On the New Year and the New Decade; or, Continuity and Change

I have been thinking for several days about what I could possibly say to sum up this decade, or even this year, to post on the first day of a new decade. It is hard to think of something that I haven’t said before, because this blog (which I began anew in February 2009) is itself a record of the past year, its continuity, and its change. And it is close to impossible to write a retrospective of a timespan which began back in fourth grade, back before I turned ten, back when my extended family celebrated the millennium in my grandparents’ basement… back an eon ago.

This week I have been writing, for a school project, a memoir of my childhood—of my first decade, my decade of innocence. The memoir ends in 1999, the year my family moved from Georgia to California, the year (unless you’re a pedant) the millennium ended and the new millennium began. As I transitioned from childhood into adolescence into adulthood, I spent the next decade growing tired of being always angry at George Bush and Dick Cheney and Karl Rove and Donald Rumsfeld; I sought an escapist hedonistic pleasure in movies and my quizbowl team and the internet at 2am and sitting in the passenger seat as a friend drove too fast down Interstate 15. And then I sought an escape from that, in turn, exiling myself to a new world on the east coast, beginning (not without some angst) a new life in a new culture.

Then there was this year. This year, globally speaking, has been the epitome of the everlasting balance between continuity and change; we ushered it in with the inauguration of a president meant to change everything, and we came to realize that he has changed some things, but not as many things as we’d hoped he would. Those of us who were startled to political awareness by the second Bush administration began to realize just how hard it is to be a Democratic president, to advance progressive policy, to do anything but fight as hard as possible to maintain the status quo. The year 2009 in my iPhoto library is filled with pictures of marches and rallies and protests—in San Diego, in New York, in Princeton, in Washington. I have never tried so hard to bring change; I have never been so gutted when only continuity results. And at the same time, I have been growing increasingly distant, have been putting my broadening understanding of the cycles of American history to the task of understanding that this is what happens—this year, as in all other years, we fight and fight and fight, and sometimes we get what we want, and more often we don’t, yet we never stop fighting.

As I realize that my life is going to continue to be about fighting (for LGBT rights or for tenure, for peace in our time or the attention and interest of my future hypothetical students), I also realize that this year has been about becoming an adult—not just because I can drink alcohol in Canada now, which granted has been a highlight of the year. It’s because I now have just as much chance as any adult does to voice an opinion and be taken seriously; I have just as much right and just as much ability to make change. I have agency, I have independence, I have control. And, finally and most importantly (I think), I am becoming content with and thankful for what I have, perhaps because I can control my life and create for myself the conditions of happiness. I have become able to place my life in perspective, in historical as well as contemporary context, and to understand how much I have for which to be thankful.

This year has been about, in large part, the miracle of living and surviving—with the religious language utterly intended, firstly because I find it more tempting to resort to spirituality when I have thanks to give instead of altered circumstances to pray for; and secondly because there is something so beautiful and wonderful about the purest sense of human existence that it totally transcends the physicality of blood flowing through arteries and synapses firing and lungs expanding. I am not saying that I believe in a supreme being—I never have, and I don’t believe I ever will—but this year I have begun to cherish humanity, and to embrace the positive side of human continuity. We may never end our collective inclination towards making war, but we may also in turn never end our collective inclination towards making art.

And so, this year, I have put my trust in art—in paintings and photography, in music, in literature. My cultural taste has skyrocketed towards the highbrow (with, to be fair, a smattering of the pop cultural), and I’ve begun to develop my own sense of aestheticism, of beauty, of the moral necessity of seeking it. It is this conviction, this year, which has gotten me through the times when I am most ill at ease with the larger world: the National Gallery and the Smithsonian buoyed me through a summer in D.C., and the Met was there for me after the November election. High camp gets me through dirty fights about marriage equality and LGBT rights. Whistler and Mucha and Waterhouse and my friends’ art, as well, have gone up alongside the political statements on my bedroom walls. I relish the sunset; the blazing foliage of autumn and the first budding leaves of spring on the coast that’s now my home. And I don’t just survive—I flourish.

I have some New Year’s and new decade’s resolutions, of course; how could I not? Given my adult agency and the ability I must therefore have to make these resolutions true, I first resolve to keep striving to find the right balance between the personal and the political, between beauty and grit, that will make my life the most fulfilling. I need to find out how to do good without despairing, how not to feel guilty for doing things for myself, how to do both what I love and what is right. In the second place (and in the spirit of reviving conceptions of beauty long since clichéd), I resolve that I shall to mine own self be true—to be honest about what I think and what I want, and to tell the people who deserve to know the truth about these things. We are all playing roles in public, to an extent (for another clichéd Shakespeare reference, all the world’s a stage), but I will strive to make my role as faithful to my private self as possible.

A couple days ago, after enthusing to one friend about starting a book club and to another friend about starting a history society, I came into the kitchen and said to my mother, “It’s great how in college you can talk to your friends about intellectual things.” And that, dear reader, is 2009 as much as anything; in addition, it is what I hope desperately that the new year and the new decade continue to hold for me. 2009—and its education and its friendships, its ability to talk about intellectual things—is in truth, dear reader, the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. This year, for all its political anguish, has been the most fulfilling and rewarding that I can remember, and I hope dearly that I can continue to mean it when someone asks “How are you?” and I say “I’m doing well.”

