Where Do You Draw the Line?

  The title of this piece is taken from an old Dead Kennedy’s song of the same title.

  It includes the following lyrics:

“Seems like the more I think I know
The more I find I don’t.Every answer opens up so many questions.
Anarchy sounds good to me,
Then someone asks, “Who’d fix the sewers?”
“Would the rednecks just play king
Of the neighborhood?”
How many liberators
Really want to be dictators?
Every theory has its holes
When real life steps in…”

This is probably the biggest reason I refuse to give myself a hard label–whether that concerns my feminism or my Socialism.  The questions about liberators vs. dictators also hangs heavy on my mind.  The question becomes for me how to judge movements that have attempted to make things “better”, revolutionary movements that have taken power with the best of intentions, only to quickly devolve into the Next Big Dictator.  Specifically, what of those movements that have sought to radically change the way society is constituted, only to fall back on the oppression and exploitation of women.  What causes this to happen?  Is it that these society’s are not far enough removed from the most barbaric practices of patriarchal misogyny, so they quickly fall back on what they know best?  Or is it that they were flawed from their very conception?  The most important of these movements to me are the Communist revolutions of the 20th century.

  The first country to discuss when one discusses Communism always has to be Russia.  It was an integral belief of Russian Communism that men and women must have the same freedoms and rights for Communism to work.*  Women and men from all over the world returned to this concept over and over.  In her book Six Months in Russia, Louise Bryant wrote about how the leaders of the Revolution spoke, wrote and took action to actively engage women in the political life and future of Russia.  Of Maria Spirodonova, she wrote:

No other woman in Russia has quite the worship from the masses of the people that Spirodonova has. Soldiers and sailors address her as “dear comrade” instead of just ordinary “tavarish.” She was elected president of the first two Ah-Russian Peasant Congresses held in Petrograd and she swayed those congresses largely to her will. Later she was chairman of the executive committee of the Peasants’ Soviets and she is an extremely influential leader in the Left Socialist Revolutionist party.

  Bryant praised Alexandra Kollontai for “being a feminist” and “exalt[ing] women”:

As champion of her sex, she cries to the women of Russia: “Cast off your chains! Do not be slaves to religion, to marriage, to children. Break these old ties, the state is your home, the world is your country!”

  Lenin also wrote about the importance of women to the future of Russia.  And they were not to be important as mother’s and wives; they were to be important as leaders and active participants in the future of the world.

“[T]he building of socialism will begin only when we have achieved the complete equality of women and undertake the new work together with women who have been emancipated from that petty, stultifying, unproductive work…
“We say that the emancipation of workers must be effected by the workers themselves, and in exactly the same way the emancipation of working women is a matter for the working women themselves.”

Women were not supposed to be “beneficiaries” of male ideas for their emancipation.  Under the model Lenin proposed, women were to decide their own futures within the Communist society.  Even in today’s so-called “liberal” feminist view, women often look to male leaders to “free” them.  For all of Lenin’s faults (and they were considerable), he argued that women must be the goddesses of their own fates.  That is far closer to modern radical feminist concepts than it is to modern liberal feminist concepts.

  It’s all well and good to talk about the great Russians and their commitment to women’s active participation in public life.  If that’s all we look at, we could praise most of the leaders of the Revolution and the U.S.S.R.  But there’s the rub:  how do we turn a blind eye to so many of the things that did not go right in Russia?  Can we take a morally supportable stand that it’s acceptable to do that?  To ignore the banning of dissent?  To ignore the “temporary” ban on journalistic freedom that eventually became a permanent ban?

  Many people–women and men–who had supported the Revolution eventually said, “No, I cannot turn a blind eye to this.”  Emma Goldman was one of them.  Her disillusionment was tied to the Kronstadt rebellion and the subsequent arrests of Anarchists, but many of her underlying criticisms of the U.S.S.R. were absolutely valid without any of those of-the-times political conflicts.  But, although valid, are they complete?  I would argue that they are not.

