Saturday, February 19, 2011

More fun with sales representatives.

This would have annoyed me far less if:

1) I had not spent two hours on the phone over the last two days with Travelocity, trying to get tickets reissued; and

2) I had not spent a lot of time last night and this morning (unsuccessfully) trying to get Verizon's live chat to start.

Mr. PF thinks I am being mean. I think I am finding humor in an otherwise extremely frustrating situation - no meanness intended (I worked as a telemarketer - I am never mean to people who do phone/internet sales).


Please wait for a Chat Representative to respond.

Thank you for contacting Verizon Wireless. My name is 'K', how may I assist you?

PF: I would like to find out about canceling my mobile broadband service. I set this up for my parents, and they have decided to purchase service through their phone company. Am I correct that the current billing cycle runs through March 12?

K: I will be happy to give you info on canceling a line.

K: To cancel here is your contacts to cancel and the fee to cancel before the contacts. $145.00/ (06/15/2012)

PF: (?) I'm not sure what you mean by "your contacts to cancel"?

K: I am sorry I mean contract*

PF: ... (what the heck?) (lightbulb clicks on)

PF: Oh, ok - so, the contract ends 6/15/12 and the penalty to cancel before then is $145.

K: That is correct.

PF: So I can arrange to cancel as of March 12?

PF: Or whatever date is the last day in this billing cycle? (second time asking that question - still no answer...)

K: You can cancel the line for no fee at the contract date.

K: 6/15/12

PF: (WTF?)

PF: (assumes patient "voice") I understand. What I'd like to do, though, is pay the fee and cancel the line at the close of the current billing cycle, so that I do not have to pay the monthly fee after this month. (holy crap.)

K: I am sorry to here that you want to cancel a line. If you want to cancel a line you will need to call into Customer Care at 800-922-0204 option 0. You can also call from your handset by dialing *611 option 0.

K: Is this ok?

PF: (fucking NO, it is not ok. Why couldn't you have just said that at the beginning of this little exchange?!)

PF: OK, thank you for your help.

K: Do you have anything else to assist with?

PF: No, thanks. (I'm not getting much assistance, anyway.)

K: I am glad I was able to give you info on the contract date, you were amazing.

PF: (you have no idea.)

K: Thank you for chatting with us today. I look forward to chatting with you again.

PF: (headdesk)

Friday, February 18, 2011

More on Egyptian Women's Organizing.

Following up on my post from yesterday, I want to share this article that my colleague sent me. It challenges both Chesler's and my own assumptions about Egyptian women's organizing. I underestimated Egyptian women's interest in mobilizing for full representation in government and for dismantling patriarchy. Chesler assumed that women wearing hijab was in itself a symptom of their oppression, and that women were not fundamentally involved in the Egyptian revolution, and that they were not mobilizing in the ways noted above.

Here is the article, which you can also link to above:

Women revolutionaries hope for greater say in post-Mubarak Egypt
Jenna Krajeski

In the days following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians have begun to outline the characteristics of their ideal country. The “New Egypt” will be clean, it will lack discrimination, it will be corruption-free. The initiative is the beginning of a push for specific demands that were secondary to the removal of Mubarak during the 18 days of protests, and they signify the indomitable idealism and forward-thinking mentality of triumphant anti-government protesters.

Among these demands are women’s rights--a list including lack of sexual harassment, equal pay in the workplace, and representation in the government that were not articulated during the protests in spite of significant female participation. But will the unity--expressed in favor of specific women’s rights--exhibited during the protests themselves hurt women in their push for equality in a post-Mubarak Egypt?

The protests in Tahrir were an “incredible time” for women, according to Amal Abdel Hady of the New Woman Foundation, a nonprofit women’s rights group. The women in the square “represented all generations and social classes.” Still, Abdel Hady noticed that the media did not pay as much attention to them as they did to the men, leading to the perception that young men led the Egyptian revolution, with the female presence remarkable but less important. And “never mind the Egyptian media,” she said, which barely represented the reality on the ground, never mind the strong female role.

Abdel Hady is not the only one who noticed such discrepancies. Her colleague at the New Woman Foundation, Nawla Darwish, worries that because women were not organized during the protests, with specific rights in mind, women will not be served well in post-Mubarak Egypt. Historically, she told Al-Masry Al-Youm, women are commended for their participation in revolutions and then told to go home. Such a thing occurred in Egypt in the 1919 revolution, when women, who came out strongly against colonial rule, were largely ignored by the ruling Wafd Party. Is misogyny a stronger foe than Mubarak?

“We are living in a patriarchal society,” she said. And the values therein are strong enough to withstand even the groundbreaking protests of the 25 January revolution. The tokenism apparent in the representation of women in the Mubarak regime must be counteracted by a strong female presence even now that protests have subsided. The New Woman Foundation is working to collect testimonials from the women who participated in the protests, both as evidence and as a way to get women--many of whom had never been politically active before--to continue their involvement.

