Repetition

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Poem
-Novica Tadić

He turns the pages of books
And examines the poems there
Saying my god
All this has already been written

On this day that is meant to be a paean to love (even if it’s the most commercial farce of the year), all I can think about is hate.

I felt relieved, almost smug, if deluded, to believe (did I ever really believe?) that we lived in a time (or were closer to living in a time) beyond petty hatred and discrimination based on things like skin color or religion. I have never been able to understand the existence of this kind of hatred, the crippling inferiority and fear that it betrays. But then I have watched as suddenly all the closet racists, xenophobes and other bile-filled hate zealots became empowered to voice their inner hatred, perpetrate great violence openly – as late as 2017. Is this the new normal?

No, there is nothing new or normal about it.

Most stunning (but is it really stunning?) of all is realizing how deeply racist and – worse – fearful – people are – people I never would have imagined being racist, xenophobic or anti-Islam show themselves to be. I suppose I have been a hopeless fool for imagining that things were anywhere near being otherwise. In my current state of mind – the February doldrums – I only seem able to see the very worst. I can’t let this pull to defeatist gloom win – but my god, the pull is strong.

But please never be dishonest enough to believe there will not be more Trumps—maybe many, possibly worse—until this country properly reckons with racism and white supremacy. This president isn’t an original; he’s just the most recent proof of America doing the same thing over and over again and pretending not to want the same result. Trump is the vast measurable difference between what America claims it wants to be and the truth.”

Sexism, misogyny, racism and inequality in women’s sports

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The tension and irritation has been building up in me for a long time, even though I was unaware of its presence and imperceptible growth. I am not an athlete nor am I someone who has been vocally feminist for much of my life. I had a few conversations with former colleagues – women who were much older than me, who had been through some of the trials of being the only woman working in a completely male-dominated workplace (an air traffic control center). It’s not as though women are not expected somehow – still – to take notes and make the coffee, but back then it was not just understood but was blatantly stated as a requirement and not questioned. Fighting against these slights in daily work life has never been a conscious part of my life. But strides made by women who came before me paved the way for me not to have to think about such things (as well as the installation of automatic coffee machines!).

I believe wholeheartedly in equality for everyone – and I mean everyone – but when I undertook a master’s program in gender studies, the extremes of feminist theory put me off by being so anti-man. I have not personally suffered – to my knowledge – for being a woman, and I am sure that in some measure this is because I am a white woman who, in the Nordic countries where I live, blends into the scenery and enjoys the privilege that comes from so many different aspects of the accident of my birth and the conscious choice of where I live (which is another layer of privilege – having the choice to decide where to live and to go there).

Similarly Scandinavia conscientiously attempts to lead the way on matters of equality. It does not always succeed, sometimes tripping over itself trying to be “too fair” or politically correct and coming out looking foolish. But the thinking is in the right place. I also say that I have not “consciously” suffered because I don’t know that we are always aware of the things we are numb or indoctrinated to. While no man is outwardly making lewd remarks or insisting that I do something degrading or something that is anything other than equal to what he would do, there have probably been times that I was perceived or treated as “lesser than” because I am a woman. I have been blissfully ignorant to this, if and when it did happen, because my life has still been lived on my terms and has been relatively easy to boot.

Revealing this as my backdrop, I can’t really explain what incensed me and pushed me over the edge about sexism, misogyny and racism in women’s athletics. Not even looking at the flat-out stereotypes any longer (as though all women athletes must exist at caricature-like extremes, i.e. either women who appear as masculine, steroid-pumped sportsmen-lesbians from Cold War era East Germany or ultra-feminine, would-be fashion models who look cute in a short skirt). Either direction these stereotypes travel, they smack of objectification and are on display for the criticism and analysis of the world (and it’s not just men engaging in the bitterest criticism). Not because they are athletes in the public eye but because they are women.