  Some people have compared Kollontai’s actions in Russia and Goldman’s actions in Russia to Kollontai’s detriment.  Do we reject Kollontai,who fought for women and took the pragmatic approach by joining with the Bolsheviks when they finally gained the upper hand?  Or for accepting a diplomatic post under Stalin–a post some believe was Stalin’s way of excluding her from the day-to-day governance of the U.S.S.R.?  (While exclusionary it may have been, it also helped her live longer than most of her contemporaries.)  Some have said that Kollontai never formally allied with either the Bolsheviks or the Mensheviks, but simply moved back and forth as it suited her.  Others have said that she had formal alliances with both, but broke them at various times. In fact, some of her early demands for a focus on women in the new Russia appeared in Menshevik publications.

  In the end, I don’t think Kollontai cared which male faction “won”; her focus was on women.  In many, many scenarios, that is exactly the view women should take.  In most scenarios, men are not going to look out for women’s interests; women must do the work themselves.  Men are all too willing to look out for the interests of other men, while trampling the very lives of women underfoot.  When a woman looks out for other women–while also keeping a wider view of what she believes to be a more just world for everyone–why is she the unassailable evil?  I would argue that Kollontai did care about a just world for both women and men, but she was unwilling to leave women completely at the mercy of a male-dominated government.

  Do we understand that, unlike Goldman, Kollontai was a Russian woman with concerns for a Russian future for Russian women?   Goldman was, at heart, an American ex-patriate living in Russia.  (Yes, she was Lithuanian-born, but the U.S. was her home and most of her friends were Americans.)  It’s easier to leave a country if your only ties to it are theoretical and practical, like Goldman’s were; Kollontai’s were historical and familial.  Standing and fighting for those women had more meaning to Kollontai than it did for Goldman, who had taken some rather harsh stances against women at various times in her past, anyway.  (For example, I don’t see Kollontai ever calling another woman an “economic parasite” for providing unpaid domestic services for her husband.)    Do we stand at our point in history and condemn Kollontai?  Just as I can’t condemn Goldman for some of the arguments she made, I can’t do that to Kollontai, either. She stood and fought for the women of her country.  Far too often, we are willing to allow women to suffer in the name of “the people”.  Unlike many women, Kollontai didn’t turn her back on her sisters.  Whatever one has to say about the larger political landscape of the U.S.S.R. under its male leaders, I refuse to hold Kollontai guilty for her struggle and her commitment to the lives of women.

  On the other hand, we have another Revolution to speak of, and I can’t be so generous to that one.  What to make of China?  Many American feminists and radical women have praised Mao as an inspiration.  In 1996, Carol Hanisch presented a speech entitled, “Impact of the Chinese Cultural Revolution on the Women’s Liberation Movement.”  In it, she praises the writings of Mao as instrumental to the development of consciousness-raising.  She praises Mao as more “accessible” than Marx, Engels or Lenin.  Hanisch–she of “the personal is political” feminist motto–was a founding member of New York Radical Women.  She has fought the good fight.  However, in the year 1996, would you honestly be able to say a feminist figure should or would be praising China?  The country that has aborted and murdered its daughters to the point that it now faces a “woman shortage”?  Do we hold up a country as a beacon when a fact of life is that those women who do make it to adulthood are forced to have abortions or risk running afoul of the “one child per couple” law.  Forced abortion is no better than prohibition of abortion; both deny women the autonomy over their own bodies and reproduction.  China may have called itself Communist, and it may have had women’s emancipation as part of its principles, but it has quickly engaged itself into controlling the lives and bodies of women.  Same as it ever was.

  I can appreciate the words of Hanisch, as they pertain to Women’s Liberation.  I can look back historically and see where she came by her ideas.  I can read Mao’s words, and see that he, too, argued for women’s freedom under Communism.  I can even praise the Chinese women who fought to bring about that hoped-for Communism, believing that it would better their lives.  After all, these women had grown up with grandmothers who suffered footbinding.  They knew the horrors of women’s lives under the old ways.  The problem, for Hanisch or any other woman who would today praise China, is that China did not march too far from patriarchy in its move to Revolution.  Russia may not have come close to meeting its goals, but Russian females haven’t been annihilated under the watchful eye of the Party for the explicit reason that they are females.

