feats of ignorance


Remember when you used to have visits from Officer Friendly in your elementary school? In mine, he used to pull his police cruiser right up on to the playground and let us play with the lights. Then we’d learn things like STOP, LOOK, and LISTEN and how to elbow child molesters in the nuts before running away, screaming “FIRE! MOMMY!”

Veronica was cracking me up for a while by saying about K., “Hasn’t he seen any after-school specials??” This was in response to whatever malice or cluelessness allowed K. to say things like “I’m leaving because I don’t like the way you’re acting” and “I’m not going to come tomorrow because I don’t want to DEAL with YOU.” I guess she’s had a thorough education in after-school specials entitled things like, “Tommy, It’s Not Your Fault” and “My Daddy Still Loves Me.”

I guess K. hasn’t. Nor has he had a good grounding in STOP, LOOK, and LISTEN. I watched him, today, walk a whole block carrying Thing Two, with Thing One trailing five to ten yards behind. K. did not look back. Thing One kept stopping and turning to wave to me and run back to me, and I said, “Go with Daddy, honey! Be careful, honey!” but he didn’t really, so I pulled away, so as to quit distracting him. But I couldn’t stand to drive away when K. was clearly not paying any attention to his safety, so I turned around in a driveway and pulled up to the corner again to wait and watch him catch up.

Yeah, OK. To be completely fair, it’s possible that K. looked while I was turning. But that doesn’t change the fact that he walked most of that block without looking, without turning, without pausing, as our three-year-old son negotiated various driveways and hazards on his own.

I was so appalled that I called both my mother-in-law and my dad. My mother-in-law said, “Hello! Parenting classes! That is totally not OK.” My dad says, “He’s checked out because he’s rebelling. This is his way of saying ‘I don’t want to do it anymore.'”

But what do you want to do, dude? You want to listen to the crunch as your kid gets backed over by a car because you can’t be bothered to wait for him or hold his hand or make sure you know where he is?

Maybe I’m overreacting. But today, I feel overwhelmed by the ills that plague me rather than seeing the possibilities before me. Except that the possibility of not ever putting Thing One into a situation where he has to walk down the street with K. again seems not unwise. And yet seems very unwise.

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In between all these relatively whole thoughts, the snippets intercede:

K. saying to me, “I’m happier than I’ve ever been,” early in our marriage.

K. saying to me, “Baby! Why do you have to be so sexy!” in November 2008.

K. saying to me, “I’m excited about our happiness” when we decided to get married.

K. saying to me, “But what about our love?” when I was being crabby.

All the conversations about getting old, teasings about his future paunch and my future grey hair, talking about what we’d do when the kids graduated from high school.

I know it wasn’t all roses. And I did my share of eroding, of pushing away, of damaging the faith. But, as trite or immature as it sounds, I didn’t think it would matter. Because I thought that nothing was more real than that continuum of our life together.

And I would stay in it for the children, at least at first. I wouldn’t stay in a hypothetical destructive, loveless marriage for the children. But I’d make a good faith effort to rediscover the things I loved about my husband in an attempt to see if we could be a family. Could be whole.

I don’t even think that would be hard. There is a lot of love. Reading old blog posts testifies to that. There’s a lot of confusion about marriage and its limitations, a lot of playful teasing, a lot of frustration and loneliness, and a lot of love.

So right now there are layers. There is the layer of don’t take our family apart: don’t insist on a world where our children must always feel conflict about their parents and the time they spend with them; there is the layer of don’t deny these islands of love or attraction or affection or optimism, because they are probably much bigger underwater; there is the layer of stop, sit down, think about what you are doing to yourself — don’t deny yourself this imperfect family that needs you and this imperfect wife who loves you, and don’t consign yourself to a life of “managing” your mental state and just aspiring not to harm, rather than to build; and there is the layer of please, don’t make me miss you for the rest of my life.

I can do it. I already am. I accept that it’s most probable. But I don’t want to.

I want to learn to swim across the channels.

Happy Loving Day.

