrong. You all inhaled a significant amount of toxins, carcinogens, and biological debris."

And we're still, despite having ushered in a new, more liberal president, illegally kidnapping, detaining, torturing, and in some cases, barring from returning home American citizens. You thought extraordinary rendition ended? Now we have "rendition lite." It's still American citizens being detained on foreign soil without access to lawyers, which ought to scare you. Because if our government can imprison any American citizen without cause, they can imprison all of us, for any reason, or none at all. You, too, can be "disappeared."

So is there any light?

There's always light. One of the most beautiful things that happened during 9/11 was the outpouring of sympathy and support from around the world. We've large spent that goodwill now, but it was fantastic while it lasted. Also beautiful, and somehow more heartening, was the way New Yorkers responded to each other: with compassion and kindness, with hard work and an overwhelming generosity. It didn't last at that initial intensity, as such things don't, but I think it made others look at us differently, and I think it made New Yorkers see each other a little differently. When the rest of the country was calling for an invasion of Afghanistan, the anti-war voice was loud here. We'd had a brief taste of what war was like and wanted none of it for anyone else, even our enemies. We wanted justice, not the slaughter of more innocents. I won't say it made us kinder or gentler—as a guy I conversed with on the bus Friday said, "We're not cold, we're busy." We're always going to be busy because that's what the city's like. But we're a little more forgiving, I think. A little calmer. And a little more proud of ourselves.

One thing that New York does, by and large, is get along. We've had some stupid moments over the last ten years, like the completely artificial brouhaha kicked up about the Ground Zero mosque that isn't a mosque or even on Ground Zero. (And I want to say to some of the victims' families: it is not always about you. This was a national tragedy, not just your personal tragedy. You don't have sole rights to framing it or interpreting it. Nobody does.) One of my first conscious reactions to the attack was to join the Southern Poverty Law Center's organization, Teaching Tolerance, which I continue to support. And a couple of years after the attacks, I moved from my largely Puerto Rican block in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to a neighborhood in the Bronx that's full of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and Afghans. Not by design; it just happened that way. But I'm glad it did. Some are Hindu, but most are Muslims. There are women wearing the full black burqa and girls in just the hijab, and men in the long tunics and pants as well as western dress. There's an African Muslim center a couple of blocks away, near the synagogue and on the same street as the Baptist church. They're unfailingly nice people. But I see some wariness in their eyes that saddens me too, and makes videos like this necessary:

I don't know if 9/11 and the attacks elsewhere in the world have made us more aware of our foreign policy. I think it definitely made us feel less invulnerable, and that's never a bad thing. Invicibility leads to arrogance, and there's enough of that in the world. On the other hand, maybe our resilience, our insistence on plugging along with participatory democracy, as imperfect as it is, on continuing to voice our displeasure at our elected officials in the face of the drift toward fascism has given new urgency and heart to others. I'm excited by the Arab Spring. The hard work is still ahead, but so much of it was accomplished non-violently that that gives me hope too. It's a little light in the darkness too, when people start to take their governance into their own hands, and start thinking about human rights. There are going to be huge bumps in the road, maybe even some detours, but they've started on the journey to a more perfect union. We need to rethink the road we're on, too.

In the end, what it all boils down to is Kurt Vonnegut's words: "There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind." None of this shit would ever have happened if we were all kind to each other. If we learned nothing else from this event, it should be the need for unconditional love and compassion.

On today of all days, people, love your neighbors. And your enemies.


Sticks and Stones

Depressed Moi Sticks and stones/may break your bones/but [words] will never hurt you.

The news is pretty grim this week, after the shootings in Arizona, and there's a lot of rhetoric about rhetoric floating around as well, some of it on the left just as vituperative as on the right. It looks like the shooter was mentally unbalanced, but when can that not be said about any shooter of fellow humans? It takes a certain insanity to want to end another person's life for any other reason than self-defense (and I wonder if that impulse isn't just to get the person attacking you to stop, any way you can, rather than a conscious, specifically you-or-me life-and-death choice). Assassination, however, which is what this was, is particularly cold and calculating and abhorrent, even when mixed up with mental illness.

Palin Graffito The big question on everyone's mind is how much the current poisonous atmosphere of hate and recrimination and vitriol (a favorite word to fling around) contributed to the mindset of the shooter. He seemed to be fixated on Congresswoman Giffords, and the other casualties occurred mostly because he had more rounds in his gun. His own ramblings were, as has been pointed out, "straight out of the Right-Wing Insanity Handbook," as William Pitt says on Truthout, above. Loughner seems enamored of conspiracy theories and fringe ideas, but whether the crosshairs posted by Sarah Palin or her "don't retreat, reload" (half-)witticism influenced him to pull the trigger will be impossible to determine.

