Over there on Huffington Post taking about the elections. You can read the full article here. Below, a taste.
Affecting change takes time and diligence and real effort. It takes discipline and thoughtfulness and a full on commitment to holding feet to fires and noses to grindstones. It doesn’t come from signing a single letter of protest or hootin’ and hollerin’ during a passing primary season. It doesn’t come at the hands of one Black man or a single White woman. For the first time in history, Bernie Sanders has transformed the political conversation so that we have a fighting chance to forge a movement that can effectively become a third party. This primary can be seen as the harbinger of change that can bring American democracy from the darkness into the light of widespread civic engagement and real choice, but only if we do our part. Only if we aren’t distracted by bemoaning what we have allowed to come to pass with a President Trump, floundering in regret at our own foolishness like the Brexit voters who, in the land of the Bard no less, do not even known enough to blame the stars.
Philip Weiss, who attended the launch of Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine, at the Center for Fiction, covered the event for Mondoweiss. Here is an excerpt.
“In yet another sign that solidarity with Palestinians is now a central political value of liberal/left American culture, about 150 people jammed a room in the Center for Fiction in Manhattan a week ago to hear authors read from a new book, a literary collection called Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine. Below you will see several videos I made of the writers.”
The Center for Fiction released the videos of the event. You can view them at these links:
Part 1 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMTIwrc5EP4
Part 2 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8vWvtjvRCE
I read a tweet yesterday that kind of broke my heart a little. Someone I know and like said they did not believe in boycotts because they had “fought too hard to be included.” The person in question was referring to the PEN controversy. My own feelings about the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, and therefore my reasons for taking a side on this issue, are covered elsewhere.
But I’ve been thinking about that statement since. What does it mean to “be included?” By whom? To what purpose, and to what end?
It made me think about the fight itself – for whom and what do we fight? When we fight for inclusion, is it just for ourselves? I, Ru Freeman, would like to “be included?” Where? At the PEN gala? I have been. I’ve been one of those table hosts, and I enjoyed it. Then, as on many other occasions, I’ve thought about where I came from, who I am, how much I enjoy the glamor and jazz of being in such places, but also about the immense loneliness I feel at such moments. The public person, the representative of my kind – South Asian, of colour, the international, the woman, the Sri Lankan – puts on both the ball gown and the star performance. But that same person understands that at all times I am but the face of all those other identities, and all the other people who look like me or talk like me or think like me or share my various parts and orientations. What I do does not impact me alone. And I am far too old and far too wise to believe that the fame of a NY minute is a rule meant only for other people. I’m far too old not to know that when the lights dim, I walk home as myself, a woman of many identities, and many complexities, not Ru Freeman the Table Host at the PEN Gala, circa. 2013.
Knowing these things, I have often advised people who have asked, that in the end what you are left with – what anybody is left with – is their integrity. The table at which I sat included some of New York’s finest philanthropists; I knew their work thanks to my own work in development and fundraising with major donors. The reward for their gift to PEN was being consumed as we talked, and I, good soldier that I am, changed seats through the various courses to make sure that I had a chance to make a pesonal connection with each one, to express – through some combination of charm and intelligence – that I valued their support on behalf of PEN. But I am not only the good soldier. And the glitz of the corporate presentation that year grated on my nerves. (There is a reason why I love the American Friends Service Committee – nobody there looks like they’re rolling out a multi-million dollar initiative for Nike, when they are raising money to help the poor in the most remote parts of Afghanistan). But that was not the place to express my small sentiment of dismay. It would have served no purpose. It could not have helped the people who were struggling under the weight of censorship across America or the world. It would have been a pointless and graceless gesture. And man, was I not enjoying my ballgown and my wine at my first black-tie gala?
But what would I have done if I had been asked to represent PEN during a ceremony that awarded a badge of courage to a group that denigrates most of the population of the world? Whose raison d’etre for being present at the gala was that they had persisted in ridiculing and taunting a marginalized and mostly misunderstood minority? Would this not have been the time to think about those other identities which I embody? If I had ever belonged to any group, of any size, which had been denied the respect and regard and rights accorded to everyone else, which had been brutalized and collectively dismissed at every turn, particularly in America, would not my conscience trouble me enough to stand with those who more closely embody the hardships I may have undergone? The answer would have been clear to me, forget the ballgown and the wine and the little table tents that tell the assembled all about myself and my literary achievements.
So what is belonging and inclusion? And in whose hands do we place the right to include us, and to stand in judgement about our merits?
I’ve been reading a lot of posts and interviews with the writers who chose to sign the letter of dissent – a letter of dissent is like the words penned by judges of the courts; it allows the majority ruling to go forward, but it articulates the reasons why the particular judge/s disagree. It has no teeth with regard to the particular ruling, but it informs the legal arguments yet to be made in other cases. In other words, as an organization like PEN ought to understand better than any other, a letter of dissent permits the freedom of speech and conscience. This particular letter of dissent expressed exactly that, and no more. The vilification of the six table hosts – and therefore the other signatories of whom I am one – permitted by PEN, and articulated in fact by some of PEN’s most recognized names, is the real blow to freedom of speech.
