Saturday, 16 September 2017

A True Story of Childhood

Today, Child had a swimming lesson. But rather than the usual lesson, where she is in a class of 5 5-ish-year-olds with 2 instructors, everyone was participating in a swim-a-thon today. The little ones, like her, were guided along the lane by a series of instructors placed every 5 or 6 meters. At the end of the pool was a man, standing by the ladder, helping them out. Then they walked back to the other end and did it all again. Repeat for 1/2 an hour.

Child was doing great, in spite of not having had lessons in months. Arms and legs a go-go, dodging splashy feet from others, grinning - you know, enjoying herself. I watched from the upstairs gallery for a while. Then I watched from a poolside window. Then I went into the locker room to wait for her to finish her final length.

She came triumphantly (I thought) smiling into the locker room, all teeth on show. I congratulated her on a job well done. I pointed out something specific I had seen her do. I asked her whether she felt more comfortable with arm bands or without. We walked to the showers. She kept grinning at me. Then she said.

"One of the teachers told me I should smile better, so look." She peeled her lips back for an enormous baring of the teeth. I stopped dead en route to the showers.

"Which teacher?"

"The man helping us out of the pool at the end."

Let me stop here for a hot minute. I - yes, I - have been catcalled a few times in my life. And luckily they've never been especially explicit. More along the lines of a honk from a truck driver or a strange man on the street saying "hello" in an overly friendly way. These have been mildly embarrassing, and do not in any way cause me long term distress. I have dodged the worst of what can come in this harassment. It does me no good whatsoever to try to untangle why that may be.

One thing which has NEVER happened to me is being told by a man to smile more. This experience, if the feminist internet is any indication, is practically de rigueur when coming of age. My total lack of encountering this particular harassment made me slightly skeptical of its apparent universality. But I will concede that I often laugh to myself when walking alone, probably appearing like a deranged character out of a horror film, so perhaps that puts them off encouraging more intense smiling.

So imagine my utter shock that my NOT-YET-5-YEAR-OLD was being told by a man who looked to be in excess of 45 to smile better. As I recovered my faculties and ushered her into the shower, I said to her, at full voice volume and with no attempt to be discreet in front of other mothers and daughters, "If anyone ever tells you to smile better again, you have my permission to tell them to shove it."

I helped her get dressed, and we left. On the way to the car, with absolute fury in my tone, I told her that she can smile just as much or as little as she likes and it's no one else's business, certainly not that teacher.

She was well delighted with being told that she could tell someone to shove it. So as we got in the car, I thought I'd better explain what had  just happened to her, lest she start cheerfully telling all and sundry to shove it. The following conversation ensued:

Me: Sometimes, Child, there are men and boys who think they're in charge of women and girls. They think they are in charge of deciding things like whether you smile enough, or whether you're pretty enough or smart enough...

Child, in utter indignation: WE ARE SMART ENOUGH!

Me: I know we are! We are. But some men and boys think they get to say whether we are or we aren't. And they are wrong. They don't get to decide that. We decide it for ourselves.

Child: I can smile as much or as little as I want.

Me: Yes. Yes yes. And it's very rude for someone to tell you that you ought to do it more. Sometimes, when they say it, it sounds like they're saying something nice. They might say, "You're so pretty when you smile. You should smile more." But you are pretty whether you smile or not. Because it doesn't have anything to do with what they think. Only with what you think. And that goes for feeling brave or strong or smart or anything else. So if someone says something rude to you about how you should change to look better, you can say something rude back. You can say, "SHOVE IT."

Child: I will. I will say, fudge it!

Me: Shove. Shove it.

Child: FUDGE IT!

At that point, I conceded that she could tell them whatever the hell she wants. As we carried on, I explained that not all men think this way or act this way. Daddy being a good example. She replied by saying how awesome it would be if she and I were Supergirls and Daddy was Superman. It would be awesome.

When we got home, Husband, being the modern liberated type, had just finished the housework. As we came in and ruined it, I told him what had happened. The look on his face. Thunderous doesn't even begin to describe it. He mouthed "What the fuck?" to me. I told him what I told her about shoving it. "FUDGE IT," she shrieked.

Fudge it.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

In Which I Await the Wrath of Fellow Feminists

Photo from user GallowBoob (aptly)

When I moved to Brooklyn some years ago, back when Dubya (now the beloved elder statesman!) was sending troops into Iraq again, I was taking the apartment of a friend of a friend of a friend who was moving home to save money (all very New York, thus far). When I came to see the apartment, as I was leaving she asked me if I was going to an anti-war demonstration at the UN later that week. When I said I wasn't, she was actually, literally agape. But it's important, she told me. I, being naturally politically difficult, asked her what was important about this particular demonstration. It just is, she told me like it was self evident. "There will be tons of people there."

And there it was. It was important but because lots of people were going. If lots were going, it was obviously important, and if it was important, lots would go.

