I’m at a loss. There is too much to process, to metabolize, to grieve. I’ve been meaning to write something about the election disaster for a long time, but I haven’t had it in me. I’ve cried, I’ve marched, I’ve called law-makers; but I haven’t been able to write about what happened until now.
My last few attempts at posting were made while my son was napping, or sort of napping, and were about his naps (or lack thereof). But describing the minutia of our sleep travails (suffice it to say that they have been many and excruciating) has gotten really boring. And, while it’s not inconceivable that someone, somewhere might want to read about them – I’ve certainly drawn comfort from other people’s accounts of a baby who only naps while being nursed/held/rocked/worn in a sling in a pitch-dark 71 degree room while their parent does squats and recites The Iliad from memory – I’m sick of writing about them. So, I’m going to at least try to write about something else. (Although, at the risk of jinxing this miraculous event, my son is, at this moment, asleep; in his crib!)
So. Hi! It’s been a while. In the time that has elapsed between this and my last post, I’ve experienced the sublime agony of childbirth, become a mother, moved in with my parents, and reacquainted my liver with alcohol. I’ve made a buche de noel, savory phyllo pies, a Swedish tea ring, chocolate truffles, a Sachertorte, and innumerable cookies, breads, cakes, and pies. (Baking and eating are strong contenders for my favorite pastimes; although I style myself an artist, I probably spend ten hours cooking for every one drawing.)
Over the past (almost six!) months, I’ve exulted in my baby’s smiles, blamed myself for his sleep difficulties, and learned why it’s so damned hard to write about the love you feel for your child in anything other than unctuous cliches. I’ve experienced a previously unimaginable fixation on another person’s poop. I’ve discovered the wonders of breastfeeding and the joys of babywearing.
I’ve also listened to a lot of Brian Eno on Youtube (it’s great nap music). According to my demographic profile, Youtube thinks I wear makeup, which I guess I do – but it’s confined to a single tube of lipstick, a mascara that I bought five or six years ago, and a little 99 cent thing of gold glitter. I am not what you would call “in the market” for Maybelline’s “The Rock Nude” eyeshadow palette (do they have The Rock‘s blessing for this travesty?). That doesn’t stop this one particular ad from popping (I initially typed “pooping,” which isn’t much off the mark) all over my video feed.
Why do I hate this ad so?
Let’s start with the obvious: in no way can these colors be considered “nude.” There is, granted, the deep blue of dark circles under under a light-skinned person’s eyes after an all-nighter. But, last I checked, human skin doesn’t come in metallic purple or silver. So, why nude? Annoying.
Next up: the nauseating voice-over. “Dare to Rock. Nuuuuude,” intones a female voice as cloying as margarita mix from a pouch. I gather that this voice is meant to be scintillating, to make me feel adventurous and frisky and incite me to put on my tiniest skirt and most towering heels in the endless quest for beefy, Axe-scented manflesh. But its syrupy. sing-song artificiality is essentially sexed-up motherese. Ew.
Finally: I gather that the waifish, vacant-eyed teen models are supposed to represent an all-female band who Dares! To Rock! I know that makeup is aspirational, that advertisers are selling fantasy, blah blah blah. But seriously? What, exactly, is so daring about caking on makeup designed to maximize your conformity to an oppressively narrow standard of beauty? How is it rock n’ roll to flaunt a socially acceptable body in revealing clothes? The women in this ad, far from fierce and sexy rock n’ roll badasses, are mere props, ciphers embodying a flat, cookie-cutter beauty, a bland and bloodless sensuality calibrated to the male gaze.
I’m not impervious to artifice, nor immune to aspiration: I can be (and am) moved by conspicuous displays of hotness. Every image of Grimes, for instance, makes me want to do something wild with my hair and abandon my earth tones and simple lines for the dadaist flamboyance she wears so well. Perusing Beyonce’s instagram account makes me lust, I’m sorry to say, after the lush opulence of her fabulous life. And I’m sure that I’m affected by advertising. And yet, the mockery that this ad makes of women in rock and roll really chafes. The rich domain of music is thickly peopled with brilliant, innovative, weird women. People who defied the misogyny of rock and roll culture and mainstream society to create on their own terms. I know that “authenticity” is a very slippery concept, and that folks have been co-opting and sanitizing rebellion since before Constantine took up the cross. But still… this ad absolutely galls me.
And now my poor babe is awake and screaming. See ya!