Motive is always murky, even when the actor is not mentally disturbed. Do any of us truly know why we do what we do? What things in our lives make us act the way we do? It's just handy but standard procedure to blame our parents, blame society, blame our siblings, blame our neighbors, but none of us, except the truly mentally incapacitated, can escape personal responsibility. How much Loughner's capacity is diminished hasn't yet been determined, so his amount of personal responsibility can't yet be apportioned.

But those of us who aren't of diminished mental capacity, who function just fine in the world, who get up every morning and go to work, take care of our kids, pay the mortgage, vote, complain about the government, volunteer, and think of ourselves as decent human beings, what kind of responsibility do we bear for others violence? When does a nation become . . . a mob?

It's very hard not to hate someone who threatens your way of life and your cherished personal beliefs, and hate is a catalyst for anger. The knee-jerk reaction is usually along the lines of "what the fuck is wrong with you? Are you crazy? You idiot!" We're defending our territory and some of that territory is very personal: health care, the apportionment of wealth, education, our personal pet hobbyhorses. I get a little crazed when people try to tell me vaccines are the cause of autism and a product of a government conspiracy, because I'd really rather not see the spread of things like small pox, measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, scarlet fever, chicken pox, shingles, pneumonia, and influenza kill or maim or even sicken anybody. It scares me on a visceral level, and that's never a good place from which to begin a reasonable discussion. Religious discussions tend to get heated for the same reason: the outcome, in believers' minds has to do with nothing less than life and death, not to mention the afterlife. When we are threatened on such a basic level, rationality and civility take a back seat.

But it's disingenuous to say that language that uses violence as a metaphor cannot be taken seriously. For Palin to claim “We know violence isn’t the answer. . . . When we take up our arms, we’re talking about our votes,” is worse than disingenuous, it's ignorant. Never mind that we don't know, really, who she means by that pronoun "we" and neither can she. One need only look at history for examples of how "coded" and seemingly innocent remarks  like the "second amendment solutions" and symbolic crosshairs can turn to violence. Anybody remember Thomas Becket?

Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century, when one of the major issues (as it continued to be through the reign of Henry VIII), was the power and rights of the Church in England. Becket claimed the papacy's primacy in trying clerics for anything up to and including murder; Henry, busily reforming England's legal structure, claimed that right for his civil courts. Though appointed by Henry, Becket's conscience dictated that his loyalties and best interests resided with the papacy. Henry found this rather annoying, to say the least.

Whether Henry actually made that peevish, offhand remark from his sickbed—"Will no one rid me of this turbulent (or "troublesome" or "meddlesome") priest?"—or whether it was a taunting annoyance with his own courtiers, as Becket's contemporary biographer (and witness to the assassination) claims (""What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?"), it led to the murder of a political figure struggling with Henry for the power of the kingdom. We'll never know if Henry made those remarks in a moment of frustration or calculatedly, knowing his word was law and that someone would take the hint and "get rid" of Becket for him. The point is, the words were said, and acted upon. When you let words loose in the world, whether spoken or written, in a place where others have access to them, you have lost control of not just their interpretation, but of their consequences.

In this country, we have the right to say whatever we like, if it's not like shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater when there isn't one. I posit that saying we should resort to "second amendment solutions" and similar rhetoric is the moral equivalent to that standard. Words like this are not just inflammatory but incendiary. In a country with slipshod regulation of guns, that's criminal behavior, too. There is such an offense as incitement. And while I believe that the purpose of the Second Amendment was to give the populace the means to protect itself from and, if necessary, rise up against a tyrannical government, picking off its representatives because you don't like what they say is not the best solution. I don't think we're in need of an armed insurrection. And that's not what this, or any other assassination we've experienced as a nation is.

We often exaggeratedly say "I could just kill X," or "So and so would be better off dead." because they frustrate or enrage us, and we know we don't really mean it. But sometimes, just for a moment, or maybe longer, we do. Worse, sometimes, somebody else thinks we mean it, and agrees, and has the means and will to make it so, and what we've said may be their tipping point or jusitification. Sometimes, that offhand remark is not much different than "get him!" That make us at the very least complicit, if not outright culpable.

Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.

Street art by Eddie Colla. HT to Towleroad and Dennis Kleinsmith on Facebook.


Dangerous Weirdness in Small-Town Mississippi

RadicalMoi I have a bunch of internet-only friends from my fanfic activities, and one of the things I love about them is that they will often do shit for each other that your local friends can't: start huge fund drives to help pay your rent or medical bills, or spread the word that something scary and dangerous is going on in your life that you can't fix and need help with. That's what this post is. I'm blogging about this situation in the hopes that if the word gets out everywhere, it will help protect the family involved. Caveat: this is a friend of friends, but to me, this sounds like way more than somebody just looking for attention. In a nutshell, here's the story. (And here it is in full, from the horse's mouth.)