Today is the 41st anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court overturned the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 and caused anti-miscegenation laws across America to be struck down. The Loving decision got some attention early last month, when Mildred Loving died, but it’s worth commemorating today as the day when not only many couples (such as my parents, who were married in California in 1963 and moved to Virginia in 1970) were free to legally live in all fifty states without (legal) harassment.

It’s also worth remembering (because I’m a glass-half-empty kind of person) that overturning Loving was instrumental in destroying America’s eugenics sterilization programs, the kind Dr. Joseph DeJarnette was referring to when he wrote this 1938 poem:

Oh, why do we allow these people
To breed back to the monkey’s nest,
To increase our country’s burdens
When we should only breed the best?
Oh, you wise men take up the burden,
And make this you(r) loudest creed,
Sterilize the misfits promptly—
All are not fit to breed!
Then our race will be strengthened and bettered,
And our men and our women be blest,
Not apish, repulsive and foolish,
For the best will breed the best.[17]

Well, my family might be apish and repulsive, but we tend to have pretty high IQs. High enough to know that 1967 is really not all that long ago. And high enough to know that when the California Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to define marriage as between a man and a woman, they were basing their decision on legislation like this (and more particularly on Perez v. Sharp) that recognizes an important truth: that anti-miscegenation and anti-gay marriage laws are nothing more than a feeble attempt by the powerful and bigoted minority to get around the 14th Amendment — and that, if anyone is paying attention, it don’t play.

Now you’ll have to excuse me. I need to re-read that marvelously repulsive poem up there, wonder at the depth of small-mindedness and hatred in the world, and vomit up my hash browns.

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.

Well. The discussions of how misogyny and racism play into this Democratic primary keep on raging fast and furious. Mostly misogyny, because, as Robin Morgan points out, racists know better than to out themselves, but nobody thinks twice about a couple of slams on women.

However, I was part of a discussion on a blog I read occasionally this morning that demonstrated to me that racism, too, is alive and well in America. Here it is:

Let’s be honest – Hillary and Barack have made it this far because of their gender and race. The people who got forced out of the race were all more qualified and had better , smarter policies. If anything, we should be upset that gender & race preferences are leaving us with less qualified candidates.

Wow. Who knew that people felt so comfortable airing out their racism in public (as well as claiming superpowers that enable them to know the whys of things even the most seasoned political analysts can’t explain). To be fair, this was a comment to a post, not by the author of the blog. However, the author of the blog (whom I won’t name here out of a wish not to make anyone feel scrutinized, whom I had considered an enlightened and gentle person, and who started the discussion by asking why the backlash against women voters for Hillary seemed so much greater than that against black voters for Barack) chimed right in with:

[Name Redacted], that last paragraph? Very well said. I’m still chewing on it a bit, but I think you touched upon something very, very interesting.

Yeah. It’s very, very interesting all right. It’s very, very interesting that the poster in question feels completely comfortable claiming he knows that the reason Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have made it this far is because of preferential treatment based on gender and race, that they are the beneficiaries of some kind of wrongheaded Affirmative Action on steroids, that they are Not Worthy of being where they are and would not have been chosen if the white male candidates hadn’t been run out of the race so that The Powers That Be could prove they were p.c.

Apart from the problem that claiming there is any monolithic decision about whose candidacy survives is ridiculous (and the American people, even the rich ones who give a lot of money to campaigns, are hardly a monolith, as the fact that Mike Huckabee exists demonstrates), that statement is based on such deeply-rooted racism and sexism (and ignorance — does the poster think that Affirmative Action means “hiring lame-ass candidates who are token representatives of minority groups?) that all I can say is this:

I am ashamed. I’m ashamed to be in the same country as that kind of attitude — or in the same world. I am ashamed that bloggers who seem like nice, normal, kind people can swallow such racist claptrap with nary a murmur. I am ashamed to see the attitudes of educated, moderate people are so little removed from the type of violent racism that causes things like this to happen.

I’ve had a stomach ache for days due to being continually bludgeoned with woman-hating remarks about Hillary. Now my stomach is revolting with revulsion, disgust, and disheartening disillusionment at what this kind of attitude — particularly from my own peers — betrays. I don’t want to look at my children and know that this is the kind of attitude they will continually confront in their lives, for being minorities, for being female, for being anything other than cowardly, goose-stepping supporters of the fucked-up status quo. I don’t want to, but I have to — because I know that they will confront these attitudes and, worse, be the victims of them.