I have a complicated relationship with authority. Growing up with the unforgiving boot of the British school system on my neck, I learned to respect and fear those in power. Coming to the U.S., aged ten, the sudden absence of dictatorial cruelty from adults was confusing. I became uncontrollable, convinced that the freedoms of adulthood were my due, contemptuous towards anyone who tried to tell me otherwise. Still, for many years, even the gentlest reprimand from someone in a position of authority would reduce me to tears.
A shameful admission: at times I’ve thought about working for the federal government. I’ve contemplated joining the Foreign Service, the FBI. I’ve even flirted with notions of joining the military. Why?
It was my desire, as I put it then, not just to work for the Man, but to be the Man. To embody a system of moral rigidity that allows no room for ambiguity, instead upholding supposedly timeless ideals of honor, order, tradition, control. This insidious conservative bent within me is probably also the source of my deep love for country music and Western culture (as well as my ever-so-clichéd boner for military men). But my academic discipline (cultural anthropology), and my politics (liberal), are firmly relativistic. Reality indeed has a liberal bias, because reality is complex and fraught with ambiguity. My attraction to the certainty represented by intuitions of authority is a suffering soul’s desire to return to the blissful ignorance of infancy.
Even as I marched on Sunday night, chanting “no justice, no peace, no racist police!” I felt a little sheepish about speaking against the orderly ranks of men and women who surrounded us. I was impressed by the smooth decisiveness of their movements, their unity and discipline, which stood in stark contrast to the disorganization of our group. I love a uniform. I love the pageantry of restraint and control. But the outward show – the uniforms, the solemn oaths, the fictions of honor and uprightness and discipline, are simply that: fictions, stories, constructions designed to fend off the chaos that is the ultimate condition of our world, to corral the nuance and subtlety that complicate simplistic narratives of right and wrong.
When I went to work yesterday, I mentioned to a coworker (male, black, politically active) that I’d been to a protest, that there were some “punk-ass white kids” in attendance who just wanted to yell at the cops. (What was I thinking? I guess I was trying to shore up my “knowing, hip white person” cred, to reinforce my own legitimacy through ironic self-awareness. Embarrassing!) In a measured, diplomatic tone, he reminded me of the assault of a “little fifteen-year-old white girl” in police custody several years ago, and told me “it’s all coming home to roost.”
I realized, then, that my distinction between my own mature, well-reasoned desire to “fight systemic racism” and the “punk-ass white kids” who just wanted to rage against authority wasn’t as clear as I’d thought. For one thing, I, too was once a punk-ass suburban white kid. My thinly-veiled scorn for the “cute” sixteen-year-old blond girl’s “attention-grabby” actions probably represented, more than anything, a deep ambivalence about my own identity as a white person with many layers of privilege, and uncertainty about my own role in movements for social justice. I saw in her echoes of myself.
Can a cry of rage against systemic injustice be separated from anger towards those whose job it is to perpetuate an unjust system? There are good cops. Cops who really did get into the profession to “protect and serve.” At the same time, American policing is corrupt to the very bone. Our entire criminal “justice” system is rotten, veined with racism and capitalist greed. Are individual cops guilty by association for joining a force that often does more harm than good?
I’ve been a beneficiary of white privilege for my entire life. I’ve never had to fear the police; our system exists to preserve the privilege of those who look like me. I can’t in good conscience advocate respect for this system, which encompasses the increasing militarization of the police, a War on Drugs and for-profit prison system that gobbles up black lives, leaving in its wake broken families, decimated communities, and the despair of entrenched inequality.
The fact that some of the protesters undoubtedly had motives that were a jumble of genuine social concern and teenage angst and rebellious impulses and a desire for attention doesn’t obviate the validity of their concerns: There is something inherently sick in the impetus to exert homogenizing control over thinking, feeling, irreducibly complex individuals. There is something inherently anti-humanistic, corrupt, and twisted – inherently wrong – in our systems of authority.
My fatalism helps me to stay sane. In a world where unspeakable violence is commonplace, inequality is endemic, and rapacious greed is steadily rendering our planet uninhabitable, acceptance that we are, as a species, pretty much screwed, is often the only thing between me and debilitating depression. My fatalism isn’t nihilistic; I still believe that our individual actions matter. I think that changing one person’s life for the better – even if only for a moment – is worthwhile. But my hope for lasting, systemic change – and thus my political involvement – is minimal
Sometimes, though, an event is so outrageous, so sickening, that I am unable to remain detached, even if I have little faith that my actions will have any effect. Such was the case with the recent killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, three unarmed black males (one of them a 12-year-old child) by police. As of this writing, grand juries have acquitted the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner of any wrongdoing.
