Tuesday, January 25, 2005
I know it's the way I approach a lot of my posts. Good to think about. Human beings aren't all about logic, really. We kick straight from the gut.
Take the issues out of the clouds, and put them back in the bloody field where real people are dying.
From the Salon piece:
With the Republicans in charge, it now becomes the work of the left to frame the social issues it wants to influence -- for example, homophobia, racism, war and xenophobia -- by telling stories that are easy to relate to and enable people (of all kinds) to root for the oppressed, the wounded and the underdog. This "Oprah approach" -- giving people an immediate connection to social issues by making them personal -- can change people's minds about deeply held beliefs.
These stories -- unlike those that the right crafts, such as the embellished tale of Iraq veteran Jessica Lynch, or the Swift Boat group's attack ads about John Kerry's Vietnam service -- don't need to be manipulated or created. They exist already. Progressives just need to be willing to tell them, and by doing so express which core values they think people need to hold on to and which ones they must discard and replace with new values.
I'd like to point you all to one of my fellow Clarion buddies, Francesca Myman, a Yale grad, fantasy writer, and artist whose website I just recently picked up (I fell out of touch with about half of the class, so it's cool to see she's doing well).
She's got fun photos, a lovely art gallery, and check out Broadband (not really work safe), images of fleshy women in classic art. A good reminder about how much standards of female beauty change - though I'd hasten to add that these images felt just as totalitarian and impossible to achieve and maintain by women then as standards today. The "ideal" is only an "ideal" if less than 2% of the population achieves it. Then it changes. So it goes.
I just got a form letter from Naral Pro-Choice America (which I assume was forwarded to many feminist bloggers, and all of those at the aggregate I belong to) asking if I'd post about their Give Us Real Choices campaign against "Chastity Week," a "campaign" launched by the Pennsylvania State Legislature promoting chastity as a means of curtailing the unintended pregnancies of women.
NARAL is great, and I applaud their work, but I found something off-putting about the idea of sending a letter to the legislature asking for a chastity belt as a form of protest (not that I think you shouldn't go over there and sign it. Do. It's all we've got right now). This mostly bugged me because I've gotten to the point where I could see that legislature budgeting in "requested chastity belts" as part of Chastity Awareness Week. Or, at least "Chastity Rings" that libido-less young women would wear in honor of their marriage to their hymen.
I can see them doing shit like this. We've gotten to the point where we're dealing with people who have no sense of irony.
NARAL has done some great stuff, and I like that they've got up the Faces of Pro-Choice America up at their site. It's really cool. But there's something missing from this fight.
In Denver, while waiting for my cab, I saw Kate Michaelman, former President of NARAL, in a back-and-forth spot with the "news" anchor about how important it was to keep the Democratic party pro-choice. Kate's contemporaries apparently told her they wanted to see her run for the DNC chair. She thought about it, but ultimately declined. Didn't decline the post. Declined the idea of even being in the running for the post.
Now, I greatly respect this woman, I think she's amazing, but when the pictures came up of the six men running for the post, the interviewer said, "Isn't it odd that this is such a hotly contested issue as far as the chair is concerned, but not one of the people up for the DNC chair is a woman?"
Kate went on to explain her reasons for not pursuing the chair. She had good reasons. I respect her.
And yet... and yet...
If you don't stand up, who will?
It's something I realized while watching Kate. I wanted to like her. I wanted to get behind her and march to the steps of the Supreme Court. But in that hesitancy to step up, when so many women asked her to, I saw cowardice. Rational, logical, cowardice, but cowardice nonetheless. She was afraid.
She knew exactly what would become of her and her family if she did so.
The women's movement does not have a voice, because it has no leader. There are no particular people to rally behind, nobody I would follow to the ends of the earth. There's no talking head to pit against Ann Coulter who's actually charistmatic - and, let's be honest, this is America - and pretty enough to do it on CNN.
Because it would take an amazing fucking woman to be that leader. To be the Oprah of the women's movement. Because she'd need to be charismatic, passionate, traditionally good-looking (it's true, don't pretend it's not), and above all else (because we do have those women. Hillary can fake it, Barbara Boxer is a pistol), above all else, she would have to risk. She would risk not only her own life, but the lives of those she loved. Because being the head of a women's movement would mean endless derision, endless tasteless cartoon strips, endless death threats from psychos throughout the country and likely around the world. Her sex life, her mental health, her weight, her clothes, the cut of her hair, the size of her shoes, would all be public topics of discussion. Nothing she had would be hers. She'd have to be one tough fucking cookie, because it's possible for all that she was to be consumed by the media, by the women around her, by the courts.
