Toxic Masculinity & the Power of ME TOO

The latest tsunami to hit us is a cultural disaster rather than a natural one. I’m talking about the huge tidal waves of grief and anger pouring out on Facebook pages, mostly from women, expressed in two telling words: ME TOO.

I don’t know who struck the spark that set off this conflagration (to mix water and fire metaphors, deliberately), posting the very first “ME TOO—Pass it On” on Facebook, but it is running like a California wildfire—out of control, slightly hysterical, as women who may never before have publicly admitted the shame of having been molested, assaulted, or harassed now begin to proclaim it loudly, in ALL CAPS.

As thousands of women join this mega-virtual Take Back the Night rally, you can see those virtual men looking at each other uneasily, beginning to post “Not Me,” in so many words, on their FB pages.

Harvey Weinstein, yes; Donald Trump, yes; Bill Cosby, yes; Bill O’Reilly, yes; Casey Affleck, yes…yes, yes, yes…so many OTHER men routinely disrespect and prey on women. Not me.

Although this dialogue may be new to many, it’s been going on in the fringes of our culture, in the women’s & gender studies circles where I hang out, for a long time.

A few brave men have dared to stand up to the culture of silence (from entitled men) and shame (from fearful, self-blaming women) and say, loud and clear, that MEN need to own the issue of violence against women and children, and clean up their acts collectively.

If women could solve the issue of domestic violence and sexual assault on our own, we would have done it by now.

The majority of men do not perpetrate the violence, yet by looking away from it, they condone it.

That has been the message of men like Michael Kimmel, Jackson Katz and Robert Jensen over many years now. Men need to stand up and reject the toxic masculinity that glorifies aggression, hardness and lack of emotion, affirming instead a positive masculinity that uses its power to protect and embraces its nurturing, loving characteristics.

Boys do cry, as well they should. And men should be crying now too, as they bear witness to the magnitude of the violence that their female friends, partners, daughters, sisters and mothers have had to silently absorb.

Women, brava to us for standing up in this virtual “women’s march” on social media. Now let’s make it real in our lives.

In my memoir and on my Transition Times blog, I’ve been arguing that we must “align the personal, political and planetary” to heal ourselves, our society and our world.

It’s plain to see that in our time, this bleak 21st century, violence against individuals is replicated by political violence against groups and massive violence against in the planet. And let’s be honest: in every realm, most of the violence is perpetrated by men—against people of all genders.

elemental-journey-cover-new-smIt does not have to be this way. Change must start with individuals—ME TOO—and then move out into the world. That’s why I have chosen purposeful memoir as my starting point for myself, and my offering to others.

I have a whole series of purposeful memoir workshops starting in December, and if you can’t wait that long, my new online course is available now.

Unpack those two little words. Tell the stories that go with them. And then move the fierce energy you will release in the telling out into the political and planetary spheres.

When we align the personal, political and planetary, we bring balance to ourselves, our communities and our world. And then…watch us rise!

Coping with Non-stop Catastrophe

I can’t help feeling a bizarre sense of surreality as I enjoy a lovely, peaceful, golden September afternoon here in New England while at the same time being deeply plunged into virtual reality, watching the slow but inexorable progress of Hurricane Irma across the Caribbean and up the Florida peninsula.

It’s like living life in a constant state of split-screen.

On the left, there’s my ordinary life, which (thankfully) is at the moment moving forward without much drama.

On the right, there are the dark clouds, howling winds and rising seas of the storms—literal and metaphorical—that are sweeping over other parts of the USA and the world.

The hurricane is an apt weather-metaphor for the tumultuous weeks since the American solar eclipse on August 21. We’ve had more intense news packed into these few weeks than seems possible.

hurricane-irma-satellite-noaa-ht-jc-170905_12x5_992

How are we to maintain our balance, focus and peace of mind when we’re being whipsawed from a Nazi/KKK riot in Charlottesville to an insane dictator in North Korea playing with nuclear missiles to an epic flood in Texas to the racist anti-immigrant president pardoning a known criminal (Sheriff Arpaio) and preparing to deport nearly a million hard-working Dreamers to record-breaking wildfires on the West Coast to the biggest, meanest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic to a once-in-a-century earthquake in Mexico…and it just goes on and on and on.

Compared with figuring out how to survive a hurricane, or how to clean up a city devastated by one, my split-screen dilemma is trivial. But it is a strange polarity that I must navigate every day: staying aware of all the dire circumstances people are living through, while not getting so caught up in that virtual reality—other people’s lives—that I neglect my own, or become immobilized by anxiety and depression.

41DVsVYbnRL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_I wonder if this will be a new diagnosis for the psychiatrists to label and record in their DSM? They could call it virtual reality anxiety syndrome, with complications of depression and insomnia.