We can see this dynamic quite publicly and visibly played out in the form of Bruce Jenner, former Olympic champion, who is now known as Caitlyn Jenner. As Bruce the athlete, no one would have questioned how he looked or would have sexualized his existence to the degree that all women athletes put up with today. And as Caitlyn, she is suddenly subject to this kind of scrutiny. Jon Stewart explained it best in a recent episode of The Daily Show. Now, suddenly, as a woman, Jenner’s worth is all tied up in her “fuckability” and her beauty.

This holds true for women athletes the world over. And when it is not explicitly about their bodies as objects, and how their bodies and fashion sense reflect on their character (!) or deservedness to win (!!) (e.g., when a Wimbledon winner (Marion Bartoli) is ripped to shreds because she is “too ugly and/or too fat” to win), it’s about the invisibility or lack of support for their sports. FIFA‘s (soon-to-be-former president) Sepp Blatter infamously remarked that women’s football might be more popular if they wore tighter/shorter shorts; Al Jazeera reported on the discrimination against female footballers in Brazil while The Atlantic reports that Brazil’s biggest male footballer makes 15 million USD a year, while its biggest female football star cannot find a team to play for. Al Jazeera and more recently John Oliver highlighted the sexist inequality of FIFA insisting that the women’s World Cup be played on artificial turf rather than grass.

All of this is frustrating but not quite the infuriating push I needed to get really angry. Instead, Serena Williams’s win at the French Open this weekend finally made me seethe with rage. Looking at her winning history, she is singularly the greatest female tennis player ever to play the game. Can she be recognized simply for these record-breaking achievements in athleticism and sporting victory? No.

No one is or has been (in recent memory) more susceptible to the powerful and ugly forces of sexism, misogyny, racism and inequality than Serena Williams.

If all female pro-athletes, particularly in a “demure” arena like tennis, are treated like sex objects who should be supermodels, what can we expect? And when the kind of racially charged, barely veiled racist language cues come into play on top of the sexism and objectifying, shouldn’t every woman be angry?

**Edited later to note that The Atlantic published a piece on French Open men’s champion, Stan Wawrinka, which states: “It’s that Wawrinka doesn’t look or comport himself like a Grand Slam champion. From his bright pink “pajama” shorts to his faintly dadboddish physique, the Swiss native looks more like someone you’d find at Home Depot than Roland Garros.” Finally someone jumps on what a man looks like and how he “comports” himself. Equality, right?

Lunchtable TV talk – American Crime: Don’t believe everything you read

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After spending a lot of time watching ridiculous shows, I thought American Crime, with its gritty realism, would be a good change of pace. In many ways, it is. It is gritty and real and tells a story from multiple perspectives. Characters are real, complicated, vulnerable and flawed – mostly unlikeable – but then, aren’t most people, especially on TV? While most characters are exaggerated for television, I find the exaggerations are only slightly true here. For example, with grief exploding from the uptight mother of a murder victim, she is desperately trying to keep it together, tightly wound, and keep control over her emotions and how things play out (a stellar performance from Felicity Huffman). Ultimately, most of what comes out of her mouth is critical, unpleasant, drives wedges between other characters and her, and above all, comes out as racist and short-sighted.

Who am I to say that her lashing out (however controlled it is) is exaggerated? Her insistence in a recent episode that “this family was never normal” strikes me as funny in that it’s true that no family is ever normal. The brother of the murder victim seems to be one of the only clear-headed, normal people here. His handling of the manipulative demands and undercurrent of racism his mother has always doled out is inspired. He finally confronts her – he seems to be the only one confronting anyone with reason in this show – and it’s hard to watch. It’s for scenes like these that I continue to watch, even though I am not finding the show particularly meaningful or compelling.

I read a lot of articles introducing the show before it started. I had high hopes. But the show unfolds slowly and is mundane. Perhaps this is what things are like – slow and murky. In the criminal justice system, justice is not swift and even if the outcome is “fair”, it is not going to seem fair to all parties. Crime and its aftermath has a way of revealing secrets under the surface – which then tear people apart on top of the grief and loss they are already feeling. It can unravel tenuous “peace” – in families, in societies. For example, we can see a relatively deft handling of the racial and cultural issues at play in society as a whole here, and these tensions lead to stupid decisions and explosions. Nothing is obvious, but it is undoubtedly taxing to try to create a story from all angles. For example, the story explores divides within one community. The father of a Mexican-American family that is central to the story condemns “illegals” as giving the rest of them a bad name. Naturally this does not go over well within his community (his family is shunned from their church after the father’s tirade on “illegals” is broadcast on the news).

