March 2008

We were out with a friend the other day and the subject of depression came up. Many of my closest friends are depressed and on meds. Hell, the water is full of antidepressants these days, which is something that terrifies me (as it should anyone hoping to hold onto their slim edge of pharma-free sanity and anyone with small children). And what we came up with is that it’s almost impossible not to be depressed in these days of overwork and social isolation. I know, I know: it’s not the gold old days, it’s the bad new ones. I’m the first to admit that I didn’t grow up in a friendly, tight-knit community, a fact which I attribute to my parents’ social retardation (and which is directly traceable to each of them growing up motherless or alternatively mothered in the fifties), but seriously: our accountability to each other as a community is the only thing that keeps us from going off the deep end, and that’s why almost any community is better than none, and it seems that the cars and commutes and Internets that occupy our time, plus the heavily psycho/paranoid media that seems to imply that every one of us will be the victim of a violent crime at the hands of a stranger, a fear that makes us cringe from each other and hide in our McMansions (or, in my case, diminutive duplexes). The people I see surviving are the ones who actually have circles of friends, the ones who realize that other people are more than just a source of fear or a pile-up on the side of the highway, the ones who have interactions that involve more than just “Ketchup or salt with that?” or nervous smiles and quickly bolted doors. And there are some pretty serious consequences of our isolation, our suspicion, and our increasing inability to trust each other…

…none of which I’m going to enumerate here. Instead, what’s been bugging me is one of the by-products of this kind of social disjunction: the impulse to share lurid and gory details of our lives and others’, and the inability to understand that this acts as a sort of placebo for any kind of real community or intimacy. We have gotten so used to looking at others’ lives as if through a screen (or actually on a screen) that we fail to realize, sometimes, that these lives are anything but an entertaining sideshow, and our reportage treats them likewise. Meanwhile, we blunder about sharing the tragedies and traumas of other people’s lives as though they were made-for-tv movies. And the danger here is that at some point, we have objectified everyone else’s pain — and even our own — to the point where we no longer relate on any human level.

The first incident of this that’s been nagging at my mind came through a colleague. This person, a nice if nervous woman, sent out a mass email to everyone urging us, if we are planning to people our gardens with flowers this spring, to buy plants from a benefit sale she’s part of. Proceeds go toward the medical expenses of a woman she knows. All very well and good, you say, and it is. It’s actually indicative of the kind of community whose demise I’m currently lamenting. Except that the way she introduces it is by giving the woman’s name and describing her status as a grandmother and foster parent and then describing in precise detail the car accident that left this person a double amputee.

Reading her prose, I could almost hear the police report: “Subject was loading the trunk of her car in the northbound parking lane of _____ St., etc.” It’s gruesome. And it’s not only gruesome, but it’s a total cheap shot, the kind of appeal to emotion that I teach my writing students to avoid. Reason number one: your case should sink or swim on its own merits. The reader should have a chance to evaluate, not be manipulated into sympathy. Reason number two: the forcing of graphic details of dismemberment on an unsuspecting public (especially a colleague — is nothing sacred!?) is both gratuitous and insensitive, not to mention socially disingenous. It’s as though you invited people over for a cocktail party and they showed up to find an orgy in progress. Some will be delighted, but the majority will wonder how to get the hell out of there so they can sip booze in some tidy bar with their personal space intact.

Don’t get me wrong; what happened to this poor woman is terrible. It would be terrible even if she weren’t a grandparent and foster mother. I may even buy some plants. But the fact that my colleague feels entitled to brandish CSI-style gore in my face to induce me to is a potent dissuasion.

Another example of this same kind of voyeuristic violation: student papers. I have students writing research papers, and they sometimes pick topics that involve crime and/or violence. I can’t count the number of writers I’ve had to gently remind that the exact details of how the chihuahua’s tail was skinned and then burned off have nothing to do with their paper on how we, as a society, enforce laws that protect animal rights or that photos of domestic abuse victims’ wounds have no place in a research paper on gender roles in marriage. The most egregious recent example: a student writing a paper on DNA evidence and its effect on the exoneration process. Somehow this student felt that it was appropriate to spend pages of an analytical research paper giving blow-by-blow accounts of brutal rapes. Reading them, I felt 1)nauseated, 2)incredulous, and possessed of a strong desire to reach through my computer screen and shake this person, demanding, “Have you no critical thinking skills? Or decency? At long last, have you no ability to differentiate between analysis and porn?”