What you're talking about is finding somebody who would fight, and who possessed all of those media-lovin'-looks-and-graces that get them on television.
And that's a tough woman to find. And I think there's a lack of forward motion, of progress, in the movement because we really have no voice, no one person who says, "I've talked to women around the country. We want different things, but there are issues we're not divided on. Especially the issue of personhood. We demand the right to be real people."
And what I worry about, especially, is that "the women's movement" and "women's rights" are becoming so narrowly focused on abortion. Yes, I've already ranted about why that's a core issue. But in all our talk about fetal rights, lack of rights, giving rights, the pro-choice women, too, are forgetting that we got into this because of the women.
We're being forced into a debate at when "life" begins, instead of speaking about women who are alive. Women who want jobs. Who want to leave their abusive spouses. Who feel their desires crushed my family, by religion. Women who want decent childcare so they don't bust their asses for pennies and come home to put in another 40 hours.
And with no one actually speaking for women, by not forcing the wackos to speak our language, we've started making concessions. We've gotten scared. We've backed down.
They have used violence to alter the debate. Used the language of "life" to erase "women," and we have no one to put in front of them. Instead, we have this massive, howling hoard of pissed-off women with nowhere to vent their rage but in our wit and irony - irony increasingly lost on an increasingly conservative, backwards bunch of politicians who are so eager to please, so eager not to spark any controversy at all, that they will kow-tow to the first man who torches an abortion clinic, instead of charging him as a terrorist and hauling him off to Cuba.
I want to change the language. I want children created of a woman's body, not in it. Forced labor is slavery. If they want outlandish, hard-hitting language, I will give it to them.
Sometimes, when the other side is screaming outrageous obsenities, you've got to frame your argument just as violently, as forcefully, as they do. And you have to frame it in your own terms. I don't think we should talk in nice, cozy, "abortion is just terrible" terms anymore. I think we should reframe the debate.
I think we should talk about slavery, about filling vessels, about women as chattle.
I think that's a language they'll understand.
And I wish a woman would step up to do it.
And my sentiment on my own candidacy for the post (I knew some of you would go there) is likely that of Eleanor Roosevelt, who, when asked what her one regret in life was, replied:
"I wish I'd been prettier."
Yet, how long can we bitch and moan and write letters and complain and scream before we have to step up? Before we have to be brave? Before we say, "I believe in this. I will fight for this" and do it no matter how pretty, no matter how uncharismatic, because so many women are so fearful of that public shame, of being the hated public woman, the voice of millions of women, speaking violently, passionately, about where the small steps lead us, about how we are treading water in a current rapidly pulling us out to sea?
Here's some sample "advice" being given out to today's teens in those abstinence-only sex-ed programs that my tax dollars are going toward. Here's my problem: this "advice" not only goes against my personal values, but encourages male hatred toward women, female passivity and the squelching of desire, and worst of all - presents lies, statements with no basis of "fact" as being "true."
“Because they generally become aroused less easily, females are in a good position to help young men learn balance in relationships by keeping intimacy in perspective.” Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p.6.
See here, now.
“THERE IS NO WAY TO HAVE PREMARITAL SEX WITHOUT HURTING SOMEONE.” Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p.35
Wow. I must have been doing something wrong.
“A young man’s natural desire for sex is already strong due to testosterone... females are becoming culturally conditioned to fantasize about sex as well.” Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 6.
When men were "men" but women were... females. Just like on Animal Planet! Before the year 1900, women didn't think about sex at all, in any country! Damned if I know why any of us are here.
"Good writing tells you a lot about yourself. Bad writing tells you a lot about the author." - anon
“A woman is stimulated more by touch and romantic words. She is far more attracted by a man’s personality while a man is stimulated by sight. A man is usually less discriminating about those to whom he is physically attracted.” WAIT Training, Workshop Manual, p. 40.
::cough:: ::cough:: Long-term relationship? Oh, definately, personality. Quick fuck out back? Oh, you better bet he's hot and I haven't been giving much thought to what comes out of his mouth. In fact, in order for the fantasy to continue, he best not speak at all. It would ruin the illusion.
“What if a girl came to school in a crop top, just barely covering her bra, and shorts starting three inches below her naval? What ‘game’ would she be playing?” WAIT Training, Workshop Manual, p. 86.
The correct answer is D) The Please Come Rape Me! game.
I'm sorry, you chose A) It was 90 degrees outside, it was hot, and most of the boys got to run around on the football field without shirts on? Well, tough luck for you, you're wrong, wrong wrong. Women don't even perspire! Comfort! Freedom! ha.