These are, of course, not the only instances of police brutality and inappropriate use of force against unarmed people of color in America. This shit happens all the time, every day. But the high-profile nature of the recent cases penetrated my apathy and made me feel the need to do something.
So I went to a protest.
We met at Westlake center; there were maybe seventy people present. We marched through downtown, chanted, held several “speak-outs” and “die-ins,” during which we lay down in intersections for four and a half minutes, in remembrance of Michael Brown (whose body lay in the street for four and a half hours after he was gunned down by a police).
During the speak-outs, the person who wanted to talk would yell “mic check!” with the crowd echoing their words so that everyone could hear them. Among the moving exhortations and cogent points, there were more than a few off-topic rants and rambling soliloquies. There were lots of young people, a few anarchists, and some revolutionary communists. I was there to protest racially biased policing practices and the deeply entrenched racism that lets murderous cops walk free. But there were a few people there who sought nothing less than the complete overthrow of the U.S. government.
For the duration of the protest, we were surrounded by cops – mostly on bicycles, though there were some officers on foot and on motorcycles, and police vehicles circled the periphery of the march.
A 2011 Department of Justice investigation found that the Seattle Police Department regularly engaged in unconstitutional use of force and biased policing practices. However, the cops last night demonstrated restraint and professionalism. At one point, a young white guy screamed in an officer’s face, demanding his name and badge number. Although I certainly agree that police are not above the law, that they are obliged to display their name and badge number in accordance with policy, screaming directly into a cop’s ear struck me as counterproductive and at odds with the spirit of peaceful protest.
During one speak-out, another young white man yelled, “I am not afraid of the police!” Neither, apparently, was the guy yelling at the bike cop. The irony of this was apparently lost on them: because they are white, they have the luxury of acting out their juvenile rebellion against authority by intentionally provoking the cops. It made me intensely uncomfortable to see an officer being confronted and yelled at; he was just doing his job, and made an admirable effort to retain his composure. Doubly uncomfortable, though, was the realization that, had the kid been black, the interaction probably would have ended very differently.
During the march, one person was arrested: a petite sixteen-year-old white girl with a cute face and long blond hair. She’d been trying to get people to surge past the police lines and take over the sidewalks. As the police pinned her to the ground and cuffed her, one protester (another young white guy) yelled, “She’s a hero!”
It’s necessary and legitimate for white people to speak out against systemic racism and injustice; that’s why I was there. But, intermingled with protesters who were genuinely concerned with police accountability in the cases at hand, there seemed to be a few white kids who were mostly interested in testing authority and trash-talking the cops. I’m sure the girl who was arrested meant well; but from my perspective, her actions seemed superfluous and attention-grabby.
At the end of the protest, when all but about twenty of us had peeled off, a guy started singing “Jesus loves me;” the march’s communist organizer shook his head in disgust, saying, “Oh HELL no!”
I was left with a vague feeling of unease. I was glad to have participated, to have lent my voice to a collective outcry of rage and grief. And yet… there were some unsettling aspects. The lack of organization and seemingly divergent aims of the participants. The troubling nature of some of the slogans: I felt really weird chanting “I can’t breathe!” At first, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” seemed like a poignant reminder of the fact that so many people of color wantonly shot by the police are unarmed. But, as discussed here, it is also a gesture of defeat, in stark contrast to the defiant power of a raised fist.
I believe that public protests are worthwhile – and necessary. I believe in exercising my right to speak out against injustice. Non-violent protest can be a driver of profound and meaningful change. But I have to admit that last night didn’t exactly deal a blow to my fatalism…
So apparently I’m addicted to writing sonnets now.
I read Wolf Hall a couple of years ago and fell in love with the character of Thomas Cromwell, his shrewdness and diplomatic brilliance, his canny navigation of the internecine politics of Henry VIII’s court. He (or, more accurately, Hilary Mantel’s depiction of him) influences and inspires me as I try to move through my own interpersonal challenges with evenhanded grace.
“Don’t say, ‘No, but.’ Say ‘Yes, and.’ “
A course unlovely visage may conceal
A mind acute, relentless in its quest
To open and delineate what’s real
From superficial dross that keeps the rest.