Happy new year. Happy new decade. Happy every day, because there are always hope and beauty to be found.

On Knowing; or, the NYT Lends Itself to Yet Another Personal Rant

In a sentiment that is hardly unusual, some New York Times readers express surprise that their children and other teenagers they know could possibly have any knowledge of their sexual orientation at such a young age:

My question is about the Q (Questioning) subgroup of L.G.B.T.Q. Youth.

Surely most teens will be in this group at least until they experience a “full” sexual relationship with another person?


Teen years are so full of doubt and confusion about self and identity. Teens are suggestible, peer pull is strong as is the desire to forge an interesting and individual social identity for themselves.

My concern is for all those teenagers experiencing doubt and sometimes a lot of hidden angst and silent but very real suffering in a world which is incredibly difficult to navigate at their age.

“Don’t worry, they will know if they are gay” is a standard answer. This may be true for adults who have had some experience, but is it really true for many teenagers? It seems too simplistic and inadequate. Any guidance and thoughts would be much appreciated.

I’ve heard this before, of course—I came out for the first time at 14, and over the past few years I’ve heard this many times. I mean, now I’m old enough and enough of a professional queer that folks don’t question the labels I assign myself or allow to be assigned to myself perhaps even as much as they should. But back in early high school, I heard things like this a lot. “You’re too young to know.” “Most teenagers go through a phase of same-sex attraction.” “You’ve never had a relationship.” Well, yes, the last two things were true. But facts B and C do not imply fact A. I don’t see, given the structure of our society, how you can possibly be too young to know.

Our society is very, very clear on what constitutes a normal or normative sexuality. I’m not too long out of high school, and I have friends and a sibling who are still there. I know that when teenagers ask each other “So… who do you like?” they expect you to answer with an opposite-sex name. I know that it is not easy to ask, and then take, a same-sex date to the school dance. I know that there is pressure after pressure, be they from students or parents or teachers or general cultural forces, to define heterosexuality as normal and all other sexualities as abnormal.

And so when you’re different, you know. Believe me. You see it if there is something powerfully and fundamentally (if amorphously) different about the way you interact with people both of the gender to whom you’re supposed to be interacted and the one to whom you’re not. You see it if there is something different about the way you understand and express your own gender. To teenagers, that line is very clear. You know if you’re not like your peers, just like you know when you don’t have the same stuff they do or talk the same way they do or have the same cultural values they do. The lines of difference are very strong in adolescent culture, as are the undercurrents of sexuality. If anything, it is more obvious that your understanding of sexuality is different from your peers, than any other contrast.

Literature shows us this, of course. I’ve read many memoirs—from men, mostly, because that’s what I read, but also because of how adolescent male sexuality is less repressed than and also homoerotic in a different way from female sexuality—in which the writers all say that they knew their queerness from the instant puberty set in. And even if they didn’t know any gay people, or if they were growing up before “gay” became a thing that you could be, they knew there was something different, something strange that made them not like their peers. It’s an undeniable fact of this entire genre, that you start in adolescence with this vague sense of not-belonging and go from there.

I’ve tried on many labels in the past five years. I’ve gone through bisexual and gay and queer and asexual and I don’t know what else. But it’s always been “different” and “other.” And sure, I envy anyone who can make it through adolescence without squirming in desperate confusion when yet another crowd at a lunch table or a birthday party asks, “So… who do you like?” But when you don’t know how to answer that question, or you fear to answer it honestly, you at least know, as I did. And you begin to construct an identity based on that knowledge, however old you are and however much sexual experience you’ve had.


Americans and Objective Truths

I do not understand the American obsession with ranking things. (It does seem to be a quite American thing, doesn’t it?) I thought of this because I was just looking at Newsweek‘s Top 100 Books list, and the “most important books EVAR” thing is certainly a trope, but there’s also the series of college rankings from a variety of different publications and companies (I thought Princeton Review‘s were so ridiculous that I wrote a rare humor piece mocking them). It’s a cultural phenomenon, this conviction that there’s an objective truth of what is Best, which some nameless experts have evaluated using some sort of scientific metric, and that it’s possible to make this kind of evaluation regardless of any arguments that the merits of individual works of literature might be an objective thing, or that different colleges might suit students’ needs differently.

I had an American history teacher in high school who was very enthusiastic about rankings of the best American presidents, and took a great deal of interest in what the rankings said and whether they were accurate. It’s true that these types of lists can be mildly diverting as polling data—I remember that there was a certain amount of interest a few months ago in how far down George W. Bush would fall on the presidential rankings when he left office. But that’s all they are, and a list with 43 slots isn’t going to convey the incredible nuance you get when you take four or eight years of daily policy decisions and try to make a determination about how effectively someone ran the country. Those sorts of opinions are also going to vary in accordance with political ideologies and differing historical frameworks. There isn’t an absolute right answer.