The point is – the show’s treatment tells it from many sides, but as one online outlet explains:

“The problem with frank conversations about race and prejudice, particularly as it pertains to American life, is that the issue is so enormous that it’s impossible to have a comprehensive discussion on the subject. There’s too much at stake with too many affiliated tendrils to ever feel as if it’s a topic that has anything close to a solution, much less one that could be reached by simple dialogue. So instead of having the big important conversations about race and really digging into the main course that is oppression, society tends to prefer it’s race conversations in amuse-bouche portions, just bite-sized bits of conflict that fuel the Twitter outrage fires for days until they eventually burn themselves out, often just in time for another flare up.”

Perhaps I find the show frustrating because the characters are weak and human and do exactly what real people would do rather than what you want them to do – or what they should do (and what TV characters looking for “redemption” would do). In that sense, even five episodes in, I am not sure what I think about American Crime.

Collection of Political Incorrectness

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Sometimes many years pass between having contact with people. So much time passes, in fact, that when your mind’s Rolodex (and yeah, old-style folks like me have a mental Rolodex rather than some slick electronic device or database) hits upon someone from the past, good or bad, it does seem like such a length of time has passed that it is unlikely you will ever talk to them again.

One such person, for me, was a friend/roommate I had in Iceland about 15 years ago. Our lives have moved forward in very different ways, and after about 2004, we did not talk much – a few times between 2004 and 2008. But I moved to Norway and I don’t think we had so much as one conversation after that.

Tonight, he was sitting in the airport in my hometown and rather randomly thought of me after all this time and gave me a call. Nice to catch up, of course, but the point of all this (and this is something I had sort of forgotten about him – this unintentional humor. Not unintentional humor of the Road House variety. Unintentional humor that he is fully in on/understands, i.e. he does something silly, sticks his foot in his mouth and immediately gets that whatever it was was not smart… but he can laugh about it).

During our call, he was sitting in the airport talking loudly, saying, “All the cashiers at the burger place are Asian women. I think they found something more they could do than just work in massage parlors.”

Then there was a pause, and he said in a very serious, matter of fact way, like he was going to change the subject, and say something like, “I learned you have to take a little subway to get to the other terminal.” But instead he deadpanned, “I just learned that I cannot say things like that out loud.”

I burst out laughing so hard and could not stop, imagining the disapproving dirty looks people were giving him for his loud, unintentionally racist commentary. HAHAHAHA. Too much.

Not that racism of any kind is funny – it was imagining the setting – this guy oblivious to everyone around him, saying everything that came to mind – kind of the danger of mobile devices. People tend to forget to censor themselves.

And for kicks…

About other people I have not seen in years – but in this case keep up with on social media – a former colleague recently posted an article, “I Have Dwarfism and It Shouldn’t Be Awkward to Talk About It”. The article delves into the subtle and not so subtle forms of discrimination people with dwarfism may face beyond just that general awkwardness people feel talking about it – or talking to them about it, rather.

Good article, and it brought to mind an unrelated news article I had seen a few days ago. The writer of the article on dwarfism stated, “I often think that it’s a good job the Metropolitan Police don’t operate a policy of ‘size profiling’. If they did, life would be constantly interrupted by being stopped and searched, mistaken for someone else who wasn’t me; they just fitted the description: white, male, and under 4’6”. To be clear: this is not about dwarfs like myself being more likely to commit crime than average height people.”

In the news article I read, a woman asks a gas station clerk for help because her boyfriend (who is outside the store) has terrorized and abused her. How the aforementioned dwarfism article, though, sprang to mind is because it states, “Dean (the gas station attendant) looked out to the car and saw a familiar face. He didn’t know the name, but he knew the man. He says it was Mark Francis Valucus. Valucus is especially distinctive because he is small; 4 feet, 3 inches.”