Nehad Abou El Komsan, chairwoman of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, likewise lamented the representation, or lack thereof, of women’s involvement in the protests in news media, both local and international. “The culture of society makes people blind,” she told Al-Masry Al-Youm. Now that the protests are over and many different people are vying for political influence, “we must document the participation of women, not just perception or opinion,” Abou El Komsan added. “We must lobby for participation of women in all committees and procedures,” leading up to and during the elections and the promised revision of Egypt's national charter. No group now--not even those led by young people--are proactively making room for a female voice.

Whether or not women will have a larger role politically and socially in a post-Mubarak Egypt--and whether such a country will be more open to their rights--remains to be seen. Iman Bibars, the 60-year-old chairperson of the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women, ran for parliament as an independent candidate in 2005. Her experience went beyond mere disillusionment. NDP officials and security threw out 3000 of the 5,920 ballots in her favor, she says, and prevented countless numbers of her supporters from voting at all.

This “bleak, oppressive” and unabashed display of their own corruption may have led to the downfall of the NDP, Bibars says. But the rights activist and former politician (who was, for a brief time, an NDP party member), who ran on a platform for the support of marginalized and impoverished Egyptians, as well as women’s rights, does not plan to run again. Instead, she told Al-Masry Al-Youm, the young people who led the protests should also lead the new government. Bibars admits that, during the revolution, she “was a follower, not a leader.” The young people, she says, “insisted, and they won--we should be there to support them.”

But the young people have so far made little effort to include women in their committees following the revolution. Abou El Komsan noted that out of 27 young people interviewed by talk show host Mona al-Shazly following Mubarak’s resignation, only one was a woman. This ratio is closer to the pathetic quota established by the Mubarak regime than it is to the inspiring turnout seen during the protests--and does not bode well for a strong female voice in the new government.

Women need to continue to speak out--for their own rights, in addition to the solidarity of the Egyptian people. Egyptian feminists are hopeful, but, as Abdel Hady said: “We are happy. But no sane person would be not worried.”

Stay tuned: Coming up next, a blog post on the difference between resistance feminism and submissive feminism and why the failure on the part of the first to recognize the second can screw up any hope of global alliance among feminists. This post will owe everything to Dr. Smadar Lavie.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Western Feminism Sucks (or, Phyllis Chesler's misreading of Egypt)

I received an email from The Phyllis Chesler Organization, perhaps because they got my name from another listserv I'm on or a professional organization that I belong to. I admit to being shocked, though perhaps not surprised, by the email, which linked to this blog post: "Is the Arab Middle East Really Ready for a True Revolution?"

I think we can all see where this is going just from the title, hmm? But let's talk about it, anyway.

Chesler writes:
Is the Arab Middle East really ready for a true revolution? A genuine uprising in the Muslim world which does not focus on the issue of women’s rights is not much of an uprising and does not bode well for a true democracy, one defined by the rule of law, a constitutional system of checks and balances, a separation of mosque and state, freedom of religion, a free press, universal education, individual human rights and freedom.

I thought this was particularly interesting given the ENORMOUS involvement of women in the recent Egyptian revolution. This is the first problem with Western feminism: it consistently tries to define for everyone, everywhere, what "women's rights" are. Silly me - I thought that not having a dictator for a leader would be one of those rights of women - along with participating in a "true democracy" by forcing the bum out. And if we look a little deeper, we remember that Egypt is a country whose highly-educated, professional, working women led the struggle for an Islamic, patriarchal society, one in which they are better protected from gropings on the street and public transportation, and one in which they have access to health care, day care, etc., unlike the society they lived in previously that evidenced a separation of mosque and state. (I'll stop here because my knowledge of Egypt is minimal. This paragraph comes from my notes from a recent lecture on Islamist Feminism in Egypt by a well-regarded scholar on this very issue (whose information I will trust over Chesler's).)

Further, I found myself bristling at Chesler's implication that the Middle Eastern revolutions that have been happening recently are somehow fake and not revolutions at all. While I do understand her point in suggesting that women's liberation would be another, necessary, kind of revolution, it is unfortunate that she uses such dismissive language to talk about something that has been so important to men and women all over the world.

Moving on:

Miraculously, amazingly, a Saudi woman or a number of Saudi women have just launched a new and fabulous Facebook page. They call it Saudi Women Revolution. It features a white smurf-like figure joyfully throwing off her chains and has links to the Saudi women’s drive-in and to campaigns against child brides.

They are talking about arranging meetings in Jeddah and Riyadh.