And if there isn’t an absolute right answer with presidents, how can there be one with books, or with colleges? I don’t see how it’s possible to arrive at the conclusion that War and Peace is an objectively “better” book than 1984 (as Newsweek does), when they were written at different time periods in different countries by different authors exploring different themes. I’m sure someone could write a very interesting paper comparing War and Peace and 1984, but those kinds of papers don’t attempt to rank the works of literature they compare. I’m sure many critics have written many different reviews of Tolstoy’s and Orwell’s writing, but that kind of qualitative assessment is very different from assigning a hard numerical evaluation to each book. Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Other Poems changed my life, but am I upset it didn’t make it onto this list? No, because it’s a volume that’s personally significant to me. I don’t expect anyone else to find the same beauty in Ginsberg’s language that I do, and in fact many people think I’m hopelessly gauche for liking him. The thing that matters is that his writing is personally significant to me and my life experience, and that’s what writing is supposed to do. I would no more esteem writers simply for being on this list than I would wish that I were attending Harvard because it surpassed Princeton on the US News college rankings. I’m happy I go to Princeton because it’s the right school for me, not because it’s ranked highly. These rankings are largely irrelevant to our personal lives, and it puzzles me why Americans seem to set such great store by them.

But what is even more puzzling to me is how many Americans seem to desire the imposition of concrete data upon wishy-washy cultural phenomena, but are very keen to disregard it when it comes to health care reform, or Obama’s American citizenship, or what it is the organization I work for does, exactly. I’m not equating listmania with extreme right-wing nutcases, but it strikes me that whereas Americans often like to use lists to simplify things they don’t know a lot about, like historical analysis or literary criticism or educational philosophy, there are certain instances when being uninformed is perfectly acceptable, and it is practically mainstream to compare moderate reformist policy with the Holocaust, or even to suggest something as ridiculous as that Stephen Hawking is not British, or indeed that Barack Obama is not American. Whither has this obsession with objective truth gone when we actually are confronted with verifiable facts?

The Importance of Things That Are Not Politics

I had two conversations today about, basically, why I’m not interested in making a career in politics or political journalism or Washington, and because of the way my social life looks today I suspect that I might have more of this type of conversation later on. So I figured some of this bore rehashing and explaining, because here in Washington I feel sometimes as if it’s very difficult to justify an interest in anything other than politics and policy and government. What follows may seem unbearably personal and navel-gazing, but I do believe it’s relevant and something that deserves to be unpacked, so please bear with me.

In short, it comes down to preference. I’m interested in history, in things that aren’t happening right now. I try to keep up with the events that happen every day, but I find it exhausting, and I don’t think it always gives me the perspective I’d like to observe longer-term trends and patterns. I think I can help inform what’s going on every day by providing the historical context, and that’s something I want to do as a professional historian when I grow up. Somewhat secondarily, I’m interested in doing cultural history, and while I find political history interesting (I’m currently a research assistant on a really cool project that has much more to do with politics and Washington, and that’s fun), it’s not my main research interest. It’s not what I want to write my senior thesis on, for example, or eventually my dissertation. And mostly I think that’s okay—I think it’s okay to agree to disagree on what is most interesting; we do that on a daily basis. I also don’t follow sports or television, and I don’t have a lot of qualms over the fact that I don’t find those things very interesting.

But here in Washington, where I work (albeit in a very small insignificant capacity) in progressive political journalism, I am inclined to feel that the stuff I write about in this space, in particular, is quite uninteresting, quite insignificant, and quite irrelevant. I see this break down along a line I can almost gender: I feel as if the world which values an understanding of policy and political science and academic political theory is concrete, physical, quantitative, precise, aggressive—masculine. And I feel as if the world I inhabit of queer theory and social history and literature and countercultures is wishy-washy, abstract, irrelevant, and sort of “soft”—feminine. I know what sexist territory I’m running into by breaking things down that way, but I’m doing so because I think it goes a long way towards explaining why I get the sense that educated Washington society values one and not the other. It’s no secret that “masculine” things are valued more highly over “feminine” things in our society, which is a perfect example of why our society is sexist and that’s something anyone who does gender studies could tell you (though of course gender studies falls into that “insignificant” realm that I feel my stuff falls into). So it doesn’t seem like that illegitimate of a claim to make. But it sucks.

Of course, if I feel insignificant, it’s because I am, but not for systemic reasons. For example, if I don’t want to make a career in political writing, my friends in progressive political journalism don’t want to make a career in academic history and cultural studies. Why should they read my blog? Why should they link to it on their blogs? It doesn’t have anything necessarily to do with sexism or with politics or with how the rest of the world perceives academia. It’s just that what I do doesn’t really pertain to what they do. And that’s okay too.

Or is it? Because what I came away thinking after the two conversations I had today is that political journalism and academic history/cultural studies have more to teach each other than we might otherwise think. Both professions live in worlds which are at risk of being dreadfully out of touch with the real one, and I think we’re all aware of that. But that means we have a moral imperative (I believe) to try to engage with the larger population of the country, to write things that will be relevant and meaningful and comprehensible to people outside our immediate communities, to try to address the issues that other people are facing and not just the ones that we face. I very much want to go into academia, for example, but if I can’t find a way to make whatever I choose to focus my academic career on relevant and interesting to a wider audience, I’m going to have to find another line of work. Likewise, I believe that if a political blogger’s blog is incomprehensible to someone who doesn’t have the same depth of knowledge of current events that the blogger does, that person is doing something wrong.

