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Born to Be Brave: Resisting a Culture of Domination

I have avoided this tangled snarl of questions and observations for four reasons.  1) 9/11 is a lose/lose topic.  There is no way to speak without offense.  2)  I have run into some friction when I have suggested that U.S. sponsored torture has anything to do with race.  To suggest that anything that is not obviously, blatantly, unqualifiedly about race is, nonetheless, partly about race, is risky.  I cannot prove my points here; I can only try to write my perceptions clearly.  3)  There is little encouragement generally in the Christian world for feminist readings of popular culture.  (Ditto above regarding lack of proof.)  4) I am still sorting through some fundamental, theological questions that emerged during the anti-torture conference.  Hopefully something here is of use. 

I heard a radio interview about trends in American television with Kathleen Turner recently.  She has been on my imaginative radar ever since someone left a copy of this newspaper article on my doorstep last summer.  Two things strike me most about Turner.  She is not afraid of her sexuality, and she is not afraid of being perceived as a bitch.  She is, as the NYT piece explains, a “broad.”  Turner is now on stage playing another one of my favorite broads, investigative reporter and political writer (and fellow Texan) Molly Ivins.  The radio interviewer noted that there seems to be something of a trend here, in that another brazen Texas woman, Ann Richards, was the subject of a one-woman play last year.  Could it be that tough chicks are now chic?

It is tricky being a strong, faithful woman in a culture of domination.  June was Torture Awareness Month, and I have been sorting through questions about strength, violence, and gender since our conference against torture in March, 2011. As a candidate for governor, Ann Richards had to play the same game regarding retributive justice that dear Governor Bev Perdue has been playing recently.  Blessedly, Perdue vetoed the legislation that would have thrown out the Racial Justice Act, but she still insists that she supports the death penalty.  We may have come a long way, baby, with a female governor in the Tar Heel state, but we still have to prove our moxie to the Ted Nugent crowd.  Ann Richards was so hale in her support of the death penalty during the 1990 Democratic primary in Texas that she merited a now classic Saturday Night Live spoof of my birth state, with the three primary candidates each competing to prove they would “pull the lever” for more deaths in Texas.  The skit ends with the executioner himself, complete with black hood, promoting himself as candidate.  “Pull the lever for the guy who pulls the lever.”  Lovely.

Is the death penalty as American as apple pie?  Is there something written into the cultural/national DNA, whether we are chromosomally XY or XX, that has us determined to fell the enemy and end up on top?  The little team of organizers who worked on the anti-torture conference continually stated that we wanted people to take a hard look at U.S. sponsored torture in the military and in the U.S. prison system.  What we did not face was that many people had been looking at torture, but as a source of entertainment.  Many people were not only not not looking, they were looking on for satisfaction.  This was brought home in a paper presented by Robin Kirk, stating statistic and instance, one after another, of popular television shows that have displayed torture as an effective means of preventing social chaos.  In their presentations, Abdullah Antepli and Kalman Bland each asked a form of this question: “What is it about American culture that has allowed for domination as solace?”

In informal conversations around the conference, I discovered that some friends had been watching “24” on date night, as couples, bonding over the macabre spectacle of effective violence.  I can hardly watch even the fancified violence of Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) or Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York), so I have been puzzling over this apparent enjoyment of torture tv.  It may be that many human beings naturally, in our fallen state, have fun watching potential bad guys cry out in humiliation and pain.  But I am mulling over another take on the issue.  And, while I have received grief over this hypothesis from some corners, I am going to risk making the point again.  Our culture of domination has to do with race and thwarted masculinity.  On 9/11, Americans were collectively emasculated by brown men.  White children, who had been told that they would safely proceed upward in success if they played by the rules, watched their parents express a type of terror that comes from a realization of impotence and violation.  The horrifically symbolic visual of the two towers falling was reflected in the faces of parents across the country, as many of us were rendered speechless in fear.  And our children were watching us watching our screens in desolation.

