What's the Matter with Picking on Kansas

Last week’s Economist has a book review of Philip Legrain’s Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them. As I understand it Legrain argues that immigration does not do economic harm to receiving countries and is highly economically beneficial for sending countries. The reviewer jumps off from Legrain’s economic analysis to talk about the intersection of anti-immigrant sentiments and racism. In the U.S. most low-skilled immigrants (and I think this is the relevant group to be thinking about since it seems that most of the anti-immigrant sentiment focuses on this group) are non-white. The same is not true in the U.K. where the addition of poorer countries to the EU has lead to an influx of lesser skilled immigrants from Poland and elsewhere. The reviewer contrasts the lack of protest about the incorporation of European immigrants to the reception of muslim immigrants.

In the U.S. the rhetoric around immigration (particularly undocumented immigration) focuses heavily on the effect that they have on our economy and society. They take our jobs. They lower our wages. They leach off our social services that our tax dollars pay for. The evidence suggests that these effects are either entirely non-existent or at the least significantly less strong effects than lots of immigration opponents seem to think. Still, these sorts of images are used to reinforce exclusionary politics. And as The Economist points, racism will likely continue to drive immigration policy in rich countries for the foreseeable future.

So I could take a stand here and rail against the racist hate-mongers who drive these policies of anti-immigrant-who-is-other but the problem of bigotry is an interesting one because eventually you realize that there are a lot of people living in glass houses. A few days ago I pulled into the parking structure at UCLA and noticed a truck with a bumper sticker that displayed the word Kansas in big letters and then in smaller ones underneath “as bigoted as you think.” This strikes me as a pretty typical liberal holier than thou attitude. I have a number of acquaintances all too ready to hold court on what’s the matter with not just Kansas, but the entirety of the midwest. Apparently bigotry is just fine as long as it’s aimed toward “red-necks.” I’m not sure that I have an erudite commentary that would coherently link these two threads of thought. But I am quite convinced that they are linked, that unchallenged denigration of “other” is no more acceptable from the urban coastal elite than it is from the middle of the country. Moreover I remain unconvinced that Kansas (by which I mean any of the “red” states) is particularly more bigoted than anywhere else. Southern California isn’t precisely a uniform tableau of tolerance. There is, perhaps, a more heterogeneous set of hatred here than elsewhere but I’m not quite sure that I’m confident enough in the material my house is constructed of to be throwing stones at others.


And now my high school has a wikipedia entry.

I’m not sure how much news coverage this is getting outside of Wisconsin. But this morning John Klang, the principal of the Weston school district, was shot by a student. Klang was ultimately taken to University Hospital in Madison and died this afternoon at 3:30. A fifteen year old student came into the school with a shotgun and a concealed handgun. A janitor got the shotgun away from him but when the student appeared to be pulling another gun out of his pocket both the janitor and the teacher who were in the hall at the time took cover. The principal confronted the student and was shot three times while struggling to disarm him (which ultimately he apparently succeeded in doing).

I graduated from Weston ten years ago. Klang wasn’t principal yet but he had been on the school board for years. His three kids were quite a bit younger than me but we were on the same school bus route, so I knew them reasonably well. I also knew the janitor who wrestled the gun away from the kid. He was a janitor when I was still a student. And he worked with my father while my father was still a janitor at the high school (a position he left when I was 14).

I’ve been reading the news coverage. I feel a detached sense of grief and horror. I haven’t been back to the school in years. I don’t keep in contact with anyone in the area except my parents. I always felt like an outsider there. And I was. My parents moved there when I was a toddler. They’re happy there and fit in well enough but they aren’t strongly tied to the community. Still it is the place where I spent almost my entire childhood (certainly all of it that I remember). So this feels tragic and shocking in precisely the way things feel tragic and shocking when they hit close to home (literally, in this case).

I am shocked because it is always shocking when tragedy strikes. But I am not shocked that it happened in rural Wisconsin. The same things happen in rural Wisconsin as anywhere else. There’s drugs. There’s violence. There are weapons. All of it is on a smaller scale because there are so many fewer people. Although I suppose it’s worth noting that per capita weapon ownership is probably highest in rural areas.

I am sad about John Klang’s death. My heart goes out to his family, to his children who are adults now but who I will always remember as the children I knew on the school bus. I have the utmost respect for the janitor who acted so quickly to try to disarm the student.

I am full of anger and grief. Of course some of that grief is related to the death itself, but most of it is grief over the way our society fails large groups of children. When I heard the news I thought of my fellow classmates at Weston when I was there. I thought of the troubled angry outcasts struggling to deal with bad family situations, failure in school, ostracization. Often all three at the same time. I thought of the students I had actually been afraid of. And I thought of the ones who were intensely lost in their own pain but nonetheless sweet souls.

I look at the pictures of the shooter. He’s just a kid. He’s 15. My senior year there were a couple of eighth graders who used to hang out in the band room during their study hall, which overlapped with my lunch hour. I knew them both well. They were sweet boys but intense and sometimes prone to deep anger. One was in foster care and had a string of discipline issues following him. The other mostly stayed out of trouble but you could see clouds of trouble in his eyes, nonetheless. I thought about the two of them this morning when I heard the news because I imagined that the shooter might not be all that different from either of them. I’ll admit I wasn’t surprised when stories this afternoon identified him as a special ed student (Weston shunts all the students with discipline problems into special ed, which I think sometimes only causes them to feel more isolated). And while I was deeply saddened, I was not surprised to find that he was a victim of child abuse.