To claim that the award had nothing to do with the denigration of Muslims, while quoting Ayaan Hirsi Ali is like saying you aren’t racist but quoting Zimmerman.
What Ali said could have been said by anybody. That PEN chose to use her as a quotable human being at a gala where they have sworn they were making an award that has nothing to do with Islamaphobia, is nothing short of not just a bucket, but an entire dry oil well full of bovine excrement.
To return to this idea that crawling through the needle to be “included” requires the setting aside of ones conscience, or must silence the voice one possesses and can use to speak for the voiceless and the “unincluded” – a condition with which the freshly “included” must surely be familiar – I quote the writer Conner Habib: “I am not one of the widely celebrated writers on the list. I, like many of the 204 signatories, am not a household name. I am not wealthy or luxuriously free to sign petitions.” In other words, some writers choose to do what it is not easy to do because they value the tenor of our community more than they value the fleeting moment of “inclusion.”
Habib goes on to make several excellent points in his post about his decision to sign the letter of dissent or, as he puts it, more accurately, disassociation. As does Amitava Kumar, another writer who knows of what he speaks, in this conversation during The Takeaway with John Hockenberry.
Amitava takes on both the matter of PEN mobilizing its surrogates to attack the writers who wish to disassociate themselves from this award, and the matter of choosing to celebrate Charlie Hebdo while ignoring the murder, say, of Pakistani activist, Sabeen Mahmud, among other things. And he asks this question: “Does it take courage to stand up at a glittery gala in NYC and toast Charlie Hebdo? I don’t think it does. So what does it take more courage to stand up for today?”
At the end of the day, I look at the list of (thus far) 204 PEN members who had the courage to add their names to the letter of dissent and I realize how much regard I have for each of them. It is nice to look around and see that some people still choose the walk-on-part in the war over the lead role in a cage.
I had grand plans this morning. I was going to open up my various pieces of writing and send them off to sundry recepients from my agent to editors at journals near and far. Instead I’m sitting here feeling slightly paralyzed by my feelings about the attacks in Paris, and the response that has followed.
I come from a family of gadflies who never seem to shirk from being contrary and annoying the powers that be if such is called for. We have, in whole or part, lost jobs, resigned jobs, taken jobs, been slandered in public fora, incarcerated, and received death threats for our points of view. And we are all writers. While we have cautioned each other to, maybe, “tone it down,” “be careful,” “watch your back,” or “trust nobody,” we have each steadfastly refused to take this advice.
You can imagine, then, that the notion that ten writers and two body-guards could be shot to death during an editorial meeting, does not sit well with someone like me. I do not believe that murdering people, even those whom we consider to be foolish, lacking in judgement, and irrelevant to human progress (people who aren’t dissimilar to Fred Phelps and those within the Westboro Baptist Church), is a fair response to the incitement caused by their use of pen, pencils, and paper.
Last evening, I joined my fellow writers in signing PEN America’s condemnation of the attack on Charlie Hebdo. I did so even though I have been dismayed by the refusal of PEN America to make any statement about the conditions forced upon writers in Palestine, as they live under the yoke of occupation. I did so even though I disagreed with one part of the statement because in the end, I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that a punishment, or revenge, or any other human response, ought to be equal to the crime or offense.
This is the sentence: “The right to satirize, to question, to expose, to mock, even when offensive to some, is a bulwark of a free society.”
I do not pray to the god of the French, and much of America, whose devotees value a “free society” over human decency. I do not support the ALCU because I do not believe that the right to free speech on the part of one person overrides the right to grief and mourning on the part of another. The Westboro Baptist Church is simply wrong. And so is the ACLU for supporting it. The French Republic is founded on the guiding principle of laïcité (“freedom of conscience”), an idea that has seen an effective seperation of church and state. But look at that word, “conscience.” Conscience = a set of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual. As such, our conscience – whether it prompts us to attend church or mosque, or whether it urges us to stay away from such places of worship – defines our religion. France is no less dogmatic about its religion of “free speech” than is Catholicism about the ten commandments, or Islam about its One God.
As I followed coverage last night, I became steadily more unhappy with the American take on the attack, even on the more left-leaning programs, such as the Rachel Maddow Show. Yes, the attack was vile, yes, nobody should be murdered for drawing cartoons, but no, thousands of people of the Muslim faith aren’t religious fundamentalists and zealots for marching in nations around the world, peacefully protesting the denigration of their faith. And no, seriously, no, lampooning your own politicians and dress-designers is not the same as expressing obscenities about someone else’s religion.
We define what is considered criminal based on our own set of ideas, whatever our own culture has taught us to believe. Thousands of Muslims were outraged by the way Charlie Hebdo portrayed their faith and their God, and they were justified in their rage. Thousands in France and abroad were equally outraged by the outrage of the Muslims, and they, too, were justified in their rage. Each had offended the others religion. The protests that followed the satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in Charlie Hebdo in 2012 were an appropriate response. Intelligent people (both Muslim and otherwise), should have taken it further and exerted other pressures (diplomatic, cultural, conomic), in order to mitigate the fallout from the offense, had they felt it necessary to do so. Instead, one side picked up weapons, the other side claimed that “l’Amour plus fort que la haine,” but really practiced the opposite.