Given what they know can happen to them: divorce, loss of custody, being honor murdered by their families, jail, torture (flogging), and murder (beheading, stoning), I must congratulate them for their awe-inspiring bravery. Alas, we do not have such brave women here.

I think it is great, as well, that Saudi women are launching a Facebook Revolution (though by no stretch of the imagination is the figure on the page a "smurf-like figure"). However, the above excerpt, taken as a whole, seems somewhat patronizing to me. I'm not sure why, exactly, but it has something to do with the last sentence - the notion that Saudi women are terrifically different from women in the West, that they are braver, better, stronger. (Where have we heard that before? Isn't what people say about those whose lives they could never imagine living? It's what White women have said to Black women, what Western feminists say to feminists of the Global South (not sure that makes geographical sense - I might not be using that correctly), what able-bodied people say to people with disabilities. It's not a good thing to say.)

It's also not true that there are no women "here" who are as brave, but perhaps that's an argument to get into at another time. I will simply say that such a statement smacks of romanticization.

Chesler goes on to detail heroic acts by Saudi women in the face of repression, punishment, and murder. She's right to note these acts. However, I wish that she would refrain from using language such as Saudi (and Iranian) feminists stir my imagination. They live as if they know that heroism is their only alternative. The first sentence presents Saudi and Iranian feminists (do they all call themselves "feminists", incidently? It is not appropriate to apply this label to other people who do not claim it themselves) as if they are important because of the impact they have on Chesler. And the second sentence is more of what I've said above - taking what is a life that has to be lived a particular way and making it into an extraordinary life because it seems so impossible to the viewer. The viewer's own beliefs and what they understand to be "reality" and "normalcy" figure heavily in this telling, so that the focus is less on the women and what they are doing and more on what Chesler thinks about them.

And at bottom, what bothers me about this piece is really the way that this story is about Chesler telling it. There are other ways to write about these women. Nowhere in the article does Chesler link to any organizations (other than the Facebook page)...or reference Middle Eastern writers...or place this movement into a larger context of women's reform movements in Middle Eastern countries. Chesler does a good job of sketching for us the dangers of challenging authority, and she gives us a sense of some of the challenges that have come before. Had she done more of this, had she talked more about the ways in which women covertly or overtly challenge authority, this piece would not feel that it is more about Chesler's feelings about these revolutionary women than it is about their accomplishments.

There is some of the same on the Saudi Women Revolution Facebook page. One presumably Western woman writes, "The world will know that all women will be free. America is next. We are behind you, my sisters." America is NEXT? Really? Does anyone else wonder what Saudi women might think about this comment posted on their Facebook page, apparently equating the struggles that American and Saudi women face? Another (Canadian) woman writes: "...I need to be able to read this! Please translate." Perhaps I am making assumptions, but why does she "need" to read what Saudi women are writing to each other? And why do they need to take time out of their revolution to translate?

I am skeptical of Western feminist discussions of Saudi and other Middle Eastern women's revolutions. It wasn't that long ago, remember, that Western feminists were leading the charge to bomb the shit out of Afghanistan, while Afghan women begged us not to. Western feminists - not all of them, but enough - continue to see Islam as always an oppressive force in women's lives rather than understanding the role of culture rather than religion in dictating women's repression or freedom. Now, I don't doubt Chesler's sincerity - or, for that matter, the sincerity of the other women posting on Facebook. However, being true allies means treating each other with respect and allowing each other to define our own issues. It means continuing to respect each other when we disagree. It means not singling out only those women who appear to fit the definition of Western feminism as the true revolutionaries.

I thought that perhaps I was being too hard on Chesler. But then, I went to her site and read this. So, Chesler believes that women have not been as involved in the revolution in Egypt as they might have been - which is simply untrue, though the West did not run these stories and picture. She believes that their wearing of hijab is, in itself, oppressive and that it is the decision of the men in their families, though this is historically not the case in Egypt. And she reads photos of women in hijab in very powerful poses as, instead, women being oppressed and weak and in danger. This is more than Western feminist ignorance - it is Western feminist Islamophobic ignorance, and an almost willful misreading.

Further Epilogue:
I foolishly did not realize that Chesler was part of the David Horowitz Freedom Center. Horowitz's gang of thugs does not represent mainstream (or radical) feminism - in fact, it tends to see feminism of any kind as part of a left-wing indoctrination conspiracy aimed at brainwashing college students. For the last few years, though, it has seemed to focus its efforts on fanning the flames of Islamophobia, as is quite evident from the other items on the site (and from the comments on those "articles"). Even so, I would not be surprised to find other feminists making the same claims that Chesler makes. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I don't know if I've been living in the midwest for too long...

...or if this publication has become more confrontational than it was ten years ago. I definitely felt more defensive when I started reading it today than I used to when I read it a decade or so ago, but of course that means reading it is a good opportunity for me to learn something.