After reading the dwarfism article, I wondered if the store clerk actually recognized a ‘familiar face’ or, like the guy in the dwarfism article posits, “all people with dwarfism look the same”.

Ad Dads: The Wholesome Mix of What’s Good for Business

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How things change – and suddenly. I won’t say they change fast because that they definitely do not. Gay equality – I won’t even call it “gay rights” because it comes down to human rights and equality for all, and the gay community has been one group that suffers most from the lack of equality afforded to them as individuals and as couples/families. I recall being in New York only a handful of years ago with a fantastic woman – and if I remember correctly, we talked then about how unlikely it seemed that she would ever be able to marry a partner. I do not remember if we discussed it as an American situation (as in, never being able to marry in her own country) or a state phenomenon (meaning the state she lived in at the time). But even three or four years ago, the idea that gay couples would finally be granted the legal right to marry in as many US states as they now have seemed like a far-off dream. Change happens, and sometimes when it starts to change, it happens fast. What seems like a formidable wall turns out to be built only of dominos. It looks like one little push sends all the dominos tumbling. This is not to discount the decades and decades of active fighting for these rights – it is only a comment that once change is afoot, it is virtually unstoppable – and it is not long before the mainstream embraces the change.

Inevitably that mainstream charge leads to big business getting on board, too. Some more than others. Some with small nods to the change – others with much bigger, more visible, overt exclamation about the change. A piece in The New Yorker chronicles the recent controversy surrounding a popular Honey Maid graham cracker ad campaign, which features a happy family headed by two men. Naturally the original ad campaign sparked positive and negative feedback, and Honey Maid followed up with a response to both the positive and negative. But let’s say in their overt advertising, they put their money where their mouth is. They went so far as to use a word synonymous with their brand (“wholesome”) to describe all kinds of families and all kinds of love. (“Most striking is the tagline of the ad: “No matter how things change, what makes us wholesome never will. Honey Maid. Everyday wholesome snacks for every wholesome family. This is wholesome.” The ad is deeply heartwarming—not simply because it shows diversity (which other companies have done) but because it labels these families with the word “wholesome,” which is exactly the kind of word that tends to get claimed by the evangelical right.”)

What drives this? I understand how the basics change in society that propel more and more people who perhaps do not even support gay marriage themselves to no longer actively oppose it. There is a difference. But what drives the very public shift in how things are shown and presented as just one variation of the norm versus some kind of anomaly?

If the trend in society is breaking one way, the article argues, it boils down to what’s good for business: “Advertising both follows and leads to change. Marketers’ objective is to sell things, and they will seldom be brave enough to jeopardize their own interests, but their own interests appear to be changing. At some quiet moment when “Modern Family” was reaping good ratings, the mentality of corporate America began to change.”

It follows with reference to Jan Brewer of Arizona vetoing anti-gay legislation – not for the sake of equality but for what’s good for business: “Regard for equal human rights did not drive Brewer; the threat of losing the Super Bowl did. (How did the Super Bowl become the nexus of gay rights?) It turns out that tolerating gay people is good for business, even in Arizona. I’d prefer that people such as I get our rights because we command respect and evince dignity, but if we get them because there’s money in it, that’s fine.”

While I am content with whatever expands tolerance, I do have to wonder of course about the fickle nature of American acceptance – perhaps much of America has accepted gay marriage more or less, but at the same time as the article tackles the economic impetus driving some of this, it also addresses briefly a Cheerios ad campaign featuring an interracial family. General Mills, maker of Cheerios, received an unbelievable amount of hateful, racist commentary that came in via their YouTube channel, to the degree that comments were disabled. Bringing the discussion back to general human rights and equality, has American society (and business more generally – at least for now) decided that gay rights are something to get behind/support while racial tension and hatred is fine (or simmering under the surface) for large swathes of the country?