It is tasteless to speak ill of the dead, but the anti-Muslim cartoons that made Charlie Hebdo infamous were similarly tasteless. They were designed to harrass, not educate. They were, in essence, cowardly, and masturbatory. No more elegant than men getting off on exposing themselves to children in public playgrounds. They were unnecessary, and made no contribution to civil society, to cultural understanding, or a collective human good. Cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier incurred a great deal of hatred in his four years as Editor-in-Chief. And if he had not been killed so mercilessly, I would still be hard-pressed to imagine those four years as having been lived with genuine purpose. As the saying goes, we are put upon this earth to see each other through, not to see through each other. Charbonnier made it a goal in life to purloin the freedom of the press to report, and misused it to ridicule, malign, and nourish antagonism in a flammable world.
I wish that the response on the part of the French to the bafflement and subsequent anger on the part of so many Muslims, had not been euphoria and condescension. I wish it had simply been an equally forceful ridiculing of an editorial vision that ran counter to creating a better, more peaceful world. I wish that goodwill and decency, not to be equated with censorship, had been considered an option.
I sit here therefore, considering something both complex and simple. I wish for a world that understands that concession wins more ground than mockery. But I also wish that all of those people, including Stéphane Charbonnier had been given the time to do something different with their lives. Because the right to journey through life, to evolve, to realize the potential to do good in the world, is sacred.
No resolution to be had, only thoughts and more thoughts. The pen truly is mightier than the sword. I wish for a better world, one in which people recognize and harness the power of that fact.
I have been listening to the run up to the celebrations of this day, and of course the speeches made today at the Lincoln Memorial. It is strange that the first time I heard about that memorial, it was through my mother and father speaking to me about Marian Anderson. My mother had heard her sing at the Peradeniya University where they, my parents, were students, a performance broadcast to the standing-outside multitudes via loudspeakers. Neither of them have ever spoken of any other voice with quite the same reverence. Through her recollections, I heard of this voice that had rung over the assembled in a city called Washington DC in a country called America. Much later I learned to sing ‘A Church is Burning,’ as one among our repertoire for an entry to a national festival of ballads. I’d heard of Birmingham, but I didn’t really know what any of this truly meant. It came to me in music that I could sing with heart, but not in history that I could actually see in my heart. It happened before I was born, in a country I wouldn’t really know until I was a college student, and not very well until many years after, when living here had become what I would choose to do, when colour became more complicated than saying someone was “fair” or “dark,” the only words I’d ever used before to describe complexion, when the word “colour” became, by itself, no longer a descriptor but an unwieldly, shape-shifting misnomer.
And so, to today, when I found myself watching and listening, but as a bystander rather than a participant. I know what I have come to know, and witness, and speak out on behalf of, but this is a struggle whose roots go back to a place of origin that I can only glimpse. I was delighted, therefore, to receive this note from a friend, someone who had been “here when,” whose life was transformed by the events of this day, fifty years ago, and by that speech. A speech whose candence and words would have made a deep impact on someone who would dedicate their own life to the celebration of words. It gave me a chance to relive this day as it might have seemed to me if I had been not a still unborn future hyphenated dual citizen, but rather a boy growing up in Nebraska.
Thinking this morning of how old I was, fifty years ago. I had just turned ten. Getting ready for fifth grade. Mrs Armstrong, Calvert School. A bored, end of summer day on my hands. I had two best friends then – they lived on our street – Bill and Mike. Neither must have been about, so on my own I went into our basement where we had the tv to see what was on. Then it was about three or four channels that gave you what you might get., I don’t know if I tried changing channels, if what I was ran on all three or not, but what I saw was so spellbinding that I found myself riveted – and watched for however many hours I did.
First, this incredible marching, assembling crowd. I had never seen as many people thronging about like this – walking, these signs … I hadn’t been to Washington, DC, but had seen photographs – the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, all of that, all usually depicted with these park-like swaths of open grounds around them, that long reflecting pool. Here were all these people. I knew what they were about, what the march was about., There had been so many stories in the news – both on tv, and in the weekly magazines that came to our house – Time, Life (lots of photos), Look (ditto). I knew (then) this was about the South – where slavery had been, where basic rights were denied now.
But that this was a coming together – a demonstration (it must have been a new word to me) in Washington. I was trying to comprehend, I suspect, what this was, what was intended, how it related to what was happening in the South. A demonstration … Commentators must have helped with some of that. The sight of all these people – Negroes, as it was couched then, and white people. So many. With signs which said things that made impressions.
At some point the moving, the marching must have stopped, for a program with speakers was then shown. There wasn’t a lot of moving camera work. I remember a pretty fixed shot close to the speakers’ podium. I then remember various people speaking. This – all in black and white – must have been the first time I remember little white captions, words on the screen saying who people sometimes were. Roy Wilkens of the NAACP seemed to moderate, or at least was there talking a lot. I felt like he was introducing and/or making announcements. There was also Bayard Rustin – I remember the name ‘Bayard’ being unusual and that he was from the porters’ union – one of the most powerful organized groups of Negroes, a labor union of train attendants (I had to figure out what a porter was). There were famous people there, actors – Harry Belafonte. Probably Sidney Poitier and I think, Sammy Davis, Jr. That would have been about it for people I would have known. A James Baldwin would have been lost on me. People who sang there – The Freedom Singers, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan (at age 22,, I would later figure) would have been lost on me.
