Who’s Got the Balls to Take the Porn Industry On?

Could it be that the pornography industry has something to do with women’s continuing struggle for equality and respect?

Brig. General Jeffrey Sinclair

Brig. General Jeffrey Sinclair

So it would seem from the case of Brig. General Jeffrey Sinclair.

It was not surprising to learn that a military judge accepted General Sinclair’s strategy of pleading guilty to lesser charges in exchange for the dismissal of far more serious counts, including violent sexual assault, that could have put him behind bars for life.

According to the New York Times,  “General Sinclair formally pleaded guilty to mistreating his former mistress — an Army captain — as well as disobeying a commander’s order not to contact her, misusing his government charge card, and using demeaning and derogatory language about female staff officers.”

In exchange, military prosecutors dropped the more serious charges that “General Sinclair twice sexually assaulted his former mistress by forcing her to have oral sex, threatened to kill her and her family if she revealed their affair, and engaged in consensual but “open and notorious” sex with her in a parking lot in Germany and on a hotel balcony in Arizona. Those charges could have led to life in prison for and registration as a sex offender, if convicted.”

You have to dig deeper into this unsavory story to discover that General Sinclair learned his technique for violent fellatio from the thousands of violent pornographic photographs and videos he had stored—against military orders—on his computers and other devices in Afghanistan.

Prosecutors initially tried to get that nasty porn admitted as evidence in court, but the judge refused to allow it, saying it could “taint the jury’s outlook on the trial.”  The jury, let it be noted, consisted of five generals.  All men.

In the Army, it’s illegal to possess pornography while on deployment.  It’s illegal to engage in adultery.  It’s certainly illegal for a superior officer to force a soldier to have sex.  According to the Captain, whose identity is being withheld, General Sinclair “grabbed her by her neck and shoulder and forced her to perform fellatio….It happened again some days later, she said. This time, he stopped only when she threatened to scream.”

This is precisely the kind of case that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s landmark legislation, which aimed to take the trying of sexual assault cases out of the hands of the military, was designed to address.

Imagine how this case would be different if instead of a colonel as judge and five generals as jury (judge and jury all-male), the court case was tried by a civilian judge and a jury composed of 12 men and women who were not in any way beholden to the military.

Illustration by Jerry McJunkins; fayobserver.com

Illustration by Jerry McJunkins; fayobserver.com

Of course, even civilian rape and sexual assault cases are notoriously hard to successfully prosecute.  Men still get away with minimal sentences as victims are blamed with “leading him on” or “asking for it.”  Some 97% of rapists never even spend a day in jail.

In the Sinclair case, the Captain is being caricatured as a typical “jealous mistress” who blew the whistle on the General as revenge for his inability to make any commitment to her.

But really—would any woman, let alone an Army Captain, put herself through the torments of a sexual assault trial merely for revenge?

She may not realize it now, but in refusing to be browbeaten into silence she is standing up for every military woman and every civilian woman who has had to bite her tongue and comply with abusive behavior from men with greater social status and privilege.

But the deeper question that deserves to be asked here is why it’s OK for violence againt women to be represented through violent pornography, such as that possessed by the General.

Defenders of the porn industry insist that: a) a penchant for watching violent porn doesn’t imply a desire to carry it out in real life and b) porn is just acting—it’s not real.

Tell that to the porn starlet whose throat has been bruised and battered through violent fellatio.  Tell that to the girl who is forced to have sex from behind while her head is dunked repeatedly in a toilet.  Tell that to the girl whose anus is torn apart as three men gang-bang her—“only acting,” of course.

Is this too harsh for you to read?  Does it offend your sensibilities?

I’m sorry, but I am of the opinion that if something is too horrible for us to read about, it’s too horrible for us to permit to go on in actuality.

From violent porn to factory farming, from mountaintop removal to sex slavery and lab animal torture—if it’s so bad we have to avert our eyes, then it’s so bad we have to do something about it.

I salute the tearful Captain who testified valiantly in that military courtroom, knowing that every man in the room hated her for daring to tell the truth.

Our military women deserve better.  All women deserve better!  The violent porn industry is a pus-filled abscess seething below the sight lines of society.

If we want to get a handle on why women continue to be disrespected, the multi-billion dollar porn industry would be a good place to start an inquiry.  Who’s got the balls to take those bastards on?

**The upshot, 3-20-14: the General got a very gentle slap on the wrist.  Are we surprised?  Hell no!  It is almost impossible to convict on sexual assault, at least as long as the judges and juries are all-male, with the opinion that “boys will be boys” and “she led him on….”  GRRRR!!!!!

Keeping Mandela’s Dream Alive–Not Just for South Africa, but for the Planet!

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years as a terrorist.

And then he was released and became one of the greatest freedom fighters the world has ever known.

For me, the lesson is clear.

We cannot rely on others for a moral compass.

I am thinking of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Tim DeChristopher and Lord knows how many others who have been exiled or imprisoned for “treason” in the United States.

I believe they will be exonerated in the long run, just as Mandela was, and shown to be on the side of justice.

Nelson Mandela as a young man

Nelson Mandela as a young man

We shake our heads incredulously when we hear that Nelson Mandela was in jail and at hard labor for 27 years.