I wonder seriously how that can be – at a point where for the first time in American history the majority of babies born in America are not white (according to 2010 US Census data), and interracial families are growing in number (the 2008 census counted new marriages between interracial couples at 15 percent of the US population; 2010 census data show that among opposite-sex married couples, one in 10 is interracial, a 28% jump since 2000. In 2010, 18% of heterosexual unmarried couples were of different races and 21% of same-sex couples were mixed). A crowdsourced website was even started in response to the Cheerios ad. Similarly, a 2013 Gallup poll indicated that 87 percent of those polled approved of black-white marriage (versus an almost non-existent four percent in 1958). If virtually the entire population (at least those polled – granted, not a huge number — 4,373 Americans, including 1,010 non-Hispanic blacks) feels favorably about this (or is at least indifferent), are we just looking at a handful of racist idiots posting comments on YouTube, hiding behind the semi-anonymity of the internet?

The mixing is happening, the mixing is real. The mixing is growing more and more common. So why and how could a Cheerios ad celebrating the reality of this be so controversial? And really – why does anyone care? I mean, yes, I care in that I believe firmly in live and let live. Even if you don’t support or agree with something, you can tolerate it because it has nothing to do with you.

Ultimately it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. But at least some of the positive changes are real and make material differences in the rights and equality afforded to some of the population.

“Get a grip; this is the world we live in”

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History is written to say/it wasn’t our fault” -Sam Phillips – “Love & Kisses”

Which side of the fence are you on?

I am going to start this post by writing that I am well-aware of the gross oversimplification of everything I am writing. It is a train of thought I am following without delving into any specific issues in a meaningful way. I just had a lot of thoughts following Nelson Mandela’s passing on the nature of justice, race and humanity that I wanted to express, however disjointed and surface-level they are.

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, and even during his life, he had achieved a kind of sainthood status, untouchable… which is fine except that he was human. A great human, yes. But, as some media outlets have reported, he had a lot of “non-mainstream” things to say that exposed the hypocrisies he saw in all kinds of things, such as, and perhaps most notably, American power/hegemony. Most of these key statements are left out of the soft version of his obituaries, and the powers-that-be who might be less than comfortable with that part of Mandela can easily ignore those things.

His death brings forth the question, for example, “Who is a terrorist?” It depends on who asks the question. Who defines what a terrorist is – and how does that change? When Nelson Mandela went to prison, he was seen as a terrorist. Many South Africans of all races went to jail and fought for his  cause and the cause of racial equality (making it something of a “badge of honor” – at least according to the South Africans I have known who had criminal records for political agitation and protesting) to have a criminal record within the apartheid system. What better evidence is there of the commitment to social justice or to any cause of conscience? The whole concept of a criminal record automatically carrying a negative connotation is flawed because the offense makes a difference.

Nelson Mandela was branded a terrorist. But then, the United States labels all kinds of countries, people/individuals and organizations as terrorist or as official sponsors of terrorism. The other day, out-of-touch old man US Senator John McCain threw a fit because President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuba’s Raul Castro at Mandela’s memorial services. SO WHAT? McCain shook hands with Qaddafi at some point. These labels assigned conveniently to people who are enemies of the state one day and the next are not are arbitrary and self-serving.

Many would cite Palestinian organizations and individuals as terrorists, and Israel certainly treats them like they all are. But who is the real terrorist in that scenario? How can a country occupied by people whose forebears went through something as ghastly as the Holocaust ever treat another people in the ways the Israelis treat the Palestinians? Isn’t that kind of treatment another form of terrorism? What is the difference between armed resistance and terrorism? Or even just resistance versus terrorism? We have seen history filled with people who resisted, armed or not, who seem to be called terrorists for their way of thinking, for their ideas. What about, for example, the Kosovo Liberation Army that sought independence from the Yugoslav union in the 1990s. Compared to the military apparatus of Serbia, from which it aimed to secede, you could hardly call the KLA a well-armed adversary. Serbs will tell stories about all the “terror” perpetrated by the KLA, but in the end it was the Serbs who were found guilty of violence and terror by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia.