I believe that facing this facet of post-9/11 culture requires also a reckoning with the allure of retribution.  One of the brain-frying books I read in graduate school was Judith Shklar’s The Faces of Injustice.  She suggests there that rarified Western thought has not sufficiently struggled with a desire for rectifying revenge after someone has suffered a grave injustice.  This has helped me to make sense of some of my own worst impulses, and the viewing quirks of some friends.  I have female friends who are survivors of gendered abuse who feel a visceral kismet with the heroines of Kill Bill and Girl with a Dragon Tattoo.   But multiply exponentially a desire for grisly reprisal by a) the unfathomable violence of 9/11, and b) the qualitative difference of cultivated male privilege, and perhaps we can start sorting through what brings about a show like “24.”  Regarding the first point, 9/11 was categorically dystopic; to name it simply an “injustice” is, arguably, obscene.  (It seems at least a category error.)  Plus, on the second point, neither my survivor friends nor I expected to be in charge of our world – to be able to protect children from harm with our physical prowess or to secure the future through alliances with the world’s deciders.  What happened that week in the U.S. shook a generation and a segment of the population that expected to be able to secure the safety of their loved ones, or who, at the very least, had been taught that they ought to be able to protect their families from such incomprehensible cruelty.

This combination may have brought about a profound, societal sickness around violence, gender, and race.  As Susan Faludi suggests in this complicated book, after 9/11 many Americans needed, as a kind of cultural instinct, stories of masculine virility.  I opened this blog entry wondering about the appeal of strong women like Turner, Ivins, and Richards, but apparently the urge for men who can take charge and protect women from other men is stronger than a desire for leader-ish women.  And 9/11 reinforced a deep-rooted, American racial narrative that depicts brown men as the invading violators.  While it is morally neat to relegate the repeated sexual violation of Guantanamo prisoners to a category of individual pathology, torturers were resituating potential violators as the violated.  Those who had penetrated the defenses of America were ritually penetrated, rendering them defenselessly feminine for what they had done. The nation had suffered the particular shame of losing our collective manhood, and it seems that a number of us wanted not only vengeance, but a socio-pathological display of male domination, acted out on (mostly) male, Muslim bodies.

It is going to take me much longer to sort this all out, and I need help from others more able to reckon with the worst American pornographic culture has to offer, but I keep thinking that post-9/11 masculinity is connected also to the popularity of graphically violent shows that repeatedly stage visually appealing rape scenes.  I have only endured one full episode of Game of Thrones, but wonderful Emily Nussbaum puts the matter succinctly in this review.  (And, for all of you folks who just love yourself some Game of Thrones, please read her last paragraph and consider a boycott.)  As one of the women in this podcast suggested recently, a story about strong men who effectively protect their women turns on the same narrative axis as a story about a strong man who controls his woman.  The requirement of economic and physical potency on the part of men may contribute to domestic violence, as men who find themselves unable to control their surroundings take out their sense of failure on the woman for whom they are told to feel a responsibility.

While I try to sort this puzzle, I am absolutely certain that smart people can analyze the themes of economic domination and gender in the popularity of the new book Becoming China’s Bitch.  Not subtle.  How do fears about economic violation and shame emerge in pop culture?  Why do many people seem truly to enjoy the show “Hoarders,” wherein real people are exposed to public humiliation?  Does the spectacle of someone else’s desperate, over-indulgent chaos make us feel as if we are not, well . . . someone else’s “bitch”?  Or, take the show “Storage Wars,” where the stored treasures of poor and/or deceased people are fought and picked over for monetary value?  We can still watch grown adults dress in drastically outlandish ways to win a chance at a refrigerator on “The Price of Right,” perhaps helping us feel a bit less ridiculous in our own compromised places of employment.  Or, dear Lord, I just discovered that you can actually post on Facebook pages of the “Slammer,” pointing out the arrest of a high school classmate that long ago did you wrong.  While the airwaves are replete with elite pundits warning the masses against “class warfare,” I fear that the class war today is unapologetically horizontal.   We have been, in various ways, duped into seeing other working people as competition and as fodder for misery-loves-company forms of entertainment.  This is not new, of course.  As Gangs of New York shows, nothing quells potential chaos like a good, public hanging.