I’ve known too many children in situations that no child should have to bear. And it breaks my heart to think about the long-lasting effects those situations have. How does a fifteen year old child reach the point where they show up at school with a shotgun and a pistol? Inevitably these sorts of incidents lead to a condemnation of the media. And I won’t argue that there is no effect of violence in movies, TV, and video games on children’s behavior. But I think those effects are utterly and completely trivial compared to the effects of physical and emotional violence in children’s day-to-day lives. Of course the questions that will be asked in the wake of this is how we can be sure that children are safe in school. Perhaps greater security in schools will be proposed. How many people will ask how we can be sure that children are safe in their homes? How many people will ask what sort of emotional support and mental health care this child had after his father was charged with felony child abuse and allowed no unsupervised visits for a year and a half?

I have read a number of comments various places that essentially come down to “what is wrong with people?” In most cases that blame seems directed toward the shooter. It’s sort of a “what is wrong with kids these days?” sentiment. And while I can understand that thought process, it’s not where my mind goes first. The first though that comes to my mind is “how did we manage to fail these children so completely?”

The Ivory Tower, Bastion of Privileged Ignorance

Once upon a time I was an idealistic undergrad with great intellectual curiosity who longed to spend her life in the academic realm. At the time I hated the term “ivory tower.” I hated the people who implied that academics were locked away from the world and clueless about the lives of real people. I have since changed my mind. I still think the common sense vs. book smart distinction that comes up so often in anti-intellectual critiques is a crock of shit. But frankly, I can’t argue with the tower metaphor. Not all academics are clueless about the reality of the world, of course. But enough are that if you invoke the broad-brush generalization I no longer feel any need to correct you. Perhaps the problem is less pronounced among less elite academics. But that poses little threat to the ivory tower image since the “ivory” part implies the very eliteness of the institutions in question. My experience is with academics in the big research universities. Indeed my experience is with academics in the big research universities who study inequality. And I will say without batting an eye that in nearly all cases they have absolutely no clue whatsoever what it is really like to be outside the realm of the well-educated elite.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t claim the problem is limited to intellectuals employed in the academic domain. Arguably the vast majority of the world’s economically privileged have no real clue what it’s like not to hold that privilege. Indeed, the vast majority of the world’s privileged have no clue whatsoever what it might be like not to hold whatever aspect of privilege it is they hold. So why do I feel a bit betrayed that the academic elite, taken as a group, seems to have no clue what it is like to be a have-not? Simply because I think they should know better. In particular I mean that if you are a sociologist or an economist who studies families, or inequality, or really anything other than the white upper-middle class, you really ought to have some clue about the subject at hand. I don’t mean you should be able to volley around statistics. I mean you should be able to bend your mind in such a way that you can actually see what life is like. And the image you get should not be some sort of Picasso-esque distorted tangle in which your frame of reference is the only right one and everything else is seen as inferior or weird. Apparently I was foolish to think that the research community as a whole had moved significantly away from the old anthropology attitude of studying the curiously strange native.

My first year of graduate school I took a class on forms of capital. We studied human capital, social capital, and cultural capital. The professor made a big deal about how important social capital and cultural capital were in reproducing class status across generations. More than once he made claims about the amount of social and cultural capital we had access to. His evidence for our privileged status was our presence in his classroom. Of course if we were well-educated, with strong social networks, and lots of cultural knowledge pertinent to middle-class life that must mean that the same was true of our parents. If our parents weren’t well-educated, with strong networks, and cultural knowledge there’s no way we could possibly be pursuing PhDs at UCLA. At the time I chalked his attitude and explicit assumptions about our privilege up to individual pomposity and ignorance. Since then, though, I have come to understand that though the assumptions are not phrased as directly as he phrased them in that classroom, the assumption is still there.

It is painful to feel that your background makes you alien. It is painful to experience this feeling of difference that you must choose constantly whether to mark or ignore. But more painful is the rampant and often offensive ignorance about the realities of day-to-day life for people with whom you strongly identify. I’m going to focus on the concept of poverty, because it is most salient to me. But I think what happens in these discussions happens elsewhere too. I don’t think the “othering” that occurs is particularly unique to the economic realm. It just feels most like a punch in a gut to me personally when it is focused on economics. There are two ways of thinking about poverty that I find particularly repugnant. The first I will call the romanticization of poverty. The second, I will call the fallacy of impossibility. I encounter examples of both all too often. And as the examples of each pile up higher and higher I become angrier and more disillusioned. I become more convinced that the tower is real, and maybe even intentional (after all, god forbid “they” try to interact with “us”).

In the case of romanticizing poverty, certain aspects of day-to-day life are drawn on to highlight how great being poor must really be. Here the simplicity of being poor is exalted. Poverty is equated with rejection of consumerism. Poverty is equated with strength and resilience. Being poor gives you something that you just can’t get if you have money. Not having money helps you realize that money doesn’t matter. Being poor makes you strong and noble and creative.

The most grievous example of offensive ignorance I have yet to experience from an academic falls into this category. I was at dinner gathering with a group of faculty members from a number of universities and disciplines. (I’m not going to go into specific details of what the dinner was, or who was there, as I would like to keep this anecdote and the players as unrecognizable as possible) A sociologist was talking to an economist. Let’s, for simplicity call the sociologist S and the economist E. S told E that she had grown up in Ohio. E asked her if she grew up in Appalachia. She said no. He asked if she was sure, since sometimes the boundaries of Appalachia were weird and some very wealthy zip codes ended up being counted as Appalachia. She insisted that she was quite sure that she did not grow up in Appalachia. E then commented that S seemed like she could be “white trash.” S was, understandably, somewhat taken aback by this comment. E assured her that he meant it as a compliment. He explained that he had once had a student who took great pride in being white trash. She was even born in a trailer. She was very vocal about her background. She was very proud of it. I interjected at this point and noted that your choices were either to proudly proclaim your background or to hide it. My comment was virtually ignored. E then went on to say how great he thought Appalachia was and how much he enjoyed going there. He insisted that the people there were just so ingenious. They took old car tires, filled them with dirt, and planted flowers in them. He extolled the virtues of this, noting how amazing it was that they could take something ugly and make it beautiful.