Of course we haven’t gotten the technology to that point yet. But seriously. The thing that worries me is that this kind of tell-all, see-all revelation of violence and gore, violation of privacy and shame, is not an addition to our other ways of thinking about violence or victims or how to help people in our communities; it is a replacement for it. Which brings me back to the CSI metaphor: all of this seems to say ‘it’s okay that the victim died a terrible, violent death as long as we can reconstruct her screams.’ And the danger in that is that the suffering becomes important — more important than the person in question, not least because it’s more entertaining.

Mmmmmkay. Well, Geraldine Ferraro is off her rocker, and Eliot Spitzer should absent himself from the public view, lest the waves of bile engulf his entire family. But enough of the political gossip. To celebrate what the Germans call “Mittwoch,” meaning “The Weekend Is Only Two Days Away,” a little levity, in the form of an hommage to the co-author of my days:

1. She encouraged me to skip high school in favor of doing my G.E.D. and going straight to community college, reasoning that high school was “socially repressive and a waste of time.” (Few 13-year-olds get the straight story on this from their parents, no?)

2. She confided in me about the cliquish, snobbish, aggressively white-normative, hetero-normative, and every other kind of majority-normative children at my upper-middle-class, racially homogeneous grade school, “those kids were such assholes!”

3. She refers to me as “the avenger,” with pride.

4. She just called me to hyperventilate in paroxysms of aesthetic disgust at being stuck in Lake Oswego (a tony, soulless, nouveau-riche suburb also known as “Lake No Negro”), declaring, “I will never go to Oswego Pointe Shopping Center again! Further, she pronounced it “Oswego Pointy Shopping Center” to underscore the ridiculousness of Olde Timey Affectationes.

5. She called back five minutes later to proclaim damningly, “Let it be known that this hell-pit is not ‘Oswego Pointy Center’! It’s ‘Oswego Towne Square’!” (Yes, that’s “Towney” Square.)

The good people over at Bitch, Ph.D are frothing at the mouth over Clinton tape in which Hillary compares her experience to McCain’s and dismisses Obama’s as minimal. That is just “fucking unacceptable,” the usually-measured B says, because we need to not tear down the competition in comparison to the opposition candidate; in other words, saying that Obama has less experience than McCain is tantamount to a McCain endorsement from Clinton (despite the fact that the Clinton camp has been vocal in saying they’ll support Obama if he wins the nomination, which the Obama camp seems to have some trouble swallowing).

Well, maybe I’m dense (it’s been well-established that my social sensors are not as finely tuned as some of you more emotional types; the INTJ blood runs strong), but it seems like a fairly mundane bit of campaign blather to me, not something to rend one’s garments or tear one’s hair over. I’m more worried about the Obama camp’s missteps, particularly Susan Rice’s epic claim that Obama and Clinton are “both not ready” (!!!!) to answer that 3 a.m. phone call. No matter how out of context that is, Rice’s words are phenomenally stupid, unless she’s a Republican plant. Because if there’s anything that says “Pick red!” to the undecided, unaffiliated voter hesitating between red and blue, it’s a Democrat claiming that her own people are incompetent on national security. Geez. “Yeah, we’ll fix the economy and give you health care, but then Al-Qaeda will come in and destroy your home and your children. But really. Elect us. Please.”

Of course, some people are accusing Clinton of fear-mongering with that ad, and they have an argument. But I’m pretty sure that in political campaigns, that kind of thing goes on all the time. Clinton is playing ball. Obama has taken a difficult position, one of trying to maintain the moral high ground, which means that whenever she throws him a particularly dirty pitch, he takes umbrage rather than swinging (and then his teammates, like the now-infamous Samantha Power, loyally start slinging mud under their breath and are shocked when their comments are overheard). It is, in a very interesting primary season, kind of a letdown.

But the larger issue that bugs me is this: why are the Clinton camp’s attacks on Obama so “divisive” and unforgivable, while the Obama camp’s attacks pass with nary a murmur? From where I’m sitting, they look pretty similar, but I’m stunned by the rage at Clinton I’m seeing. Where does it come from? And could it have anything to do with the idea that Clinton is held to an impossible standard because she’s a woman?

I’m not discounting racism. It’s as real and as destructive as sexism, and I happen to believe in reparative justice/Affirmative Action enough to think that voting for a qualified minority candidate partially because of his or her minority status (meaning gender or race) is a fine idea. But it seems we have an easier time giving Obama a pass for being black (at least the hypermasculine American white view of black males doesn’t totally conflict with the idea of being in power) than giving Clinton a pass for being a woman. And doesn’t that say something about which group, in the 21st century and beyond, will continue on as an underclass?

Think about it, women of color. As a woman of color myself, I sure am.