Whatever I knew of him before – I knew some things – by the time he was done speaking, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not lost on me. Not to go into all of what he said. I doubt I remembered much on the spot. But the long, slow, deliberate pace and weight with which he spoke (he who was only 34). The rising, peak and valley crescendo of talk came at the end, the part that short clips all play, but those really got their soaring, wave-like power from the slow buildup that preceded it. I remember all of that pouring right into me, including that at the end.
And then it must have been over. I must have climbed the stairs out of the dark basement (it was like coming out of a cave), I must have stepped back out into the late afternoon … and resumed whatever was up, seen if Bill or Mike was home yet, heard what our own house’s schedule was like (when Dad would be home, what time dinner, what dinner might be) … I don’t think I felt like I could really talk about what I’d seen, at least not to the places in me it went. Even as I was going about my 10-year-old daily business, something in me felt deeply altered.
How wonderful to think of the way that moments change our lives, particuarly the lives of children. I think about all that this boy would go on to do, the words of relevant people ushered forth, not simply what is deemed famous or fashionable, but what is good and important and life-altering.
Today is a good day to remember these things. To remember, also, that odd-sounding name, Bayard Rustin, opined upon today in the Wall Street Journal, a central figure without whom no march might have taken place, a gay man whose personal life was reviled in public by many who also participated in that march. To place that bit of information next to this other remembrence today: this day on which we mourn a young transgendered woman, Islan Nettles, murdered in Harlem because of her sexual preferences. And to remember what we choose to say and do when we are given the opportunity. A good day to remember exactly which anthem Marian Anderson chose to sing on that long ago day, and why she might have done so.
At the bottom of this post is the close of James Baldwin’s 1963 essay, ‘A Talk to Teachers,’ which opens the collection of essays, Multi-cultural Literacy (Rick Simonson and Scott Walker, Eds. Graywolf Press, 1988), that I began to read a few days ago. I began to read this book looking for the voice of someone I love, and it so happened that I read this particular essay in the aftermath of the verdict against Trayvon Martin, for it is no less than that. In the hours before the verdict, I – and others – speculated as to the outcome in our various ways. Mine on FB below as status and response:
Been thinking about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. I’d like to see a breakdown along color lines regarding the advocacy for/against civil disobedience in the aftermath. If this country’s system of law concludes that it is okay to kill a Black boy – for as far as I know it is only a Black boy who can get jacked for this – for walking down a street to his father’s house, then I think this country ought to get comfortable with some destruction that is motivated by a desire for justice and the pain of injustice. If people can sit around simply bemoaning the injustice/wishing for justice while twiddling their thumbs, then I think they ought to be able to sit down, shut up and watch while those who want to do something about it – anything about it! – get up and make some bloody noise. Because you can’t have it both ways.
Trayvon Martin’s family has had to do the limbo backward in order to GET to trial, there is ample reason to consider outcomes, and several decades worth of reasons to suspect that the long arc of (America’s) moral universe may not bend toward justice.
It is not sad when the expected comes to pass. It is sad when the hope that lives despite that expectation is crushed. In the aftermath of the verdict, I have found it difficult to find anything of worth to say. The things that move me among what others have had to say are the words that are quieter, more reflective. This despite my own mounting feelings of impotent rage – impotent from this great distance, far away in Sri Lanka, among other things; the words of friends and writers. Rebecca Solnit’s dictate to all of us to “just walk, right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot. That’s what makes (us) unstoppable,” quoted by Natashia Deon, those of Danielle Evans, who concludes her reflections by positing that the outcome of this verdict is a culture of suspicion (and the actions deemed justified by that suspicion), and that “we as a society will insist that (the) only defense against that suspicion is for black people to be able to counter it with proof of complete innocence of any prior mistakes or wrongdoing, which is to say, complete innocence of being human.”
I was struck, too, by the words of Iraj Isaac Rahmin, reminding us of the way in which a simple status update or tweet does not constitute an absolution, a check mark, an a-okay to return to our morning coffee routine. By those of Tayari Jones who, far away from America, in a place where nobody was aware of this case, felt alone in her sorrow. Particularly that solitude, when reminded once more of hearing her voice on my radio one afternoon soon after the slaying of Trayvon Martin, speaking of ‘The Lingering Memory of Dead Boys.’ Thinking also to my own distance from America, and the way in which I found myself a spokesperson for these quintessentially American events – from the murder of an innocent Black student to the monumental failure of justice, a failure ordained by the racism inherent in the very system that is entrusted with delivering that justice – a conversation I had with Sri Lankans unfamiliar with this case which has occupied our fevered collective imagination.