I have never been a fan of protesting. Mostly this is because I feel it is used at the drop of the proverbial pussy hat in recent decades. I have what I term protest fatigue. I cannot, genuinely cannot, figure out what the truly important issues are to people anymore. Everything seems to warrant the same level of outrage.

Once upon a time, public demonstration happened rather rarely, and it was always dangerous. Violence at the hands of the police or military or bystanders was a given. If you marched, it was because there literally was no longer any other thing to be done to solve a particular problem - it could not be solved through normal democracy or the exercise of rights. It was a march in a very martial sense, heading to battle, even if you the foot soldier of your cause armed yourself with nothing more than your own words. Think of early labor regulations, women's suffrage, civil rights, the Vietnam War draft. These were moments in history when protest was a last act of desperation for a group that had nothing left to lose. And each group had a specific goal in mind and ideas on how to achieve that goal.

Lest you believe I am glorifying some kind of golden age of protesting, let me make clear: I would not return to times such as these, to an America full of large swathes of people who are unable to make the changes they want to see because of constant, conscious, deliberate dehumanization.

Are there groups of people in America who face systematic discrimination: yes. But I believe, rather unpopularly, that protest no longer holds the power it once held, and it is because it is wielded so often, and often by groups with lots of other recourse to creating change, and, I'm sorry to say it, so often incompetently. It has become difficult to take seriously, and it is even harder to pick out which protest deserves real attention from government.

I didn't march in the Women's March last week, and not just because I wasn't in the US. I wouldn't have marched there either. Here's where I trot out my credentials: I am a feminist, an intersectional one, and I have always been one. But I am also - very unpopularly amongst my fellow feminists - highly critical of feminism. Indeed, I think it is important to be so, and the Women's March in many ways illustrates why.

Intersectional feminism is a philosophy that connects all oppression. We all understand that oppression is about keeping power in the hands of some at the expense of the rest. We all innately understand who the some in power are: men. It is in the skeleton of our very language, a ribbon running through our social interactions and our assumptions about everyone we meet. It's just there, there is no point in debating it (although feel free to engage me in this conversation if you really want). Wresting that power out of the hands of the few and giving it to the many is a hard job, an act of attrition, a labor of devotion that lasts lifetimes and will probably never end completely. And yet feminists continue to chip away at this pointless construct in an attempt to improve lives.

What intersectional feminism isn't is a political party. And since it's not a political party, it doesn't have a political agenda. That might be a surprise to people. But it's true. Feminists, like any group of philosophers, cannot agree exactly on how their philosophy should manifest in real life: what equality is or should be or how it should or can be achieved or even what a feminist act is. Some people believe wearing a hijab can be a feminist act while others believe it never can be. Some feminists are pro-choice and some are pro-life. Some think all sex work is exploitation and some believe it to be empowering. The list goes on and on.

Knowing this, I couldn't help but feel a giant "Whyyyyyyyyyy" forming in my mind upon first hearing about the Women's March. It's slightly facetious. I know why. Women are angry at Trump for his disgusting remarks about women's bodies, his bizarre commentary on his own daughters, his apparent encouragement of sexual assault. The man is clearly a misogynist. It could not be clearer that however many women he employs, he believes them as a group to be inferior to men, items for men to control. It's gross. Women are right to be mad about it! Women want to show their anger. They want to believe other women feel angry. They want a reckoning for this offense, a release valve to vent their spleens. So they come together to demonstrate. So far fine - a social event essentially. But then the organizers predictably trotted out a political agenda, which anyone could see coming a mile away, and which was the cause of my existential dread.

The problem herein lies with the fact that feminism is not a political platform, as stated above. Immediately there were accusations of exclusion, there were criticisms of Linda Sarsour's hijab, etc. And the organizers couldn't - and I mean that literally, they were unable because of the very nature of feminism - settle on a single, focused political point to get their full and formidable weight behind - think of all those millions of people across the world! Instead they had to disburse their influence across many complaints with the Trump administration. All perhaps valid complaints, even, but so many of them at once that they were all drowned in the cacophony. And in the end the biggest takeaway from this historic event was that women are fucking savage sign makers. I mean there were some absolute corkers.

Meanwhile, while everyone has patted themselves on the back for a cracking good march (so many people! It must have been very important!) Trump has merrily signed his name to executive orders cutting funding to interantional NGOs providing women's health services if that includes abortion services, destroying an international trade agreement with plans to destroy others, stopping the hiring of desperately needed federal employees at places like the VA, which serves the nation's soldiers healing the physical and psychic wounds of war and giving them jobs to come to when they leave the service, limiting immigration from countries full of people desperate for the hope that comes with a ticket to America. He has hamstrung the ability of the nation's scientists to disseminate data unmanipulated by political interference. And throughout it all the only commentary about the Women's March from his people is to quibble over how many people were there. Trump is not the type of person to hear criticism and think, "Hm, maybe this needs further thought before I act." He's the type to say, "Fuck 'em."