Part of the anxiety comes from the awareness that it’s only a matter of time before the camera comes swinging around to me and my part of the world. Right now all is peaceful…but the big one will be heading my way soon too, whether it’s an unprecedented snowstorm or a New York City bombing or car attack or water poisoned by chemicals or a crazy man going amuck with a semi-automatic rifle. All of this has happened already, and will continue to happen…there is no escaping the rapid and deadly beat of life in the 21st century.

So the question becomes how to live with this knowledge while remaining open, empathetic, curious, upbeat—how to live each day as a marvelous gift to be unpacked with delight, while sending love and concern to the other half of the screen—the people who have the misfortune to be dealing with the storm systems now.

How do we keep enjoying life without being overcome with guilt, sorrow and rage at the way others are, at the same exact minute, being forced to suffer?

I am doing the best I can. How about you? I’d be very grateful for any suggestions you may have about how to manage “virtual reality anxiety syndrome” better.

And now, back to you, Irma.

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The Alchemy of Privilege

Nancy Slonim Aronie

Nancy Slonim Aronie

At the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers last night, Nancy Slonim Aronie, author of Writing from the Heart: Tapping into the Power of Your Inner Voice, declared that every powerful writer must be an alchemist: “every writer must turn shit into gold.”

She told the story of the life and death of her angry, terminally ill son, Dan, as an example of how the bad stuff that happens to you can be turned into gold—in her case, a documentary film about her son, whose death, she says, taught her so much about life.

Aronie said that the video editor working with her on the movie decided at one point to cut out a scene where Dan’s girlfriend struggles with his urine bag, which had gotten snagged on a bedpost.

“No!” she roared.  “Don’t cut out the urine bag!  Don’t try to protect us from the tough stuff!  Go ahead and make us uncomfortable!  That’s the stuff we most need to hear and learn from.”

She led a short writing exercise, in which she told the group to “start with your brain, drop into your heart, then your gut, and let it out onto the page.”  Writing from your brain alone, she said, will not get you into the zone of authentic, powerful expression that every writer seeks.

She gave us the starting prompt: “Dinner at our house was…” and told us to go back to our childhood dinner table.

When people stood up to read their pieces afterwards, I was astonished how most of them reported dinner tables that were frightening and painful.  One woman remembered how no one listened to her at the dinner table, leading to a lifetime of wondering whether she had anything valuable to say.  Another wrote about how she couldn’t wait for dinner to be over so she could get away from her threatening, angry father.

Nancy Aronie applauded them all, and kept insisting that powerful writing needs to write out of that “core wound.”

But what if you don’t have a core wound?

What if you grew up in a happy, peaceful household, with kind, productive, harmonious parents who did not wound you in any way?

Can your writing still be powerful?

In the memoir that I am working on, I recognize that I had an almost magically privileged childhood.  No, it wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty damned good, and my good fortune continued well into my adulthood.  I sum it up in the memoir by describing the feeling I got in my twenties, when I was working as a journalist in Manhattan, of a “red carpet rolling out in front of me wherever I went.”

It didn’t last forever, of course, but it is that early experience of privilege that I am interrogating in my book, not just in my own personal experience, but also in our general culture as Americans in my lifespan of the past 50 years.

For all the bumps in the road we’ve had, we have still been extraordinarily privileged and comfortable as Americans, relative to so many of the other billions on the planet.  While we’ve been riding around in our air-conditioned Cadillacs, figuratively speaking at least, so many others have been living and dying precariously on the garbage heaps and slums, the brothels and the prisons of tough, violent cities.

As a scholar of comparative literature, I’ve made a career of studying texts by women from all over the world that tell stories of suffering and oppression in order shine a light in dark corners, raise awareness among the more privileged, and act as catalysts for political action and positive change.

In introducing these stories to generations of students, and editing the related anthologies that have made their way out into the world, I have felt myself to be working on the side of justice, doing my small part to help make things right.

Now, in my memoir, I want to shine the light in a different direction: back at myself, as someone who grew up in privilege yet did not become inured and deaf to the suffering cries of others.

I am certainly not alone. I believe that most people of privilege do have a social conscience; do care about how the other half live; and are willing to be part of a movement for positive change if they can see a clear, trustworthy channel through which to pour their energies.

The “shit” that I need to alchemize in my memoir is precisely the lovely bubble of privilege itself, which protected me–and others who grew up like me–from setting foot outside of our comfort zones.

We enjoyed ourselves poolside and planned our next vacation; got married and had children; bought houses and cars and ever-faster computers and gadgets; and had no clue at all how our lifestyles were contributing to the accelerating disaster of global heating and climate change.

In my case, the “shit” I need to write about is as squeaky clean and wide-eyed as my own innocence as a young woman seeing Third World poverty for the first time and having no clue, none at all, of the role of my country in creating and sustaining it.