  China kept the attitudes of the superiority of the male firmly ingrained, despite their flavor of socialistic totalitarianism.  (This is a prime example of how capitalism and patriarchy are not one-and-the same; China was never a capitalist country, but it was patriarchal is the most oppressive, obscene ways.)  When it tried to get a hold of the overpopulation issues, the “fix” was to eradicate generations of girls and women.  Today, their “fix” for economic issues is to turn towards capitalism, and its peculiar ways of exploiting women.  Part and parcel of that is the “mail order bride” phenomenon, which is growing in China.  Why?  Because China did not remove patriarchy effectively; it merely grafted socialism atop it.  As it stands, the courage of Chinese women touches me.  The result of the Chinese Revolution disgusts me.

  When we discuss the women of yesterday, we have to determine where each of us draws her or his line.  To do so, it is important to judge them on several criteria:

  1. Did they fight for justice, safety and freedom for their sisters?
  2. Did they do this–while doing the best they could within male-defined movements and governments–with an eye towards the greater good for all of society?
  3. How much power did they have to change the more unjust elements of their society without leaving women in ever deeper suffering?
  When I answer those questions, I can comfortably feel incredible admiration and gratitude for Kollontai.  I can feel deep adoration for Goldman.  And I can cry for the women and girls of China.

*I will not discuss whether Russia was ever actually “Communist” in this piece.  I do not believe it was, but addressing that in this piece is superfluous to the issues being discussed.

More Insanity On the Internet

This piece originally appeared on 17 April 2007 on my blog Knowledge and Valor.

Continuing on the topic of the complete and utter lack of humanity that has cast a wide net over online society, I’ve come across several discussions of the targeting of female bloggers with online threats and harassment. While the vast majority of this truly pathological behavior is the work of straight males, women are not immune from attacking other women or targeting them for ridicule. That’s obvious when one explores sites dedicated to “snark” and celebrity gossip. However, the world of politics does not provide a woman refuge from attacks by other women. Hell, if women can be vilely targeted for writing about computer software, there is no safety anywhere…

I’m not going to re-hash the Kathy Sierra thing, but I have to echo and expand upon some of the sentiments expressed by Joan Walsh at salon.com. The thing that struck me the most as I perused the comments at the Sierra blog, as well as entries about it at feministing.com and various other places, was the insistence by a considerable number of commenters that online attacks and misogyny–up to and including sexual threats against women on the web–has to be expected, accepted and tolerated. It’s just one more bomb in the war of assholes. They don’t need to control their stupidity or the hate rotting their souls. They have the absolute goddamned right to threaten women, and those women better just shut up and take it. If they don’t, if they dare speak out against it, then they’re “drama queens,” as one commenter on Sierra’s blog called her.

The whole thing reminds me of something that happened to me when I first started going online in the mid-90s. At the time, I was using AOL simply because it was the easiest way to get online without a credit card at that time. Not long after I started going online, this creep started contacting me via IM. Every message from him was sexual in nature. What’s more, he lived in my own city. (Does it surprise anyone that he was also employed in the “corrections” industry–specifically, as a probation officer?)

At first, I would simply try to steer the conversation to something more appropriate. I made it clear that I was very happily married and in no way interested in cybersex. He wouldn’t take the polite request to knock it off. So, finally, I flat out told him to stop contacting me. I told him I found his constant sexual badgering to be obnoxious, and I blocked him from contacting me further.

That should have been that. After all, I had not initiated any of the contact with this man. I had made it clear that I wasn’t interested in his sexual needs. I had tried to be nice about it. Unfortunately, he wasn’t going to let it go. In retaliation, he contacted AOL and reported me for posting “offensive content.” I still have no idea what “offensive content” I might have posted, but the idea that this creep would try to have me booted from my ISP because I refused to take part in his demands for sexual response infuriates me to this day.