I agree with Isaac that a status update and a tweet may not a revolution make, although I stand by the idea that many status updates and many tweets can and do unite us in ways that were not possible before. Across time zones, across nations, across ethnicities, a name and a few words only, and something can and does change. Taken as a collective voice, not that of an individual. To that end, I cherish the idea of these updates, long-winded and brief, notes, links, images, 140 characters or less, and tiny urls helping us along the limping way. To that end I do what I can, which is to write. To that end I pass around what information I might. And to that end I share this passage from the Baldwin lecture. I said I went to this collection looking for the voice of someone I love. I firmly believe that it is in hearing and, in whatever way we can, in sharing the voices of the people we love that we are transformed as individuals and that we are brought together as a collective. I share this not hoping for peace but, rather, hoping against all odds for the lifting of many voices, any pen, whatever it is in our power to bring to make the noise it is in our power to make. Now. For if not now…
“I began by saying that one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person. And on the basis of the evidence – the moral and political evidence – one is compelled to say that this is a backward society. Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an impression of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them – I would try to make them know – that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal. I would try to make each child know that these things are the results of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him. I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that he is stronger than this conspiracy and that he must never make his peace with it. And that one of his weapons for refusing to make his peace with it and for destroying it depends on what he decides he is worth. I would teach him that there are currently very few standards in this country which are worth a man’s respect. That it is upto him to begin to change these standards for the sake of the life and the health of the country. I would suggest to him that the popular culture – as represented, for example, on television and in comic books and in movies – is based on fantasies created by very ill people, and he must be aware that these are fantasies that have nothing to do with reality. I would teach him that the press he reads is not as free as it says it is – and that he can do something about that, too. I would try to make him know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything that anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, and principally larger – and that it belongs to him. I would teach him that he doesn’t have to be bound by the expediencies of any given administration, any given policy, any given morality; that he has the right and the necessity to examine everything. I would try to show him that one has not learned anything about Castro when one says, He is a “Communist.” This is a way of his learning something about Castro, something about Cuba, something, in time, about the world. I would suggest to him that he is living, at the moment, in an enormous province. America is not the world and if America is going to become a nation, she must find a way – and this child must help her to find a way to use the tremendous potential and tremendous energy which this child represents. If this country does not find a way to use that energy, it will be destroyed by that energy.”
I have a good friend, a dear one who does all kinds of favors for me, practical ones and impractical outrageous ones. Mostly, she listens to me. She reminds me of home. Recently I had a chance to visit her where she now lives, both of us far from the place where we were born, very far from the convent we both attended, even further from much of our convent ethics. But some things never change.
I was moved when she stopped her car in the middle of traffic to give some money to a man on the street. I always think of the fact that I came here from another country, she said. I’ve worked hard, but look at how I live. I imagine what I’d feel like if I had to beg on the streets of Colombo. This is his country and yet he is on the streets.
She talked of other things, the various ways we come upon our circumstances, the addictions we all have, but only fell a few of us. She remained quiet, mostly, on such occasions, she told me, but she took exception to the way in which people condemn others. People who drop a coin in a cup and then walk on thinking what is the point, he’s going to drink anyway. We recalled the teaching handed down to us, the ones which tell us that it is the intention that matters, not the outcome. You give what you can and you remain separate from whatever the person chooses to do with what is given.
We stopped by a home to pick up “home” food, an American version of the buth packets we all like to buy now and again from various street vendors back home. These came in plastic containers, not steamed banana leaves or newspaper, but it tasted the same. As we walked out I noticed a Buddhist temple across the street. I asked her if we could visit, I hadn’t been inside a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple in a long time. The doors were shut but we went around the back and found the head priest sitting there. He offered to open the doors, but we demurred, stating that we were just passing by, had only stopped by on a whim. He gestured us to come in, then, with the palm of his hand, and we obliged, taking off our shoes, both of us sinking to the floor, our legs folded decorously, our palms together, heads bowed. He blessed us with the most familiar of the opening lines, the pirith falling gently in that open verendah, that hot afternoon. It was only as we stood to go and she addressed him the way that one might address a Catholic priest that I remembered that she was not Buddhist.
It warmed my heart, this moment when I remembered once again the way things are back home, where for most people like us, religion is not a crusade but a grace, faith something to acknowledge wherever it is manifested, no matter if it comes from within chapels adorned in stained glass, or temples where we kneel on sifted sand. We talked about that, too, as we left.
We spoke about our parents back home, her lost father, my lost mother. I remembered a visit back home when I was sitting in a parked car with my mother and other family, waiting for my father to return from some store. There was a man outside, begging, clothed in rags, emaciated, almost repulsive. My mother searched in her handbag for change to give him. The driver of the vehicle said what did it matter, he’s just an alcoholic or drug addict who will go and waste the money that is given. I, a new mother, said, almost to myself, he has a mother somewhere who never intended a life such as this for him. I remember my mother turning to me and saying, I am glad you have learned something, at least one thing, from me in this life. If she were alive she might be happier still to learn that what I emulated has been passed along, something I noted in this article when Osama bin Laden was murdered.
I told my friend that story. We talked on through the evening about those things we acquire from the people who raise us, the way they continue to look at the world through our eyes when they are gone, the way we continue to see through theirs in their absence.
In all the travels I have done with this book, nothing meant as much to me as being able to remember my home and our parents in this way with her.