Anyway, forgive my navel-gazing above and please check out the link to Race Traitor. I do think that there are some problems with this kind of approach, depending on what it is you want to accomplish, but then again, I always find their writing instructive and inspiring, and it reminds me both of the urgency of anti-racist work and also that doing the work necessitates struggle. It isn't supposed to be easy. If it were easy, it'd be done.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Vagina Monologues and Transwomen

I try not to write here without first checking my facts, but this is going to be a kind of second-hand thing because I don't have access to the script I want to write about.

For the second year in a row, my students did a production of the Vagina Monologues, and they did an AWESOME job - it was completely student-run, student-directed, student-produced. This year, the director and I talked about the possibility of including the piece from a transwoman's perspective, "They Beat the Boy out of My Girl." I have not seen this piece, so I can't comment on it, but we were both glad that the Monologues have become more inclusive over the years of different perspectives around vaginas and that at least one trans voice has been added to the production.

However, according to the director (I did not have access to the V-Day scripts this year), this piece is only to be performed by a transwoman. I am guessing that this is to ensure that the piece does not turn into a mockery or a disrespectful portrayal, and that makes sense. At the same time, it is problematic for a college production, especially a small college at which there may be only one out trans student - or, perhaps, none. On such a campus, the question becomes whether to include a transwoman's voice or to leave her voice out. On such a campus, asking an out transwoman to perform this piece may cause her to be out in ways that she had not intended to be, and may suggest to the audience that the written script is, indeed, her own story. Asking a transwoman who is not out to perform, of course, puts her at risk of outing herself.

Other stories in the Monologues are performed across race, age, and other identities. The most problematic one for me is the birth monologue, simply because I often have the feeling that the performers have not witnessed a birth or given birth and that they are missing the significance of portions of the piece - and this sense of not being true to the meaning of the monologue is, in part, what I suspect Ensler wants to avoid when she says that only transwomen may perform the transwoman monologue. But I've seen pieces clearly written in a "Black voice" performed well and respectfully by White women; pieces written for lesbians performed well and respectfully by straight women; pieces written for survivors of sexual slavery performed well and respectfully by women who have never had these experiences.

I have no doubt that these parameters have been drawn to protect transwomen, and after reading that activist Andrea James is one of the people whose interviews inspired Eve Ensler to write this piece, I would even assume that transwomen were consulted about this policy. However, it does not work for all campuses, and as Ensler does not allow productions that add any new works, it seems likely that many campuses will decide to write and produce their own Monologues in an effort to include more and varied voices.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Devolution of BRAVO.

First, I have to ask: do you remember when Bravo portrayed itself as an arts network? That showed fine arts performances? That's where James Lipton's show came in, and they used to have art films, even, I think. And then slowly, very slowly, some reality shows would creep in, but they were always very clearly tongue-in-cheek, an opportunity for the educated elites to make fun of and be horrified by the stage mothers whose daughters compete in beauty pageants and that sort of thing. It was very clear that these occasional shows were MAKING FUN OF the people who consented to be on them, and because it was hard back then, in the earlier part of the first decade of this century, to imagine that anyone would really want to be on reality t.v. (other than very young people who hadn't figured out yet that what they put on the internet was permanent), it seemed ok to laugh at and be horrified by them.

And then, at some point, Bravo reinvented itself. It was no longer interested in the arts, although it let James Lipton keep his show because Lipton's leers and naked desire to be as sexy as his young male guests was something the audience could laugh at and be horrified by. Also, watching the actors talk about real things (as opposed to posing and trying to be cool on late night talk shows) was kind of fun, especially in the early years when they had serious, accomplished actors on the show rather than folks like Roseanne Barr, the cast of The Simpsons, Bon Jovi, and other performers who somehow seemed to bring down the level of the show.

Even though the network kept moving more and more in the direction of reality t.v. and offered less and less quality programming, the first episode of The Real Housewives franchise - in fact, that whole first season - continued to poke fun at the reality stars. It was clear that TRHs were women we should not take seriously, that their ostentatious wealth and plastic looks were presented as a farce. In the first reunion shows, Andy Cohen was clearly making fun of these women, and I even felt a little sorry for them because they thought that they were adored and admired, while we were really laughing. It didn't make me feel good to watch real people and behave this way. I felt like we were setting them up, but the show was addictive, and it was hard to look away.