That cluelessness seems to be the “core wound” that I have to interrogate in my memoir, recognizing how very comfortable it has been to be so protected, and yet how destructive it has been too, as generations of elite young people like me have been raised to take our place in established social frameworks without questioning the underpinnings of social and environmental injustice on which we stand.

It is not easy to call out your tribe, to criticize a way of life that has been so easy and sweet. I have only gratitude for the gentle, loving upbringing my parents gave me, and the support they provided that made it possible for me to step out into the world on a strong footing. I am not being glib when I say that everyone should be so lucky.

It’s the bigger picture that I am questioning: how all of us privileged Americans, without realizing it, have contributed to the twin crises of social inequality and environmental holocaust that we now must face today.

It’s not about casting blame; it’s about accepting responsibility and putting our shoulders to the wheel of the enormous task of making things right again on our planet.

That is the alchemy I seek as a writer in these dark transition times.

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

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

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

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

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

I want to talk about anger.

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

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

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

Audre Lorde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Jensen

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

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

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

Fault-lines of American Educational Policy & Practice

When I read about how students at Stuyvesant High School and Harvard University, to name only two recent prominent examples, used everything from notes on scraps of paper to texting answers on cell phones to help each other out on exams, I shake my head—not at the students’ behavior, but at the institutional culture to which they were responding.

I am fortunate to be teaching at an institution that values collaboration rather than competition, and thoughtfully constructed arguments over right-or-wrong multiple choice tests.

Granted, I teach in the humanities, where memorization is less important than in the hard sciences.

But even in the sciences, given the ready accessibility of our collective auxiliary internet brain trust, do we really need to be forcing students to memorize the periodical table anymore?

Isn’t it more important that give them assignments and challenges that will develop their teamwork skills and encourage them to think creatively, rather than spit back knowledge that has already been established?

Nearly fifty years ago, the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire published his influential book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he described “the banking system of education,” whereby students are treated as repositories for information that will be deposited into them by teachers.  Teachers are then able to “withdraw” the information from the students by means of tests.

Notice that it’s the teachers who are the active ones in this scenario; the students are simply passive recipients of knowledge.

In contrast, Freire proposed a dialogic form of education, where students’ ideas are valued by their teachers, and the pedagogical method is more of a conversation than a one-way lecture.

While still popular in some theoretical educational circles, it’s clear that Freire’s ideas are not in ascendancy in current American educational policy, which, in the No Child Left Behind era, has turned education into a process of leaping through the hoops of a long series of standardized tests.

I see this in my 14-year-old son’s current schooling in our local public school, which is in many ways about as good as a small-town American public school gets.  But nevertheless, even the best teachers there are forced to spend a lot of their time coaching the kids on passing the MCAS standardized tests that will be administered next May.

 ***

Back in the 1970s, I went to a selective New York City public school, Hunter College High School.  When I took the entry test, in sixth grade, I had no test prep whatsoever.  My parents were very nonchalant about the whole thing, so I wasn’t nervous about it—it was just something I had to do, so I went in and did my best.  I got in, along with five others from my elementary school, P.S. 6.

Hunter College High School

What I remember from my four years at Hunter is earnest, thoughtful discussion classes in English and Social Studies and even Spanish, with teachers who treated us like budding intellectuals.  When I left Hunter after 10th grade to transfer to Simon’s Rock College, now known as Bard College at Simon’s Rock, the classroom conversations got even livelier and more compelling, and the written assignments more challenging.  We were asked to write analytic essays, persuasive essays and informed opinion pieces…over and over, at ever-higher standards of rigor.

The process culminated in the required year-long senior thesis project, which for me, as an English major, was an in-depth study of the trope of androgyny in the novels of Virginia Woolf.  There is no doubt in my mind that the joy I got out of reading everything Woolf wrote, and all the literary criticism and proto-queer theory I could find, led me to eventually choose to return to graduate school for a doctorate in Comparative Literature.

My point in relating this personal trajectory is to reflect that if I had only been asked, at each stage of my schooling, to memorize information and spit it back out to a teacher (or worse, a robo-grader) on standardized tests, I don’t know that I would have chosen, in my time, to undertake the hard work of earning a doctorate and becoming a professor myself.

I would have had a very different idea of what education was all about.

And sadly, competitive, test-taking does pass for education in too many scholastic and even academic environments these days.  Given this reality, who can fault students for trying to game a system that so clearly disrespects them as intellectuals and original thinkers?

 ***

Last week, The New York Times reported that “a coalition of educational and civil rights groups filed a federal complaint…saying that black and Hispanic students were disproportionately excluded from New York City’s most selective high schools because of a single-test admittance policy they say is racially discriminatory.