And as much as we have to engage the outside world, I think that we specifically have to engage each other. The connections between politics and history are very strong even when you’re not studying political history, because a knowledge of the development of the country’s social landscape is necessary to assessing the motivations of political factions and the impact of policy upon the world outside of Washington. “Continuity and change” is the mantra of history, and for someone like me who’s interested in modern history, that arc of flux and stability runs right up to the present, where a map of the cultural and ideological layout of the country is an imperative.

So, in short, I don’t think I’m wrong to do what I do, and I don’t believe it’s less legitimate than what my friends do. I’m glad that I have friends who do different things, because it means we can have interdisciplinary communication. I hope that all us college kids with our different career tracks don’t grow up and bury ourselves so far in our towers (ivory for me, digital for my political blogger buddies) that we cease to acknowledge each other’s relevance and importance.

Aesthetic of the Week; or, In Which I Go All Cultural Critic on Your Ass

Photo: Sandro Michahelles for The New York Times

(Photo: Sandro Michahelles for The New York Times)

If we can have quotes of the day (a habit I’ve somewhat fallen out of, but something I enjoy all the same), why not aesthetics of the week? I present you with the most engrossing article I’ve read this week, from the New York Times, about a theater program at an Italian prison:

As a sound-system blasted a cha-cha-cha, the men began to dance. Wearing outlandish costumes with oversize hats and wigs, and boots with 15-centimeter heels from a Milanese store that caters to drag queens, they strutted and pranced.

But this was no ordinary cast of actors. The performers were convicted criminals serving anywhere from five years to life in a maximum-security prison for crimes as varied as armed robbery and murder.

“Theater is surreal, it’s all fiction,” one inmate, Dorjan Cenka, originally from Albania, later mused. Dressed completely in white with heart-shaped red lips, Mr. Cenka was trying on his costume for the latest show by the Compagnia della Fortezza, the theater company named after the Medici-era fortress that houses the Volterra jail where the convicts are imprisoned. It would be his first time on stage and he confessed to being a little nervous. “I’m shy, I don’t like to speak in public,” he said. With a sway of his hips, he swished his Marie Antoinette-era skirt, the powdered wig on his head tottering. “I’m doing this to get over my resistance.”

The current show — “Alice in Wonderland, a Theatrical Essay on the End of a Civilization” — is loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s masterwork, but the text weaves in soliloquies from other authors, in this case Shakespeare (predominantly Hamlet) but also Genet, Pinter, Chekhov and Heiner Müller.

The article goes on to describe the production in question, which reminds me more than anything of a certain show that was all the rage in the mid-60s, rather cumbersomely entitled The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. Marat/Sade is a play-within-a-play, wherein the pathetic spectacle of the asylum inmates who lumber through a stylized narrative about the French Revolution is of course a metaphor for the oppressed masses everywhere; wherein the paragraphs of nihilistic hedonistic rhetoric that the Marquis de Sade stops the inmates’ performance to intone are rendered absurd by virtue of the fact that he, too, is behind bars, and it is only the indulgence of the asylum’s director that permits him to have written a play in which the raving and neglected actors shout, “We want our rights, and we don’t care how/We want our revolution now!”

Punzo’s production is a really cool thing, I think; at the risk of sounding patronizing, I think it’s wonderful, and a pleasant change from the American prison system, that inmates should be exposed to experimental theater and that Punzo’s workshop setup has gotten the prisoners involved in the dramatic process and inspired many to become actors when they’re released. But the beautiful and yet seemingly haphazard drag, the postmodern attitude weirdly like something of a different decade, and indeed the appearance of Punzo himself in costume (looking for all the world like Patrick Magee’s de Sade in the excellent Marat/Sade film adaptation), are all reminders of the pathos overriding the whole affair. Perhaps that was Punzo’s intention—it’s pretty natural for a production inspired by Hamlet, Genet, and the others—but it’s weird to think that the locked-in-the-asylum metaphor of Marat/Sade is, in the Italian prison’s case, entirely literal—it’s just that the deliberate madness of the former has been replaced with the nature of the latter’s theatrical style. If themes of madness don’t exist in Alice in Wonderland and Hamlet, I certainly don’t know where they do—and although I’ve only read about five pages of Our Lady of the Flowers (and, when I was in high school, sat in on an upper-division seminar about it at Berkeley, but that’s a story for another day), the circumstances of the queering and dramatizing of a strange version of prison life seem positively Genet-esque as well. What, then, is the role of actual prisoners—men who have been convicted of real-world crimes, such that they have been removed from the real world—in all of this? What does Punzo’s program say about the role of prison, and what does it say about the inmates-turned-cast-members who are no doubt far less inclined to shoot their mouths off about mid-20th-century experimental theater than this 19-year-old American know-it-all?