However, now we are in quite a different situation. TRH franchise has changed its perspective, building an audience that loves - or hates - the characters, but that always takes them seriously. Andy Cohen has come out from behind the camera and is now part of the entertainment. No longer do we laugh so openly because the show no longer presents the women as a joke. Funny, yes, at times - but their ridiculous lifestyles are often taken for granted. We might think it's insane that Taylor spent over $50K on her little girl's birthday party, but it's not something we fixate on. We are more concerned about whether or not her husband deserves her. If we like a character, we are less likely to mind their obscene wealth or to think about how many people could be fed with the money they spent on handbags. We used to make these comparisons. When Teresa, who thinks it is icky to live in a house that someone else lived in previously, "writes" a cookbook, no one thinks, "hey, this chick knocks over tables and picks fights - she's unbalanced and has a mean streak and should not be a role model." Instead, her book becomes a best seller (despite the fact that she thinks "whole wheat" means "wholly made of wheat" (I am not kidding - look at her discussion of pasta in the beginning of the book). There are any number of women viewers who would be happy to curse me out for daring to criticize Teresa. Meanwhile, Andy has become a sort of charming (or annoying, depending on your perspective) referee who pops up at the end of the season (and in his own show on which he invites celebrities and RH cast members to talk about which RH they love or hate. However, he now takes the women seriously. I suppose this is preferable to tricking them into appearing in order to be made into a national laughingstock, but it reflects the reality that the viewing public also seems to take them seriously, to relate to them, to think of them as celebrities they can reach out and talk to (and they do - and unlike real celebrities, these women are much more accessible to their fans).

Meanwhile, Luann is doing a cameo on some crime drama; NeNe is trying to make a go of (poorly) interviewing celebrities; everyone and their dog is releasing singles. As a recent blog by a Bravo crew member noted, TRH franchise is about fantasy; Bravo is no longer showing us how distasteful conspicuous consumption is, but they are now packaging it as acceptable because, really, viewers, wouldn't you like to hang out with these lovely, interesting, rich ladies? And what is talent, anyway, when it comes to acting or singing? Isn't it really just about celebrity and marketing?

It is a long, long way from an arts network. A long, long way.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The DFL and Me

This may be one of those situations that, if it were happening outside the U.S., would make me an Ugly American. I'm not sure. But let me preface this by saying that I've figure out how to vote in a few states - New York, Connecticut, and South Dakota - before I got to Minnesota. Each state has its own way of doing things - some states have you register to vote when you get your driver's license, and some states have helpful "how to vote" informative websites. I realize that election procedures are not consistent across state lines.

But I have to say that voting in Minnesota is unnecessarily confusing. Here, we have caucuses, and I've lived here for over three years, and I still don't know what the hell I am supposed to do at a caucus. I just want to go, vote, and come home. However, I admit that I would like to know what the caucus thing is all about. Once or twice, I tried to look it up on the state website, but I wasn't able to find enough information to fully explain it. So, when the DFL (and that's another thing - what's wrong with "Democrat"? Why do they have to be some special kind of Democrat unique to Minnesota?) called me last week to encourage me to attend the caucus, I thought, "wow, this is a great opportunity," and told the guy that I'd really like to understand what the heck a caucus was and how it worked and what I was supposed to do, and I asked if there was anyplace online where I could find that information. He acknowledged that, no, there really wasn't that kind of information online. He suggested that I could find out how it worked by going to a caucus. I pointed out that if they really wanted to encourage people to show up, they might consider making the process more transparent. He did not sound interested.

Now, all this time, I was really going nuts trying to understand why the DFL wasn't thinking about how to open up the process for new voters, particularly those of us from out of state. I was thinking, of course, about low voter turnout, assuming that this national problem was also an issue for the State of Minnesota. But I was wrong - somehow, with it's mystifying voting process, Minnesota still has unusually high voter turnout - nearly 80% in the 2008 national election, according to Wikipedia. So perhaps the DFL just doesn't need my vote?

Needless to say, I did not attend the caucus.

And reading this back over, I realize what I sound like: an angry New Yorker.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Mississippi Masala and telling the difference between Indian characters.

Some of you might remember this film by Mira Nair from the early '90s. I keep coming back to it because, despite the lack of chemistry between Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury, it is a beautiful film. I have taught it before, and I am teaching it again after several years, and so I have been doing a little research on the history of Asian Indians in Uganda and in the American South. In the process, I found a couple of interviews with Mira Nair, and that made me interested in seeing what some of the actors thought of the film - especially given the lack of chemistry I mentioned above.

But I ended up finding something extraordinary, something altogether else. I found a couple of reviews by people who seem to have no clue how to differentiate between the characters of the film - and this is interesting given that there are no main white characters. Hmm.