Next door neighbors of Friend of Friends (FOF) show a sudden spate of late-night activity at a previously abandoned trailer that abuts FOF's property, accompanied by mysterious break-ins of FOF's house (some while she's in the house with her children), threats from local deputy (neighbor's nephew), strange phone messages, reporting of FOF to the local Child Protection Services (investigator is neighbor's relative) and an obvious effort to get FOF and her family out of their house, in which they've lived for 14 years. Move is in the works, but they have special requirements (they have livestock), so it's not going quickly. Meanwhile, the threatening behavior and harassment continues; no local lawyer will help them. County Attorney will not return their calls. This screams meth lab or local militia or some other kind of illicit activity to me.

FOF is now so scared that she's publishing her address on her LJ and asking others to do the same:

I currently live at

591 Hwy 41 E
Okolona, MS 38860

Catherine Young's old trailer is next door.

Someone probably thinks i saw something or someone over there I should not have.  Having me committed would discredit me as a witness.  Please circulate this post.

Pass this on to any contacts you may have at news outlets or federal law enforcement. Other friends have advised her to set up some surveillance via webcam (her phone and internet have both been sporadically cut at the relay), take photos and make copies of everything, including answering machine tapes (one has already been erased in another break-in, but there are other copies off-site), all of which she's doing. 


Jean Courtney 1960-2010

 JeanJeannieMy friend Jean Courtney took her life yesterday and I hardly know what to say. This is the first friend I've lost to suicide, and though Jean and I had talked about it, and I knew it was an idea that she seriously entertained on her darkest days, I did not know she'd reached that point again. At left is Jean in May at my house, right before she was going to meet some old friends from high school in Parkchester. She seemed chipper then, if a little apprehensive, and determined to get the most out of her "up" mood, as if she knew it was going to disintegrate soon, as it did.

Very shortly afterwards, she moved into a new apartment, which she found very stressful but was pleased about, I think. There were some other stressful events and she let us all know that she wouldn't be visiting her Facebook account for a while. Then today, on her last post, her ex-husband (or wasband, as Jean called him) informed us that Jean had "passed peacefully from this life" at her apartment yesterday. Apparently, she left a beautiful note behind, though I have not read it.

Jean and I knew each other from our days at AKRF, when we were in what later became the Publications Department. We were somewhat less than editors, something more than mere word processors for the company's quite technical environmental impact statements. It was often high-pressure, deadline-driven work held to exacting grammatical and stylistic standards for which we were responsible, and Jean bore the pressure with more grace that the rest of us who worked there. She had a fantastic sense of humor, loved comedy and jokes, movies and celebrities, and could almost always find the humor in just about any situation. "Did you see [name of movie]?" she would say. "This is just like that scene where . . ." and it was! And the similarity would leave you chortling. Here's some of the movies she listed on her Facebook page: "Young Frankenstein," "A Clockwork Orange," "Religulous," "The Room," "My Suicide," "The Aristocrats," "Rear Window," "Borat," "Arsenic and Old Lace," "Pulp Fiction," "Lolita," "Dr. Strangelove," "North by Northwest," "All About Eve," "Bourne," "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," "Memento," "American Beauty," and "High Anxiety." You can see she had a taste not only for clever comedy, for for the darker dramas and psychological thrillers, as well as political satire. If the movies you like are some indication of what kind of person you are, Jean was clearly pretty complex.

In those days, Jean was a seeker. She was enthused about, by turns, just about every brand of New Age spirituality that came along, and some not so New Age, serially monogamous to all of them. She studied Sufism, reiki, and about a million other brands of faith and woo that I could not keep track of, all in the quest for happiness, or at least some explanation about why she was in so much pain. I tried to respect her search, but they always seem to fall short of her expectations or needs, some more than others, when the practitioners turned out to either have clay feet or be outright charlatans. Unfortunately, Jean seemed to be the type of person that the unscrupulous and predatory repeatedly take advantage of, emotionally and in other ways, something that contributed to her depression. It's not that Jean was an unthinking sucker; like all my friends, she had a quirky analytical intelligence, but I think her emotional need made her a little desperate. Once she'd seen through whatever flavor of the month religion/spiritual shenanigans she'd been involved in, she could be brutally analytical about their shortcomings.

We lost contact for a while when we both left the company but had gotten back in touch again about two years ago. Since then, I saw or spoke to Jean a couple dozen times, in various states of happiness. We ran into one another again at a Patti Smith/Television concert where we ogled David Byrne and Brian Eno hanging out in the back of the crowd with us. At some point prior to this, she had been hospitalized for deep depression and suicidal thoughts, gotten a psychiatric diagnosis and gone on disability, which actually seemed to be a relief to her. I think she felt she knew what was wrong now, and could stop searching for answers and just concentrate on being healthy and happy. She was seeing a couple of therapists and getting some good drugs, and confronting and dealing with traumas in her past, especially some of the harm done her by predators and the woo practitioners, about whom she was intending to write a memoir. From the stories she told me, it would have been a hell of an exposé.I wonder now if that might have been part of what broke her. I know she endured a lot of awful slander on some of the discussion boards she'd been on and some of the things people said about her were unconscionable, especially in people who are supposed to be following some kind of spiritual path.