I’ve actually been watching the Marat/Sade film in bits and pieces over the past week, so I was particularly struck by its resonance when I first read this article a few days ago. One of the most prevalent tropes in Marat/Sade is that de Sade’s dialogue or songs or stage directions will cross a line of permissibility, or one of the inmates-turned-cast-members will lapse in self-control, and the director of the asylum, who is de Sade’s primary audience, will leap up in anger and urge that de Sade be less controversial—which, since this is the Marquis de Sade as dramatic character we’re talking about, doesn’t usually work out too well. But it makes me wonder about this production in the literal, non-metaphorical world, and the article the NYT has written about it. Where is this struggle between artistic authority and institutional authority in a world where the institution applauds the artist? What does it say about the transgressive nature of art? And does it mean that the position of the inmates has changed—or are they still pawns in the hands of institution and artist, live bodies to be manipulated in advance of some sort of goal?

I don’t think that word means what you think it means…

Despite working with political bloggers, and being friends with political bloggers, and once having been a political blogger, and following a lot of political bloggers on Twitter, I don’t usually do these political-blogger-style posts where I take apart something someone wrote on some other political blog and explain why I find it really problematic. Well. Let’s just say that this time Courtney Martin’s latest article at the Prospect drove me to it. So, because I just can’t do these things in a mature fashion, get ready for a rant.

Martin’s article is titled “Lessons for Feminists from Sarah Palin,” and as soon as I figured out that’s not a sarcastic title, I knew I was going to get irritated by it. My fears were confirmed when Martin begins thus:

When Palin parachuted onto the national scene, she landed smack dab on the fault lines of gender and politics, shaking contemporary feminism to the core. Now that the dust has settled from her oh-so-sudden resignation, it’s time for feminists (the alive kind, of course) to pick our jaws up off the floor, take a deep breath and really think through what we’ve learned from her year or so in the spotlight.

Um no. That actually didn’t happen. She set feminism back decades because the GOP paraded her as a forward-looking, anti-sexist candidate, while simultaneously marketing her as a Mom, with a capital M, a provincial woman who—oh yeah—just so happens to be governor of Alaska. Not threatening at all, right? Nope, nor was the way they made her into a sex object, doing nothing to reject the cartoons of Sarah Palin naked but for animal-skin draperies, the Sarah Palin calendars and action figures, even the Sarah Palin-inspired porno that made the rounds of the internet during the election season. And Palin herself, with her strong pro-life stance, is no more in the feminist tradition than Phyllis Schlafly, another woman who took an active political role to support a platform that was decidedly anti-feminist.

So, now that we disagree on that premise, Ms. Martin, what have we so-called “feminists” learned from the soon-to-be-ex-Governor of Alaska? Oh, right, apparently that buying into a commercially-marketed notion of “femininity” or “what a woman should look like” is… feminist? This was the part of Martin’s article that I had the most problems with:

Sarah Palin appeals to a broad need among contemporary American women who want to be leaders and demonstrate their intellectual strength, but also maintain their allegiance to traditional notions of femininity. Both her RNC address and her resignation speech were filled with this subtle duality and bold permission for women everywhere to flex their muscles while painting their fingernails.

Feminism has never been about limiting anyone’s gender identity or expression — quite the opposite — but unfortunately the media have been largely successful in spinning it that way. There are women all over the country who believe feminists are anti-femininity, that women who value piety or sell Mary Kay or give their daughters Barbies are automatically disallowed from the “F club.” Sarah Palin’s feminist flip-flop during campaign season — first telling Katie Couric that she was a feminist, then telling Brian Williams that she wasn’t — certainly didn’t clear things up.

Feminists need to get better at explaining that, in fact, feminism is opposed to anything that narrows human beings’ choices around gender identity and expression. Whether you are Sarah Palin and you want to wear a perky ponytail while standing by your “dude,” or you’re Rachel Maddow and want to wear thick black glasses while standing by your partner, we defend your right to do so. Femininity is not feminism’s enemy. What we’re against is blinding following traditional gender roles. What we’re for is self- and societal analysis that leads to conscious choices about self-expression — male or female, conservative or progressive, hockey mom or butch dyke. We simply must get better at saying that aloud, in public, and getting women across America to hear us.

Um, wow. Wow. And I’m not just speechless with outrage because I have a huge crush on Rachel Maddow. Way to use loaded language that makes it seem as if the Rachel Maddows, the butch dykes, the women with “partners” instead of “dudes,” the women who aren’t into Barbies or nail polish, are the ones who are somehow limiting feminism. And oh, Ms. Martin, way to skirt around the word “lesbian.” I know you think that our butch ways are ruining everyone else’s freedom of expression, but first of all, don’t stereotype the dykes and lump gender identity in with gender expression in with sexual orientation; second of all, it’s a little more challenging to subvert gender and sexuality paradigms on a daily basis than it is to put on some makeup or be a hockey mom. I don’t think Sarah Palin’s right to be in a women’s restroom has ever been challenged; moreover, I think it’s important to remember that Palin doesn’t support same-sex marriage or other forms of LGBT equality. She doesn’t want feminism or whatever it is she stands for to allow women a full range of choice and expression. Why, Ms. Martin, should we interpret her time in the public sphere in that way?