Twenty-seven years!  He was imprisoned just a few months before I was born, and released a few months before I married.

He came out to have a whole new life, like a butterfly breaking out of an unwanted cocoon.

The news media seems to be playing up the aspect of Nelson Mandela’s story that deals with forgiveness.

He forgave his captors.  He was not vindictive.  He believed in reconciliation.

Yes.

But I do not forgive them.  And the part of Mandela’s story I would like to focus on is his incredible perseverance in achieving his lifework of overcoming the evil of apartheid in South Africa.

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It takes great self-awareness and rock-solid confidence to maintain one’s moral compass in the face of a whole state and social apparatus set up to prove one wrong.

For example, climate activists today, like the Greenpeace 30–locked up in Russia for daring to challenge Russian drilling rights in the Arctic–need to be incredibly resolute in their insistence that we must do what we can to stop the runaway warming of the planet.

Today we have many ways of expressing our solidarity—ways that were not available to sympathizers of Mandela back in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.  We need to use these communication channels to send a solid wave of support back to those who dare to challenge today’s rulers—the fossil fuel industry, the National Security Agency, and the like.

Mandela fought the good fight and he won.  Today, our fight is not for justice in one country, but for the very survival of the human race—and so many other species—on this planet.

We owe it to the memory of Nelson Mandela to stand firm and refuse to be bullied or intimidated.  We who are fighting for a sustainable planetary future are on the side of justice and will be vindicated as such, just like Mandela, if we are not all washed away first.

Nelson Mandela was great because he never gave up.  He remained true to his own moral compass and he lived his ideals.

We must do the same today, and then some, to keep Mandela’s flame alive and burning brightly for a new day on this sad beleaguered planet of ours.

Queer Visions of a Better World

Bradley Manning at work

Bradley Manning at work

The news this week that Private Bradley Manning had come out as Chelsea made me think first that truth is way stranger than fiction, and second that it makes perfect sense that one of the most courageous warriors of our time would be a queer woman.

Gloria Anzaldua, who has been one of my heroines since I first read her seminal work Borderlands/La frontera back in the 1980s, always insisted that queer folk have a special role to play in bringing about a change in human consciousness—moving us from the patriarchal mold of the past 5,000 years or so to what she called “a new mestiza consciousness,” a much more holistic, inclusive, planetary awareness.

Anzaldua extended Virginia Woolf’s famous statement, in her anti-war tract Three Guineas, that “as a woman, I have no country.  As a woman, I want no country.  As a woman, my country is the whole world,” giving it a new queer mestiza twist:

Gloria Anzaldua

Gloria Anzaldua

“As a mestiza I have no country, my homeland cast me out; yet all countries are mine because I am every woman’s sister or potential lover.  (As a lesbian I have no race, my own people disclaim me; but I am all races because there is the queer of me in all races.)  I am cultureless because, as a feminist, I challenge the collective cultural/religious male-derived beliefs of Indo-Hispanics and Anglos; yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creation of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet.  Soy un amasamiento, I am an act of kneading, of uniting and joining that not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meanings.”

Because queer folk have lived in their own bodies this awareness of being more—more than meets the eye, more than can be limited by any label or category—Anzaldua believed that they would be able to lead the way towards a new human civilization founded not on dominance and subordination, not on hierarchies of value, not on black-and-white binary systems, but on synthesis and what she called “a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity.”

Some, like Anzaldua herself, would be called upon to become what she called nepantleras, boundary crossers and bridge builders who would go through the wounds and pain of traumatic life experiences to access courage and wisdom to lead others into a new awareness of human potential.

Chelsea Manning is such a nepantlera.

Several years ago, in a class I offered on human rights, my students and I watched, horrified, a recently leaked video called “Collateral Damage,” which clearly showed a group of American soldiers in a helicopter searching out and gunning down unarmed Iraqi civilians who were simply talking together on a quiet, sunny, bombed-out village street.

Still image from the Wikileaks Collateral Damage video--before the machine guns started

Still image from the Wikileaks Collateral Damage video–before the machine guns started

The language the soldiers used as they hunted down their targets was straight out of a violent video game, which is probably where they had learned the shoot-em up skills they displayed.  But this was no game.  Of the several men who lost their lives that day, one was a journalist on assignment for the Western media, armed only with his digital camera.

My students and I agreed that we needed to know that this kind of behavior was taking place under the banner of the American flag.  Keeping us in the dark about the reality of what was happening in Iraq, at the cost of enormous sums of taxpayer monies, was a violation of the rights of every American citizen in whose name this war was being fought.

Many obviously agree: the clip “Collateral Damage” has now been viewed more than 14 million times on You-Tube. Only because of the courage of Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange of Wikileaks, both now branded political heretics, did we find out this information.

imagesWe like to think that America is a free country, but it turns out that our freedom has very carefully regulated borders and boundaries.  We are free to dissent as long as we have a permit.

The World Wide Web knows no such boundaries.  It is truly a queer space, a space that has room for every kind of human activity and belief.  In exercising her freedom to circulate information on the Web, Chelsea Manning ran afoul of those who would try to dam the flow, controlling access to knowledge.