Stuy HS students, 2007. Photo by Annie Tritt for The New York Times

“Although 70 percent of the city’s public school students are black and Hispanic,” the article continued, “a far smaller percentage have scored high enough to receive offers from one of the schools. According to the complaint, 733 of the 12,525 black and Hispanic students who took the exam were offered seats this year. For whites, 1,253 of the 4,101 test takers were offered seats. Of 7,119 Asian students who took the test, 2,490 were offered seats. At Stuyvesant High School, the most sought-after school, 19 blacks were offered seats in a freshman class of 967.”

These are demographics I recognize from my memories of my time at Hunter College High School, back in the 1970s.  There were hardly any Black or Latino students there then; Asian students accounted for most of whatever ethnic diversity the school could claim.

Why aren’t the city’s African American and Latino students doing well on the admission tests?

 ***

An article from the current issue of The Atlantic provides a window of insight into this question.  In “The Writing Revolution,” author Peg Tyre takes us inside one of New York City’s failing public high schools, New Dorp in Staten Island, and shows how student performance dramatically improved once school principal Deirdre DeAngelis began demanding a greater focus on essay-writing in the classrooms.

In this, DeAngelis was bucking the national trend observed by Arthur Applebee, the director of the Center on English Learning and Achievement at the University at Albany, who, Tyre says, “found that even when writing instruction is offered, the teacher mostly does the composing and students fill in the blanks. ‘Writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding,’ says Applebee, ‘has become increasingly rare.’”

At New Dorp High School, it turned out that the students simply did not know how to construct the kinds of good sentences that would enable them to build a logical, well-thought-out argument. They weren’t used to talking in such sentences, they didn’t do much reading, and they didn’t come from a home environment where the adults spoke in the way the students were being asked to write in school.

For someone like me, an avid reader with parents who were also educated, enthusiastic conversationalists and readers, learning to write came very naturally. But for kids coming out of underprivileged backgrounds, more has to be done in school to make up for what they’re not getting at home.

So I’m glad to see that the new Common Core standards that will be adopted by 46 states in the next two years do require the teaching of expository writing from elementary school on.

“For the first time,” writes Tyre, “elementary-school students—­who today mostly learn writing by constructing personal narratives, memoirs, and small works of fiction—will be required to write informative and persuasive essays. By high school, students will be expected to produce mature and thoughtful essays, not just in English class but in history and science classes as well.”

Tyre predicts that it is likely that “the new writing standards will deliver a high-voltage shock to the American public. Last spring, Florida school officials administered a writing test that, for the first time, required 10th-graders to produce an expository essay aligned with Common Core goals. The pass rate on the exam plummeted from 80 percent in 2011 to 38 percent this year.”

 ***

Maybe a high-voltage shock is what America’s public education system needs to move it from teaching to multiple-choice tests to teaching kids how to think creatively and write eloquently.

As a writing teacher myself, I know how hard it is to “teach” good writing.  When I grade a paper, I know what I’m looking for, but I can’t always tell a student exactly how to get there.

More than anything else, it takes practice. Lots of reading good writing, and lots of writing, rewriting, and writing again.

At Bard College at Simon’s Rock, our orientation workshop for entering freshman is actually a writing boot camp, the Writing & Thinking Workshop, in which we have students reading, discussing, writing and workshopping writing for five hours a day during their first week at school.  We follow this up with three semesters of a required general education seminar, in which students are reading, discussing and writing almost constantly.

As a graduate of Simon’s Rock, the parent of a recent graduate, and a veteran of nearly 20 years as a Simon’s Rock professor of literature and general education, I know this approach works.

Sure, once in a while we have a student who tries to get away with plagiarizing a paper.  They are generally caught easily, because of all the draft stages we require students to go through on the way to turning in their final paper.

Relatively few students try cheating at Simon’s Rock, though, because they know we professors really want to know what they think about a given topic.  For us, learning is truly a dialogic process, and students quickly respond to the seriousness with which we take them as creative, original thinkers and writers.

 ***

Fundamentally, American educational policy needs to start treating students with the respect they deserve, whether they are at elite private schools or underperforming public schools.

It’s not the kid’s fault if he doesn’t know how to construct an expository argument in good English, any more than it’s the kid’s fault if she decides to cheat on a test she knows doesn’t measure her accurately as a thinker.  It’s the school’s fault, and ultimately the nation’s fault.

Given the multiple crises today’s young people will be facing as they become adults on our overpopulated, environmentally damaged, violent planet, we need to be educating a generation of creative, collaborative problem-solvers for whom spoken and written eloquence is a necessary leadership tool.

This is not a matter of policy or even ethics.  It’s a matter of survival.