There was a time when I would have been judgemental about Jean's suicide, but I've come to understand how, for some people, that can seem like the only sensible solution. That that is true is the real tragedy. For all the fantastic chemicals we now have for treating various kinds of mental illness, they're not by any means a cure-all. They work for some people and not for others; they work for a time and then not at all. They only alleviate some symptoms and not others. And sometimes the side effects are so horrific that it's better to be off them than on them. And our society does not treat the "mentally interesting" as Jean called herself, very well. When they can get disability, they live on the edge of poverty, if not right down in it. Housing is scarce, often substandard, and may take forever to get into. Funds to support you while you wait are laughably (cryingly, sobbingly) inadequate, for the most part, especially in an expensive city like New York. If your family wants nothing to do with you, or is the source of your problem, that makes it even more difficult. Who do you rely on then?

One of my friends told me "it's all right to be angry with her," when I posted about Jean's death, but I don't feel angry with Jean. I feel angry with the people who contributed to her pain because they were too fucking self-absorbed or selfish or greedy to not hurt someone so vulnerable. I feel angry with a social system that does so little to support its weakest members. I feel angry at all the people who took advantage of her. And I feel deeply grateful to all the people who did help her—friends, relatives, social workers, psychiatrists, other medical and mental health professionals—even if it wasn't enough.

I understand Jean's choice, though I wish she had not made it. I wish she had called me. I wish I had called her. I'd been intending to this weekend, to see if she wanted to go to a a concert with me. Over the summer, we'd gone to see a couple of movies together—"Iron Man 2" and "The A Team, which we'd both enjoyed tremendously. We both loved Robert Downey, Jr., in t he former and Liam Neeson in the latter, and were laughing at exactly the same inside jokes in "The A-Team." We're probably the only two people on the planet who really liked it. Jean was a lot of fun to go to the movies with because she gave herself over to them whole-heartedly, in the spirit in which they're meant to be watched, the way kids do. We laughed! We cried! We had a great time! I was looking forward to seeing many more movies with her in the future, and getting to know her better. I always expect to get a lot of wear and tear out of my friends, and at 50, they're too young to be dying, especially of despair.

When I saw Jean last summer after I came back from China, she was quite depressed, but struggling valiantly to claw her way up out of that black pit. We met for coffee and I gave her a little jade pendant of Quan Yin, the Chinese Buddha of Compassion, the one that always spoke most to me, because I thought she needed it more than I did. The world is hard on gentle people like Jean, and I hope that pendant gave her a little comfort, insubstantial as it is. One of her last posts on Facebook was a link to raise money for the Muslim cabbie who'd been stabbed by a drunken, bigoted student. She had plenty of compassion of her own, for other people, but there didn't seem to be enough around for her.

I'll miss you, my friend. Whatever comes next, if anything, I hope it brings you peace and happiness. And if there's nothing, at least the pain is done. I really hope you're laughing your ass off somewhere with George Carlin.


Year Nine: The Best Thing We Can Do

9-11Moi
is go on,
perhaps not just as we were
but remembering
all the fallen
and who they loved,
not just the heroes,
because there are no heroes
without those
in need of rescue,
and all of them
are sacred:
just ordinary people
until that moment.

So much of that
is chance:
Get up ten minutes late
and the maelstrom
passes over—
as though there were blood
on your doorposts—
but wipes out your
job, your company,
your colleagues, strangers,
everyone
more punctual than you.
Where you might have stood
the air fills with the dust
of the dead and destroyed,
crystalline and ash at once,
poisoning the future.

Who you pray to
if  you pray
did not protect you.
The flames that descended
from heaven that day
were not holy, but
made by someone
who just wants to watch
the world burn.

–Sept. 11, 2010, Da Bronx

© Lee Kottner, 2010


privilege, culture, appropriation, stories

BNFMoiOkay, I rarely do this here, because I rarely let my non-fandom and fandom lives intersect, but in this case, they already do. I posted this originally on my LJ, where I usually post goofy Star Wars crap and my own fan stories. But fandom often gets its knickers in a twist over what litcrit types call meta issues. It seems there are a number of litcrit type people in fandom, especially in slash because of its transgressive appeal. Every so often, someone expresses the opinion that X shouldn't write Y because they're not Y. The latest round arises from a protest by some gay men about straight women writing male homoerotica and is just . . . stoopid, as stoopid as such protests always are. I say this as a pro writer, as a writing teacher, as a teacher and student of literature, and a straight, female writer of fanfic. I have a number of unpopular reasons for saying this, reasons that do not pay lip service to popular critical theory in the Academy, because those theories are mostly developed by people who do not write fiction, but only dissect it. Criticism, too, is a form of appropriation, if you like. Whatever, criticism and fiction writing are two very different heads and rarely coexist happily.