Some insist that it is essential that knowledge be controlled, in the name of national security, counter-terrorism, American interests, etc, etc.

It’s past time to start asking questions about whose interests are really served by restricting the free flow of information.

Are we going to become another China, where all individual freedoms are subordinate to the will of the State?  Has it already happened?

What all totalitarian states have eventually learned is that the more human beings are repressed, the more our will to resist is strengthened.

In this country, for the past few decades, our attention has been dulled by the opiates of the entertainment media, consumerism and drugs of many kinds.  A majority of us have slipped without even realizing it into a new form of labor bondage, in service to the almighty Bank, by whose credit and in whose debt we live.

During this time, the military-industrial-financial-media corporate conglomerates have grown huge and menacingly well-armed, to the point where it seems almost impossible that those of us who dare to imagine another way of living—another way of relating to the planet and to each other—might prevail.

We must not allow our vision of a better world to be limited by those who are currently in power.

We must insist on the freedom of the World Wide Web as a queer space for those who understand that “our country is the whole world.”

Chelsea Manning, I salute you!  You had the courage to shine a light into the dark corners of our government, no matter the consequences, and now you courageously step into the full measure of your own identity.

May we each learn to be so bold.

The jig is up for military sexual assault

No fewer than 26,000 sexual assaults were reported by U.S. military service men and women in the year 2012 alone.

You read that right.

According to The New York Times, “Pentagon officials said nearly 26,000 active-duty men and women had responded to the sexual assault survey. Of those, 6.1 percent of women and 1.2 percent of men said they had experienced sexual assault in the past year, which the survey defined as everything from rape to “unwanted sexual touching” of genitalia, breasts, buttocks or inner thighs.

“From those percentages, the Pentagon extrapolated that 12,100 of the 203,000 women on active duty and 13,900 of the 1.2 million men on active duty had experienced some form of sexual assault.”

These numbers are simply unacceptable, especially when contrasted with the small number of sexual assault cases that were officially reported (ie, not via anonymous survey)–3,374—and the abysmal rate of actual conviction: only 238 assailants were convicted in 2012.

Lt. Col. Krusinski; booking photo

Lt. Col. Krusinski; booking photo

Most embarrassing for the military brass was the arrest last Sunday of the officer in charge of sexual assault prevention programs for the Air Force, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, who was accused of having sexually assaulted a woman he did not know in a parking lot.

Way to lead, Air Force!  Just when we thought the Tailhook scandal was becoming a distant memory.

I’m glad to see that some members of Congress—especially the women—are hopping mad and on the case, as today’s column from Maureen Dowd details.

Women who put their lives on the line to serve in the U.S. military deserve nothing but respect from their superiors and peers.

The question is, how is the military going to re-program its entire culture, from raw recruit to brigadier general, who have been raised to believe that “all women (and all gay men) want it,” that might makes right, and that superior officers can act with impunity towards those under their command?

How is the military—and, indeed, American culture at large—going to counter the billion-dollar American porn industry, that thrives on presenting women as objects of desire, yes, but also as objects of violence?

The truth is that what we’re seeing in military culture is just the tip of the iceberg of a much more deeply-rooted cultural problem.

Just as the military stood up to become the model for racial integration in the 1970s, it must now trailblaze the path to gender equality for us in the second decade of the 21st century.

Women who are now going to serve in combat, just the same as men, should not have to worry about “friendly fire” from male supervisors and peers.

To be honest, the idea of women breaking glass ceilings in the military does not thrill me.

I’d rather women work to create and broker non-violent institutions and solutions to problems.

But there is no excuse, ever, for sexualized violence against women or men.

The Lt. Col. Krusinskis of the world need to get their rocks off some other way, and the old-boy networks that have stood in the way of change on this issue have got to go.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, plans to introduce legislation that would take the adjudication of sexual assault cases outside of a victim’s chain of command. According to the New York Times editorial board, which supports the measure, “It would end the power of senior officers with no legal training but lots of conflicts of interest to decide whether courts-martial can be brought against subordinates and to toss out a jury verdict once it is rendered.”

President Obama said the right thing in response to the Krusinski arrest scandal, but it remains to be seen whether he can follow up his words with actions.

“If we find out somebody’s engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged — period,” Mr. Obama said.

Got that, all 26,000 of you who committed sexual assault last year?

The jig is up.

Rapists deserve a taste of their own medicine

If I have been silent about the horrific rape and murder of the as-yet unnamed Indian medical student in New Delhi, it’s not because I don’t care, but rather because I care so much I can hardly bear to think about it.

We seem to be living through a time of tipping points: when thresholds are crossed that are so outrageous that they provoke long-overdue reaction from a generally compliant, inured and zoned out populace.

India, and indeed most of southeast Asia, is well-known for its misogyny and callous brutality towards its women.  From female infanticide, neglect of girls, dowry deaths, domestic violence and tribal justice in which female victims of sexual assault are blamed and punished, often with death, this is not a region that treats its women kindly.

This is old news to global human rights activists.  But suddenly, thanks to the martyrdom of that one tipping-point rape victim, it is front-page news in India and around the world, and men and women are out in the streets demanding a sea change in the way sex crimes are punished and in the discriminatory attitudes towards women, not just in India, but all over the world.

eve-lacombe

Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler, long a tireless advocate of women’s right to live free of violence, observes in a recent article in the Guardian/UK that we live in a global “rape culture,” in which “a girl can be purchased for less than the cost of a mobile phone.”