But I think the central issue that troubles me about these grafs is that stereotypical straight suburban soccer moms and butch dykes (and please, Ms. Martin, leave it to the butch dykes to decide whether they want to be called “butch dykes”; that’s kind of a loaded term) are somehow opposite sides of some sort of Spectrum of Feminism. It’s the conflation of sexuality and gender and presentation and assuming that they somehow equal a political identity—when that is far from the case.

And then we come to Martin’s conclusion:

It may have made feminists squirm to see that the movement’s fight produced a moment ripe for a soldier like Sarah Palin, but from another vantage point, her candidacy (and more importantly, Hillary Clinton’s) prove we’ve won certain battles. Women are taken seriously as political candidates. Plain and simple.


Despite all that, I feel thankful that she inadvertently pushed feminists out of complacency. We were obliged to clarify where we’ve won and where we’re falling behind, who we’ve brought into the fold and who continues to see feminism as an elitist, anti-man, femininity-rejecting posse of miscreants (thanks, mainstream media).

I really don’t think anyone took Sarah Palin’s candidacy seriously. I didn’t take her seriously. The mainstream media didn’t take her seriously. The blogs didn’t take her seriously. The GOP base, who fetishized her wild Alaskan exoticism, didn’t take her seriously. The folks who made that porno certainly didn’t take her seriously. Any idea that women are taken seriously in political races as candidates and not as woman candidates is a total joke. Hillary Clinton’s campaign demonstrates that, as do the Sotomayor hearings. Palin was ridiculed and sidelined in a different way from Clinton or Sotomayor, but she was ridiculed and sidelined nonetheless. And speaking as a feminist, if Sarah Palin “pushed” me “out of complacency,” it was to realize that we can’t let retrograde family-values conservatism define what women’s role in society is. I think we probably had forgotten that in the wake of the Schlafly/ERA debacle; it’s a lesson that’s probably new to feminists of my generation who became aware of the world during the Clinton years. I don’t think the past six months have been successful for feminism at all. We’ve seen Michelle Obama, a strong and independent career woman who also managed to raise a family, become the World’s Most Famous Mom. And while motherhood is awesome, it sucks that all she can do is support her husband in his full-time job. The media’s treatment of Hillary Clinton has been appalling, as has the media’s and the Senate Judiciary Committee’s treatment of Sotomayor. It’s hard to be a woman in politics. It’s hard to be a woman in journalism. It’s hard to be a woman in academia. And I really don’t think Sarah Palin’s candidacy changed that, or that reaching out more to family-values conservatives will continue to change that.

Martin ends her article by saying, “No matter who [Palin] claims to be, we need to keep pushing ourselves to clarify who we are.” Well, I don’t think this is nearly as difficult as Martin is making it out to be. Feminism is about choice and independence and acceptance of all kinds of woman, and it has nothing to do with implicitly lumping women into categories as either suburban (straight, femme) moms or The Great Lesbian Menace. It has nothing to do with defining categories, and it certainly has nothing to do with political candidates who make their daughters’ teenage pregnancies a publicity bid for the pro-life movement; who oppose what, as far as I can see, are most of the platform planks of the mainstream liberal feminist movement.

I have no idea how Sarah Palin identifies herself, but I have a hard time believing that her party would express its support for the feminist movement. I’m all set to embrace Palin, but until she and her party embrace me, my absolute non-femininity, and my understanding of what it means to be a feminist, there is no fucking way I’m celebrating the Governor of Alaska’s contribution to The Movement.

Rearranging Journal Entries

Allen Ginsberg wrote a great many of his poems simply by arranging the thoughts he recorded in his journal into poetic lines. “First thought, best thought,” was the mantra he learned from his guru, and so he essentially wrote down things as they entered his head.

Well, I think this only works out well for Allen Ginsberg. If I tried it, this is what would happen:

A man ran down the street in one direction; he’s now come back in the other
Riding a bicycle.
Is he training for a triathlon?
I half expect him to come back again
Swimming, except for the obvious point:
There is no water on the street.

Um yeah. I don’t think so.

In Which the Whole World is an Old Boys’ Club

Last Thursday, my delightful employers at Campus Progress joined The Nation to host the annual journalism conference, which was awesome for all sorts of reasons. Let’s just say gender equality was not one of those reasons. The majority of the professional journalists who composed panels and led workshops were male, silently speaking volumes about how the profession has failed to keep up with the times in more ways than just the old versus new media issue. Despite high-profile woman professionals who were in attendance, like Katrina vanden Heuvel, Ana Marie Cox, and Dahlia Lithwick, the overwhelming majority of the conversations I attempted to participate in and the people I attempted to introduce myself to were male. Even the students who attended the conference—the so-called future of journalism—played into the old boys’ club dynamic. Partway through the Q&A period following Dahlia Lithwick’s keynote address, I noticed that no women were raising their hands to ask questions. So I asked a question about Lithwick’s experience as a woman in journalism; her response, in a nutshell, was that things have gotten better since she started, but there’s still progress to be made.

Well. I’ll certainly endorse that remark.