It is rare for me to talk about my personal life as it pertains to my immediate family and I know that grates on some people. There’s a reason for that, explained perhaps most clearly in this article I wrote for The Debutante’s Ball upon the publication of my first novel. Every now and again, however, if it is important enough, I will speak of it, or, more importantly, of children. This is one of those times. Perhaps it is because I’ve been immersed in the history of these two peoples for so long, perhaps it is because I just read this piece on the US targetting of civilians in Iran, or because I listened to Omar Barghouti speak at the University of Pennsylvania last Tuesday.
This morning I had a conversation with my oldest daughter, she who is already one foot and half her heart out the door, she who is poised to leap off the tall building and take flight, safe in the knowledge that wherever she goes, no matter how far away and under what circumstances, a depthless store of love waits to welcome her back. It was a discussion about politics, but more importantly, about what it means to take a stand about an issue.
Some history. A month ago she had decided (this math and science child who talks about how she is not a writer – like you? oh my god! – yet is an editor of her high school newspaper), to write an opinion piece about Palestine. Needless to say she met with a lot of resistence all aimed at (a) whittling down the space she had to write, and (b) providing rebuttals. Given the many, unrelated, struggles she has had to overcome over the past several years, I eventually asked her as kindly as I could if she wanted to withdraw her article. I explained that she didn’t have to fight the battles I take on, that she was 16 years old and didn’t possess the knowledge that she needs to speak about this particular issue, and that life could become tough for her at her mostly Jewish high school. I explained, only half-jokingly, that one of our dearest friends had told me that he only began speaking out about this issue after he got tenure anddecided that he didn’t need any more friends. “If everybody did that nobody would say anything,” said she. Of course.
I’m an adoring mother but not an easy-going one. Thus it was that once she did her research and wrote that article and received the backlash I knew she would (before it even went to print), and when she hid in the bathroom because she was going to backtrack, and didn’t want to tell me, I held her feet to the literal fire. This is what it means, I told her, to speak out about something. You want to do it you better be sure you are going to stand your ground. Either you don’t speak, or you speak and refuse to be muzzled. It was an ugly morning, full of tantrums and tears including mine, though mine were private, shut up in a stall at a swim meet, where I cried for the weight of never knowing if what I say and do will make them stronger or imperil their lives. It is now February. The article appeared and was discussed in classrooms by the more enlightened teachers. The students in those classes greeted it with divergent opinions but were united in their appreciation for the research she had done and the courage she had displayed. Nothing she said was particularly controversial, and much of what she said I – and many Palestinian activists – would have trouble with. Nonethless, it seems, a “friend” of hers (whose previous effort was an attempt to block the formation of an Amnesty International chapter at the high school on grounds of anti-Semitism), launched an insidious attack on her – not under her own steam but that of her older brother, long gone from the high school.
So we had a talk this morning. The talk came full circle to what our responsibilities are when we choose to take on a cause. I don’t believe that her fellow editors are ill-intentioned, that theirs is a malicious attempt to thwart her, but thwarted she will be if she says nothing. I spoke again of our tenured friend, the one who has taken many difficult stands over this issue, a few of which have included the sacrifice of professional acclaim. Will she lose her editorship, she asked. I didn’t think so (and man, if she did I’d fight that battle to the bitter end). But it allowed me to mention what it is we talk about when we talk about taking on a cause. You cannot take on a cause and remain impervious to what the cause demands of you. You cannot take on a cause yet back down when it becomes uncomfortable for you personally. And perhaps more important to understand than both those things, is that every cause is bigger than the people who choose to speak for it and that the moment you speak, it is no longer about the stand or the personal risks you take, but about the people for whom you speak.
Omar Barghouti spoke last Tuesday about the PACBI and the need for American academics and artists to support the boycott of Israel. Several artists, including Alice Walker and Sarah Schulman have done so. Some others, like David Grossman, have called upon writers to join in the call for peace – a peace that may or may not be the peace desired by Palestinians who rightly point out that peace within a system where there are lesser humans and more perfect humans is no peace at all – and the text of the declaration makes assertions that are problematic at many levels, but at least they are refusing to remain silent.
I don’t know how this particular life lesson will play out for her. I am glad that she forego a chance to stay home and study for the ACTs or tend to half a dozen other academic demands, and accompanied me to U Penn last week. I am glad that though she rolled her eyes at me for being directionally challenged, and complained about the freezing cold, and uttered a disdainful “never!” to the young guy who walked us to our destination and asked her if she was considering Penn for college, she still sat and listened to that talk, and had the humility to reveal the depths of her ignorance by whispered questions (to me), about the most rudimentary of details.Perhaps she will determine that speaking out about difficult subjects – something this reserved child, so unlike her mother, has embraced, and for which I remain forever in awe, for it is harder for her than it is for me – is not the particular gift she has to give the world. Maybe this article will be the sum total of her contribution to this cause. But if it is, I hope it is not because she fears for her own physical or emotional comfort. For if that is the rationale, no matter how justified – given her youth and her commitments to multiple other areas of her life – I hope that she will ask herself this question: if she were a child in Jenin who had the choice to risk death by bouncing a rock off the hull of an approaching 66 ton Merkava whose driver has not been occasioned the opportunity to set much store by her humanity, or risk a degree of reprobation and perhaps even ostracism by speaking out against injustice at an elite American high school she will soon leave behind, which would she choose? Which would you?