What is particularly disappointing about this inability to tell one Indian character from another is that Roger Ebert is one of the reviewers. He writes: "The story continues in Greenwood, Miss., where the lawyer and his wife (Roshan Seth and Sharmila Tagore) own a shabby roadside motel." Um, no. It is made quite clear at several points in the film that the hotel is owned by their extended family who are doing them a favor by allowing them to live there. The lawyer and his wife, in fact, own a liquor store. That is also repeated several times. Ebert writes: "Within her own community, she [Mina] is considered too dark-skinned to make a desirable wife (her mother explains that if you want to catch a husband, you can be dark and rich, or light and poor, but not dark and poor)." In fact, it is not Mina's mother who says this, but the filmmaker herself, Mira Nair, in a cameo. Nair has three or four lines in the film; Sharmila Tagore, who plays Mina's mother, appears quite frequently and looks nothing like Nair. In fact, the two characters are at odds, with Nair's character saying nasty things about Tagore's character and Mina.

Surprisingly, The New York Times, too, seemed to have trouble telling the characters apart. Vincent Canby writes: "Near the beginning of Mira Nair's sweetly pungent new comedy, "Mississippi Masala," Mina (Sarita Choudhury) is driving a large, borrowed American automobile down a highway near Greenwood, Miss., arguing with her mother, who sits imperially in the back. Mina drives with the hapless self-assurance of someone who doesn't often get behind a wheel." In fact, it is not Mina's mother in the backseat but an aunt or other relative who does not speak English. Mina's mother speaks English for the entirety of the film, and also looks nothing like the actress in this scene.

Now, I admit that I have seen this film a minimum of 10-12 times, but even so - it makes me wonder why these reviewers can't tell the difference between these actors. I don't think it's simply that they weren't paying attention. I think it comes from not having had to make these kinds of distinctions.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Where I have been

I've been here in the middle of a Minnesota winter, and people, I think I've been a little bit depressed. I'm not sure, but I have lost some of my energy and zest, and I think it has a bit to do with my medication. In any case, now that January is over and I am promised that the weather at least won't be any colder than it was last month, and also now that the school semester is in full swing, I am feeling much better.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


We are snowed in; this is one of very few times in my life when I actually have not been able to leave the house because of the snow. In Buffalo, there were a couple of heavy snowstorms (and a couple of blizzards, including one that dropped 3 feet of snow on us in a day). In South Dakota, I got my car stuck in the ice in the back alley for a few hours - ok, not *snow*, but winter precipitation. But here, even though Mr. P eventually shoveled out the driveway (with much assistance from our neighbor, who has a snow blower), the street has not yet been plowed, and there is a large pile at the end of the block from the plows that came through that intersecting street. So, we are staying put until they clear our street.

It has also been brutally cold, and so I did not leave the house today. Tomorrow is likely to be slightly warmer (read: above zero), so Bean and I may play in our snow fort. Yes, tomorrow is a snow day, and it's the first one that matters to Bean and that he will remember. Hopefully, we will also put the tree up and make a real occasion out of it.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Wesleyan, Zonker Harris, and Uncle Duke

When I was in college, my dorm (WestCo) had two huge festivals every year - Duke Day in October, and Zonker Harris Day in April. The festivals were based on drug experimentation during my time in the late '80s, and the dorm floors were decorated so that everyone coming through, but especially those taking psychedelics, would have an interesting experience. For instance, one floor put in black lights, covered the walls with paper and painted with fluorescent paint, and made highlighters available for drawing on the walls (or on skin). A common area was made into a womb, with mattresses and fabric walls. Tubs of oobleck were available to play with. The night before Duke Day, a group of students would pass out joints in the campus dining hall - an event called a "smoke out". To my knowledge, no action was ever taken by the authorities until my senior year (note that it was a first-year student who got busted - someone who had been told by the older students that nothing ever happened and it was safe to take a joint).

OK - so even *I* will acknowledge that it's difficult from a non-college student perspective to defend these festivals (other than saying that they were a hell of a lot of fun, and I'm glad I got to participate in them), and I'm not sure how it is that Wesleyan was able to stay more or less hands-off for a number of years. Shortly after I graduated in 1990, I heard that the festivals had been redesigned as music festivals, with no trace of the drug focus left - in fact, I remember reading something about the festivals specifically forbidding drug use.

But after reading Doonesbury this morning, and then googling and finding this, I have to wonder if the festivals were really as sanitized as I had thought they were. (The student blog, Wesleying, has put up a few posts, including some comments by alumni who also remember these holidays fondly.)

In any case, they seem to do it a little differently now, holding it on Foss Hill instead of inside West Co and in the courtyard. I'm sentimentally glad, though - and also surprised - to see that Wes is still using the same supplier for their dorm furniture (see the second picture). Despite renovations that supposedly included "better furniture" in 2005 or so, the furniture is exactly the same as it was '86-'90 (see photo 8).