I could forgive E for his ignorance, his wild-eyed innocent “oh gosh being poor just makes you so strong and creative” though patterns if it weren’t for the fact that he is an economist in a powerful position in a good university. Even then, I could probably forgive the ignorance if he studied something unrelated. But, given that one of the things he studies is the economics of Appalachia and another is welfare use, I can’t help but think he should damn well know better. At the very least I would think that he could be counted upon to be smart enough to know that “white trash” is almost universally not a nice thing to call someone.

The other side of the coin from the “oh ain’t it great to conquer adversity” romantic image of poverty is the “oh it must be impossible to be anything but miserable constantly” school of thought. In this case the poor are persistantly “other.” This is very much like the school of thought that decrees that all mothers on welfare are lazy good-for-nothings that deserve their fate. The difference is that this line of thought is less negatively value laden. The thoughts aren’t framed as “the poor choose to be poor.” Rather the thoughts are framed as “being poor is horrible, miserable, all-consuming, and virtually inescapable.” Essentially the thought is that any life besides the middle-class life is really no life at all.

My most recent example of this fallacy of impossibility is framed almost literally as any life besides the middle-class life is really no life at all. I was at a talk given by Katherine Newman. The focus of the talk was on a follow-up study that she had done on the lives of the fast food workers in Harlem that are featured in No Shame in My Game. She described what happened to the original research participants over the years after the time period covered by the book. Though fast food work is seen as a dead end, she showed that a sizable number of the workers actually were able to find stepping stones to better things. She reported some of the incomes of the respondents. Many of the success stories she cited were making around $30,000 per year. During the question and answer session a member of the sociology faculty who studies income inequality raised his hand and asked “do you really have any success stories here; after all, what kind of life can you live on $30,000 per year?” I give Newman a lot of credit for responding “what kind of life can you have on $30,000 per year? A lot better life than you can have on $12,000 per year, I’ll tell you that.” She then put the numbers into a bit of perspective. For a family of four, $30,000 is about 150% of the poverty line. This, of course, assumes that there is only the one income. Many of her respondents were able to become more economically secure through marriage or cohabitation. She points out that the respondents with income in the $30,000 range had an easier time meeting their basic expenses. They could pay the rent. They could buy food.

It is useful to put numbers into perspective, to recognize that at $30,000 a year a family is far from fully economically secure. Nonetheless it angers me to have someone who studies income essentially put forward the notion that you can’t lead a happy life on $30,000 per year. It is important to remember that a $30,000 a year job does not solve all the problems of these Harlem residents. But to imply that getting from a minimum wage job to a job that pays more than twice is not success, to my mind puts too privileged a lense on success.

In college I had a classmate once say “you can’t raise a family on $30,000 per year.” I wanted to drag him to the side of town where people regularly do just that. I wanted to respond “funny, my parents did.”

Being poor does not make you strong and noble and creative. Being poor also does not doom you to unrelenting, inescapable misery. The truth is a much more nuanced something in between. And if you need a tired, disillusioned graduate student to point this out to you, then maybe you need to get your ass out of your protective tower and actually talk to someone whose name is not followed by a string of letters. Either that or you need to start calling yourself an “expert” on something else entirely. Because tires with flowers planted in them don’t make everything all better. And are you really willing to pay enough for the services you consume to pay all those workers more than $30,000 a year to support your privileged lifestyle? The fact that my parents pays all their living expenses for less money than some of you pay for your children’s private school tuition does not make them better than you. But it doesn’t make them worse either.

As a final note, to put my anger at E’s comments about Appalachia into a bit more perspective I will offer a few details of my own background. My mother’s family comes from the hills of Ohio, which is to say Appalachia. My family tree is populated by genuine hill-billies, not the quaint, struck oil and now live in LA kind you can see in reruns. Plus, growing up my grandparents (who I always saw as the very archetype of middle-class since they owned a house with a swimming pool) had at least two tractor tire planters in the back yard.

Let’s just say that, a year later, I still can’t find the words for how I felt sitting in that conversation. I remember trying to find the words to answer the things that he was saying. I remember spending the rest of the night wondering if I should pull him aside and explain to him that nowhere is “white trash” a compliment. And I remember crying the entire drive home because it hit me during the course of that night–while eating fancy catered food in a house nicer than anything my high school self could ever have imagined affording, in a neighborhood where houses cost more than my father will have made in his entire work history–that I will likely spend the rest of my life making the calculations I made during that conversation. Can I afford to challenge this? How do I explain the degree to which I am offended by this without seeming rude, reactionary, or otherwise unprofessional? Ultimately, someone tactfully changed the subject before I could offer a rejoinder. Notably everyone else in the conversation seemed uncomfortable. But no one challenged E on his statements. In that night it became clear to me that the off hand problematic comments I heard and the offensive assumptions about the poor that are dropped into talks and sometimes even into research papers weren’t just idiosyncratic pieces of personal ignorance. In that night it dawned on me, much the way that the pain from a punch in the gut dawns on you, that what I was looking at was a trend.

Are you keeping up with the Jones' debt load?

Last week I logged onto the website of my local credit union to check and see if my rent check had cleared yet. Upon arriving at their website I was greeted by a picture of a large TV with a football player jumping out of it to catch a football and text proclaiming “Buying a HDTV? Finance it with a low-rate [Credit Union] loan.” Now of course as a graduate student I’m probably not in the best position to be criticizing other people’s financial decisions. I’ve taken out student loans that paid for all sorts of stupid things (though mostly those things were food, rent, and car insurance). And I regularly end up carrying credit card debt for moderate periods of time (i.e. less than a year but more than a month). Again this is mostly for semi-necessary bills (arguably my cell phone isn’t necessary nor is a large chunk of my food expenditure) but there are certainly splurges that appear there. Nonetheless, despite not exactly being little Ms. Frugal myself, I am utterly and completely horrified by the mere idea of taking out a loan to buy a TV.