On MLK Day, Opening the Hearts of the Privileged

When I first heard the phrase “privilege is invisible to those who have it,” it seemed like the answer to a question I didn’t even know to ask:

How can people who are so nice, who would never hurt a fly, be so oblivious to the ways in which their lifestyles are deeply hurting others?

Oblivious is the operative word here.  Most privileged people really don’t have a clue as to how “the other half lives”–or make that, the other 90% or so. Just as I don’t understand how it is to be a child slave working on a cocoa farm in Africa, or for that matter a honeybee bringing poisoned pollen back to the hive and dying of it myself, people way up on the class ladder in the US can’t understand what deprivation feels like–and if you can’t get to that feeling place, it will be very hard to arrive at any sort of comprehension or even curiosity.

There are so many examples of what I’m talking about, but having just signed a petition to President Obama calling attention to the issue of contingent faculty, my mind is going to a memory I can’t shake, from my days of adjunct teaching.

I had been teaching as an adjunct at my alma mater for a couple of years, having decided to forgo a serious tenure-track search while my first son was an infant.  In the spring, after a busy year of adjunct teaching, I went to talk to the Dean, to see whether it would be possible to improve my status at the college so my salary would not be cut off during the summer.  I don’t remember the exact words of her response, but her attitude was plain: what happens to you over the summer, when we don’t need you, is none of our concern.  Next!

I was naive, I guess, to imagine that she would care that she was not paying me a living wage.  But I had grown up among the privileged, for whom it was really unfathomable, the idea of not making a living wage.  If you weren’t making enough to live on, then something must be wrong with you.  You’re not trying hard enough, you’re not talking to the right people, you just don’t have what it takes.

In this situation, I felt the duality of on the one hand being outraged, as any privileged person would be, at being treated in such an unfair, exploitative fashion, and on the other hand, feeling shamed and inadequate because of course it must be true, it must be my fault that I’m being treated so badly.

For people from a different background than mine, it would be quite easy to internalize those feelings of shame and self-doubt, to the point where one would begin to believe them.  I have studied many autobiographies by people who were marginalized and disadvantaged from birth by their race, ethnicity, gender, etc, and this self-loathing is a common feature of what W.E.B. DuBois called “double-consciousness,” seeing oneself through the eyes of another.

But I grew up with every advantage, and was always a star in the academic realm, a child prodigy in reading and writing who received a BA magna cum laude at 19 (it would have been summa if I hadn’t had to take those damned statistics classes!), a straight A student through grad school who excelled at jumping through every hoop set out for me.

Thus my amazement at finally attaining my goal of teaching at the college level, and being told that while I was doing a great job, there was no chance of being paid fairly for it.

My point in relating this story is that most people who grew up like me would never have such a story to tell.  For us the red carpet rolls out automatically wherever we go; people bow and beckon, smiling; life is easy and delightful. And when you live that kind of existence 24/7, when it’s your whole life from earliest childhood, it’s just inconceivable that it could be otherwise.  Or if it is, then as I said, there must be something wrong with you personally.  It’s not the system that’s at fault if things aren’t going your way, it’s your own personal inadequacies.

That seems to be the explanation that many among the 99% accept when they fall upon hard times.  Home foreclosed? What a fool you were for signing that mortgage!  Lost your job?  Why didn’t you go into a more stable field?  Single mom?  Honey, don’t you know how to keep a man?  And so on and so forth.

Both sides of the class divide need reminding that we are all born into a pre-existing social structure, some with gold spoons, and some with plastic spoons in our mouths.  The playing field is most assuredly not level.  Those who are living well need to realize that they owe their good fortune as much to their favorable placement in the Game of Life as to their own smarts and hard work; and those who are struggling need to realize that it’s not all their fault.

Pointing fingers at individuals is not going to lead to a fruitful discussion.

Was it the Dean’s fault that it was standard practice at the college to pay adjuncts by the semester?  She was just going along with the flow, wasn’t she?  Was it the mortgage lender’s fault that people took on more debt than they could repay?  The mortgage officer was bending over backwards trying to give that family the house of their dreams, wasn’t she?

Right. Rather than seeking to cast blame, we need to be looking for ways to make the system fairer for all the new children being born into it every minute.  One of the most basic steps we can take is making privilege visible to those who have it.  The privileged, who have more social power than the disadvantaged, need to know and understand how their complacency with a warped social system impacts the less well-placed.

Knowledge is the first step towards compassion, and from compassion comes the desire to make what’s wrong right.

It’s not about casting stones.  It’s about sharing experiences, and hoping that those in power will listen with open minds and hearts.

On the eve of MLK Day, that is my fervent wish and prayer.

 

 

Parents, listen up! You need to know, and you need to act–now.

We raise our children so carefully, so thoughtfully.  We make them eat their vegetables, organic if possible.  We send them to the best schools we can find and afford.  We screen their friends and text them anxiously if they’re late coming home.  We worry about their careers, their futures. Will there be any jobs for our precious children when we finally, with great effort and care, get them through high school and college?