“How can girls make guys feel esteemed and admired for choosing the wise course?” Facing Reality, Student Manual, p. 30.
Face Reality, Ladies. Sex is all about men. You shouldn't even *like* it. Get back in the kitchen.
My father was raised Catholic. Catholicism is why his mother had five children (my favorite story of my paternal grandparents' marriage: when she went into labor for the fourth time in order to deliver my father - having given birth to three girls previously - and they were wheeling her into the delivery room, my grandfather took her hand and said, "If you have another girl, I'm going to divorce you." Seriously).
My mother went to a Catholic school, briefly, though I'm under the impression, for some reason, that most of her family was Protestant. Or, perhaps, Presbyterian. Says a lot about my knowledge of the Christian denominations that I honestly can't remember.
On those weekends when my parents worked or just needed some time to themselves, my grandmother would get us up early on Sunday mornings and meticulously dress my sister and I in proper good-girl attire (I remember being, what, 3 or 4, and standing on top of the toilet lid while my grandmother prepared to dress me. I was holding a towel around myself, and when she brought the clothes up, I let the towel drop, in anticipation of being dressed. She cried out, scandalously, "Modesty! Modesty!" I thought she was very funny. Ah, Catholicism). I remember the church because there were good feelings associated with it. She'd bring coloring books and crayons for us to amuse ourselves with while whoever it was preaching was preaching, and afterwards, my grandmother would talk to lots of people and enjoy herself. It was a social club, so far as I could see, and people seemed very nice to each other.
As far as God goes, I believed in "God" just like I believed in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. And I don't say that to be condescending. I actually believed - with all my heart - in the existence of Santa Claus until I was, like, twelve years old - longer than I kept up a belief in God. The existence of Santa Claus, to my mind, was much "realer" than that of God. Santa was everywhere. He was at the mall. They made tons of movies about him. I left cookies and milk for him that were eaten the next day. He left presents. I was convinced that I heard him and his reindeer on the roof on many occasions.
But God? Well, I read my grandmother's copy of The Children's Bible from cover to cover. They had some seriously great stories in there. Really awesome. All that war and violence. I loved them. But then God would speak out of the air or decide a battle or something and I was like, "That doesn't happen to me." And then people would do things that God said, and I was like, "Wow, that would sure make life easier."
But God never told me what to do. Jesus wasn't really much in the discussion, so much as I remembered (most of the Bible stories I read were Old Testament). It was all about God, and God was kind of a mean guy, and he told people to do some really weird, contradictory things in order to prove their loyalty to him, like kill their own kids and have sex with their fathers, and after a while, I started to think he was kind of an asshole.
I remember having a conversation in, like the third grade with my buddy Matt. Matt's dad was a scientist. He did work with cross-breeding stawberry plants, which took him to places like Peru (he came to school and gave a slide show presentation of his time in Peru, the people, the poverty, the landscape. It made a deep impression. When he showed the slide of him and his guy buddies in some offroad Peruvian location, leaping up in the air behind their Toyota truck [riffing on a popular Toyota truck ad at the time] and said, "This is our version of a Toyota truck commericial," I was like, "I want to have a life like *that*."), and he was also deeply, deeply committed to Christianity. Matt's family were what I would term "real" Christians. They were nice to everybody. They practiced what they preached.
But one day Matt and I talked about the existence of God, which I was actually pretty dubious about by that point. I hadn't seen any God-like manifestations. I hadn't been struck down when I was bad. I thought it was more likely Santa would put coal in my stocking if I was bad than God strike me down. Seriously.
And he said, "I asked my dad last night, if God made the world, and Adam and Eve, and all of the animals, then why do we have dinosaur fossils that are older than people?"
"Yea," I said, "that seems kind of weird."
"Well," he said, "my dad said that God did that to sort of test the world before he made people. You know, to make sure everything worked. But the dinosaurs weren't really what he wanted, so he started over."
"Isn't that like saying that God made a mistake?" I said. "If God knew everything, why would he have to run an experiment?"
"Maybe God was a scientist," Matt said (or something to that effect).
What I love about these memories of my conversations with Matt are watching us (and especially him), trying to come to grips with the contradictions between acknowledged, provable "truth" about the way the world works, and how the world is supposed to work and be according to a set of beliefs. It's something I've watched many of my passionately faithful friends do for years.