Am I speaking from the proverbial position of privilege? Why, yes, probably, depending on your point of view (thanks, Obi-Wan), but I have some thoughts on that too. I have some problems with this concept, not because I don't enjoy a certain amount of it as a white, able-bodied, cis-gendered citizen of one of the richest countries in the world, but because I believe at least some of this idea, the way it is being currently expressed, also arises from a sense of not just exclusion, but of desire: desire for something one thinks one does not have and believes others do, i.e., the grass is greener syndrome. I believe, like Eleanor Roosevelt, that "no one can make me inferior without my consent." Now, I am female, and a feminist, so I do have a strong sense of what discrimination and injustice and exclusion mean and what they do to people's lives. I see it every day in the lives of my students, too, and hear it in the stories they tell me. Privileged? Moi? Depends on what you're comparing me to and how you structure your hierarchy. If you want my bio, check it on on Facebook and you decide.

Nonetheless, this is a bullshit issue from any POV.

First of all, this is not about the GLBTQ community. It's about censorship. Here's why:

Writing fiction is only partially a political act. It is only a political act if you, the writer, intend to make it one, not if someone interprets it that way. Nobody gets to say what the ultimate meaning of your piece of fiction is but you. Other people can interpret it as they like, and see what they want to see, and do, which is the wonderful thing about literature, but the only one who really knows What It Means is the writer. To say otherwise is to believe you, the critic, have a special mission from the Gods of Literature, and there are good drugs for that now. If the writer sits down and says, "I am going to write this story to bring this issue to the attention of the public," that's a political act; if that writer says, "I wonder what would happen in this situation with these people under these conditions?" and proceeds to write that story, that's not a political act, it's an act of imagination and psychological exploration. Either way, if you insist that writer has no right to tell that story, FOR WHATEVER REASON, that's censorship.

If fiction writers were restricted to writing only about their own experience, literature would be a dull, dull place. Because, yanno, writers mostly don't get out much, except in their heads, having to spend hours in front of their keyboards writing and DOING RESEARCH. Sometimes the DOING RESEARCH entails getting out and experiencing something new or talking to new people, sometimes not. But DOING RESEARCH is a lonely business too. The beauty of fiction is that, as a writer, you get to take on different personae. This does not make you that persona, or make you an expert, but it allows you to SEE THE WORLD IN A DIFFERENT WAY. Sometimes, looking from the outside in provides an interesting perspective. It's not the only perspective, just a different one.

(Here's where the flame war really starts:) It is absurd to say someone else is "appropriating" YOUR story. Unless you have a copyright on that baby, your story is just as free in the world as any other idea. If what you are calling "your story" has to do with your culture and upbringing and language, I have news for you, there is no one story of your culture or language. Even within each culture people tell different versions of the same story. And here's the thing: those stories? In all their different versions, they're told everywhere else on earth with different characters, wearing different clothes, in different cultures, in different languages in somewhat different situations. Every story told anywhere, I don't care what it is, boils down to an archetype and a motif. Every story told anywhere, about anything, can be boiled down to one of a large number of motifs or plots, something we'd all be more aware of if folklore studies were still a viable field. There is no such thing as a culturally unique story. There is only the human story, in various costumes. Human behavior is human behavior. Our cultures are just fancy dress. Stripped down to our cores in extreme situations (which is what fiction does) we are just human, that's all.

It's also absurd to talk about the appropriation of something as ephemeral as stories and culture because appropriation in this context refers to something akin to theft. I can't steal something that continues to exist in its original form when I use it. No matter how much I transform it, the original is still going to be there, as long as someone is telling that story, or engaging in those activities or whatever, somewhere else. Anglo Saxon Culture ca. Beowulf no longer exists, not because someone co-opted it, but because no one speaks Olde Anguish anymore (except Merlin, on TV). No one speaks Old English any more because History Happens: The Normans arrived, for one thing. Times change. Unless you wall yourself off entirely from everyone else in the world and become completely closed and insular society, outside influences are going to change your culture. Even if you manage this, say, the way China has managed it (incompletely but with more success than elsewhere), your culture will not remain homogeneous and monolithic. You think your culture has never, will never, is not now going to change? You are delusional, my friend. It is changing as I write this, with every breath you take.