I fear that, after turning on the captive prison population for retribution, and finding ourselves still scared, and, not incidentally, economically owned, many of us are ready to turn on one another.  There is no smarter way to divide the 99% during a time of unprecedented wealth disparity than to tell us the young don’t respect our elders, that the elders are taking all our social services, and that the war between the sexes is just part of our hard-wiring for difference.  (See here  and here.)

I was struck last year by two images from the Economist, a source that distills world events for readers of a particular class.   If you don’t know the Economist, suffice it to say that I tell minority students preparing for the GRE that they should read the magazine to get all up inside the messed-up machine that creates standardized testing in the first place.  In quick succession, the Economist ran two powerfully evocative covers depicting economic anxieties.  In the first, from January 8-14, the cover depicts a group of workers (presumably) but without faces or distinctive features.  The headline reads “The Battle Ahead:  Confronting the Public Sector Unions.”  The image technically counts as a caricature, in that they are not real people.  This cartoon of union workers storms over a red-tinted horizon.  The January 22-28 cover shows a contrasting caricature.  Here, an image of a man, wearing dark clothes (a suit?) stands on a graph depicting economic disparity.  The headline reads “The Rich and the Rest: a 14-page report on the global elite.”  The man standing at the penultimate point on the graph looks up at the suited man high up toward the top of the graph.  The aspiring caricature holds a ladder, which stands as irony for two reasons.  The ladder is not only too short for the gap, but the gap is also horizontal.  The vertical distance is great, but the gap between the two lines on the graph appears as if the “global elite” are qualitatively different than those beneath.

I have no neat way to tie all of this up, but I am going to end with three very different signs of hope, each regarding women who are not or were not afraid to be “broads.”

First, most trivially, the quite flawed new movie Brave (yes, sigh . . . from Disney) is still an improvement.  The major problem with the story is that all the male characters are stupid, in the extreme.  It is possible to depict female courage without making the world into a place where women have to do everything because men are constitutionally inept.  But, the heroine in the movie not only has a realistic booty (truly, you will see what I mean) but she has moxie.  And she wins the day not ultimately through her capacity to shoot arrows (although she is darned good at that) but by reconciling with her estranged mother.  The ending isn’t perfect, by any means, but you can read in it a call for daughters and mothers to stop fighting one another in classic princess/evil queen style and instead work as sisters to make the world a bit better for everyone.  (SPOILER ALERT – SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON’T WANT TO HAVE THE MOVIE RUINED.)  My youngest turned to me as we both had tears running down our cheeks (yes, I am sappy) and said, “Mom, I really hope I never turn you into a bear.”  Indeed, dear one.  I hope we are able to hold one another up in all our courage, to dance always like no one is watching, and to extend love and courage outward to other sisters in need of support.

Second, Scott Horton of Harper’s Magazine spoke at the anti-torture conference about how outrage over Guantanamo turned over eventually into outrage over torture carried out by U.S. supported regimes in countries like Egypt.  Basically, the Bush administration did encourage democracy, but unwittingly, and in all the obviously wrong ways.  It may be an instance of God turning the devil’s hateful work toward justice.  To remember this, I keep a copy of a photograph on my office door of a woman kissing an Egyptian soldier on the cheek, as he stares forward in resolve.  Women of each generation came out in remarkable numbers to oppose tyranny in Egypt, and other women shared their stories and images across the globe, quickening courage in households and public squares where women had been told to behave themselves and mind their manners.  The reverberations of their bravery are immeasurable, even while their country’s future is still uncertain.  And, right as I was trying (finally) to complete this entry, a new piece came up by a brave Western woman, naming how she totally sold herself out by using her intelligence for Vogue to showcase another totalitarian regime.  Joan Juliet Buck’s story is here.  Her piece on Syria’s first lady for Vogue’s “Power” issue ended up causing her to lose her job and many friends.  I would recommend her witness to all the women who daily use our best gifts to allow the machinery of domination to go unmentioned.  Many upper-class, well-educated women look at what true vocational courage might cost us, and decide not to rock the boat.  We do what we are told.  Read again some stories from months ago, about women who risked their lives to stand up to ruthless dictators, and consider standing up to the more subtle regimes of silence and intimidation in your home, workplace, neighborhood, or city.