So yes the march was perhaps a much needed spleen vent. And it perhaps brought a touch of hope to those who felt like the world was ending last week. But it also acted as a handy press distraction for an administration hell bent on doing and undoing as much as possible as quickly as possible before anyone can catch their breath.

So if you want to make real change, if you want not to be marching again in 50 years like the woman in the picture above, you'd better catch yours, quick.

Monday, 16 January 2017

On the Eve of a Trump Presidency

This week, we will find out what happens when Donald Trump becomes President of the United States. We all think we know. We all have an idea of what we believe will happen. But truthfully, for probably the first time since the very earliest days of the country, we have very little idea of what to expect from the government over the next 4 years. We have an incoming president whose main selling point during the election was that he has a complete lack of interest in diplomacy or in understanding contrasting points of view. I'm not even convinced that any of what he promised during the election was anything he strongly believed in so much as it was repeating whatever got the biggest roar from the crowd.

This particular election was so ugly, truly ugly, that I'm not surprised that people's reactions afterward are so steeped in disgust. I'm not really convinced that it would have been better in that regard if Clinton had won. It feels like people - across the political spectrum - have just been angry at everything, but very few are willing to try to actually pick apart the problems and solve them. It feels like people want to be right, at the cost of executing actual change.

So I have two challenges in 2017 for my friends and family who voted. Do you want to create a better society? Really? Or do you just want to complain about it? You, no matter how helpless you feel, can do one very small thing to enact the changes you want, no matter who you are and no matter where you fall on the spectrum. But for the sake of this exercise, I'm going to divide everyone into Trump voters and non-Trump voters.

TRUMP VOTERS - Many of you, I'm sure have felt the need to justify your vote since the election, and to trot out your credentials as a non-bigot of one sort or another. So, I'm asking you to put your money where your mouth is. I challenge you to spend at least 1 day this year volunteering for an organization in your community that serves a marginalized group that you keep telling everyone you don't mind. Easy, right? After all, you don't have anything against these people!

You don't have a problem with the gayz? Sweet. Now you can prove it to yourself and everyone else by spending a day helping out at charity that serves vulnerable LGBT youth, like The Trevor Project or the True Colors Fund .

Never had a problem with anyone who believes in god, even if they aren't the same religion as you? Excellent. Head on down to your local synagogue, mosque, Sikh or Hindu temple or any other place of worship that isn't your usual haunt and ask if you can help out their community in some way. They serve their communities in pretty much the exact same way as any Christian church would - food pantries, providing yard services to the elderly, having social days for various community members, etc. Think your town doesn't have a religious minority? Guess again - even if your exact town doesn't, a nearby one will. Get thee to a nunnery, or the equivalent in whatever religious group you're going to work with, and start helping out.

Are some of your best friends [insert racial minority here]? Well then, you won't have any problem whatsoever helping others from their community to get ahead in life. Check out The Committee for Hispanic Children and Families for ideas on how to help. Or plan a fundraiser for the Jack and Jill Foundation. Or look up what's happening locally to help racial minority groups near you. Google, people. It's so easy.

Think women are perfectly capable of handling any job a man can do? Good. Now help the next generation of women prove it to the naysayers. If you've got a talent for computers, start a Girls Who Code club in your community or volunteer with an already established one. Or mentor a girl from a disadvantaged community to help her realize a brighter future with Step Up.

You get the idea. Do it. Show everyone what a caring, inclusive, non-bigot you are.

NON-TRUMP VOTERS - You're not off the hook. Get on the phone, email, write a letter and let your Congressperson know right now that having a temper tantrum and refusing to work because the new boss is an idiot is NOT HOW SHIT GETS DONE. It's how - leftwing buzzword coming up - silos get created. If your representative has publicly stated that they:

  • are boycotting the inauguration
  • refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Trump presidency
  • aren't going to work with Republicans for the next 4 years unless they disavow their democratically elected leader
  • are unable to bring themselves to discuss anything with the incoming adminstration
  • just can't even

then you tell them that their job, the job they've been elected and are paid to do by YOU, is to suck it up and get in there and represent all the things you care about to this muppet. It's their job to ensure that Trump and his advisors are unable to ignore the problems that people like you care about. If your representative won't engage with the incoming administration, then your representative isn't able to deliver the things they promised to do for their constituents: you. So let them know that they'd better put away the duvet, take a damn shower, and get out there and work for you and for the sake of the country. It's going to be a difficult 4 years, make no mistake. But if they don't do their job, then Trump gets to enact all the terrible legislation he wants or thinks he wants without any proper opposition. Now is not the time to hide and hope it goes away. Now is the time to stand up and ensure that the spirit of the USA, the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the ridiculous optimism that has been the hallmark of American culture for so long aren't trampled to dust because of one cotton candy-headed prune and his shouty little mouth.

Don't let him do this without making it a proper fight. Don't let your representative hand over power by doing nothing.