Or simply taken for nothing, as happened on the bus in India, and then thrown away.

Ensler’s website for her One Billion Rising movement, which will reach its peak on February 14, tells us that “one in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime.”

“One billion women violated is an atrocity.  One billion women dancing is a revolution,” the website continues, urging viewers to “strike, dance and rise in your community to demand an end to violence against women.”

I’m sorry, but I have a hard time getting very enthusiastic about the idea of “dancing” to end violence against women.

I think it’s time for a stronger response.

I’d like to see rapists and assailants of women get a taste of the kind of retributive justice so many of the patriarchal cultures and religions like to mete out to women accused of sexual crimes.

images

Stoning to death.  Cutting off of body parts—noses are popular, but how about we try penises this time?

This is probably why I didn’t want to write about this issue.  I’m too angry.  I can’t sit around and talk rationally about it anymore, like Nick Kristof did in his column today.

Just once, I’d like to indulge my own rage and seriously entertain that favorite approach of the patriarchy: an-eye-for-an-eye retribution.

Touch that woman violently, young man, and you will feel the edge of this razor, right between your legs.

Throw acid in the face of that young bride, kiddo, and you will be ceremoniously dumped in a vat of acid yourself.

Like to jam iron rods up women’s vaginas, Mr. Bus Driver?  How do you like the feel of this one up your ass?

And no, don’t tell me to calm down!  Don’t tell me I’m hysterical!

Women’s rights advocates have been trying for years—for centuries!—to get the leaders of our male-dominated world to treat us with the respect we surely deserve.

And yet still a brave little Pakistani girl who dares to speak out for the right to education gets shot in the head.

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai

High school and college sports stars still think it’s fine and dandy to gang-rape unconscious female classmates.

Women are pushed into the workforce and expected to still do the second shift of housework and childcare at home—and by the way, we’re paid less, too!

The list goes on and on, and sometimes it’s just too much.

Maybe the only way to get real change to happen in short order—in my lifetime, please!—is to give the men responsible for these crimes and inequities a nice taste of their own medicine.

Standing strong against the Furies

AUDIO OF THIS PIECE READ BY JBH ON WAMC-NORTHEAST PUBLIC RADIO, DECEMBER 21, 2012

Just as people in places like the Maldives, Bangladesh and Japan shook their heads at the cluelessness of Americans who suddenly woke up to climate change when Sandy came to town, people living in hot spots of violence around the world now have every right to be shaking their heads at the collective American refusal to see and understand how, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, we are the cause of our own misery.

t1larg.pakistandronerally.giThe U.S. is the largest arms manufacturer and exporter in the world.  We have by far the largest military.  We are also by far the most heavily armed civilian population in the world, with some 300 million guns circulating among our population of about 300 million people.  Americans, we need to acknowledge that collectively, as a nation, we have been responsible for hundreds, and probably thousands of deaths of children worldwide through the weapons we sell abroad.

There is not a conflict in the world today that has not been fueled by American weaponry.

It is hypocritical to weep crocodile tears for the slaughter of innocent children in a kindergarten in Connecticut but to callously ignore the slaughter of innocent children by American drone fire in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

We need to start connecting the dots and realizing that the violence we mete out to the world will come back to haunt us a thousand-fold.

I’m not just talking about gun violence or missiles. I’m talking about the violence of inhuman labor practices and poverty, leading to rage that is sometimes turned inward, as in the spikes of farmer suicides due to heavy-handed Monsanto tactics in places like India and Asia, and sometimes outward, as in the terrorist strikes against targets inside the U.S. (9/11, anyone) or at our representatives abroad (did someone say Benghazi?).

I’m talking about the violence Western-style “development” has wreaked on the natural world, which is now boomeranging back to slam us against the wall of a destabilized climate.

Orangutan with a tranquilizer dart in his side; will be relocated away from palm oil plantation site

Orangutan with a tranquilizer dart in his side; will be relocated away from palm oil plantation site

If you create lethal weapons and spread them widely among the populace, you should not be surprised when they discharge and kill people.

If you overheat the climate and bulldoze all the trees, you should not be surprised at the deadly droughts, wildfires, storms and temperature swings that result.

Back in the 19th century, Charles Darwin taught us to understand that competition is good, that the strongest and fittest will survive, and that if the weak perish it’s all for the best.  It was a perfect rationale for the capitalist/imperialist narrative of the past 500 years, domination as evolution, at gunpoint and bulldozer blade.

Would Darwin look out at today’s dangerous world and proclaim serenely that the coming population drop of humans, due to violence of our own making, is simply part of the grand scheme of Evolution?

If the answer is “yes,” does this mean we should just sit back and watch it all unfold with detachment?

I don’t think so.  I believe it’s the great task of our generation to meet the violence of our time with unwavering, clear-eyed resistance.

To a large extent, the damage has already been done.  The guns are circulating out there in the world; the nuclear power plants are whirring; the oil and gas rigs are pumping; the myriad plants and creatures with whom we grew up in our era on the planet are disappearing.