Third, although dear Andy Griffith’s passing was all over every form of media imaginable, another North Carolinian deserves our attention too.  Her name is Joan Papert Preiss, and, although I never met her, I want to be more like her when I grow up.  Nick Wood, an organizer for Jobs for Justice, wrote this in an email:

I wanted to honor a legendary activist, Joan Preiss of Durham, who passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 87.  Joan was a key volunteer organizer during FLOC’s (Farm Labor Organizing Committee) boycott Mt. Olive pickle and a tireless advocate for nearly 40 years.

I first met Joan as a green 21 year-old organizer.  The other paid organizer was out of town so I was put in touch with her to help get started.  Within two weeks, we (mostly she) organized two demonstrations of people at local grocery stores carrying the product.  Just about every local strategy session we had usually started around Joan’s kitchen table drinking strong coffee.

Joan was the creative force behind numerous tactics including the “Pickle Tiara.”  We would get folks to do their regular shopping wearing a funny construction paper hats shaped like a Mt. Olive Pickle jar and wait for other shoppers to ask us what was going on.  That way store management had to let us do our action to avoid a conflict with paying customers!

That was only brief glimpse of Joan Preiss, but I will stop there despite the many pages I could write.  Joan represents the best in all of us and real solidarity.  A movement without significant resources relies on the dedication of people like her and without them we couldn’t succeed.  Joan’s life is an inspiration to me and I hope to others. She will be missed.

There is a great deal of pressure on women who aspire to what counts as leadership to prove ourselves capable of worldly strength and prudential cruelty.  As Henry Higgins sings in My Fair Lady, the men in charge ask “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” and there is incentive to wield wit and weaponry to humiliate our foes and prove ourselves above vulnerability.  And we are never, ever supposed to shed tears of empathy, anger, fear, shame . . .  To do so is to present ourselves as incapable, and in need of male protection.  How am I supposed to teach my daughters to resist the allure of retribution?  May I teach them to refuse the supposed protection of drone attacks?  May I teach them to refuse either alliances with men with big money or educational schemes that would train them to be “more like a man”?

Frankly, the cross can be more of a problem than a solution – if it is misused.  I am increasingly reluctant to talk about self-emptying as a Christian virtue, because it has been used again, and again, and again, in subtle and overt ways, to tell those who have been wronged to forgive and forget and to make themselves, yet again, open to exploitation.  This doesn’t seem quite the way to raise strong daughters and encourage holy strength in our sisters, or in our brothers, for that matter.  And one of the questions that came out of the torture conference was whether or not the story of the cross itself is not an invitation to sado-masochistic forms of death.  I think the answer to this may be yes – if Christians make the error of trying to duplicate the cross.  Torture and humiliation may indeed be part of a twisted-up version of the faith – a futile effort to usher in peace through the ritualized death of others.  The answer to this macabre heresy cannot be for women (or men) to offer up ourselves as the sacrificial lambs of peace.  There is only one lamb of peace.  He died.  He is risen.  And he will come again.  Living into that hope, even in the face of fear, and shame, and state-sponsored torture, is the pattern I wish to teach my girls.  That, and the courage to wear a tiara made of pickles.


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