Because I have been confronting racism and sexism my whole life. Because I have been the target — as so many of us have — of racism and sexism my whole life, and I just got a big fat piece of proof that little has changed.

It’s been a busy week here at the rift, between wedding anniversaries, endless administrative tasks, lingering head colds, contentious departmental discussions, and avalanches of papers to grade, and I’m not halfway through the pile yet. It’s been so busy that I almost forgot the South Carolina Democratic primary on Saturday. But I snapped to it in time to click “refresh” compulsively on my browser, its tabs set to nytimes.com, cnn.com, and dailykos.com respectively, until the results became clear…

…and they were just about exactly what we all were expecting. I was looking for some dramatic reversals. You know the type: Edwards steals the entire undecided vote and comes out on top. Clinton becomes black by association and takes the African American vote. Obama loses, but retains a majority among white women. Wine and cheese liberals (if they have those in the Carolinas; in my personal experience, they have more of the ‘headcheese conservative’ type) rally for Kucinich, provoking him to rescind his decision to drop out.

Instead, South Carolina proved something else entirely: that this election is about identity politics, and that it’s too much to expect that your average voter will resist the heady influence of race. Something like 81% of the African American vote went for Obama, and this was the first time in a while more Democrats than Republicans voted in South Carolina’s primary. It’s not really surprising. If you’re a member of a group that has been oppressed historically, that has been marginalized, victimized by law enforcement, educationally disadvantaged, socially isolated; if you’re part of a people still seen as likelier candidates for success in sports or entertainment than in the more dignified (ahem) role of Chief Executive, then it may not be reasonable, or even desirable, to expect that you won’t elect a candidate who appears to stand for your race and its potential. The presidency is a symbolic office as much as a real one. The president is seen by many as the face of America. How wonderful, how unexpected, if the face of America were black!

I’m on board with the last statement (see post on Shirley Chisholm). But I’m not sure about the symbolic nature of this office. It’s all over the news that the Kennedys have endorsed Obama, and Caroline Kennedy’s op-ed piece “A President Like My Father” is currently wildly popular. In it, Kennedy stumps for Obama and stumps hard, glossing over policy points and voting records, and focusing instead on the soft’n’fuzzy aspects of the race for nomination: Kennedy is “deeply moved by the people who’ve told me they wished they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way people did when my father was president.” Aw. Caro. Let me get you a tissue. Kennedy is a patriot, she tells us, and her appeal is both personal and political. She has a dream, and its name is Barack Obama. Because only Obama “has a special ability to get us to believe in ourselves,” and because, apparently, the presidency is not about heading up the executive branch of our government, but is about making everybody feel special. In Kennedy’s world, the symbolic nature of the office trumps policy any day, and image trumps action. It’s all so postmodern — I’d be applauding, except that I’m too busy gagging.

Because — and call me old-fashioned — I’m of a stripe that happens to believe that what the president does is more important than how he or she makes me feel about myself. I’m happy for Caroline Kennedy. It’s awesome that she thinks Obama is as charismatic as her pops. It’s great that she feels that, with Barack at our country’s helm, we’ll all be ‘inspired’ enough to “reach for what we know is possible.” But I want a president who’s going to do some reaching, too. I want a president who’s going to deal with all the other slime-coated politicos on Capitol Hill and come out on top. I want a president who doesn’t ‘have faith’ that if health insurance is available, people will buy it, but who understands that health care has to come along with citizenship, has to be mandated whether you want it or not, in order to be universal (seriously: how did “free market” health care become Obama’s “universal [sic] plan”?). I want a president who’s going to fix the damage inflicted by No Child Left Behind. I want a president who has more than ‘vision’ and ‘charisma;’ I want one who has a plan. And who understands its details as well as its vision. Most of all, I want a president who’s smart, who’s principled, and who’s not afraid to work hard — not just charming or alarming the public, like Bill or Barack, but behind the scenes.