The fact that this guy lived in the same city as I do still gives me the creeps. Fortunately, his attempts to “punish” me for refusing to make myself available to his demands were not physically threatening. However, the very fact that he made any such attempt at all is indicative of a twisted mind.

Scoring a 10 on the WTF Meter

This piece originally appeared on my sports and culture blog, Knowledge and Valor.  It was first published on 27 May 2007.

My love of sports is something I grew up with. From football to basketball, baseball, softball, tennis–pretty much anything but golf or car racing (not sports)–I basically love ’em all. I’m especially a big fan of college sports. Nonetheless, I haven’t been paying much attention to any sport for the better part of six months. I’ve simply been preoccupied. So, when I decided to peruse ESPN.com the other day, Iwas shocked to find an article concerning the NCAA rules on scholarship loss by female athletes.

The article talks about how the NCAA is considering revising its policy on pregnant athletes. At present, schools are allowed to yank the scholarships of female athletes if they become pregnant. I honestly could not believe it. If I ever needed evidence that (A) Title IX is not properly enforced, and (B) Title IX does not go far enough in its protection of females’ rights to equal education, I’ve found it.

A large segment of the population is ignorant about what Title IX is all about. While it’s commonly written off as a school sports law, it is actually focused on education, in general. It requires that females be given equal access to education. Once upon a time, girls who became pregnant or got married were forced out of school. My mother, for example, went to school in the heavily Mormon White Mountains of Arizona. At her school, pregnant and married girls were thought to be corrupting influences who had to be kept away from “good” girls. They were not allowed to complete their educations. Title IX put a stop to that. So, I wonder, how are schools allowed to threaten students with loss of scholarships for getting pregnant?

The old double standard rears its hideous head on this one. The number of male athletes who have at least one out-of-wedlock child is staggering. None are threatened with losing their scholarships. Anyone who has seen the movie Hoop Dreams has seen how some coaches even encourage their young male charges to basically dump their child completely on the mother. They need to be “boys,” out playing sports–not worrying about being home to watch a kid. Of course, the fact that the young girl’s life is made that much harder by such behavior isn’t the coaches worry.
So, why is the male athlete/young father encouraged to continue school and his athletic pursuits, while the female athlete/young mother is threatened with the loss of scholarships? Because she’s a “bad” girl? Because she needs to be punished for her “mistake,” her “irresponsibility”?
I can already hear the claims that it’s about time taken off to give birth. Why, then, are male athletes not threatened with loss of scholarship if they are injured or get sick? One of the players on the University of Arizona men’s basketball team missed the entire season this past year with a case of mono. He was not threatened with the loss of his scholarship. Players who have debilitating injuries, even career-ending injuries are usually allowed to keep their scholarships, even if they never step on the playing field or court again. What is the difference?

The fact is that the loss of a scholarship at such a time in a young woman’s life is likely to end her future and that of her child. At the exact time when money and time are going to dwindle, her ability to pay for college can be taken away? How can anyone who does such a thing live with themselves?

The Age of Assholism, Part II: Old Media

This piece originally appeared on a blog I wrote about culture and entertainment from a Leftist perspective.  The blog was called Knowledge and Valor.  This piece appeared there on 13 April 2007.

To further elaborate on yesterday’s topic, I thought I would explore the marriage of cruelty and pseudo-wit in traditional media (i.e. television and radio). While the practice is probably more widespread in the “new” media of the Internet, it is seeping into the traditional media like raw sewage. This is especially true in the arenas of reality television and of cable networks.

Perhaps the worst offender in this area is Bravo. Long gone are the glory days of that network when it was commercial-free and showed independent films and purchased syndication rights for innovative television series like Twin Peaks. No, there are no more noir festivals on Bravo. Since its purchase by the media arm of GE that put it in the same universe as NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, etc., it has turned to a network of cookie-cutter reality series that thrive on petty bickering and nasty gossip mongers. (Perhaps this explains the recent purchase of Television Without Pity by Bravo. After all, TWoP is the flag ship for shallow, hateful ranting by obsessives who go to ridiculous lengths to prove how “snarky” they are. In other words, the poster child for the Age of Assholism.)