Sunday, November 28, 2010

TSA, Sexual Assault, and Opting Out

Like a lot of people, I anticipate flying over the next couple of months, and so I have been following the TSA debates closely. I am planning to opt out because several folks have come forward recently to warn that the focused radiation on the skin that these new scanners use are likely to cause skin cancer in certain populations, including cancer survivors, people at risk for breast cancer, and children. That's two-thirds of our traveling group.

So, we are expecting the intrusive pat downs. And I'm frankly concerned about how this is going to be experienced by my 8-year-old child. I'm hoping that, if we explain everything ahead of time, and if the TSA agent also explains everything ahead of time (they are supposed to do so, but they don't necessarily do so), that he will take it in stride. I'm also concerned about just how intimate and invasive this touching will be. Despite the description the TSA agent gave to John Tyner, they really don't seem to be telling people exactly what they are going to do (check out the links below for examples). We are aware that they will be touching our genitals with their palms rather than the backs of their hands - but how many people expect this (note especially the discussion at the end re. the two levels of pat down - one standard pat down and one as punishment)? Or this? Or this? And how many people expect the TSA agent to put their hands inside the traveler's underpants?

Further, the TSA has now regrouped and is ready for the next John Tyners, arresting and threatening to fine anyone refusing to go through either the scan or the "pat-down" (scroll down to the bottom).

So we are faced with the "choice" of showing our naked bodies, including other intimate information that the scanners can see such as whether or not we are menstruating, whether or not we wear prostheses, etc., to people we don't want to show this to, OR we can submit to invasive touching that many people are calling akin to sexual assault. I find it interesting that those refuting this last statement on various blogs are responding by saying that the TSA agents don't enjoy this and don't intend it to be sexual assault. But, as with racism, intent is not really the issue. Legally, rape and sexual assault can occur regardless of whether or not the perpetrator thinks that that is what he's doing. There are many cases in which men have raped women and not thought that what they did was rape.

What is important is whether or not the person experiencing this experiences it as unwanted touching - which many clearly do, and it has serious ramifications, particularly for those who are survivors of past assault. This is not about Americans' prudish ways, and it is not about how comfortable individuals are with nudity. It is about simply being able to choose to whom and under what conditions we will share the intimate details of our bodies.

I am aware of my privilege operating here, as someone who has never been pulled aside for any additional screening beyond checking through my carry-on. I am aware that lots of people have been dealing with these situations for the last decade, at least. And so I feel uncomfortable at my own sudden outrage at this situation in which I must choose between two situations that I feel are violating. I should have been more outraged long ago.


If the recent news that Opt Out Day fizzled has left you feeling intimidated about opting out, you should read these two statements.

If you do fly and you experience anything you feel is inappropriate, here is one way to report abuse. And here is another resource.

(Just a last comment: As I have suspected, getting rid of TSA screenings in favor of private companies is not going to change a damn thing.)

Saturday, November 06, 2010

How Privilege Works.

I am not proud of these events, but they offer such a clear illustration of what it means to have privilege that I feel that I should share them with you.

The other day, I took Bean's hockey helmet to be fixed at a shop recommended to me by a friend. I am not an athlete, and when I go into sports stores, I always feel like a Grade A dork. I don't know the right lingo, I sometimes trip over things because I am flustered, and I generally feel out of place and anxious to leave. I also don't run into very many women in these stores, so that just adds to my feeling of not fitting in. But when I walked in the door, I was greeted very warmly by three friendly, male staff, who immediately got me what I needed and set to work adjusting the helmet. I relaxed and felt at home almost at once.

While I was waiting, a guy in the back mentioned Dunkin' Donuts coffee. As a transplant from the northeast, I was excited to hear mention of Dunkin' Donuts, which don't exist around here, as far as I can tell (well, except for one store, which you will hear about directly). This, with my new-found comfort, gave me the confidence to jump right into the conversation. Everything was going along well, and we were laughing and joking, until the young man in the back said, "there is one Dunkin' Donuts store downtown, and it's owned by this dirty little Asian man!"

This is the moment where I often find myself, when someone says something like this and expects me to laugh or to go along with the conversation. And this is the part that's hard for me because we had been, moments before, enjoying a moment of friendly chat, and now we were about to stop being friendly.

Keith Edwards of Men Ending Rape says that a well-placed, "Dude - not cool," can go a long way. That actually would have been perfect, except that I remembered it when I was back in the car.

As I stood there, looking at the ground and no longer participating in the conversation, I tried to figure out how to address the comment. Obviously, it was not a comment this white man would have made to me if I were Asian. Quite possibly, he would not have made it to me if I were a person of color but not Asian. It was one of those situations in which white skin signals common ground, and so people feel free to say things they otherwise wouldn't say. Also obviously (to me), he didn't mean anything by it. It was not unlike the way that people say "that shirt is so gay" while thinking they are not homophobic.