One of my Mormon buddies recently met and befriended the first openly gay guy she'd ever encountered (in fact, she'd "met" many more gay men and likely a few lesbians and many, many bisexual women in the high school theater, but this was the first time somebody actually "admitted" and discussed their attractions with her). He was Mormon as well, and hearing her speak about him fascinated me. She had this sort of pained note in her voice, this truly confounded expression on her face.
"I just don't understand," she said. "He knows what he does is wrong. He knows it goes against God, it's wrong. But he's still that way. I just... I don't understand."
And my heart bled for her, and bled for him, and what I wanted to say to her was, "If he could change, don't you think he would? He knows that being loved and accepted means being attracted to women and not attracted to men. He knows that's the only way to be, to be loved. If he could change, he would. There's a generation of women and men growing up hating themselves. A generation of people who'd rather commit the `sin' of suicide than find an ounce of happiness is the arms of somebody they love and desire. Don't you think that's fucked up? Do you think that's what Jesus [I wasn't even going to ask about Smith] really wanted? Us hating ourselves and each other?"
Instead, to quell what would become a huge, awful debate, I said, "Well, your ideas and mine are very different about this issue."
How I came to have an issue with organized faith, and Christianity in particular, was being threatened and pressed to conversion by those I grew up with. The aforementioned Mormon and I have since come to terms: we respect each other's beliefs (well, I respect hers. I think she still secretly prays for me). But I grew up around a lot of self-righteous warring Christian-based groups of people. There was a huge group of Apostolic Lutherans, who all actually talked and looked alike because many of them married third and fourth cousins, and they shared about ten or twelve last names among them, and in their case, it was such an "in" crowd (literally) that they didn't really try to convert you so much as they just sort of looked down on you. They had a very comfortable path all set up for themselves. The boys apprenticed to those building companies (dry wall, carpentry - there was an emphasis on going into professions in which you used your hands, in which you built things. Desk jobs were frowned on) run by other men in the religion, and the women all got married between 16 and 20 (20 was considered old-maidish). They were pretty clear they were all going to heaven, and you weren't. Even if you "converted," you'd never actually be "one of them." You could pretend, but I didn't buy it.
I had another good friend who was a Jehovah's Witness, who didn't stand up to salute the flag or celebrate any holidays. She was pretty ambivalent about her religion, so she didn't try and press it on any of us one way or another. She got a lot of crap about it, so she didn't say much.
Then there was S., who, when my sister told her I'd shacked up with a boyfriend, apparently got a pale, wide-eyed, "She's going to hell," look on her face.
"But, what do you think happens when you die?" she once asked me.
"You just die," I said. "Like anything else. I've seen lots of dead things. I think we die just like them."
"You don't believe in a soul?"
"I don't know."
"Doesn't that make you sad?"
"Not really. It just means I have to live really well, cause this is probably all I'm going to get."
She gave me a very nice poem at one point about a soul cut free from the body who roamed the earth without taste, touch, or smell. It was a beautiful, haunting little poem, and I actually stuck it to my notebook. She was startled, as she'd given me the poem as a sort of joke. In fact, I quite liked it.
So I grew up being told that because I wasn't a Mormon, a Christian-whatever-denomination-she-was like S, a Jehovah's Witness, and because I didn't want to marry my third cousin, I was going to hell. After being told by so many different people about how I was going to hell for not being in their camp, I sort of gave up my comfy "agnostic" answer and decided I didn't believe in god, I believed in people. And I believed we were the only ones who could change things, look after each other, and make the world better.
I did pray a lot to God when I was younger, sort of like writing letters to Santa (again, I apologize if this analogy pisses people off, but honestly, these two were always very close in my mind). But unlike Santa, God never manifested himself, never gave me anything I wanted, never seemed to make things any easier. I had to stop waiting around for God to do things. When I hear people saying they talk to God, they ask God what to do, what I see them doing is what I do with myself: I talk to myself. I figure out what I want. What my body's telling me. What feels right.
I was watching an interview with Joseph Campbell about myths and religions, and he said that, what, somewhere, when he asked someone to explain to him why they bowed to one another when they should reserve such reverence for God (a Buddhist monk, maybe?), the person replied that they were, in fact, bowing to the god inside of that person. Bowing one's head was acknowledging that each person held a piece of God inside of them. It was a reminder that each person should be respected, should be acknowledged.
And that idea worked for me. Instead of running after a God who would put me in Heaven or Hell - who would bring me presents or coal - on the basis of some performance, and being driven by that Fear of God, instead what I should do is just be a good person. Is just be respectful to people. Be good. Be better. Help people.