Pandora’s box is wide open, and the Furies have been released in the world.

We may not be able to get them back, but we can continue to insist that they do not represent us.  We can continue to stand as beacons to another mode of living, based not on competition and aggressiveness, but on collaboration and respect.

As we move into the darkest week of the year, let us not give up hope that as the planet swings back towards the Sun on December 22, we can collectively climb up out of the abyss of violence and pain and unite around the finest human values of life, peace and love, for our fellow human beings, and for the planet as a whole.

Privilege, Difference and the Challenge of Creating a “Beloved Community”

The recent Presidential election showed in concrete terms that the demograhics of the United States are shifting quickly.  The old majority of people of European descent (“Caucasians”) is rapidly shrinking to minority status in numerical terms, although white folks retain a lock on the gears of power and privilege so far in this country.

How do white folks continue to maintain dominance?

The key is still education.

When my Eastern European Jewish forebears came to the US through Ellis Island back at the turn of the 20th century, the adults in the family spoke no English, but they were hardworking and ambitious for their children to assimilate and succeed.

One of my great-grandfathers fixed sewing machines on the Lower East Side; another great-grandmother sold fish wrapped in newspaper on the street to support her children.

Within a generation, the children of these immigrants were living the middle-class American dream, and their children did even better, becoming doctors, lawyers, teachers and professionals.

My grandmother, a first-generation American whose mother tongue, before entering kindergarten, was Yiddish, got her B.A. and Masters in biology from Hunter College, and became a high school biology teacher.  Her son, my father, graduated from Oberlin and NYU and became a successful professional.  I followed the pattern and got my Ph.D.

This is what’s known in Americanese as pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

What is too often unacknowledged is how the privilege accorded to whiteness in America has helped families like mine succeed.

It starts with where you are able to live, because property taxes still determine the quality of the primary and secondary education you’ll receive.

In the first half of the 20th century, there were a lot of places in the U.S. where Jews weren’t welcome, including many selective colleges and universities.

But just like the Irish and the Italians, soon enough Jews became “white,” and that was all that mattered—they were welcome in all but the snootiest bastions of American WASP-dom, and their privileges were helped along by the exclusion of others.

The color of one’s skin still matters in this country.  We still live in largely segregated neighborhoods, and thus most of our children attend largely segregated schools.

And they’re not “separate but equal” schools either.  They are, as Jonathan Kozol so eloquently documented, deeply unequal schools, where children with darker skin tones—who are often the most in need of support–are given less, financially and  intellectually.

The fight over “race-blind” college admissions is so fraught because what tends to happen without any affirmative action policy for Americans of color is that the people with the best “grooming” win out, and the best-groomed high school seniors tend to be those from affluent families, living in affluent neighborhoods, going to affluent schools.

As The New York Times noted in a recent editorial, “Those from the top fifth of households in income are at least seven times as likely to go to selective colleges as those in the bottom fifth. The achievement gap between high- and low-income groups is almost twice as wide as between whites and blacks,” and “blacks and Hispanics are also substantially underrepresented at selective colleges and universities. In 2004, they were 14.5 percent and 16 percent, respectively, of those graduating from high schools, but only 3.5 percent and 7 percent of those enrolling in selective colleges and universities. The underrepresentation has gotten worse over the past generation.”

***

All this is on my mind today because of a recent stir at the college where I teach, which has made a strong effort over the past decade to recruit more students from under-represented groups.

We have more people of color on the campus today than we’ve ever had, which should be a cause for celebration.

But this semester has brought some simmering tensions to the surface, showing how difficult it can be to put a group of passionate young people together on a campus and expect them to “just get along.”

The flashpoint this semester was Diversity Day, a day started several years ago by a group of disgruntled students who felt that not enough time was spent during regular classes focusing on issues of social diversity.

Students, staff and faculty organized workshop classes on a range of topics related to the experience of marginalized groups in America, and theories and praxes of social justice.

The day was so successful that it was subsequently institutionalized, with regular classes cancelled and all students required to attend at least three workshops.

This year, an influential group of students decided they were going to “boycott” Diversity Day.  Many of them were the student leaders of workshops, which meant that they were actually sabotaging their own event.

They took this extreme measure because they were angry at what they perceived as a lack of strong response from the college administration to the provocation of a student who questioned not just the value of diversity day, but the value of diversity itself in American society.

This student distributed posters on campus asking students to “Take the Diversity Challenge” by answering the following question: “Name 5 benefits of Diversity (besides ethnic food and music).”

His challenge was taken as a white supremacist assault on students who wear the mantle of diversity with pride, and he did not do much to dispel that perception, according to students who said he also sent them a link to a You-Tube talk by Jared Taylor, the controversial founder of the New Century Foundation and editor of its American Renaissance magazine.

The anti-discrimination watchdog organization Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps tabs on Taylor, says that he “regularly publishes proponents of eugenics and blatant anti-black and anti-Latino racists,” and also “hosts a conference every other year where racist intellectuals rub shoulders with Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists.”

In the video link shared on our campus, Taylor argues that because there is often friction when you put different social groups into close proximity (and he’s especially attentive to different racial groups)—say, in neighborhoods or schools or college campuses—the better thing to do is to back away and re-segregate, thereby eliminating the sources of tension.