I am no stranger to being the only female. In middle school I was the only girl who came regularly to Babylon 5 club meetings. In high school, I was the only girl on the varsity Academic League team, the only girl on the National Ocean Science Bowl team (don’t laugh), the only girl in my friends’ garage band. Now, I am the only female staff writer for Campus Progress. Very frequently, I am the only woman in a given social situation. I have spent most of my life working twice as hard and still doubting myself, when a more aggressive boy won the prize or made the team or got called on in class. I have spent a lot of time being talked over in conversations, a lot of time weighing whether calling someone out for a casually sexist comment would jeopardize my standing as an equal in that person’s eyes. I have spent a disconcertingly large proportion of my life coming to terms with the fact that I am not innately less intelligent than my male classmates and colleagues, that sometimes it’s our society’s gender dynamics that are at fault—not me.

And so my sympathies are with Sonia Sotomayor today, as she testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee that is entirely white and has only two female members, and which seems to have no problems patronizing her, insulting her intelligence, and insinuating that she is somehow less dispassionate than a white male candidate would be. My sympathies are also with Marcy Wheeler (incidentally, another presenter at our journalism conference!), who yesterday got called out for saying “blowjob” on MSNBC. My sense is that if a man had said “blowjob,” the MSNBC anchors wouldn’t have been so quick to speak for her, saying, “I’m sure that Marcy apologizes,” wouldn’t have been so certain what she is thinking and what her relationship to power is. But I am wary of saying things like this to people’s faces, because I have been told so often that it’s only my imagination that the system discriminates against me because I was born with two X chromosomes.

It’s taken me my entire life to acknowledge the existence of sexism in it, and that’s partly because we women have so few opportunities to hear someone say it. If a woman draws attention to the discrimination she faces, she gets called a man-hater, a “reverse” sexist, a bitch and a cunt. Look at Hillary Clinton; look at Anita Hill. The idea of speaking out against sexism has become so vilified that, to many young women, “feminism” is a dirty word.

Yes, things are changing, but change is a relative term. My college class is the first in Princeton’s history to have as many as 50% women, but it is shocking that it took until 2012 for that to be the case. And two woman Supreme Court justices are very far from being half the population of the Court the way that women are half the population of the country. And if this post is an incoherent rant, that’s just because, after six hours of watching old white men patronize Sotomayor on C-SPAN, I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know how to make people understand that I’m not crazy, and that it is hard to be a woman in America in 2009—particularly if you’re a journalist. Or a Supreme Court nominee. Or a high-school student. Huh. I guess it’s kinda hard to be a woman in America at all.

You know how it is when a group of people having a conversation forms a circle, and you really want to participate in the conversation, but you can’t figure out how to maneuver yourself into a little gap in the circle so that they’ll notice you and you can join in? Yeah, that’s kind of how I feel every day. And I can’t help but think that, over the past 55 years, Sonia Sotomayor has felt the same way too.

Thoughts on the United States of America’s 233rd Birthday

There is a school of thought in the study of American history—now considered anachronistic and politically incorrect, but quite popular a hundred years ago—called “American exceptionalism.” Its premise is basically that, because of the circumstances of its founding and the ideals of its Founders enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, America is unique. Because America could (depending on how you look at it) be considered the most successful modern democracy, it is somehow special. Worthy of note. Exceptional.

Of course, such an idea fell out of favor later in the 20th century, when historians and everyone else began to talk about the fact that for all that America might have seemed exceptional to white male property owners, it routinely disenfranchised racial minorities, women, the economically disadvantaged, immigrants, LGBT folks, young people, old people, the disabled, and really anyone who didn’t meet the profile of a Founding Father. It’s all very well, historians and civilians realized, to celebrate the ideals to which the Framers of the Constitution aspired, but it is also necessary to be aware that America has been an “exception” in some incredibly awful ways—slavery and its legacy being a prime example, of course. Indeed, one of the incredible things about the system of American government so celebrated by the exceptionalist school of thought is its imperfection. Throughout its two-and-a-quarter centuries (give or take), it has seemingly disenfranchised nearly as much as it has enfranchised.

But despite all this, what is truly incredible about America (and what, I believe, is worth celebrating on this most patriotic of all days) are the voices that come from this tension between America’s ideals and its all-too-frequent failure to live up to them. Sounds of struggle have defined America for as long as it has existed, and while those sounds may include the conventional narrative of battles to win independence from colonialism, or a fight to keep the fragile union together, they are at their strongest when they represent the voices of the oppressed and downtrodden, those Americans who have been relegated to the sidelines, who for whatever reason are not canonized in the elementary school social studies curriculum.