Appetite for praise, favor and acclaim
Though often they seduce and lead astray
To understand the vanity of fame
May guide the shrewd one to their proper way.
A strength and brilliance revealed in time
Will obtain far longer than what is shown
In appeal obvious as balmy clime
But with alacrity as sudden flown.
A blacksmith’s son from Putney gave the proof
That beauty must needs not always be truth.
Yesterday was D-Day, the day on which we celebrate the heroism and bravery of those who participated in the Normandy Landings during WWII. This massive invasion from the sea was a turning point in the war, a major part of the Allied victory.
Meanwhile in Seattle, the day before saw yet another mass shooting on a college campus, just blocks from where I live. I was biking past Seattle Pacific University on the Ship Canal Trail when I heard the sirens. Scores of them. When I tried to drive my normal route to work, the street was blocked off. I assumed that there had been a bad wreck. Then I heard on the radio that there had been a shooting. Another one. (Two men were murdered at a Seattle park in broad daylight just last week.) As I took an alternate route to work, SWAT vehicles passed me, lights flashing. I wept as I drove, filled with grief and impotent rage.
Of course, violent death is a tragedy wherever it occurs. But there’s a reason the phrase “close to home” has so much salience: When something like this happens right in front of you, it’s impossible to ignore, and resonates on a deeper level. Humans are deeply tribal creatures, and something that happens where you live has a greater pull on your emotional attention.
That night, I posted a cris de coeur on Facebook to the tune of, “Can we please just ban guns?” For the record, I don’t think this is a realistic solution. As several friends pointed out, there are too many guns already in circulation. And yes, people will find a way to kill without guns – although guns are an exceptionally efficient way to kill. Frankly, I don’t have much hope in the efficacy of sound policy or political will. Because human beings are violent. Evil is a part of the world’s spiritual fabric, and it finds expression though human vessels. The old adage that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” really is true.
We celebrate the military heroes who helped insure an Allied victory, because the Allies were the “good guys.” And yet – their victory came at the expense of real human lives. The Germans and other Axis fighters were the “bad guys,” the Other. But they were also human beings with families, feelings, souls. The civilians who died were (are) “collateral damage.” Their blood is the price of victory.
There’s a continuum of human violence, from a schoolyard punch to genocide. I believe it all originates in the same place, in the shadows of the human psyche where fear festers and whispers the insidious mantra that “might equals right.” I respect military folks; I don’t think they’re any worse than I am just because killing is part of their job description. I have sinned, and it’s not for me to judge which sins are worse than others. Life is a series of impossible ethical conundrums, and war is often a messy combination of avarice, nihilism, and noble intentions: Hitler did, after all, have to be stopped.
As I feel the heaviness and grief of what happened at SPU, I see the irony of mourning these losses while celebrating D-Day (or any military victory, for that matter: victory, after all, always entails a corresponding loss). I abhor guns and feel that they are a manifestation of pure evil; it’s easy for me to become outraged over American gun policy because I see it as glaringly, egregiously wrongheaded. But, when I take a step back and look at the bigger picture, I recognize that what my gun-apologist friends say is fundamentally true: People kill people.
As Barbara Tuchman put it in A Distant Mirror, “For belligerent purposes, the 14th century, like the 20th, commanded a technology more sophisticated than the mental and moral capacity that guided its use.” That’s still true in the 21st century. There may come a time when we attain a posthuman form and transcend the features of our humanity that lead us to violence. For now, though, violence is an intractable part of human existence, with or without guns. As long as people want to overpower others and advance their way as “right” – whether on the level of nations, or of sick and misguided individuals – there will be blood.
There’s been a spike in hullabaloo about racism the last short while. Donald Sterling. That Bundy asshole. Saying what they think, what lots of old moneyed white dudes think, and getting flack for their raw honesty. Sure, what they espouse is unequivocally vile: but at least it’s out in the open. Racism is insidious. It thrives in the shadows. Exposure threatens its very underpinnings.
Then there was Macklemore’s clueless costume choice at a recent EMP appearance. I believe him when he says he didn’t know that it looked like a Jewish caricature straight out of Der Stürmer (which it really did). He messed up, a lot of people got upset, and he apologized. Being ignorant of history is silly when you’re a major pop star, but it’s eminently forgivable. It was interesting to observe the outcry on both sides: on the one hand were people who were outraged and offended. On the other were folks who thought it was no big deal, that people were freaking out over nothing. The latter group jumped to Mack’s defense, citing his great track record of political correctness and self-awareness.