This attitude is wrong on so many levels that I find it hard to know where to start.

Besides the obvious truth that race is just an illusion, as far as a real biological marker of human difference, it’s also true that ghetto-izing certain individuals, for whatever reason, has never been a good social strategy in the past, and it won’t work now.

We don’t want a balkanized, fearful, hateful America any more than we want a bland, homogenized America.

We want a society where, as Audre Lorde put it, “difference [is] not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.”

In her famous essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Lorde continued: “Within the interdependence of mutual (nondominant) differences lies that security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant power to effect those changes which can bring that future into being” (Sister Outsider, 111-12).

***

Audre Lorde

At my college, we like to say that we teach “critical thinking skills,” by which we mean that we encourage students to question authority and think for themselves.

We shouldn’t be surprised or upset, then, when they do just that by questioning our own institutional authority.

The students who organized the Diversity Day boycott this year—many of them women of color–were angry that a student advocating white supremacy was allowed to remain in our campus community.

While the administration deliberated over whether this student presented any danger to the community, and whether his words had crossed the line into hate speech, they said, they felt unsafe and unheard.

So they staged a protest, quite in keeping with Audre Lorde’s injunction to “transform silence into language and action.”

“I have come to believe,” Lorde says, “that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”  She urges her readers to ask themselves “What do you need to say?  What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? ….We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid” of speaking out.

But, she continues, “We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us….

“It is not difference that immobilizes us, but silence.  And there are so many silences to be broken” (“The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Sister Outsider, 41-44).

On our campus, Diversity Day originated as an attempt to break the silences between different social groups, including students, faculty and administration, in the cause of mutual understanding and communication.

But this year, it was the boycott that spoke loudest, and what it said, loud and clear, was that there are still so many silences to be broken.

Speaking as a faculty member who teaches classes in human rights and social justice, and who has organized many Diversity Day workshops over the years, the problem is that it’s often too little, too late.

By the time Diversity Day rolls around in November, tensions between social groups on campus have often already come to the fore, and the workshops provide opportunities to let off steam that can end up sparking further conflagrations that take place in the dorms or on social media sites, without the mediating influence of faculty and staff present to help channel discussions productively.

One day out of the school year is not enough to create the social bonds necessary to establish a cohesive, harmonious diverse student body.

We are going to have to try harder, to do better.

***

An opening has been created for us by the students this year. From my perspective as a faculty member, this is a prime teachable moment, an opportunity to advance our ideals of social justice and strengthen the ties of community on our campus.

Those with more privilege, on whatever grounds, must stand as firm allies with the less privileged.

Every class, every conversation, every interaction is an opportunity for respectful communication that encourages the breaking of the deep-seated silences that separate us.

The truth is that every college campus is a microcosm of the larger society from which our students are drawn.  In the small, sheltered community we create—a kind of Beloved Community, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s terms—we have an opportunity to envision and manifest new frameworks and understandings that our students will then carry with them out into the broader world.

In this struggle, as in all others, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, and the time for thoughtful action is now.

Malala Yousafzai Stands Up for Us All

There are a couple of old saws that I was taught as a young journalist, which I continue to pass on to my media studies students now.

One is: if it bleeds, it leads.

And another: one powerful human interest story is worth a million statistics.

We saw both of these principles in action with this week’s news of Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistan girl who New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof calls “one of the world’s most persuasive advocates for girls’ education.”

Everyone probably knows by now of how the Taliban viciously shot Malala in the neck as punishment for her outspoken insistence that girls should be allowed—and indeed, encouraged—to go to school, just like boys.

She is now the face of millions of girls worldwide who are denied the chance to get an education and empower themselves and their communities.

This week the Times also reports that in Africa, unprecedented wealth is being generated by the efforts of a rising tide of entrepreneurs—many of them women.

UN Women, formerly known as UNIFEM, has argued for years that by educating a girl, you help her whole family, including the children she will one day bear.

After all, as the Chinese say, “Women hold up half the sky.”

I am glad to see that Pakistanis have come together to reject the extremist politics of the gunmen who shot Malala.

We should all light a candle for her today as she is flown to the West for more treatment, and pray that this brave girl survives the attack and returns to the fray to serve as a defiant model for all girls, whose instinctive human desire for education will not be extinguished so easily.

In the Christian tradition, Eve takes the blame for the fall from Paradise, and here in the U.S., too, we can see many examples of strong women being sharply checked: for instance, in the shooting of U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords or the mocking of Hillary Clinton for wearing pants suits and acting tough.

The story of Malala Yousafzai is one particularly emblematic story among many that could be told, of women and girls who dare to stand up to patriarchal power, and learn quickly that such defiance has its price.

Lately we’ve been seeing a steady drumbeat of reports—most of them disapproving—of how women are becoming more successful in school and in careers, threatening traditional male dominance in the public sphere.

Maybe it’s time for a reminder that feminism was never about dominance—it was and is about equality.

What’s so threatening about that?

I’m sorry, but real men don’t shoot 14-year-old girls under any circumstances.