Bravo’s downturn started with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. While the show had its entertaining moments, it was basically a shallow bitchfest about the glories of fashion and home decor. Then came Project Runway. Again, not a horrible show as far as reality TV goes. It was original and had some entertaining moments. However, it also wallowed in the shallow end of the pool with its obsession with fashion. With the horrors inflicted upon women in the name of fashion, it’s hardly a topic that I feel needs to be further glorified. The worst part, though, was the fact that more important than real creativity was the drama–the petty gossiping, the in-fighting and backstabbing.

This trend continued as Bravo has trotted out one PR clone after another: Top Chef, Top Design, and (the newest) Shear Genius. All focus on the interests of people with more money than time or heart. Interior decorating, hair styling, gourmet cooking. Infinitely more important than, say, U.S. foreign policy or the position of women in modern society, don’t we all agree? Rather than encourage women to tell the fashion industry to go fuck itself, Bravo and its slew of shallow “lifestyle” shows instruct women that nothing is more important than how they look, what’s on their walls or how their hair is styled. Why worry about the gender earning gap when you could be looking forward to New York Fashion Week? These values fit perfectly with the Age of Assholism, as do the form the shows take.

Other cable networks have followed the same business model as Bravo. Most notably, the network that formerly touted itself as The Learning Channel long ago decided that teaching people about science and other cultures was so passe. Instead, it was time to focus on interior decorating and fashion. We were given a hundred episodes of Trading Spaces each year (and that’s only a slight exaggeration). It’s not that Trading Spaces itself was (or is, in its last season) so horrible. It was that it represented a depressing and dramatic shift away from the educational network that The Learning Channel had been to the proponent of conspicuous consumption that TLC is. It also led to the explosion of DIY home “improvement” shows and networks. This trend has resulted in countless series that show people remodeling “out-dated” homes. They dramatically destroy usable cabinets, furniture and other home decor so that they can replace them with newer, more expensive items–usually to the point of environmental insanity. Wood floors are torn up and replaced with new wood floors because the new residents don’t like the color or the type of wood used. The wasted resources, the lost trees are glossed over. Cabinets are smashed, twisted and torn off walls because they aren’t fashionable enough for the new residents. Again, the environmental impact is rarely (if ever) mentioned. Perfectly usable appliances are carted off to landfills because they aren’t made of stainless steel. Counter tops and tiles meet the same fate so that granite and other stones can take their places.

The horror doesn’t stop with the glorification of environmental irresponsibility, however. There are also the shows that prey on (and create) female insecurities. Most notably, the hackneyed import of the BBC’s What Not to Wear, introduced to the U.S. by TLC. The original BBC version had its faults. Most notably, the two hostesses stressed the importance of fashion in women’s lives as if this was a foregone conclusion. Women inherently care about clothes, revel in make-up application, and have orgasms at the thought of buying new shoes, right? However, they also stressed helping women overcome their insecurities. They didn’t rail on the guests for carrying a few extra pounds or being on the other side of 40. Instead, they helped them find their best physical traits and show them off. While the hosts used coarse language (“tits” had to be mentioned at least once per episode, it seems), they did not revel in the discomfort or humiliation of these women. The hostesses even went to the women’s homes and jobs to see how these women lived their lives on a daily basis.

Of course, the U.S. version couldn’t stick to the caring, if crass, tone of the original. Instead, we got the glorification of cattiness. That is, we got the “snarky” version. Now, the hosts were a straight woman and a gay man, both of whom had been plucked from the ranks of “professional stylists.” (What the fuck is a professional stylist? Who actually pays for that shit?) Unlike the British hosts, who would point to their own physical flaws to show women that even “imperfect” bodies can be beautiful, the American hosts portray themselves as the arbiters of all that is fashionable and acceptable. They relish the humiliation they inflict on these women. They toss out “witty” one-liners at the women’s expense left and right. The only praise we ever hear is after they have suitably broken a woman down and forced her to submit to their ideals of female beauty. Their message is always one of conformity. “Style” is not about what a woman likes or what she thinks is valuable, it’s about what other people think. It’s about looking the part. It’s about beating out anything original or thoughtful in a woman, and making her into a carbon copy of the woman beside her.

