Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"Hillary Clinton won South Carolina??? But nobody likes her!!!"

I have a confession to make: I like Hillary Clinton. And I am not even one of the people she's won over recently. I've liked for years. And, judging by her recent election results in SC, I am not the only one who does. Shocking, isn't it? So while it's certainly not true that "nobody" likes her (refer here to this brilliant tweet noting that "saying 'nobody likes HRC', then looking at who's voting for her gives me an instructive glimpse into who some 'liberals' consider 'nobody.'" Ahem. Nothing to see here. Carry on.), a good portion of the media seems to be spewing misogyny from the deepest depth of hell dislike her to some extent. It's quite the phenomenon, actually.

I know, I know, she’s a horrible, lying, cheating, dishonest, shrill, shouting, unlikeable, corrupt, icy, robotic, hysterical, ugly, calculating, evil, untrustworthy, divisive, mean-spirited, egomaniacal, power-hungry corporate shill and all that. I am sure I forgot some of the more common - and intentionally left out some of the crasser - descriptors, I apologize in advance, no need to point them out. I’ve heard it so many times, for so many years, that I can recite it in my sleep. 

(If you are looking for a comprehensive compilation of all her high crimes and misdemeanors, read Brett Arends' brilliantly funny article. May favorites are #44 "She's really ambitious and calculating, unlike all the other people running for president" and #60 "She claimed there was a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her husband, and it turned out there was nothing but a bunch of tycoons financing private investigators, and some fake think tanks and books and news sites and stuff.")

In fact, nobody says this better than Melissa McEwan at Shakesville, pointing out the ridiculousness of all that's being said with this picture: 

 Source: Shakesville.com

But here's the thing: I am pretty sure she's not. In fact, I am 100% sure. No, I have not actually met her - but neither have most of those who ardently hate her with the fire of a thousand suns. I have spent an inordinate amount of time "researching her", though - watching her speeches, interviews, and debates, reading her plans and policy statements, her books, even some of her emails, going as far as (shudder) watching all of the dreadful, 11-hour Benghazi-hearing from last October ("This investigation is not about you." Seriously? Sir, you are full of shit. "This investigation" was nothing but a thinly-veiled witch hunt. It's just that the "witch" didn't let herself be hunted and remained poised, professional, competent, and collected through the entire ordeal, calmly answering even those questions that were nothing more than personal attacks.). 

I did all of that trying to understand. I wanted to understand what she's done that basically makes it ok to call her a murderous beast, something akin to the Wicked Witch of the West, crossed with some sort of demon from hell. I went looking to find evidence that the things that are being said about her are true or justified. I assumed I would find evidence she is, in fact, worse than Hitler, Stalin, and Cruella de Vil wrapped into one. She has to be, right? Why else would people be saying these things about her, over and over and over? 

And you know what I found, time and time again? A decent human being. I found someone who works hard, who's funny, smart, self-deprecating, and who genuinely seems to care. I found an actual person, buried behind so much slander, gossip, and caricature that it took intense digging to break through that avalanche, and even then, I was unsure if I should trust what I found. How could this be? She's not at all like the person we all think we know. I must be the one who's mistaken. Maybe I am falling for a clever ploy, some devious strategy where she's pretending to be an actual human being, where she has just figured out a better way to camouflage her true colors and deceive the public. IT JUST CAN'T BE TRUE that there's been a 25-year smear campaign against someone who's basically trying her best, however imperfectly, who tries to stand up for what she believes, even when sometimes it turns out she's made a mistake. Hindsight always gives us 20/20 vision, after all. But you know what? It IS true. The public discourse has more or less tried to erase Hillary Clinton, to silence her by replacing her with a monstrously distorted caricature, a caricature that is perpetuated incessantly in the media coverage of her, and has been for 25 years. And whatever she does, somehow it can always be twisted to fit that image. 

When I first started grads school, in my very first semester, we were taught about the principle of falsifiability. Basically, whenever you make a claim, voice a theory or hypothesis, there has to be a way that I can disprove your argument. There has to be some evidence that, when manifested, shows that your theory, your explanation of how the world works, is wrong. Well, I hate to break it to you, but most of what has been said about Hillary Clinton is not falsifiable. There is nothing she can say or do to convince people that these accusations are false. Let's try an example, shall we? Let's say your theory is that Clinton is an emotionless, robotic ice queen, unable to feel anything and simply reciting scripted soundbites that she thinks will get people to vote for her - a calculating bitch that will say anything to get elected. You wouldn't believe how often I have heard that one. Anyhow, how could she prove she's not? What could she do to convince you? Seems easy enough. Show emotion, right? Be passionate about an issue? Stand by her principles? But what happens whenever she lets down her guard, when she shows emotion? She's accused of "faking it". Of "pretending to feel" to make herself more likable, in order to (you guessed it) get elected. Or she's portrayed as a hysterical crazy-woman.