Macklemore made a dumb decision. I don’t believe that he’s an anti-Semite: he’s human, and humans make mistakes – all the time. Just because he made a song called “White Privilege” (reflecting on, you guessed it, white privilege) doesn’t mean that he’s perfect or exempt him from critique. At the same time, his very public fuck-up isn’t a reason to mercilessly excoriate him and indulge in shrill solipsistic huffiness. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of impeccable cultural sensitivity.
No one wants to think of themselves as racist. Even overtly racist people preface their malevolent spoutings with “I’m not racist, but…”. Fact is, though, that none of us are impervious to cultural imprinting, to the seething ugliness that runs through our species’ history and can rise up at any moment. Even those of us who are ideologically committed to equality, to the fight against prejudice and exclusion and systemic injustice, who like to consider ourselves open, ethical, and non-biased, are not immune.
But no one wants to admit it. It’s a whole lot easier to hide behind self-righteousness, to maintain, with smug certainty, that “I’m not racist!”
Following the comments on a few controversial Facebook posts on race, I’ve witnessed people (white people) vociferously objecting to charges of racism. The response usually goes something like this:
“I’ve traveled the world! My great grandfather was half Blackfoot! Of course I’m not racist, and I’m deeply offended that you would suggest that I am!”
Because most of us are pretty adept at concealing the unsightly and misshapen and wounded parts of ourselves, instead displaying glossy avatars of what we want to be, it’s easy to maintain denial. The truth of the matter is that all of us have, to one extent or another, internalized the discourses that swirl around Otherness in our culture. Everyone’s a little bit racist. Even me. Sometimes hideous, hateful words explode, unbidden, into my mind. Terrible words about race, gender, sexual identity, religion, age, size, ability – you name it. I identify as queer and Jewish, and still struggle with internalized misogyny and homophobia and anti-Semitism. Yep: the distorted stories about “Others” that suffuse what’s still, by and large, a patriarchal, white supremacist, appearance-obsessed society have left their mark on me.
I am the recipient of major privilege based on my phenotype. My dad is dark skinned and was admonished not to play in the sun, lest people mistake him for a schwartze. He was taunted and bullied for being a Jew, and as a kid, longed to have fair skin and straight hair like the “normal” kids. Sometimes I cling to this facet of my family history in order to feel connected with communities of color, to claim my own spot in the “oppression Olympics.” But the fact remains that I’m fair and straight-haired and got the dainty nose my dad prayed I would inherit from my mother. Like it or not, I’ve got layers upon layers of privilege; white privilege is just one.
I’ve wrestled with the implications of this privilege. I never asked for it. Sometimes it makes me feel like shit, and I think I don’t want it: as much as it’s benefited me and made my life easier in many ways, it can suck to look like the Oppressor. I’ve read widely, participated in activism, worked to expand my mind and to listen to a variety of voices, to become aware of the ways in which I’m ignorant and impaired. Awareness of my privilege hasn’t make it go away, though, and sometimes I mess up. This doesn’t make me a bad person. It doesn’t mean that the prejudices that have seeped into me through cultural osmosis are at the heart of who I am, or that they circumscribe my fundamental value. What it does mean is that it’s important to stay humble, to acknowledge my mistakes and learn from them. As Macklemore seems to have done.
I’m done with trying to protect a precious image, to project a sanitized, prettied-up version of myself that maintains a prim distance from the complicated, messy, authentic dialogues that challenge our most cherished notions. I’m done with trying to inoculate myself against accusations of prejudice by flaunting my Otherness as a queer Jewish woman, because these identities don’t define me; nor do they obviate my privilege. And we all have some level of privilege. Responding to prejudice by clinging ever-tighter to our marginal identities, vying to see who’s struggling under greater oppression, is not freeing. It’s just another way of distancing ourselves from our fellow human beings, of perpetuating stories of Otherness that helps hatred to thrive.
Racism (any “ism,” for that matter) is an environmental contaminant: like it or not, there are traces of it in your system. It’s a disease. And, as with any disease, the first step in treating it is realizing you’re infected. Indignant denial doesn’t help you to grow, or to heal: rather, it shuts down dialogue and drowns out the voices of those who ask to be heard.
So: can we please drop the bullshit, admit we’re imperfect, be real, and actually listen to each other?