Sadly, it looks as though the British version is going the way of the U.S. version. The original hosts have left, and the new hosts leave something to be desired if their first episode is any indication. In this episode, they styled two women who had recently had mastectomies. One of them was lectured to forget about that “feminist stuff.” She was instructed that she already had a good job, so she didn’t need to worry about standing up for women’s position world anymore. Because we all know that fashion is more important than principle. Besides, isn’t feminism all about what we can get for ourselves, fuck everyone else? It is if you ask these two rejects. If anything, they are prime examples that the Age of Assholism isn’t merely an American phenomenon.

That’s unfortunate…

The Age of Assholism

This piece was originally written and published on my previous blog, Knowledge and Valor, on the 12th of April, 2007.

And, now, for something completely different…

After a couple of posts of venting about the insane factions within the community of those affected by autism, I’m going to move onto something else that’s been occupying my thoughts: the emergence of the age of “snark,” or, more appropriately, the age of assholism.

What is the epitome of “cool”? In the world spawned by Internet message boards and obsession with pop culture, hatefulness is the very embodiment of all things hip and stylish. Mocking appearance, dress, socioeconomic status…all of these are the badges of cool worn by the soulless denizens that flock to websites and blogs devoted to television and celebrities. Shallowness is the hallmark of this crowd, largely made up of a segment of upper-middle-class, college-educated straight women and gay men. (Update: Here, I meant to add another link. The most unfortunate feature of this site is that when they attack a woman, they frequently call her a “cunt.” At least these gay men can find comfort in the fact that they’ve joined their straight brethren in associating vileness with females and their genitalia. After all, there’s nothing more repulsive and offensive than female genitals, right? Keep it up, boys! You’re doing a fine job of establishing the same kind of hypocrisy exercised by black men who decry racism while calling their own women “bitches” and “hos”.) Their straight male counterparts bring the same sense of cool–y’know, that combination of hatefulness and and undeserved sense of superiority–to sports-related blogs.

The targets of the televison-and celebrity-obsessed crowd consist primarily of other women. Putting a woman down for the way she dresses or because she isn’t a size 2 is great fun! Who needs patriarchy, right? There are women out there willing to belittle and degrade other women for the sense of superiority it affords them.

Nearly as worthy of their derision is anyone who is actually committed to doing something to improve the world. Commitment, integrity and the drive to devote yourself to improving the lives of others is so passe. Isn’t it more fun to talk about how you decorated your house or your newest designer frock? Or, even better, why your neighbor’s home or wardrobe is so hopelessly out-of-style–the ultimate badge of shame? They wear their shallowness as a badge of honor, taking the position that this very shallowness is actually a sign of depth. Their derision is turned on those who exhibit some actual individuality, whom they accuse of pretense. Revel in that ’80s love of greed or vapid top 40 pop–it’s a sign that you’re cool enough to adopt a total lack of taste and be adored for it!

I don’t know how or when this became the mark of intellect and style. Perhaps it’s due to the very nature of the Internet. The anonymous forums allow these individuals to behave in a way that would get them labelled assholes in real life. They can hide behind their screen-names and IP addresses that change with regularity, spewing their shallow, mean-spirited tripe. Instead of getting off their asses and doing something to help someone else, they can sit in their houses and heap their ridicule on anyone who does get off his or her ass, anyone who is passionate about things that affect the lives of real people.

What’s it going to take for these losers to crawl back into the holes from whence they came? I guess we can hope that enough of them lose their Internet connections or their servers die. If I never heard the imbecilic word “snarky” again in my life, it would be too soon.