As I contemplated my options, I realized that what I have been teaching my students this semester about privilege is not quite accurate. I have been teaching them that privilege is not having to hear comments like that made about you and people like you. Certainly, that is part of privilege. However, what makes it so difficult for people with privilege to give it up is this next part: I realized that if I said anything, the nice exchange we were having was going to change. I was going to say something that would sit there like a turd on the floor, and they were going to stop joking with me, and I was going to then feel anxious and uncomfortable, just as I had worried I might before I entered the store. So my privilege in this situation was that, because I am white, I could walk into a store and have helpful, friendly staff see me as like them and treat me accordingly, and I could then choose whether or not to give up that genial relationship or whether to keep it.

I was not fully conscious of all of these feelings, including the fact that sports stores make me anxious, until I examined them in that moment of standing there and wondering what to do. So part of the privilege was also that lack of awareness of my own motivations and my competing desires (wanting them to continue being friendly to me; wanting to address the racist comment), and part of it was having the luxury of choosing whether or not to challenge the comment that was made at someone else's expense.

I am not proud to say that I did not challenge the comment in that moment. However, I did send an email to the store shortly afterward. Better late than never.

Monday, October 25, 2010

I know why Ginnie Thomas called Anita Hill (or, Credo Action is making a mistake).

I have been puzzling it over for the last few days. I knew it had something to do with Thomas' political activities with the Tea Party, but I couldn't quite figure it out - was she actually trying to get an apology, for reals? Was there some demographic within the Tea Party who believed Anita Hill?

It took Juan Williams' firing and Credo to put it into perspective. As you all know, Juan Williams was an NPR journalist who was fired from his job there for appearing on Bill O'Reilly's show on FOX and saying that he feared Muslims getting onto an airplane with him and that it was important to cut through the "political correctness" around Muslims and to be honest about the level of threat that Muslims pose (read the Michael Moore piece I link to below - he does a good job of responding to this). I have never thought much of Williams as a journalist, and I won't miss him, but many have made the (correct) point that firing him for this was a bad publicity stunt for NPR to pull. As they explain, now there is evidence for FOX's favorite (and not at all hypocritical, right?) suggestion that NPR only hires those reporters who agree with their so-called left-wing politics. And this is exactly the kind of thing that can give that much more motivation to Tea Party folks to rebel against the current administration - just in time for the November elections.

So I had this all in the back of my mind this morning when I opened my email to find an appeal from Credo Action to sign a petition demanding that Clarence Thomas apologize to Anita Hill. I generally support Credo, and I am on their mailing list because I almost always want to sign petitions and send letters on behalf of the causes that they care about. But this one is a mistake, and I think it is exactly the reason that Ginnie Thomas called Anita Hill. Any public move to denounce Clarence Thomas again is going to do two things. First, it is going to add to the racial divide, real or imagined, between Obama followers (a multiracial group) and the Tea Party (also a multiracial group, but more white than not). This is ironic, because Clarence Thomas is Black, but it means that the Tea Party will back Ginnie Thomas (not Black) and not Anita Hill (Black). It is a clever way to hide race in a discourse that will be focused on 'that woman who says unspeakable things about another woman's husband' - that woman who is then, as scholars have written, herself tainted by the accusations of sexual harassment while her harasser is not. Second, it is going to add to the Right's furor over Juan Williams and perceived "political correctness" among progressives, as once again, it will argue, the "facts" are erased and the "radical" left is out to silence a different opinion (in this case, held by Ginnie Thomas). All of this will help their attempts to paint the moderate Obama as an extreme, radical socialist, and to whip voters into a frenzy, none of which will help progressive causes.

So, don't sign that Credo petition. And let's hope progressives can stay focused on the real issues for the next week.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Trip Down Memory Lane

As Bean was going to sleep tonight, he asked me if we had had ice boxes instead of refrigerators when I was a kid. "No," I told him. "Grandpa had ice boxes, but we had refrigerators." "Did you have electricity?" he wanted to know. "Yes, we had electricity," I said. "You know, Bean, when Grandpa was a kid it was very, very different than when I was a kid. They didn't have television, they had ice boxes, they didn't have the same kinds of heat in their houses that we do. But when I was a kid, it really wasn't very different from the way it is now. We had television - ours was black and white, but there were color televisions then. We had telephones, but they were rotary dial phones" ("I know!" he said - "that is a very popular style for toy phones!"). "We had record players, not cds or mp3 players, and we didn't have computers."

"WHAT?!" he exclaimed. "No computers? How did you send email?"

"We didn't," I said. "We called people on the phone, and we wrote letters. If someone wasn't home, we called back later. Most people didn't have answering machines."

"How did you skype?!" he asked, floored that there was ever a time without instant and constant communication.

I didn't have the heart to tell him yet about Pong.