I admit that my hope, like that of many Clinton supporters, was flagging. Obama did seem invincible. The timing of his ‘charisma surge’ and the ensuing ‘tsunami of drool‘ (Christopher Hitchens, you’re a revolting, cranky old hater, and your Vanity Fair spread was patently ridiculous, but you do still have a way with words) odds seemed stacked against Hillary. I was resigning myself to the prospect of a dilemma: fulfilling my promise to support any Democrat and vote for Obama in November, or voting my conscience and disposition, which says “third party candidate!”, especially if that candidate is Matt Gonzalez. (In creating that link, I just realized that Matt Gonzalez bears a strong resemblance to my favorite demicelebrity, the only person who, if I were a 13-year-old girl, would have his posters tacked up on my wall: Robyn Hitchcock. Sigh. Dreamy. Now if only Robyn Hitchcock would run for president, with Matt Gonzalez as his VP. Too bad he’s probably still a British citizen.)

Oh! I’m sorry. Was that boring? Hearing about how hot I find a political figure? Hearing about my girlish crushes? Having me conflate my errant attractions/projections on unsuspecting famous people with a decent reason to cast my vote for our next president?

I do beg your pardon. Back to the matter at hand: it would be a tough call for me. I’ve become increasingly impatient with Obama’s posturing, his churlishness when he’s not in the position of power and adoration, and his inability to say anything substantial or interesting about any of the (admittedly small) policy points on which he differs from Hillary. I think the whole NAFTA dust-up is pretty sloppy (tsk, tsk) and doesn’t bode well. And I wonder if Obama isn’t far too easy to poke holes in. He does great when he’s basking in teh love. He’s ugly when he’s on the defensive.

But I was feeling discouraged. The momentum seemed too great to even check, much less overcome. In fact, I was trying really hard all day Tuesday not to read the paper or click update on the cnn political results page (I only did it four or five times). But when the baby woke me up at 1 a.m., I had to know. And I found out that Ohio came out big for Hillary and that, more surprisingly, she’d also won in Texas and Rhode Island. I wasn’t really expecting that. Obama had been making himself at home in Texas, and I kind of thought the “dude vote” would prevail.

Well, there’s always room for nice surprises. At a little past one on Wednesday morning, I found out that I shouldn’t be such a pessimist. I realized that I, too, had underestimated Hillary Clinton. She gave a great speech Tuesday in Ohio: classy, populist, presidential. She’s endured more setbacks and more discouragement on this campaign than any candidate in my lifetime, not to mention more random sexist bullshit (and yes, Obama is still getting a pass on the — at least overt — racist bullshit, ’cause, you know, we just don’t talk about that in public). For sheer perseverance (or, as our current president would say, “persevating”), she deserves a medal. And she’s doing well to cast herself as a survivor. I forget who cast her as a “dented pickup truck,” but it’s a pretty apt metaphor. Americans love their dented pickup trucks, be they Fords or Toyotas.

More serious politics writers, like NYCweboy, have made a more studied commentary on what this all means for the nomination. And it seems very possible that Hillary might be our nominee. But I’d like to add a few more ephemeral comments from my immigrant, minority, American success story, and ‘political maverick’ (voted for Bush in 2004, coming out strong for Hillary this year) pops:

Her story is compelling (won the big states instead of the small, inevitably red states, has more experience, more substance, more intelligence, good heart, etc.) If one looks for trends, no president has been elected without winning the Ohio primary. If you are superstitious, more presidents were born in October than any other month (she was, Barack was in August – on your sister’s birthday). Her only real negative is Bill.

Well, I’m Chinese, so of course I’m not immune to the lure of astrology (numerology…fatalism…feng shui…etc. etc.). And I have to say that learning that Obama’s a Leo explains it all, especially since he apparently shares the birthday of my batshit crazy, card-carrying member of the Church of Solipsism sister. For Leos, it’s all about me, me, me. They do fine in positions of strength, where they can be magnanimous. They become whiny little bitches when they feel threatened. Obama has demonstrated this time and time again, and if Clinton’s smart, she’ll keep him snapping, which is when it’s hardest for the Obama crush contingent to bat their eyelashes.

Here’s hoping she is. And you know, Dad is right: October is a banner month for presidents. And on the astrology tip, any armchair astrologer can tell you that you just don’t pit a Leo against a Scorpio. Because while the Leo is busy falling in love with the sound of his own voice, the Scorpio will sidle over and get out that stinger. Between the grand geste and the nitty gritty, the latter usually wins out in the end.

Oh, and confidential to Hillary: don’t forget to thank Obama for giving you a challenge this primary season. It’s only fair, and I want to see him clench his jaw when you do.