This is a complicated topic for me so I’m going to mull rather than follow my usual M.O. and pronounce! I’m really interested in knowing what people think – and please, a real conversation, not a bandwagon holler from one POV or the other. I’d have written this as an op ed piece for one or more of the places where my writing usually appears, but I just didn’t feel as though I’d sorted things out enough myself to opine with any real clarity so here I am: thinking aloud more than saying anything definite, setting a few thoughts down.
From Elizabeth Wurtzel’s most recent nerve-irritating, naval-gazing rant on one end and the lifting of the ban on women in combat at the other, and Ann Sheybani’s musing on why men don’t want you to kick their ass, I’ve been dwelling on the matter of what it means to be female in America, a very different variety of female than is found, say, in Sri Lanka.
The Pentagon ruling, in particular, has made me think deeply about what is expected of women – which is very different from what they are physically capable of doing should the need arise. I acknowledge that there are some who agree with Loudon Wainwright III and the sentiments expressed in his classic, ‘Men,’ (listen below), but I wonder if they are the majority. Maybe they are.
NPR has a quick, five-point run down on the basics of the ruling here, so I won’t go into the technicalities around the decision, I am more interested in talking about what our collective consciousness is about women, particularly as it relates to their sense of worth and the realization of their potential.
I’ve been following the posts following Wurtzel’s piece on Facebook, where 40 something, serially heart-broken women claim she is articulating their particular angst, and where the vast majority of women simply want people like Wurtzel to quit whining about their bourgeois troubles. Elsewhere, there are people screaming about how women in combat positions will have to deal with having to relieve themselves in public, and others – mostly women already in combat – swearing that they have what it takes to fulfill their mission in the military.
In my piece for VQR on feminism I spoke about what it meant to grow up in a culture that expected everything from girls/women – an “everything” that was large enough to include both professional success and a joyous embrace of femininity. And though I take exception with some of what Ann Sheybani’s advocacy, (mostly because it is a predominantly heterosexual dealing with of our gender), I understand exactly what she is talking about. I can find a stool and climb up to fetch myself some vast tin of, say, olive oil from the upper reaches of a supermarket shelf, but I routinely glance around and ask for help from the nearest guy (or a taller woman). If I rent a car and cannot figure out the half a dozen new-fangled operations, I find a guy who can do it for me. A full 100% of the time the men to whom I turn for help oblige with charm and a certain self-conscious delight. I am pretty sure it is not that different from the happy feeling I get when a guy turns to me and says “which shirt do you think might look better with this tie?” When a man runs ahead to hold a door open for me and I turn to smile in thanks, I know there is a moment of mutual recognition that we are both playing a role that is as natural as breathing – where I am grateful for being cared for, and he is grateful for the ability to be a caregiver. And it lasts even if I keep walking on and hold the next door open for him.
We talk so much about the fact that there is violence perpetrated against women and yet we seem, as a culture, more often than not, to ask men not to treat us with any gentleness. To be saying, I can look after myself, you don’t need to. I wonder if this world view reduces us, more than it ever has before, to being simply bodies with female parts, rather than human beings with a feminine air, an air that softens the eye of the beholder and thereby protects us from the body with male parts?
Okay, so I know that all sounds very old-fashioned, Southern-belle, conservative, Republican – none of which I am, ack ack – but I hope that I’m getting close to getting at what I’m thinking here. And before somebody starts throwing the phrase “blame the victim” at me, let me categorically state that I am a strong advocate of all of our usual progressive causes surrounding violence against women in any form.
Some things to ponder: many American men of my generation married non-American women; many women of my generation remain terrifyingly accomplished, impeccably turned out, and alone; a disproportionate number of men end up unhappily married to dreadfully shallow women who are, nonetheless, undoubtedly female; the number of wonderful men married to equally wonderful women is alarmingly low. It’s a WTF moment. And it is particularly true for the young girls and boys whom we are raising right now, the ones who will go off into the future imagining that, somewhere down the line, they will be able to make the right partnership (whatever their sexual orientation), with the right person, that it will all just “happen” because it should, even though nearly everything we are teaching them to be right now stacks the odds against that eventuality.
I’m thinking also about two guys I know, Shann Ray, and Elliott Woods. Shann’s reflection on the women he is surrounded by, for Poets and Writers, captures some of the what I imagine “femaleness” means to a man. And Elliott (who served in the US military and has since returned to cover the war in its aftermath), and I have had many conversations about American masculinity, what has become of it, a conversation that skirts (sorry) the issue of what has become of American femininity. Both of these guys are men among men: solidly in thrall of women, appreciative of their immeasurable gifts and strengths, yet also aware of what they, as men, bring to the table, a warm, care-giving, courageousness that is as humble before fragility as it is brave before challenge.
It makes me think about war. About women heaving 200 pound men fallen in battle back to safety as a way of life, not in a time of dire necessity. About men fighting to “protect a homeland,” yet wondering (setting aside the political discussion of wars and invasions undertaken on a whim), what there is to protect if it is nothing more than themselves. It makes me think of the kids that Sonia Nazario speak of in her book Enrique’s Journey, the ones who say, repeatedly, “yes, she can send us money, but we’d rather have our mother with us here.” About what we create as a culture when we say all of can do everything, yet forget that if all of us do everything then there really is no need for the creation of meaningful relationships with each other, or for the establishment and nurturing of a collective community to which we bring what small or great part it is in us to bring to it.