In the interest of full disclosure I should probably mention that I find this particularly horrific precisely because I don’t watch TV, and thus don’t understand the concept of high definition TV. But really, even if I loved TV, I think I’d be hard pressed to understand the concept of taking out a loan to buy one. Granted, loans in general are not my default mindset. I grew up in an essentially debt-free home. My parents rent and as far as I know they always paid for cars outright. My mother is a big believer in paying off credit cards every month. Given that, the fact that I have any debt at all is stressful for me (even though my student loan debt is minimal compared to how long I’ve been in school). But I understand the concept of debt. Mortgages seem an inevitable part of middle-class life. And I can see myself someday giving in to the idea of a car payment (if I’m really lucky my current car–which was bought new as a gift from a relative when I started graduate school–will last me long enough that I don’t have to contemplate the idea of student loan debt and car payments at the same time). But what mindset ends you up taking out a loan for a TV?

I’ve seen lots of figures (which I am currently too lazy to dig up) about Americans and their debt load. I think I’ve always sort of naively assumed that this was primarily credit card debt that built up over time and series of small purchases. Of course that sort of debt isn’t better in any sense and is almost certainly worse in the sense that it probably entails much higher interest rates. But, to me at least, it’s more understandable than debt incurred in one fell swoop for purely luxury items. I can understand how small purchases that “I’ll pay off next month, really” could aggregate and spiral into massive credit card debt. I can understand how living on credit cards for a couple of months while unemployed could have the same effect. The thought process that leads to “I need an HDTV and I think I’ll take out a line of credit from the credit union for it” is a bit beyond me. Presumably it’s somehow SuperBowl related. But that makes it even further beyond me (during my first year of college I fell in with a group of sports-lovers; they forbade me from joining them to watch the SuperBowl since I made it clear that really I only wanted to come watch the commercials).

I suppose what really perplexed me was the fact that this was on my credit union’s website. I tend to think of credit unions as more focused on their customer base and less on profit than a bank. Probably because I grew up in a small town with a very friendly, very grass roots feeling credit union where the tellers would actually recognize my mother and I when we would come in. So the thought of a credit union advertising loans for TVs just feels disappointing to me. It feels very much like “haha we’re going to make a profit off your idiocy” rather than “we are looking out for you and your money.” One could argue of course that this is looking out for people’s money if you assume that they’re going to buy the HDTV no matter what and their choice set is a) buy on store credit b) buy on credit card c) steal money to buy it or d) buy with credit union loan. Clearly if that is the situation, then the credit union is doing people a service by leading them to choice d. However, if the choice process is a) don’t by an expensive TV because I can’t afford it or b) go into debt for a TV then I think the credit union is doing their members a disservice in leading them toward b.

Meanwhile I wish I owned a home so that I could cash in the equity to pay for an extravagant vacation or a boat or something. At this point the Jones are going to get to their bankruptcy hearing way before I do.

No Clemency

I wish I had something insightful to say about Schwarzenegger’s decision to deny clemency to Stanley Tookie Williams. For me it comes down fundamentally to the fact that I am firmly against the death penalty. Given that, I need not delve any deeper into the questions of guilt vs. innocence or whether Williams has legitimately changed. But this case makes me sad at a deep level because it is not just a question of the morality of state sanctioned killing. For me there is something much deeper to this than just the case of a man convicted of murder who will be put to death by a criminal system structured around revenge rather than reformation.

Surrounding all of this are the realities of race and class hierarchies in this country. Williams is a founder of the Crips. Given that fact, it is perhaps easy to understand the bloodlust that this case seems to inspire for some. But it ignores the question of how gangs form and survive in the first place. It’s not my area of expertise so I can’t lay out all the forces involved. But I will suggest that perhaps when society denies you access to resources and infastructure it is logical to form social structures that give you access to other resources. Too often it seems to me that the way violence and crime gets talked falls back to the assumption of actual equality, both under law and in a the reality of day-to-day living. It always surprises me when people assume that all that is necessary to get out of poverty is the desire to get out of poverty. As if somehow wanting an education will change the quality of the school system you are in (on this one I can assure you from my own experience that it does not). As if somehow wanting a job will change the labor market you are in. It’s a pervasive myth. And a dangerous one.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing that we should shrug our shoulders at the activities of gangs. But I think discussions of these things need to face the realities of what the choices for young men of color in poor urban areas are. These boys are not making the choice between gang life and a job on wall street. But who am I kidding? It is precisely the ability to stick your head in the sand that race and class privilege buys.

Tonight I am sad, and angry. I am also mildly concerned that other people’s sadness and anger may be expressed as violence (lots of my friends seem a bit concerned about violence in my neighborhood and surrounding areas but my fear is more generic than personal; perhaps this is naive) . I’m not normally the type to pray in recognizable ways. But tonight I will light a candle and hope.

Children in public places (and as public goods)

So there’s been some discussion in various places of an article in the NY Times about a coffee shop in Chicago that put up a sign saying “children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices when coming to A Taste of Heaven.” This dovetails with something else that I’ve been thinking about lately.