That said, many people believe in causes, to the degree that they would die for them. At what point are those causes deemed morally just by the mainstream? That is not to say “majority” – but by a loud and vocal enough mainstream that whatever the cause is becomes bigger and favour for one side or the other of a cause tips in one direction or another. Apartheid is an easy one for the liberal, equality-minded person.  On the whole, it is wrong, and there are no two ways about it. On the surface, of course, the United States ended slavery and race becomes less divisive all the time. After all, the first African-American, truly multicultural president was elected to the highest political office in the nation. I personally did not think that would happen in my lifetime. But these strides do not mean that race is not still an issue. For some people, for reasons I cannot begin to understand, it is. Whether or not people in American society face a lack of opportunity or are more likely to experience poverty, etc. Is tied to race or is a multifaceted problem that is more socioeconomic in nature, with race playing one part in the bigger picture, I cannot say with any degree of expertise. It is always much more complicated than just one thing. But to say that there is equality would be complete and total bullshit.

The point, though, was to say that some issues carry a certain moral certitude (even if this is only in hindsight and the passage of much time). Slavery and apartheid are two such issues.

But then, something like gay marriage has been, at least in the United States and some of the more conservative parts of Europe, illegal without much to push the issue either way until recently. In 25 or 50 years (??) it may be that we can look back on the fight to love and marry whomever you want to and shake our heads at how it was ever a question. In 25 years, maybe this “moral certitude” will creep in. The tide in much of America has shifted away from trying to legislate gay marriage into non-existence and has been replaced in many cases by total indifference and in even more cases outright support. I am well aware that there are large swaths of the population who will never support it, never accept it and will fight until the day they die for a Constitutional amendment to try to ensure that marriage is a man-woman thing. But assuming that the current trend continues to move forward on the path it is currently on, at some point perhaps gay marriage will become passé. Wouldn’t that be something? It’s so common no one bothers to comment on it or think about it. (It’s a little bit like that in Scandinavia already – it just does not matter who you are paired up with. It’s your life.)

But many people believe in causes and take them to extremes. Some of those causes are questionable but clearly meant something to the people involved in them. As an example, I watched the film The Baader-Meinhof Complex, based on the true story of the Red Army Faction (or Baader-Meinhof Gang), which conducted its own acts of “protest”, mostly in the 1970s, in militant and violent opposition to the then-West German government (which they considered fascist). It was considered a terrorist organization, and most of its activities were indeed violent. But they did indeed believe in their cause. But cult leaders and their followers also believe in a cause. (Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and suicide-by-KoolAid in Guyana; David Koresh and the Branch Davidians who were killed by US federal agents at their compound in Waco, Texas, etc. The list could go on.) Did a cause like the Red Army Faction start off with such terrible intentions? Or is it just the tactics that eventually make the cause insupportable?

Anyway, back to race and the general state of affairs in the world we live in. Most alarming is that while we want to believe in the triumph of “racelessness” – Mandela “united” and reconciled a nation left in tatters thanks to apartheid; Obama became president in a fairly racist country… some of the (somehow) more unexpected racism comes from places that seem, at the same time, both improbable and common – beauty pageants. Not to start down the road of “what is beauty” (which is also a minefield) – but when an Indian-American woman won the Miss America title a few months ago, there was an uproar in social media channels that re-exposed the raw reality of American racism and the tendency toward discrimination. And why? Today I see that the newly crowned Miss France, who is mixed-race (white French and Beninese), is experiencing the very same hatred from all these anonymous sources who insist that she is “not French”.

But – short of exploring the complex questions of national identity (what makes someone a citizen and what makes them essentially that nationality or what makes them feel at home in that country?) – how is she any less French than any other? And in America, the “melting pot of the world” as is so often falsely cited, how is a woman of Indian origin any less American than someone of Irish origin or of Japanese origin or any other origin?

Basic questions because they demand basic answers. This kind of discrimination is so patently stupid and hateful that I cannot bring myself to analyze it further. All I want to do is slap the people who are most vocally hateful and say, “Get a grip – this is the world you live in.” I long for a day when all people are so obviously mixed in terms of race and nation that things are never obviously cut and dry.