So, Caroline Kennedy: this is for you. I’m glad that you feel inspired. It’s awesome that a person who spends more money on handbags than I make in a year is telling me that from her white, upper-class perspective, Obama is the best presidential candidate because he can make me believe in myself. I won’t even go into how incredibly patronizing that is to me and all the rest of the brown people of our country who not only want “change,” but flu shots and foreclosure relief. But you’re not convincing me. Because you’ve summed it up yourself when you say “I want a president who understands that his responsibility is to articulate a vision and encourage others to achieve it” (emphasis added).

And I want more than that. I want a president who understands that his responsibility is to show me he’s more than a blinding grin and a figurehead. I want a president who respects Americans enough to know that they have plenty of courage, and what they need is strong leadership. I want a president who’s going to do some achieving himself.

Or herself.

Call me a pessimist, but I’m getting a little tired of what one of my colleagues might call “the election jiggery-pokery,” especially as I slog through the dozens of pages of South Carolina debate transcripts hoping to find a nugget of truth or a kernel of sincerity (I don’t watch the debates for three reasons: 1)at that hour, Thing One is still marauding around this house, and I’m asleep before the reruns, 2)I don’t have cable, and the TV is in a closet somewhere, which is why my children are not going to have ADD (insha’Allah), and 3)I can’t actually stand the strident tone of candidates’ voices when they’re going at each other like rabid pit bulls and/or whining for the favor of the camera. I need my politics “affect lite”; the neutrality of print helps me evaluate the choices based on what candidates actually say, rather than the fact that they probably want to drop-kick each other, especially HRC and BHO, and if I had had to watch John Edwards’s face while he was smarmily referring to himself as “the white male candidate,” I might have had to break out the Courvoisier — I was already wearing a rhinestone-encrusted pinky ring).

So I’m trying, this morning, in between grading papers and supplying my two-year-old with healthy, low-sugar snacks, to make sense of the debates so that I can confirm or dispute what I think I already know, but even I recognize this as a losing proposition, because as much as I and a bunch of other people deny how much election choices depend on identity politics and first impressions, that is exactly what they depend on. David Brooks makes that point in his op-ed, “How Voters Think.” This little tidbit pretty much sums it up: “In reality, we voters — all of us — make emotional, intuitive decisions about who we prefer, and then come up with post-hoc rationalizations to explain the choices that were already made beneath conscious awareness.”

America, you are not objective. Those of us who prefer to think we are, are of course just engaging in higher-level self-deception and post-hoc grandiloquence, which is, I suppose, true for the candidates as well. And while I believe it happens that a candidate’s words can alienate the voters, I think it’s much less frequent that his or her words can win voters over for exactly that reason: we have already made up our minds. It remains for us only to be dissuaded.

That actually explains why Clinton spent much of the debate trashing Obama’s integrity and he and Edwards spent most of it tag-teaming Clinton, fangs out, when Obama wasn’t taking polite digs at Edwards and Edwards wasn’t trying to look morally superior to the other two. Because their constituencies are with them now, and they’re going to stick. The real question is: how many of the other guy’s people can they confuse or disillusion?

Or maybe the real-er question is: is John Edwards going to reprise his role playing second fiddle in the national election this year? Let me be the first to say that, if he is, I’m happier with either of the front runners than I was with Kerry, to whom I threw my vote for one reason only. And the media machine certainly seems to be trying to promote that idea: after Iowa, there were whispers of “Obama-Edwards 2008,” and this morning, the headline “Clinton, Edwards hold private post-debate meeting” appeared on the Cnn Political Ticker blog. The entry features a photo of Clinton and Edwards looking chummy and sincere.

Of course, the photo was not taken at the alleged “private” meeting, which several aides have described as “accidental” and “consisting of light chit-chat.” But who cares? We’re being groomed to think that Hillary and John are either colluding against Barack, or experiencing a meeting of minds that might usher them both into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Together. Which, again, would do little more than placate Edwards’s tiny share of the vote, and which is probably based on the fact that — thanks to massive friction between Bill and Barack — there’s no way Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama are teaming up for anything but a Bush-trashing session.

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