I have more news for you: appropriation under this definition happens all the time, too. It's not just an act of colonization, though it can be that and sometimes deliberately is, though suppression of said literature is an easier and quicker method of assimilation. Any time you retell any story you've heard or read from someone else, you are "appropriating" it unless you tell it exactly the way it was told to you, with the exact same tone of voice, vocabulary, AND INTENT. (See Borges, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.) Ever play that game Telephone? It's usually done to make a point: that we all edit and change everything we're told and that goes for what we read and write too. Human beings are storytellers, even if it's only of the "Man, you'll never believe what happened on the bus today!" kind. At one time, before the advent of copyright, stories were currency. The cost of a night of hospitality was often a story. During the middle ages, there were fairs where singers and storytellers met to exchange stories and learn new ones. The farther afield someone had been, the more popular their stories were because that was news. Stories are, and always have been, the way we learn about each other. If you keep other people from retelling your stories, you close a major highway of communication and information. One of the early ways we begin to know the world is through stories about other cultures, no matter who tells them. By trying to control those stories, you are turning them into propaganda, and preventing them from being vehicles of cultural exchange. You are stifling access to your own culture.

Once you start saying to anyone "Hey, you can't write that, you're not X," most of the canon--most literature ever written--goes out the door. That story about a hunchback? That story about musketeers? That story about a time traveler? Lady Chatterly's Lover? The Odd Women? Louisa May Alcott's horror stories? Sherlock Holmes? Edgar Allen Poe? Are you getting my drift? Literature is an exercise in imagination and in exploration of what other writers have written. If the storyteller's imagination does not match yours, tell your own damn story. There's plenty of room. In addition, books and authors talk to each other, so by stifling one piece of literature, who's to say what other writers you're stifling? As an example, let me direct you here.

Finally, fiction, while powerful, is still fiction, not fact. While it may shape one's personal viewpoint, it is not legislation. It does not cause harm in the same way that, say, the Ugandan legislation imprisoning people for being gay will. Fiction is  true in a particular way, in that it portrays the behavior of human beings and the results of certain situations in a more emotionally powerful and interesting way than mere fact can, precisely because it is unrestricted by fact. If you think all human beings act according to your own view of them, you are either naive, inexperienced, or extremely arrogant. To confine any story to that preconception is to have a failure of imagination. If your imagination fails there, you might learn something by reading someone else's view. If you're not interested in learning anything from someone else's point of view, then just get out of the way and stop whining. Or write your own. The best remedy for misrepresentation is not less writing, but more.

biology is stll destiny :^P

WeCanDoIt I'm frantic busy right now with rehearsals and tech stuff for the Bronx Voices performance coming up on June 26th (It's FREE!), and with preparations for teaching in China in the middle of July (OMG CHINA!), but I wanted to grumble here about something I read today in the Times, on the Motherlode blog.

It's not a blog I usually read, but recently there was a young college student on it asking for help in sorting out her situation: 22, pregnant, about to start a tough graduate program, no help from the father, parents far away, living in a new city with few friends and no support network. She asked Lisa Belkin, the blogger, to ask her readers for their thoughts and input to help her make her decision on what to do. I can't imagine being in this situation myself—or rather I can, all too easily, but I have no idea what decision I would have made, either, at that age. It would have had even more ramifications for me, since I didn't at the time believe in abortion. I won't go so far as to call myself a pro-lifer as I supported other women's right to make that decision for themselves, but I thought I would probably not choose that myself. Some of my friends have made that choice and I don't blame them. It was, I agree, the smart thing to do at the time.

But one of the things that was making this such a difficult choice for this particular young woman was not just the complete lack of support from her academic program for her situation, but the outright hostility for pregnant women her fellow students described.

A lot of your readers asked if I could take time off from the graduate program. They do not allow for any time off. There’s no deferral, classes are only offered once in the two years, and there aren’t any incompletes. I have been talking to students who are already there, who have had children, who are married and are quite a bit older, and who said it is really hard. I’m looking at 20 hours in class and 20 hours of papers and field research out of the classroom. Students with part-time jobs found it nearly impossible to keep up with the work, and a baby is not a part-time job. They also warned me that professors aren’t just tough, they can be especially harsh to the pregnant women in the program. [emphasis mine] By the time the baby would be due, there would be papers, projects, research. I can’t miss a single class without risking the whole program, that’s just the way it’s designed.

This nearly made me shriek with frustration. Tough is one thing, hostility is another. And why doesn't that fall under discriminatory behavior? Why is it okay to to be harsher to someone who is experiencing a normal biological function? I don't know what program this is, but from the sound of it, it is some sort of social services or governmental aid program focusing on humanitarian aid, which makes this kind of treatment doubly absurd. As does the fact that this program is designed to be prohibitively difficult. I suspect this was a program that was intended to "separate the men from the boys" when it was designed, a form of masculine hazing, as though college were fucking boot camp. With the preponderance of women in colleges these days, you'd think this kind of shit would stop, or at least be toned down.

This kind of program design is one of major reasons that women often fail to reach their full potential. Men with children who attend graduate school almost inevitably have built-in childcare in the form of wives. Women? Not so much. Childrearing is still women's work, whether they're married or not. (If you think I'm exaggerating, read this whiny-ass and self-centered piece by Geoff Williams; it might be satire, but I'm not so sure.) Not supporting families with children who would like to continue their educations, and actively discouraging single women with children, is discriminatory behavior and only illustrates how much of the world is still based on the way men's lives work.