To me a real man is the one who encourages his children, regardless of their gender, to stay in school and work hard to be prepared to step out into a future that is sure to be challenging.

A real man applauds his wife’s successes, and stands by her side when things are rough.

Real women do the same.

The truth is that gender is just another one of those culturally conditioned differences, like eye shape or skin tone, that fade to irrelevance before the profound reality of our human similarities.

Having unlocked the secrets of the genome, we now know that human beings are genetically 99% the same as field mice.

Isn’t that enough to convince us that men and women are only different in the most superficial ways?

Sure, women can bear children; men are more muscular.  But our brains are close to identical, and our hearts are the same.

Our spirits, freed of our physical bodies, know no differences.

It’s time to soar above the petty in-fighting of gender, and work together for the good of all.

 

Responding to Racism or Sexism: The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, Again and Again

I shouldn’t be surprised that once again the ugly specter of racism and unacknowledged privilege is raising its head on my own little campus community.

It happens almost every year like clockwork, generally in the fall semester around this time, and usually involving freshmen who are still in the process of adjusting to the new, often more racially/ethnically/socially diverse culture in which they have suddenly landed.

Understandably, people of color who have had to put up with racism and white privilege all their lives get angry when it turns up, in all its crude arrogance, here in our campus home as well.

One angry response leads to another angry retort, onlookers begin to take sides, and before you know it the campus is in an uproar, with some calling for apologies, others calling for calm, and the majority just plain mad and not willing to take it anymore.

I want to talk about anger.

As a woman, albeit a white woman, I know something about how members of subordinate groups are not supposed to respond with anger to actions by members of dominant groups.  We are supposed to keep our cool, to turn the other cheek, seek the higher ground, not stoop to their level.

So we pretend we didn’t hear that cutting remark, muttered just loud enough to be audible.  We pretend we didn’t want to go to that party anyway—the one to which our invitation somehow got lost in the mail. Above all, we don’t respond directly to provocation, because that will just give them an excuse to keep going, and make the whole situation worse—not for them, but for us.

So the anger, unexpressed, gnaws at us, sitting in the pit of our stomachs as unmetabolized bitterness that threatens to choke us when, at unexpected moments, its bile rises into our throats.

Audre Lorde

As a woman, I have felt this bitter resentment.  And yet as a white woman, I have also felt the other side, the ignorant innocence of privilege.  Growing up in a racist society, I did, as Audre Lorde famously put it, accept racism “as an immutable given in the fabric of [our] society, like eveningtime or the common cold” (“The Uses of Anger,” Sister Outsider, 128).

I didn’t think to question why there were no African American families living in my apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan—other than, of course, the live-in maids who could be seen going in and out of the service entrance or trundling laundry down the service elevator. None of the doormen or elevator men were people of color either—most were Irish, like our superintendent, or perhaps German or Scandinavian.

I didn’t think to question why there were hardly any African Americans or Latinos in my public elementary school, or in the selective public high school I attended, Hunter College High School.  When I got to college, it was the same, and again, I was incurious, complacent.

When you grow up this way, in an insular environment of privilege, it is possible to be deluded into thinking that this is just the way the world is.  No one in my whole upbringing encouraged me to ask the kinds of questions that might have made me see the how the fabric of my existence was shot through with deep-seated, longstanding racism.  No one talked about it.  It just was, and since for me that privileged life was very comfortable, I had no incentive to rebel against it.

It was reading that eventually opened my eyes to how the other half (or, globally speaking, two-thirds) lives.

When I happened upon Lorde’s autobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, and read about how she too had gone to Hunter College High School, the only Black girl in a sea of white, and how hard that was for her in so many ways, I began to see my experience there through her outsider’s eyes.  I began to question the way I had lived in a vacuum of privileged blindness for so long.

Lorde’s essay on “The Uses of Anger” is one I go back to again and again.  The sentence that continues to resonate powerfully with me is this:

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own” (132).

Listening to Audre Lorde with an open heart, I understood why she was angry at the racist structures into which she was born and bred.  I knew I was not responsible for creating those structures, into which I too had been born and bred, but I did have the power to question them, and to ally myself with those who were working to change them.

When it comes to racism and other forms of identity-based oppression, it really is true that ‘you’re either with us or against us.”  There’s no way to hide behind a façade of neutrality.  To say nothing when someone drops a racial slur or pinches a woman’s behind is to become an accomplice to that act.  In these situations, silence is itself a form of tacit consent.

Audre wrote about that too, in an essay called “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.”

I often reread these lines when I am feeling fearful of speaking out on an issue I care about:

“We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid….We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us….it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence.  And there are so many silences to be broken” (42-44).

As an ally with some measure of privilege, one of the best things I can do to advance the goal of a just society is to speak up when I see racism or sexism or any other form of discrimination taking place.  And not just speaking to my friends, but speaking up in public, inviting and sometimes even provoking a sustained conversation, with the aim of promoting greater awareness and understanding.

The flashpoint for the current unrest on my campus was a white male student challenging the validity of the school holding a campus-wide teach-in known as “Diversity Day,” in which students, staff and faculty organize workshops around issues related to the politics of identity.  Originally, Diversity Day was entirely a student-organized event, held on an extracurricular basis to compensate for a perceived lack of attention to non-white-western-male culture and experience in the curriculum.  The founding students lobbied hard, and ultimately successfully, to have their effort institutionalized by having classes cancelled, with all students required to attend at least two workshops during the day.