It makes me think about an exchange with an old friend who has been undergoing a lot of turmoil who said, when I congratulated her on her strength, how tired she was of being strong, how ready she was to embrace that part of her that was fragile and have someone else (in this case her partner), carry her through the tough times. It makes me think of the junior prom, and the beautiful, smart, absolutely amazing girls who went alone, and the equally wonderful boys who also went alone, because the girls did not know how to let the boys know they cared about being asked, and the boys were too intimidated to do the asking of girls who never looked like they needed anything from anybody that they couldn’t get for themselves.
So there’s my thinking for this Sunday. How about you?
Cable came to our house only on the heels of a Phillies season that had to be watched. I still don’t know how to use it or what to watch. There was a time when the small resident thought that TV meant the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour. She and by then her sisters were quite possibly a handful of mites who watched nightly as a list scrolled on the screen at the end of the program, the names of those killed in the invasion of Iraq. I confess now that I, seeking relief from writing during lunch, often click it on and watch whatever happens to be available – usually re-runs of Old Christine and, presumably new episodes of What Not To Wear, while waiting for the ads to cease on CNBC or CNN.
Even before cable, though, a world of things I didn’t know existed had begun to occupy my headspace, though much of it has come belatedly. We watched ‘The Wire’ on Netflix, and I have come out as a zealot with regard to that show, in person and in a post here. Feel free to ridicule the statements made about Cable therein. More recently – thanks to a Roku Box – we’ve watched ‘Breaking Bad,’ and ‘Downton Abbey’ using the same device. So it seemed only natural that we should also take a look at another one of the shows that “people” rave about, ‘Homeland.’
Granted, with a title like that in the wake of the devastation caused to so many people both overseas and here by the administration that sent the country to war, and began to set up and fight strawmen here (see Amitava Kumar’s excellent article on the controversy of the Ground Zero community center for an example), under the guise of protecting the homeland, complete with the Dept. of Homeland Security, I knew some of what to expect. Still, I was disappointed and, worse, disgusted after watching the first three episodes last night.
Arab speakers and practicing Muslims as potential terrorists or just plain suspicious? Check. Long spells of full frontal female nudity that has nothing to do with anything? Check. Asinine rehashed plot? Check
It is hard to give any show that deals specifically with post-9/11 gung-ho terrorists-are-everywhere! scenarios a star rating after seeing Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’ Whether you are blown away by it and defend her depiction of torture like Manohla Dargis does for the NYT, or whether you are blown away and condemn her refusal to depict the full truth of it (that torture discloses next to nothing) as Matt Taibbi does for Rolling Stones, that movie has substance. It makes a person – particularly an American person – pause just a little, ponder the average yeah-man-let’s-kick-butt understanding of foreign policy.
As far as ‘Homeland’ the TV show is concerned, there is nothing to make me keep watching. Idiotic portrayals of people who look like they might be Arab-speakers? I see it all the time in the streets and public spaces of America, particularly airports. Rehashed plot? I’ve already seen ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’ Twice. Once with Frank Sinatra and once with Denzel Washington in lead roles. At roughly an hour and a half running time that’s a lot smarter way to spend my time. And breasts. I’ve got those covered in every sense of the word.
Pretty little is as loathsome to me as the exploitation of the naked female body to no greater purpose than to tittilate a population starved of imagination. Well, there’s the abuse of children, the glorification of drugs and Rush Limbaugh, but not by a great divide. McNulty had some good sex in ‘The Wire’ (with his wife, Elena, with his mistress, Ronnie Pearlman), but those scenes, few and far-between, were directly connected to his character as a skirt-chaser. Walt, in ‘Breaking Bad,’ has one sex scene with his wife, Jesse two with his now dead girlfriend. In three episodes of ‘Homeland’ there have been so many long pans of Morena Baccarin’s breasts that I wonder if the perkiness of her chest was the reason she was cast in this role, and it seems imperative that Melissa Benoist is displayed front and rear to full effect – let us not forget the girl-on-girl crotch swipe in this same scene – to no apparent purpose.
It made me think fondly of ‘Downton Abbey,’ where events that are anticipated and the subject of numerous episodes – the wedding between Mary and Matthew for instance – are not overdone. We know there’s a wedding, we see her heading out, and that’s it. No excruciating drag-out of the inevitable in dis-service to the viewing public. We’ve seen weddings, we know what happens, and unless there is something unusual happening at one – Edith jilted at the altar in ‘Downton Abbey,’ – there is no need to bash us over the head with it.
Perhaps it is because I write fiction and love to read books, and I’m acutely aware of over-telling and being over-told-to. There is such a thing as too much information and ‘Homeland’ – with regard to naked women, but also with regard to its prejudices – makes it quite clear that the writers underestimate the viewer. Who wants to be taken for someone whose intellectual capacity is that of the lowest common denominator, the insular, ignorant, porn-fed, American male? Not me.