I see this in the policies of the school I teach at, where most of my students have children. Whenever they cannot find a babysitter, they miss class. When students at my friend Rob's school can't find a baby sitter, he tells them to bring their kids to class. That's better, certainly, but why isn't there a safe place for students to leave their kids on campus? That would make life so much easier for so many struggling single mothers. It's a small investment to make with huge rewards.


Letter to the President: Torture

RadicalMoi Got my activist on and decided to write another letter to President Obama. It's so funny; I'm turning into my dad, who was a great writer of letters to politicians, newspaper editors, and other public figures he didn't agree with. It seems to be a Kottner trait; my grandmother did it too.

Here's a draft of my latest missive. I'm going to let it sit a couple of days before I send it, so any comments, typo spotting, corrections, suggestions, welcome.

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

20 April, 2009

Dear President Obama,

I’m a teacher, poet and artist living in New York City. I have been a disinterested non-voter for most of my life, but President Bush’s policies and actions—and your candidacy—galvanized me and changed my world-view. I’m writing first to thank you for the increased transparency you’ve brought to our government since taking office, and for striving to keep so many of your campaign promises. I applaud you especially for making the commitment to closing the unlawful prison at Guantanamo Bay. Since voting for you in the last national election, I’ve become increasingly involved in political and human rights activism, and I thank you also for that inspiration.

Which is why I’m also writing you today to ask you to reconsider your stance on forming a Truth Commission and the prosecution of interrogators who practiced and condoned waterboarding and other forms of torture under the aegis of the CIA and the Justice Department’s Orwellian definitions. I’m sure you’ve heard these arguments before, but I think it’s important that you know they’re also coming from some of the ordinary citizens who voted and campaigned for you, because we saw you as a new broom. I’m also writing to you because I need to be able to say I’ve done as much as I can to put an end to a practice which places the country I am a voting citizen of in the same category as benighted, tyrannical regimes.

I agree with you that this is a divisive issue, and I understand and sympathize with your desire not to create more divisions in this country. But I think it’s important to make a distinction between merely bowing to the demands of a group of people who have been newly restored to power and doing the right thing. If we deny our wrongdoing, that allows these wounds to fester. Witness the ill feelings regarding the denial of a Turkish massacre of Armenians just after World War I, and the Japanese denial of the enslavement of Korean women during World War II, for example. That denial thwarts the efficacy of diplomacy on many levels, as well as presenting a barrier to the social and political growth of the deniers. The Allies were able to bring the perpetrators of Nazi genocide and torture and Japanese atrocities to justice because Germany and Japan were conquered and occupied nations. Because we have no such pressure on us, it is even more imperative that we take steps to right our own wrongs and do so publically. Politically mature nations, like mature individuals, are able to admit their wrongs, take the consequences, and move on. South Africa has set a clear example in this area with its apartheid truth commission. It’s not a simple solution or an easy one, but it’s a necessary one, for a number of reasons.

Torture is one of the most heinous violations of human rights, whether it involves waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions, threats of rape or bodily harm, or fear for one’s life. Laws against intentionally harming a fellow human being are part and parcel of every civilized legal code on the planet. The difference between assault and torture is merely one of nomenclature and alleged purpose. Any argument of a real distinction between the two acts is sophistry, especially in light of the fact that torture produces so little—if any—useful information. As cartoonist Gary Trudeau pointed out in one of his Bush-era strips, it “used to be a given” that the U.S. did not torture its prisoners. We’ve lost the benefit of that moral high ground now. Sweeping the wrongdoing under the rug will not help us regain it.

A country which allows its agents to practice torture has no credibility in the world at large when it comes to speaking of human rights. How can we pressure countries like China to treat their prisoners humanely when torture is a part of our own repertoire? How can we condemn countries like Syria for their treatment of prisoners if we’re using them to do our dirty work? Hypocrisy like this taints everything we do on the world stage. If the U.S. is to be a true leader, we must face our errors, punish those responsible for them, and clean house. If we can’t clean our own house, Mr. President, we can’t ask others to do the same.

As signatories to the Geneva Conventions, this nation is bound by law to prosecute those officials who violate it. Article 131 says, “No High Contracting Party shall be allowed to absolve itself or any other High Contracting Party of any liability incurred by itself or by another High Contracting Party in respect of breaches referred to in the preceding Article.” We have clearly breached the rights of prisoners not to be tortured; prosecution of those responsible must follow if the rule of law is to be respected. In this country, without the rule of law, our experiment in democracy means nothing.

Finally, I know I don’t need to speak of the danger our policy of torturing prisoners places our troops in, but I will. My father, who died in 2005, was a WWII Army Air Corps, and later Air Force, veteran who was appalled by the existence of Guantanamo and the treatment the prisoners were subjected to. More than once, he told me this was not what he fought that war for. We need to repudiate that policy as strongly as possible to help ensure the humane treatment of our captured troops, as well as the humane treatment of everyone who comes to our shores. That sense of fairness was what my dad fought for.