Jobs are important, sure.  But why is it easier for us to think about the economy than about the biggest issue confronting our children, and all of us, in the next few years?  I’m talking about the climate crisis and the degradation of the environment. The loss of species, the toxifying of the air, soil and water.  The fact that the planet our children are inheriting is not the planet we were born on to.

Of course, that’s always been true.  The planet has always been changing, evolving, sometimes in violent increments.  But it’s different now.  It’s different because never before, in the history of homo sapiens, have we been so close to the brink of a major, fast shift in our climate.  Never before, at least since we humans have been on the planetary stage, have we come so close to a global extinction event.

Global extinction event.  Where did I get a phrase like that?  It’s surely not my own language.  It’s one of those memes making the rounds of the Web.  But it’s not part of the lexicon of any of the parents I know.  They don’t want to think about it.  They don’t want to talk about it.  They don’t want to know.

How irresponsible is that, and how surprising, for parents who have been so conscientious, so completely invested in their role as primary caretakers and nurturers of their children.

It’s the privileged parents to whom I address myself most fervently. Parents who put so much time, energy and money into the task of raising their children, and do so with all their intelligence, responsibility and good will.  Parents who often have extra money to put towards a winter vacation someplace warm, or a summertime break by the beach.  Parents who are happy to send their kids to specialty camps in the summer, and who come up with the cash for school trips, afterschool lessons, an educational weekend in the city, a junior year abroad.

Privileged parents, listen up!  If you continue to turn a blind eye to the intertwined issues of environmental degradation and climate change, both of which are caused above all by enforced, ruthless economic growth based on the heedless consumption of fossil fuels and distribution of chemicals in the water, earth and air, your beloved children will face a future in which they cannot thrive.

A future in which none of us can thrive, unless it be perhaps the cockroaches, the ants and—for a while at least—scavengers like vultures and crows.

There have been so many disaster movies produced in the past few years—The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, WALL-E—putting out on the big screen our fears about what kind of future awaits us in an age of climate crisis and ecological collapse.  These movies represent our collective unconscious talking to us, presenting worse-case scenarios so that we can prepare ourselves for what may come.

We seem to like these movies because they give us the pleasure of stepping back afterwards and reassuring ourselves that it was just fantasy, not real.

The reports of the International Panel on Climate Change have none of the glamour of the big screen.  But they are saying the same thing as those disaster pictures.  They paint the same picture in different language.

It turns out that those disaster scenarios are real.

Sit with that knowledge for a bit, and then check in with yourself as a parent.  Once you accept that the looming environmental crisis is real, how can you continue to live your life blithely as though everything is OK?

Parents above all have a responsibility not just to take this knowledge seriously, but to act on what we know.  And parents of privilege–the 10%, the 25%–most of all.

We should be vehemently protesting the poisoning of our food, air and water.  We should be doing our utmost to stop the corporations who are wreaking this havoc, to change our own participation in the system, and to envision and manifest a better society that engages sustainably with the planetary ecological systems upon which we all depend.

Never before have we stood at such a juncture as a species.  Now is the tipping point.  Now is the time for us to stand up and be counted.  Now is the time for us to dare to take a path less traveled, to think for ourselves, to do what’s right for us and our children and the world we live in, before it’s too late.

It will not be easy, the road ahead.  There is so much to be done to turn this environmental train wreck around, and so little time.  We may not succeed.

But we cannot continue to play dumb any more.  We cannot continue to keep playing the game as if nothing were wrong, as if the biggest crisis of the past 10,000 years of human history were not on the horizon.  We cannot keep dancing to the band on deck as the iceberg looms before us.

There is too much at stake, for ourselves and especially for our children, whose lives—with any luck, and a lot of hard work—will reach further into the 21st century than ours.  If we care about our world—if we care about our children—we must act decisively, do whatever it takes.  Now.

The power of words for a world in crisis

So what am I, a Ph.D. in comparative literature with years of teaching experience in global women’s literature, gender studies and media studies, doing writing and thinking so much about the environment?

Why am I spending time blogging rather than diligently writing research-based articles for peer-reviewed academic journals?

I entered grad school part-time in 1984, first in English, and then in Comparative Literature.  Why those fields?

As an undergraduate, I started out wanting to major in environmental studies, but was soon turned off by the level of statistical empiricism required by my biology professors.  Having always loved to read and write, I gravitated towards English, and ended up interning for the local newspaper and becoming somewhat of a prodigy cub reporter.  I went on to work as a reporter for a daily newspaper, then a staff writer and editor for trade publications in New York City.