Not long ago I was flipping through Bitch Ph.D.‘s better rants and came across this post about children. Dr. B makes the argument that children are members of society, not public goods. I have to admit that I’m guilty of the “children are public goods” argument. Actually it’s my default argument when it comes to discussing public policy and children, particulary when my audience happens to be of the child-free crowd or libertarians arguing for the total privatization of education. This is not to say that I think children are only public goods. As Dr. B makes pretty clear, that would be distinctly anti-social of me. But people who hate children, or hate providing support for other people’s children, aren’t likely to be swayed by moral societal arguments. (Note, by the way, that I don’t mean to imply that all of the child-free folks hate children, but people who hate children are an important subset to whom policy arguments need to be addressed). I firmly believe that even if you hate children and think they are little embodiments of satan who have no place in society, that you are still obligated to provide support to them and their parents in the form of family-friendly public policy. Why? Sure, I suppose one could argue that there’s the moral obligation to deal with fellow humans in ethical ways. But more importantly, though utterly cliched, children are the future. Today’s children are tomorrow’s workforce and tomorrow’s criminals. There are lots of really good reasons to invest in children. And most of those reasons can be cast in terms of public goods, even if perhaps they shouldn’t be.

That aside, though, back to the question of children in public spaces. As someone who doesn’t have children, and who, at the present time, has no intention of having children, I find myself sometimes having a hard time figuring out what the appropriate societal and policy lines between children’s rights and adults’ rights are. Public space is a particularly vexing issue for me. I know that I should be supportive of children in public spaces. Socialization is good for children and, by my own public goods arguments, things that are good for children are ultimately good for society and me. And of course, besides that, children are people and should be treated as such.

This means that, for instance, I should be perfectly fine with well-behaved children in restaurants. Nonetheless, last spring I found myself at a table in a restaurant next to a table with two relatively well-behaved boys who were about eight to ten years old. They weren’t particularly loud, but they were loud enough for their conversation to easily carry to our table and somehow their voices were just grating enough that I wasn’t really able to cope and I ended up making a very snarky comment about their presence to my dinner companion. I said it in what was meant to be a whisper but was apparently loud enough for him to think the parents could have potentially heard. In my defense I was tired, overwhelmed, and dealing with a death in the family. Still, I was mortified by my hostility, and even more disturbed to find myself rather hostile to children present in other public spaces. I have become one of those adults who winces when I walk to my gate at the airport and note the presence of members of the pre-school set.

The truth is that though I recognize the right of children to be present in society, all too often I wish they weren’t. I have great respect for parents who have well-behaved children. I also have a great deal of sympathy for parents who want to spend time out in the world and can’t afford babysitters. But I also really like the idea of being able to go out for dinner without having to worry about whether there’ll be a temper tantrum two tables over (not that temper tantrums are absent among adults, but they’re less common).

In general I’m very supportive of policies that make life better for parents and children. I’m all for family leave. I’m all for employer (or public) subsidized child care. And I’m theoretically all for the right of children to participate in public places. But I do think that parents have a responsibility to make sure that their children behave in ways that are acceptable to the spaces their children are in. If we’re going to argue that children have a right to be in public space because they are people and we have to deal with people in public spaces then shouldn’t we also be willing to accept arguments that children should have to abide by similar rules to those followed by other people in the space? There’s the example of children running and throwing themselves at the display cases in the coffee shop. Wouldn’t an adult doing similar be asked to leave? What about the kid lying in the way of the coffee line? Wouldn’t we be perfectly justified in asking an adult blocking a line to at least move over? I honestly think we do a disservice to children by assuming that they are incapable of behaving in reasonable ways. Sure, everyone has bad days, kids included. But part of growing up is learning how to behave in ways that are consistent with the norms of the setting. Is someone really going to argue that that’s a bad thing?

I’m not sure what the balance is, really. On the one hand as an adult without children I think that I really ought to be able to go places and spend my money on food and coffee without having to deal with screaming. Let’s note that I’d be just as irate if the screaming came from adults (there is, after all, a reason I avoid sports bars). I like quiet. But I also firmly believe that we as a society need to integrate children better and be more supportive to parents. I suppose it makes me a hypocrite to wish that we could integrate children better somewhere else, doesn’t it?

How do we solve problems that have no solutions?

I started writing this over a month ago and never finished. Story of way too much of my life right now. But the thoughts seem coherent enough as started. So you get that.

Twisty at I blame the patriarchy has been critiquing the patriarchal nature of fashion this week. There’s a whole series of posts, but this one takes on fashion head on in a way I find interesting. Essentially the argument is that all fashion serves to sort people into categories and that all fashion is informed and shaped by our patriarchal system. Fair enough. I’ll buy that. She also argues that within our patriarchal system women’s agency is limited and that women make up a subordinated sex class. The argument that women’s agency is hindered by patriarchy is one that I’m willing to accept.

Twisty concludes:

A few of you have wondered what I suggest in terms of the patriarchy-blamer’s value-neutral wardrobe. Sadly, if my hypothesis is correct, such duds do not exist. Feminism cannot seem to counteract the intoxicating effects of male domination. In our culture it is the moral duty of every woman to be “sexy”, and her value remains tied to her success in this painful endeavor. You’re either “sexy” or you’re a schlub. Fucking patriarchy. I blame it, I do.

I’m tempted to conclude that she’s right. On the surface, the argument holds pretty well. But in the end it feels defeatist to me. In the end I think arguments of this sort give too little credit to what agency oppressed people do have within systems of oppression. To say that one has less agency in one social position than one would if one were in another, is not the same as saying that one has no agency. It is not the same as saying “resistance is futile.” So the question then becomes, is resistance futile? How much agency do I have? Is that agency enough to actually effect anything, or should I use what agency I have to choose the path of least resistance?

The Commodified Body

What does my body mean? What is it worth? Who does it benefit? How much are you willing to pay for it? Despite four years in women’s studies classrooms and half a lifetime of personal feminism, the questions still sound a little strange to me even as I ask them. But in the past few days I’ve come to the conclusion that these are precisely the questions I need to be asking. What do bodies mean in our consumer culture? What do female bodies mean? And if my body can be bought and sold, even if I am the one selling mine, what does that imply about freedom?