For decades, the fact that American law, political philosophy, and foreign policy worked fairly well and were grounded in a strong sense of right and wrong allowed me to go along my complacent, non-involved way, confident that I lived in one of the best countries in the world. The Bush era’s egregious violations of the Constitution and American civil rights changed all that, so perhaps it wasn’t all bad in some senses. Now that our economy is struggling from unregulated greed, 48 million of us suffer from economic apartheid in health care, and our freedoms have been underhandedly undermined by the very people who are supposed to protect them, I can’t let myself stand by without saying something. I won’t ever be that complacent again, but I would like to regain that sense of confidence in the country I live in.

This is a long letter, and I’m not sure it will even reach you, Mr. President, through no fault of your own. But someone in your administration will read it and, I hope, pass on my sentiments, if not my letter, to you. I also know I’m not telling you anything new. You know these arguments, and you seem to me to be a reasonable, careful, and also moral person. I hope you will consider my words not as criticism, but as a call to action, the same call you gave that resounded in me. Thank you once again for the opportunity to express my views, and for doing the many good things you’ve already done.

Yours respectfully,

Etc.


dear president Obama:

RadicalMoiIt's time we stopped using Bush's sweeping idea of state secrets to conceal evidence of torture in the case of Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen Dataplan, or any case at all. I voted for the first time in my 48 years because I believed you would not continue Bush's violation of the Geneva Convention. If we used torture or condoned it, we need to own up to that and prosecute those responsible to regain our legitimacy in the arena of human rights. I understand state secrets are necessary but not this one.

(text of an email I sent to the president via the whitehouse.gov) I would have said much more, but you only get 500 characters, and even this was a little long (I had to leave out the last sentence). But at least something got said. I'm getting like my dad, writing letters to Congressmen and political officials. Maybe it's about time.



what it means to be inclusive

RadicalMoi I've been known to hold a few extreme and even radical ideas in my day. In a male-dominated society, feminism itself is a pretty radical notion, as Marilyn French said. I will go so far as to say that some of my view points are pretty binary: either on or off, with no gray areas or extenuating circumstances attached: women deserve the same opportunities and compensation as men; white people are not smarter or better than anybody else; education should be free through the Ph.D.; affordable healthcare is a right, not a privilege; every human life has value (where "human life" begins is another, separate matter). As I get older, though, the gray areas get bigger until I find myself backing off from the sweeping statements I used to make about issues. Sometimes I can't even define my own feelings or opinions about an issue. For example, the idea of abortion has always made me uncomfortable, but I've never felt I had the right to impose my feelings on other women—nor that anyone else has the right to make that decision for individual women. People are full of contradictory beliefs they can't resolve in themselves, me included.

So it's starting to irritate the crap out of me when people pile on President-Elect Obama for not following their agenda. We had a regime like that for eight years, in which a deeply conservative moral agenda was forced down the throats of both moderates and liberals. And while I would go so far so to call myself a far-left liberal, even a socialist, I don't want "my side" to do the same thing. Why? Because it stymies progress, making it a tug of war between two opposing sides, rather than a set of compromises that everyone can live with. It's polarizing and unproductive.

Here's an example of what I mean from Shakesville's Melissa McEwan, who's pissed off at Obama's choice of his personal friend, Rev. Rick Warren to lead prayers at his

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Proposition 8 and the discriminatory nature of marriage

RadicalmoiThere are protests nationwide today against California's passage of their Proposition 8, banning gay marriage. Instead of marching, I'm blogging (because it's pouring rain here). I am repeatedly boggled by the need of human beings to deny others their humanity, when those Others have done nothing to directly harm those who would classify them as subhuman. This was the cornerstone of slavery in this country (slaves counted as only 3/5 of a person); of denying both African Americans and women voting privileges; and now of denying gays the right to marry. In a word (or acronym): WTF?

Gw150h150 The argument that two people of the same sex marrying somehow harms the "sanctity of marriage" between two people of the opposite sex is completely illogical, as Spock might say. I'd like to see a demonstration of what this harm is. Does it prevent opposite sex couples from obtaining marriage licenses? No. Does it prevent opposite sex couples from obtaining housing? No. Does it hinder them in exercising any of their already granted rights? No. It merely offends some of them. Too bad. I'm offended by bigoted people marrying and propagating their bigotry by teaching it to their children, but I'm not about to deny them the right to do so. Human rights don't work that way. Either we all get them, or none of us get them.

The idea that the marriage of two people of the same sex is somehow an aberration is also just patently false. Tufts University Historian Gary Leupp has a great capsulized refutation of this idea in an open letter he wrote to Governor Mitt Romney. Here's a little sample of it, with a bibliography:

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