Because if God is love, God is great, God is power, God is peace, God is destruction, God is good, God is bad, God is right, God is wrong... well, you can find all of those things in people, and in yourself.
What made me increasingly angry with organized religion, with many of the more militant sects of Christianity, was when I actually read the Bible. Not just the Old Testament, but the New Testament. And I realized that all of this "you're going to hell" hate-speech from all of these self-identified "Christians" was a load of crap. What would Jesus do? Probably not tell me I was a hideous whore condemned to the fires of hell. He'd probably be nice to everybody and tell them to love each other. You know, like he does in the Bible. I had a women's history teacher who said that Jesus was the first feminist to get his ideas set down in print where we could see them. And she would say that several times, "Jesus was the first feminist."
And if you look at Jesus as a historical figure, if you look at most of the stuff he's quoted as saying, it's really great stuff. It's "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." And that's to a group of guys who are about to stone a woman to death for adultery.
If Christians are really looking to follow the "teachings" of Christ, they'd be the ones putting out the Spongebog "tolerance" video. They'd be the ones arguing for gay rights. They'd be the first ones on your doorstep saying, "We don't believe women are property, and they have a divine, god-given right to control their own fertility."
And yes, I do know a lot of people of the Christian faith who do believe in love, and tolerance, and bringing people together. I think that if everybody was really acting as the "Jesus" in today's society, things would be a lot better off. We'd hate each other less. We'd work together more. There wouldn't be blue and red states. Just people. Just people who want to love each other, respect themselves, help each other.
Because that's what I saw in the New Testament. No, I don't believe there's an all-powerful creator out there with a big Sauron Eye fixed on me every time I masturbate, but I believe that for those who do believe, they should practice what they're reading, and interpret it themseleves instead of flocking around personalities like sheep. If you believe in love and tolerance, if you have faith in people, then you don't preach hate. You don't tell over half the people in the country that they've been born to act as chattle for the other half.
I do have a faith of my own, and it's based not on one book, or one experience, but on a whole slew of experiences, of twenty-five years of watching people, of listening to stories, of learning to listen to myself, of trying desperately to understand others.
And I believe people can be gorgeous. I believe they can be loved, and that they show a great capacity for love that is often bruised and twisted by those seeking to play power and dominance games. They're twisted up by old, narrowly interpreted books and preachers on pulpits who tell them they and their bodies and desires are awful, grotesque, terrible things. I believe people can be good. I believe they want to be loved. I believe not only in tolerance, but acceptance, because I'm adult enough to see that everything that these religions seek to destroy, all these things they hate, are more or less aspects of myself and of the people that I love.
And I do not believe that teaching others to hate themselves, that pitting Christian denominations and Christians vs. non-Christians against each other is a valuable way to spend the very, very short time we each get on this planet.
"Divide and conquer" is the surest battle strategy ever devised. It's how the US was able to defeat the Native Americans, and why they consigned them to such disparate "homelands." South Africa did the same thing, and it took 60 years of hard fighting to bring people together - a process which remains ongoing.
If you want to give up power to other people, to a wacko-freakshow on the other side of the ocean, what you'll do to yourself and the people around you is go to war with them, with yourself. You'll portion people up into Christians and non-Christians, red states and blue states, pro-choice and anti-choice, pro-human rights and anti-human rights. We'll call it "faith." "Values." We'll forget all about love, about looking for pieces of God in others. We'll forget that church is fun and social and faith is a profoundly personal experience, not a public one. That individual "values" and "beliefs" are for individuals, and to force those beliefs on others does a deep disservice to you both, because you have shown them you have no respect for who they are, for their experiences, for their bodies, for their lives. And you've assumed a higher place, a place of dominance, ascendence, in relation to that person.
And instead of wanting to be good, to be decent, to love, we just want to be right. Everybody wants to be in the camp that gets to portion out who goes to hell, and who goes to heaven. Who gets gifts, who gets coal.
When I finally let go of my belief in Santa, I realized that all those letters I wrote were letters I wrote to my parents. All those loving gifts I got were given to me by real people, the people in my life who loved me. And when I let go of Santa, and reindeer, and endless bags of presents, what I saw were parents who made Christmas magical sometimes on a shoestring budget, with late-night treks to overcrowded toy stores armed with overspent credit cards, against all odds, through exhaustion, working weekends, endless Christmas-Eve closing shifts.
When I drew back the gauze of presents, of Christmas tree, of reindeer, what was left was my family, the people in my life, this expression of human love.
And that, to me, is more magical, more awe-inspiring, more incredible, than God or Santa could ever be.