Let me start with a couple of caveats. I consider myself a pro-sex feminist. Moreover, I’ve never believed that pornography is the root of all evil and oppression. I tend to part ways philosophically from the likes of Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin pretty fast. As a primarily hetorsexual woman with some notable bisexual leanings, I actually benefit somewhat from the sexualization of women. And I’ve always been mildly uncomfortable with my own ability to objectify women, but reasoned that the objectification itself (at the mental level) is not entirely unnatural. The problem with objectification is how it’s performed in the world. At a certain level if you look at a stranger and appreciate their physical form you’re objectifying them. And frankly, I don’t think I’m ever going to get to a point where I don’t find myself appreciating the physical forms of those around me. Still, I find objectification as it tends to be practiced in our society sad and scary.

Last weekend I went to Vegas for the first time. We stayed in a hotel off the strip. As it happened, said hotel was right next to Club Paradise, a strip club. As it turns out, I’d never been to a strip club either. Not out of lack of interest particularly. It just was never high enough one my “things I want to do” list to make putting the effort into doing so. So when the friend of the friend I was brought up the idea of going to Club Paradise, I was enthusiastic. Indeed it’s probably my enthusiasm that resulted in us actually ending up at Club Paradise.

I was fully expecting to enjoy the experience. Lots of my female friends like strip clubs. I have great appreciation for the naked female form (though even going in I knew that I have an appreciation for a larger range of female forms than I was going to find there). So where’s the problem?

I’m still not sure I can explain my emotional response in a way that makes sense but I did not enjoy the experience. In fact it made me queasy, depressed, and a little angry. Something about actual women, removing actual clothes, and gyrate around their actual bodies, in an actual club was disturbing to me in the way that the theoreticals never were. B. pointed out to me that this particular club was creepier than others he’s been to on account of the particularly aggressive money extraction (i.e. cover charge to get in, minimum bar tabs for tables, etc.). But I’m unconvinced that I could have stomached any other club any better.

The first problem was two of the men I was with trying to talk me into a lapdance. I was unethusiastic and actually balked at the idea. It took me a minute of standing watching the stage to figure out why. As a woman getting a lapdance I would be playing into the lesbian fantasy that so many men seem to have. A woman getting a lapdance stops being a consumer of semi-naked women and becomes an object herself. So I rejected the lapdance, intending to just enjoy the women from a distance. Except I couldn’t.

Somehow I couldn’t get past the knowledge that they were there because they were being paid. I couldn’t get past the knowledge that these were real live women in the flesh, and they were for sale. The more the women gyrated, the sadder I got. I just couldn’t shake the realization that I was in a huge club packed with people (more men than women, but women too) who had come to consume female flesh.

I don’t hold anything against the women at the club for selling access (if fleeting) to their bodies. I don’t even necessarily hold anything in particular against the men buying it (though I find it a touch disconcerting). But the social structure that all of this takes place in makes me want to scream and cry. It seems to me to be a simple step between “their bodies are for sale” and “my body is for sale.” Actually, that’s not really the problem. They make a choice to sell their bodies and I make a choice not to sell mine. And as long as I continue to think of it in those terms I have no problem. The problem is not with the selling, but the consuming. While I choose whether to sell my body, what I realized at Club Paradise is that I don’t necessarily choose whether or not my body is consumed. It’s not as if I didn’t at some level already know this to be true. But the club just made the point too clearly. The entire place screamed out “the female form is for the pleasure of men (and the occasional woman)” It screamed “the things beneath this flesh, hopes, dreams, personalities are irrelevant.”

I’d like to believe that this isn’t pervasive, that once I walk outside the confines of a given club that I am not for sale, that my body is no longer open to be consumed. But the realities of my experiences suggest otherwise. How many times have men with whom I share no intimate involvement made comments about my body? How often have I caught eyes tracking me as I move? Or tracking other women, whose bodies conform more strictly to our society’s oppressive standards of beauty?

We are a consumer society. We recieve constant messages to consume, consume, consume. So we consume things. And we consume people. And it isn’t just within so-called sex-work. We sell products using people as objects. Movies are all to often about the consumption of the image of people on the screen more than consumption of the story. Sex sells. Everywhere.

And some people even feel entitled to that. In a discussion about the Dove Real Woman ads, Jill of Feministe links to this article, which discusses men complaining about the ad campaign because the women in the ads designed to sell products to women are not attractive enough. The men complaining are implicitly asserting their right to not just consume images of women, but to consume images of beautiful women.

I want to run around screaming “I am not for sale.” I want to wear a huge paper bag over my head (and the rest of me) so that my body does not become object as I walk down the street.

All that said, at least in a strip club there’s a certain honesty. At least in that setting women are compensated for others’ consumption of them. Nonetheless, I don’t think I’ll go back to one anytime soon. I don’t really like the feeling when the realities of my society are presented to me so clearly in black in and white.

Not all garden implements are spades

I have great respect for people who are willing to call a spade a spade, particularly when they are willing to do so in situations where the status quo rules supreme. But I’ve become frustrated with what seems to me a tendency among some to call anything that even vaguely resembles a spade a spade (“it has a handle and you can dig with it, therefore it is a spade; the fact that you insist that it is in fact a hoe is a sign that you are not really with us.”) My main complaint with this lately has been in the area of racism, but it’s a danger in all anti-oppression work. Yes, I said a danger. I think that calling things that are not clearly instances of the racism (or other ism) racism (or other ism) weakens an anti-racist (or anti- other ist) movement. Why? Because it reduces your credibility, and because it makes you appear angry, reactionary, and fundamentally impossible to work with. At it’s worse I think it is equivalent to crying wolf.