After a while, I missed the excitement of the classroom, began taking a class or two at night, and was soon drawn into the orbit of the comparative literature department at NYU, where things were really hopping in the late 1980s and early ’90s.  It was the time of the culture wars; of deconstruction and post-structuralist theory; of post-colonialism and eco-criticism and Marxist feminism.  It was an exciting time to be a budding scholar, learning to talk the talk and walk the walk.

And now here I am at mid-career, looking back and wishing that I hadn’t allowed myself to be discouraged from environmental studies so easily.

These reflections are spurred by the lead article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, about the Modern Language Association convention, which starts today in Seattle.  I’ve already written about why I’m not there, and reading today’s Chronicle article, I don’t feel too sorry to be missing this year’s conference.

The article, by Stacey Patton, presents a pretty bleak picture of the field of languages and literature–a picture I recognize only too well.  Enrollments in literature classes are at record lows, and many leading voices in the field are being called upon to explain just why an education in the humanities is of continued value in the 21st century.

The Chronicle article quotes James Donelan, a lecturer in English at the University of California at Santa Barbara: “We have been going about our business as if the study of literature were self-justifying, and that making an overt case for its relevance to society was somehow too mundane a task for us….The immediate consequence of this attitude is that we’re losing undergraduate majors and financial support at a terrifying rate, and the far-reaching consequence is that anti-intellectualism and a general lack of empathy are running rampant in civic life.”

Meanwhile, as many as 70% of English department faculty nationwide are so-called “contingent” faculty–hired as adjuncts, on a semester-to-semester basis, often earning minimum wage or less despite their doctorates and their publications.  As one angry commenter (evidently an adjunct English teacher) put it, “I for one will not encourage ANYONE to be an English major.  I will teach them their required composition classes for their OTHER majors because I know those majors will actually change their financial lives and allow them to support their families and move out of poverty.  This IS an elitist profession filled with elitist ivory tower ‘folks.’  Everybody knows it; that’s why the numbers in this field are dropping so much.  Get real.  Stop b.s.ing and face what is really going on.”

Yeah.  So we have an anti-intellectual student body, most of whom are highly resistant to reading books at all; combined with a demoralized and exploited faculty.  Although things are somewhat different at my college, it’s impossible to ignore what’s going on in the field as a whole.

And although some literature professors may be willing to put time and energy into justifying why it’s essential that we continue to study so-called “high literature,” like Shakespeare, Milton, Dante,  and Joyce–or even Pynchon, Rushdie, and Roth–I am not.

Egyptian author, doctor and activist Nawal El Saadawi

My whole career has been dedicated to the kind of literature that provides windows into the real material conditions of people living on the margins of society–people outside of the ivory tower, whose voices are rarely heard in the American classroom.  My own personal canon includes Rigoberta Menchu, Wangari Maathai, Buchi Emecheta, Gloria Anzaldua, Audre Lorde, Paula Gunn Allen, Shirin Ebadi, Nawal El Saadawi, Mahasweta Devi, Malalai Joya, Vandana Shiva, and many others, few of whom would be familiar to most of the scholars gathered at the MLA this year.

These writers have taught me, above all, to listen.  They’ve taught me to be aware of the intractability of my own privileged social conditioning, and to work hard at overcoming the elitist worldview into which I was born and raised.  And many of them have shown me again and again how in a patriarchal culture women are lumped together with Nature as commodified resources to be managed and controlled.

I never wanted to be a scientist.  My interest in environmental studies sprang from my love and reverence for the natural world, which was so strong in me as a child, and my horror at learning what human beings were doing to the flora and fauna of our planet.

Knowing what I know now about the dire urgency of the manmade threats to our ecological systems on Earth, I cannot sit by and write yet another academic essay on literary theory and disembodied “texts.”

Yes, I care about the sad state of English and literary studies in the academy.  But we’ve doomed ourselves, each of us, by the short-sighted and self-centered decisions we’ve made as individuals and as institutions.  If students today see reading books as irrelevant, and if administrators see English professors as expendable, well…who should we blame but ourselves?

As we hurtle into the 21st century with its multiple crises of climate, ecology and economics, I find myself  still reading, still writing, and circling back around to where I began, in environmental studies, where I will do all I can to use the power of the written word to ignite the social changes we so desperately need.

In narratives of women and the natural world, I have found my home–and my voice.

A teachable moment at Penn State?

What is most shocking to me about the current scandal at Penn State (sports and sexual abuse of boys, in case you hadn’t heard) is the response of the students to the announcement last night that longtime head football coach Joe Paterno was fired.

Do the hundreds of students who poured into the streets to smash car windows and pull down lamp posts believe that it was OK that the coach turned a blind eye to the repeated rape of boys, some as young as 10 years old, in the university’s football locker room showers?

Do they want to be part of an institution that condones this kind of behavior?