Whenever a revolutionary gesture becomes institutionalized, it loses some of its spark, and maybe this is an event that needs to continue to evolve.

But only someone who was ignorant of the extent to which discrimination and structural identity-based limitations continue to affect women and people of color in this country could argue in good faith that it was not worthwhile to spend some time discussing these issues one day out of the school year.

Of course, many students will take classes in sociology, anthropology, gender studies or ethnic studies and go a lot deeper. But those are often the students who already have an inkling that all is not well for subordinate groups.

It is the most privileged who are often the least aware of how systems of privilege operate, and therefore the least likely to elect to take classes in these topics.  These are the students who are most likely to benefit from being required to attend two eye-opening workshops on Diversity Day.

At many of these workshops, people of privilege will be asked to confront W.E.B. Dubois’s famous question in The Souls of Black Folk, “How does it feel to be a problem?”

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen, one of the finest anti-racist, anti-sexist writers and educators I know, says that in the 21st century, “the new White People’s Burden is to understand that we are the problem, to come to terms with what that really means, and act based on that understanding.  Our burden is to do something that doesn’t seem to come naturally to people in positions of unearned power and privilege: Look in the mirror honestly and concede that we live in an unjust society and have no right to some of what we have” (Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege, 92).

The next step, he says, is to “commit to dismantling white supremacy as an ideology and a lived reality”—not because it’s hurting other people, but because, as Lorde recognized, “none of us is free while some of us are still shackled.”

Or, as Alice Walker put it, “We care because we know this: The life we save is our own.”

Hats Off to the Central Park Rape Victim

The gutsy 73-year-old woman who was raped by a drifter in Central Park last week has been on my mind since I first heard about her.

The assailant has been caught, and it turns out he has a history of raping and murdering elderly women, going back to the 1980s.

The mystery is why a man like that was let out of jail.  We keep kids in prison for minor drug infractions, but we let a psycho rapist and murderer out on parole and allow him to drift across state lines without supervision?

Like so many other homeless people, he ended up drifting around in Central Park, and according to the victim, whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy, he had it in for her because a couple of weeks earlier she photographed him masturbating in a lonely section of the park.

The Ramble, Central Park

She was a birder who wandered the park with her binoculars and camera around her neck, in the wooded section known as “the Ramble,” which I remember well from my own youthful ramblings.  I would never set foot in the park alone without my big dog beside me, though.  I knew better than that.  And if I ever saw anyone looking suspicious, I made a beeline for the nearest police officer.  Growing up in Manhattan, you knew you always had to be on guard.

The birdwatcher probably took his picture to identify him to the police, because she did report his obscene public activity to a park ranger.  Unfortunately, her warning was ignored.

Now, after she was pushed down in the bushes and raped in broad daylight, the police aren’t ignoring her anymore.  Thanks to her alert vigilance, she was able to pick her assailant out of a police line-up just a day or so after the crime occurred.

Knowing as much as I do about sexual assault and its psychological effects (I teach a course in Gender & Violence) I have to say I am very impressed with the cool demeanor of this victim.

No hysterics or undue shame—this woman is speaking out, and in the process setting a model for other women to follow.

Rape statistics in the US are pretty ugly.

  • Every two minutes, someone in the US is being sexually assaulted.  Each year there are nearly 208,000 sexual assault in the US
  • 54% of rapes are never reported, and 97% of rapists will never spend a night in jail
  • 80% of victims are under 30, 44% under 18
  • 38% of rapists are a friend of acquaintance of the victim

So the most recent Central Park rape was unusual on every score: the victim was an elder, the rapist was unknown to her, and most important, she marched right out of the shrubbery where she’d been raped and reported it to the police.

In your more typical rape case, a young woman may not want to report the crime because a) it’s embarrassing; b) she would have to undergo invasive evidence-gathering; c) she might be afraid that the rapist, if not arrested, would retaliate against her; d) it’s common knowledge that rape trials are long and intense, and rarely result in conviction.

All this is true.  But it’s also true that if more than half of rape victims do not report the crime or press charges, then that allows the assailants to proceed with cocky impunity.

I don’t think that was part of the picture with David Albert Mitchell, the Central Park birder’s assailant.

He was just a dangerously unbalanced, violent man who has obviously been failed by the criminal justice system.  He should never have been granted parole.

But many rapists circulate in our society much more suavely, preying on young women and girls without necessarily even realizing that what they’re doing is wrong.

In a culture where violent pornographic videos are easily available on the internet, and violence against women is a common ingredient in music videos and Hollywood films as well, it is not hard to see how a young man could get the impression that violating a woman is just another way to prove one’s manhood.

More of us older women have to stand up and say no to this violence.

For quite some time, my heroine in this work has been Eve Ensler, whose V-Day organization has been incredibly successful in channeling women’s creativity and righteous passions into educational anti-violence work.

I don’t yet have a name or a face to put on the 73-year-old Central Park rape victim, but I want her to know she’s my heroine too.

All we’ve seen of the victim so far

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