Let’s step away from racism for a moment and talk about sexism, since that’s something that I’ve thought deeply about for a longer time (and an area where I’m less likely to be hit with “well it’s your privilege causing you to make that argument; if you were of the oppressed group you wouldn’t feel that way”). I once read (or perhaps it was a conversation) a sort of parody of feminist analysis that argued that ketchup is an element of the patriarchy? Why? Start with round tomatoes, clearly symbol of that which is feminine. Boil these tomatoes down and force them into a bottle. Not just any bottle but a bottle that is higher than it is wide (well, I guess that’s the definition of bottle, otherwise it would be a jar). Don’t you see, you’re taking the feminine round essence of the tomato and forcing it into the phallic masculine mold?! We must protest the patriarchal ketchup. Clearly this is satirical right? And you’d probably find yourself taken aback by anyone who seriously argued that ketchup is a tool of the patriarchy used to keep women down right? Indeed, you might even find yourself questioning whether this person could be trusted to ever cogently analyze what is and is not patriarchal, right?

In most cases the sorts of things that annoy me are not as full blown ridiculous as claiming that ketchup bottles reinforce patriarchy. (I’m sorry, I realize ridiculous is a judgmental term, but since I came up with the original argument in the first place I think I am justified in labeling it as patently ridiculous.) And as a result these things aren’t as damaging to the credibility of the analyses they are associated with, but still I find myself looking at a lot of things that seem very dangerous to credibility.

I’m going to cite an example that is contentious among the Unitarian Universalist community (or at least the online community, for various reasons I haven’t talked to anyone in my immediate UU community about the issue), but I think gets right to the core of my frustration. At the end of June there is an annual assembly of UUs called General Assembly or GA (UUs like acronyms). GA this year was in Fort Worth, Texas. Unsurprisingly there were some incidents of racism at GA. I say unsurprisingly not because I think racism is ok, but because as long as we live in a racist society some incidents of racism are inevitable, even among progressive religious people (who, incidentally, I often feel are much better at denying their racism than actually avoiding racist behavior). There was apparently a great deal of hurt surrounding some of these incidents, and a lot of processing went on around them as well, causing the cancellation of one of the social events in favor of time to process.

In the aftermath the board of trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association issued an open letter of apology. The letter doesn’t give much clue about what really happened or what the nature of any of the incidents really was. The discussions I have seen online about the issue have focused almost entirely on an incident that took place during the closing ceremonies. This incident involved some young people outside the hall. Apparently the young people in question did not have their badges that let the ushers know that they were in fact registered for GA. Thus the young people were not admitted to the closing ceremonies. This made them angry and there were unpleasant words exchanged between the youth and the minister who spoke up in the ushers’ defense.

As you can guess the young people in question were not white. And the incident was labeled racist. In the absence of other information that seemed like a potentially accurate analysis. ChaliceChick brought up another perfectly reasonable analysis, suggesting that the youth might have been asked for their badges not because they were black, but because they were youth. Indeed, she suggests that all the ensuing chaos might have had more to do with their age than their color. If you happen to be a UU you probably won’t be horribly surprised to find out that she was quite quickly attacked in a number of places for suggesting that just because an incident involved people of color does not automatically mean the incident was racist. Yes, for a faith that claims to be non-dogmatic, we are awfully vicious in enforcing the accepted group-think when it comes to racism.

And then, the first actual eye-witness account of what occurred appeared (it appeared first on the anti-racist white allies email list, but I’m linking the article on fuuse). According to the usher (who herself happens to not be white) who was present, the kids were not escorted out because they were black. Indeed they were not even escorted out because they didn’t have their badges. They were escorted out because they were rude and disruptive.

At this point, some people began to acknowledge that while racism is a problem within the UU community, this particular incident might not actually have been primarily about race. Many others, though, dug their heels in and continued to insist that this was racist. And maybe it was. We don’t all the details. But given the details that we do have, I have a really hard time with people saying unequivocably that this was racism. To me it’s like standing in a garden looking at a bit of handle poking out of the ground with the rest of the instrument hidden in the dirt and yelling “look, look, it’s a spade.” Much worse than the continued insistence that this is a spade is the names and insults being leveled at the people who reply “well, I suppose it could be a spade, but we can’t really tell so maybe it’s something else entirely.” This accomplishes nothing. It alienates those who are calling into question whether the implement is in fact a spade. And it may make them much less likely to believe someone when they say “I saw a spade lying out by the garden.” I know for me if you tell me that a little bit of handle poking out of the ground is definitely a spade and ridicule me when I say “it actually kind of looks like the handle to the garden weasel I left out here last fall” I’m going to be very hesitant to ever believe you when you tell me you’ve seen a spade.

I believe language is important. And I believe misusing it is detrimental. When you call everything used to dig a spade it lessens the precision of your analysis. When you call every negative incident that involves people of color racist you are undermining the term racism. You are weakening your position opposing racism. And potentially you are putting yourself in a position when people won’t hear you when you do see something that is racist.

I know that a lot of times it feels like incidents are because of the categories we live in. And often they are. But sometimes a jerk is just a jerk. And I think moving forward in our analyses and our actions requires that we be able to not only call a spade a spade but also stop and ask ourselves and others whether it really is a spade at all.

I’ve spent the past two years of my congregational life calling attention to structures and incidents that I feel are racist. And that’s important work and we should all do it. But for one thing it needs to be done in ways that aren’t confrontational or people’s feelings get hurt and they stop listening (and even if you don’t give a flying f*** if people’s feelings are hurt, if you want to get anything done you better care whether they keep listening). And it also needs to be done in a spirit that recognizes that if we think the people around us are wrong, they also might think we are. The minute we stop being able to question and analyze our own perceptions of things we are lost. If we cannot question everything including ourselves we run the very real risk of becoming a source of the very types of oppression we seek to root out.

Can I Learn to be Angry More Constructively than a Five Year Old?