One of the greatest successes of the whole “American ideals” thing is the freedom of expression. This evidences itself not so much in the court battles fought to defend that right on formalized grounds (though those have often been remarkable too), but rather in the general cultural sense that there is no reason why Americans should not use their voices. This has given American history some of my personal cultural heroes, people whose poetry or music or political battles I celebrate despite the fact that they usually are not incorporated into the usual list of American heroes. I am talking, naturally, about Walt Whitman, whose poetry is adulatory of humankind in such an American fashion, and who lived so much as part and parcel of his time, reacting to the turmoil of a young country struggling with slavery and division—you could consider the Civil War the greatest test of those exceptionalist ideals, and throughout it all Whitman’s themes are unity and universality and “the varied carols” of “America singing.” I’m also talking of the folk heroes of the 20th century, such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who were reacting to and singing through other great tests of American exceptionalism: the Great Depression and the McCarthy era. Despite impoverishment, despite blacklisting, they sang songs like Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which aspires to an America “made for you and me,” or his “Pastures of Plenty,” which is written from the perspective of a migrant worker who, despite his disadvantaged life on the outskirts of society, will fight to defend America “with my life if need be/For my pastures of plenty must always be free.” I would be remiss, of course, if I did not mention the incredible vocal tradition of the civil rights movement, which had a dream, which sang “we shall overcome someday.” I would be remiss if I did not mention the Vietnam-era antiwar movement, and students who could not vote until the 26th Amendment was passed in 1970 and who therefore shut down their campuses instead. I would be remiss if I did not mention organized labor’s struggle for living wages and fair treatment, and the fierce sense of unified defiance that came from those battles. There are far too many other struggles to name, so many that my mind is racing with those I have left out.

These heroes of American history—not the usual American exceptionalist heroes who fought the British, pursued Manifest Destiny, defended the sanctity of the union, became captains of industry, and made the world safe for democracy, but heroes all the same—speak to this incredible contradiction between what America has aspired to and what it has been. They speak to the universality of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness in the American psyche, and the fact that, whatever our situations in life (and in this country, they certainly do vary greatly), we have learned and been taught that we have the right to aspire to something greater. We continue to do this, as Americans, on a daily basis, whether it’s in our personal struggles to give our children better lives than we had; or in politics, when we make choices at the polls or when we march in the streets in celebration or protest. Throughout it all, the culture permeates, and our art and our music and our literature and our film and our commerce and our daily lives reflect the constant fight to make sense of the dichotomy of promise versus practice, to understand what we are to do with the ideals Thomas Jefferson and a few other overeducated middle-aged white men with land and slaves entrusted to us.

I largely passed today by not observing the Fourth of July, which didn’t seem strange to me: the day is essentially an arbitrary one on which to wave a flag, and as someone who grew up in the wake of September 11, flag-waving has been pretty much spoiled for me. I have spent too much of my life being told that I am a traitor for not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with my class, or for questioning the justness of the Vietnam War, or for vocally opposing the Christian rhetoric of “In God We Trust” and “one nation under God” to feel any differently now. But at the end of a long and delightful normal Saturday, I went up to my friend’s roof to watch the DC fireworks explode over the Washington Monument, the first time in many years that I’d seen a fireworks display, and as I watched I couldn’t help feeling a frisson of excitement. Today is as good a day as any to say that I exult in the cultural legacy of enduring and irreconcilable contradiction, the exceptionalism of ideals that are nearly impossible to achieve, though not for lack of trying and trying and trying again.

I am seeking a conclusion to this pattern of troubled perseverance with which I can end this essay, and of course my favorite American to quote provides one by moving us forward in the ongoing struggle. At the end of a 1956 poem about his relationship to his country, he writes, “America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” That’s always struck me, at least, to be as good a plan as any.

QOTD (2009-06-28), and other matters

From David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography, one of the too-many books I bought today:

At bottom, [Whitman’s] distaste for pornography was linked to his hostility to prissiness and sexual repression. The scabrous and the repressed, he thought, were two sides of the same cultural coin. Both reflected skewed versions of womanhood and manhood.

That quote was basically the point at which I stopped skimming and said, “This book is too interesting not to bring home.”

Today was one of the best days I can recall in some weeks, possibly since I left Princeton. I slept late, had coffee and a sandwich at my neighborhood coffeeshop; wrote an essay that is not particularly PC, but with which I’m quite pleased; discovered a canal with a very pleasant accompanying towpath; bought and ate a very expensive but very delicious cupcake; bought and began to read some awesome books from my thus-far favorite DC bookstore; and even put in a good three hours’ worth of work-I-get-paid-for. For the first time in quite a while, I sat and read 100 pages at a stretch—one of the books I bought. I assuaged my guilt at having spent the money, and at the fact that it is yet another gay male book, with the thought that at least I was reading for pleasure. I don’t do that nearly enough.

I realize that this is the sense of perfect life I’d built for myself by the time I left Princeton in May, revolving around the Bent Spoon and Labyrinth and walks down to Lake Carnegie and afternoons and evenings spent in the library. All that is absent now, in DC, is meals in the Rocky dining hall with my friends whom I miss daily. It’s a very weird experience to go from seeing a set of people every day to not seeing them at all for months, and I suppose that’s what happens to normal, well-adjusted people with social lives every summer—I remember my first summer after I began to have a social life in my sophomore year of high school, and how desperately I missed my friends then; how I, too shy to phone them, begged them to call me while my family was on vacation in Canada. I have built up more independence and self-sufficiency since then, and I congratulate myself on my ability to move to Washington and live on my own; I look forward to the isolation that our yearly family vacation in Canada imposes. I’m excited, after all, about all the books I’ll have time to read.

Not wanting to eclipse the issue to which I most want to draw attention, I should mention that today, too, I celebrated Stonewall by not feeling guilty about how many gay books I bought, how many gay issues I wrote about, or how many gay links I posted on Facebook. We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re going to post silly things about our personal lives anytime we damn well please.