If anything, the students should have taken to the streets to demand Paterno’s resignation, along with that of his boss, Penn State president Graham Spanier.

But no.  To these rampaging students, what happened in those showers with the pedophile assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was less important than hanging on to their beloved head coach.

This is reminiscent of so many other, similar scandals, in which men’s loyalty to social groups, whether it’s the military, a fraternity, a gang, or a football team, is so strong that it completely skews their independent moral compasses.

If you presented a group of unaffiliated students with a scenario like what we’ve just witnessed at Penn State, and asked them whether assistant coach Mike McQueary was right to blow the whistle on Sandusky after witnessing him rape a 10-year-old boy in the football locker room shower late one night in 2002, I think most of those students would say McQueary was in the right.  They would also most likely come to the conclusion that it was the duty of McQueary and Sandusky’s boss, Joe Paterno, to report the crime.

But obviously things don’t look so clearcut when various conflicting loyalties come into play.  When McQueary realized that Paterno and other school officials were not going to report Sandusky, should he have pursued the matter independently–even when it might very well have cost him his job?

Of course, the answer is yes.  How could McQueary and Paterno sleep at night knowing that Sandusky was using university facilities to lure in boys?  Boys, who, by the way, he met through a charity he belonged to, the Second Mile Foundation, which purports to help disadvantaged children in Pennsylvania.

It saddens but does not surprise me that the students at Penn State who protested the firing of Coach Paterno are willing to put their team loyalty ahead of the pursuit of justice and integrity in this case.

It’s very similar to the loyalty of the Catholic priesthood, which chose to protect its own rather than stand up for the rights of the young children, mostly boys, who were being molested by pedophile priests for years and years.

Or like the loyalty of fraternity boys who would never rat out a “brother” who raped a girl during a party.

I’m sorry, guys, but this is not brotherhood.  It’s bullying: one person taking advantage of someone with less social power or physical strength, and a whole bunch of bystanders letting it happen.

This is what the Penn State students are proud of?  They should be ashamed.

At least Joe Paterno, at 84, does seem to be showing some signs of moral rectitude.  “This is a tragedy,” he said yesterday. “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

Yeah, Joe.  You may have had more football game victories than any other college coach, but you sure could have done more.

Challenging the culture of (white male) entitlement: Come on, Occupy, let’s do it!

I spent several hours today listening to a friend tell me, with much anger, sadness and frustration, the story of how her marriage of more than 20 years has crumbled.

Then I went up to see my son’s soccer game, and could not bring myself to say more than “hello” to my own ex-husband, who chose freedom and autonomy over his 25-year relationship with me, and the satisfaction of living in the same house as our children.

When I got home, I checked the Occupy Wall Street website and found a statement from the “sexual assault survivors team,” describing and condemning the recent attack on a female protester by a man who apparently already had a record of sexual assault.

I also got a blog post from a student in my gender studies class, about an organization called About Face, which strives to get viewers to question the fashion industry norm of presenting emaciated women as “beautiful.”

What connects these dots?

A culture in which men feel more interested in following their own selfish desires for personal fulfillment (aka, sexual fulfillment) than in upholding their roles as fathers and husbands.A society that makes it easy for them to choose this route: why struggle to please a demanding wife when you can have sex with someone else with no strings attached?

A society that tells women that the more pale, limp and weak-looking they appear, the more beautiful they are in the eyes of men.

A society where women have to be guarded, even at protests that supposedly entertain no gender disparity, because there could be sexual predators around any corner.

A society that makes it terribly difficult for women to find independent means to self-respect.

Too often, in previous revolutions, women have supported the movement but found that the men in charge were not willing to give women’s issues equal footing with class issues.

If the young men and women of the Occupy movements are serious about creating true social change, they must put the issue of entitlement squarely on the table.

Not just the entitlement of the 1%, but specifically male entitlement, and white entitlement.

We will not be able to bring a new social structure into being unless we hit these areas of privilege and entitlement head on.

And no, we are not substituting women’s empowerment for men’s.

We are after another world entirely, in which gender, class and race are not the arbiters of power.  In which power flows from the collective wisdom of the group, rather than top-down in hierarchical fashion.

The Occupy movements are on to this shift with the general assemblies and the consensual mode of decision-making.  Breaking with the gendered conditioning of Western society, which gives men all the power, all the time, is not going to be easy.  But if anyone could achieve it, it’s the young men and women of the Occupy movements.

I want to see these young people make this an explicit focus of their movements.  Because otherwise, on a certain level, it’s just business as usual, no matter if the masters of Goldman Sachs come out to lick your boots.

Change the disrespectful attitude of men towards women, and you REALLY change the world.

Let’s give it a try, and see what happens.  Things could not get much worse, and they could get a whole lot better if men and women worked together for the good of ALL.

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