How do we negotiate anger in an ethical way? I ask this question because it is rooted very deeply in a personal situation right now. But I think it is important, too, to think about in situations that are less immediately personal and more about community, about institutions and the people within them. The problem is not simply the negotiation of anger, though arguably that along is problem enough to deal with. The problem is negotiating anger within relationships that involve things other than just anger, relationships that cannot simply be severed either for pragmatic reasons or reasons nestled in the heart.

What I’m getting at is the question of how do you deal with anger while at the same time maintaining other emotions. Of course we deal with this frequently in small ways. A friend, for instance, may do something that angers us. But for the purposes of this reflection I’d like to draw a distinction between very temporary anger and more ongoing forms. What is bothering me is anger about situations that are not likely to change (or are only likely to change with great effort) and situations that cannot easily be smoothed over with apologies, heartfelt conversations, or other strategies of reconciliation. I am talking here, about deep and very painful anger.

I suppose I should start by confessing that I am bad at anger to begin with. It’s an emotion that I’m never sure how to shape into constructive form. But at a certain level there are people that I can at least feel angry at without making myself too uncomfortable. I am angry at the current U.S. president and this administration. I find this easy. I am angry at the history teacher who sexually harassed me throughout high school. Again, I experience this anger with very little internal conflict. I do sometimes feel twinges of guilt for the kind of anger that starts bleeding over into hatred because it does not seem to mesh with the UU principle of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” but there are ways to mentally overcome that hurdle. Eventually, after much thought, I have come to the conclusion that it is possible for people to tarnish themselves through their actions to the point where their inherent worth and dignity is no longer visible to the naked eye.

Lately I have been thinking about a much more interally conflicted sort of anger. Perhaps it is easiest to start with the very personal example and move from there to the more generic question of pragmatic alliances forged despite anger. The short version of the story is that I am currently very angry at a friend with whom I have had a very tumultous friendship over the past three years. He is someone I care very deeply about and who has been very valuable to me. He is also someone who has treated me in ways that hurt a great deal during that time. And while we did discuss these behaviors and the way they made me feel, they nonetheless continued. And ultimately I find myself standing at what feels like a brick wall. On the one hand my heart is expansive and full of good will, happy memories, and recognition of the powerful influence this man has had on my life and my identity. On the other hand I am suffering from a long accumulation of hurt. And I am angry that my hurt has been left largely unaddressed and indeed sometimes even unacknowledged. I have expressed both my hurt and my anger. Ultimately the expression changed very little in terms of how I felt about it. I was still hurt. I was still angry.

And this raises the question for me, what is one supposed to do with one’s anger? I feel like a hysterical child caught in a temper tantrum, stomping my feet and yelling and screaming. I am angry. I am hurt. And I’m rather exhausted from all this screaming and stamping my feet. I feel like this hysterical child because I don’t know what to do next besides yell and scream. And the yelling and screaming itself seems both pointless and manipulative. I have expressed my anger. I know nothing is going to change, really. Little things might, but the larger issues almost certainly won’t. I can continue to express my anger, but that feels as if it demands some response. And what response is there really? Apologies are frail substitutes for actual efforts to remedy a situation. And, in this case, I am not really looking for a remedy. And this leaves me feeling that I cannot continue to relate to this person because there seems to be no solution to my feelings besides continuing a relationship that leaves me prone to histrionics and tantrums. Continuing the friendship on those terms seems damaging to both of us. The effort of the tantrums is exhausting for me, and unfair to him. And so I am left balancing this feeling of deep, probably unreconcilable, anger with an equally deep and unshakable feeling of care and regard.

This is uncomfortable and hard to deal with in my personal life, and a lot of my current emotional energy is spent on trying to ease that discomfort. At the same time, though, I have been thinking about how these dynamics play out in other situations. In my life as a Unitarian Universalist I spend a lot of time looking at dynamics of oppression. My home congregation is one in which issues of racism (and language-based oppression) are very salient and must be dealt with at an institutional level constantly. Sometimes things can be very contentious. And I’ve both witnessed and experienced a great deal of anger in that setting. Nonetheless is a community in which we, by the choice to form a faith community, remain in relationship with one another. And I have to wonder what the effect of this is. I have seen hurt heaped high. And I have seen people continue on and work in alliance with each other later, despite having expressed deep hurt at past points. I don’t percieve that hurt being worked through. Much like with my friendship that now hangs in tatters, that hurt just seems to be pushed aside indefinitely. And I wonder what damage that does to our ability to really be in relationship with one another.

How do we form alliances through anger? Most social movements involve some aspect of this. Those fighting to right their own institutional disenfranchisement often find themselves having to form connections with those who possess institutional power. And underneath that there is anger. If nothing else there is an overwhelming anger at the system. In many cases there is a passionate anger at all members of a group in power. But yet relationships are formed. And often they are not merely pragmatic. Often they involve real regard and trust (even if it is tinged with a patina of non-trust).

More importantly, what do we do with our anger? How do we express it? How do we use it. As a woman I am deeply angry at the systems of sexism that constrain my behavior and my perception in the world. I try not to let that anger become an anger at all men. But how do I express and anger at sexism without lobbing bullets at those who I love, who happen to be empowered by the system that I hate? How do I harness that anger for something constructive, rather than just letting it eat away at me and tarnish my relationships? How do I separate individuals I care for from the system of oppression that we all exist in?

From the other side, how do I deal with other people’s anger? How do I, as a white woman, process the anger of my non-white friends. How do I separate their, and my, hatred of a system of racism, from a hatred of white people, from a hatred of me personally?

How do we love despite hurt? How do we balance anger with that love? How do we move forward with the anger that we do have in ways that don’t hurt the innocent? How do we move forward with the anger that we do have in ways that don’t hurt us? I think these are questions I am going to be left working on for a long time.