Here's another one: She's vindictive and mean-spirited and will do anything in her power to destroy anyone who crosses her. Remember the coverage of the '08 primary? People were predicting she'd never support Obama because her wounded ego was more important to her than her party. What did she do? Not only did she support him, she campaigned for him with full force. She threw herself behind his candidacy without any hesitation and without any grudge, at least not a public grudge. Should disprove the theory of the vindictive egomaniac, right? Far from it! See, the reason she did all this is because she was already planning her next run for president. 

Accusation after accusation, "scandal" after "scandal" came down to this: "We KNOW she is  X" or "We KNOW she is did Y" ... and if there's no proof, well, that just shows how clever, devious, and well-connected she is and how she'll get away with anything. Funny how that works, isn't it?

Think about it this way: after 25 years and millions of dollars spent going not only through Hillary Clinton's closet, but every dusty corner of her basement as well, scrutinizing her personal life to an unprecedented degree, what we've found is this: back in the 90s she had some marital problems, and she used her private email address for work, when maybe that wasn't the best thing to do. That's it. Those are her skeletons as of today. I don't know about you, but I am not sure many others would look this clean after so much concentrated effort to find dirt on them.

I know what many of you are going to say: "But look at everything that has been said about her! Look at all the gossip and the accusations and the "scandals" (please don't make me get into those, my blood pressure won't stand for it)! Some of that has to be true! Why else would people be saying it, over and over and over?"

The thing is, that's not really how "guilt" is determined, is it? And for good reason. Just because I yell "Burn the witch!" over and over doesn't mean she's a witch. I know there's a quote that says: "Live your life such that if anybody speaks badly about you, nobody will believe it.", or something along those lines. Sounds lovely. Like rainbows-and-unicorns-lovely. However, given the world we all live in, that's not always possible, unfortunately. Slander, shaming, and blatant sexism has been used to silence uncomfortable women for so long, we hardly even notice it when it rears its ugly head yet again. Example: For quite a long time, as I said above, I pondered the question: "What on earth has this woman done to cause so much ... well, out-right hatred?" And then I realized, and to my embarrassment had to admit, that this was entirely the wrong question. I had - unintentionally, but still - participated in one of the most fundamental rules of the patriarchy: victim-blaming. She is being attacked, so she must have done something wrong to cause it. From there, it's only a small step to conclude that she "deserves it". 

So when I moved away from trying to figure out what she has done, I realized that it's about what she is. Or rather, what she refuses to be. She refuses to be a woman who does what good little girls (and good big girls, mind you) have always been expected to do: sit down, smile, speak only when spoken to, and even then, make sure they don't say anything that makes them sound smarter than 'them menfolks'. She's stood up for herself and what she believes in, and she has been confident and outspoken about it. She came onto the national stage at a time when the fear of such women, the unruly, misbehaved, annoying ones, was reaching a high point (not that it is at a low point now, but that's a different topic for a different time.) 
In that way, Hillary Clinton has, through a combination of factors, simply become a lightning rod, a scapegoat, the woman we can use to teach other women where their place is. Or where it isn't. It's not at the table. It's not on the debate stage. It's not in the White House. In some ways, a lot of what's being said about Hillary Clinton isn't about her at all. It's about what she represents. She's an easily identifiable target, and an immensely powerful symbol. "If this is what we can do to her, as powerful, privileged, and well-connected as she is, just imagine what we can do to you!", the patriarchy seems to whisper every time it tries to cut her down. And tried to cut her down it has, over and over. Are you surprised she's developed a thick skin, with all the hostility she's weathered? Good grief, if she hadn't, we'd have driven her to suicide twenty years ago.

Speaking of "thick skin", there's one more mini-rant (I am pretty sure I have outed myself as one of those unstable, ranting "angry women" by now anyway) I have to get in here: it's about this whole "we don't like her because of her armored persona"-bullshit. Armored persona? What the ...? Are you kidding me??? Do you remember what we put that woman through? What the press put her through? What happened to her, every time she tried to be open about who she is and what she believes? She was mocked, ridiculed, belittled, as it happened back in the early 90s. Her personal life was dragged into the public eye, and through the mud, in a way nobody deserves. When she choked up for a second in New Hampshire in 2008, she was accused of being too weak and emotional for the presidency and of faking her tears to get a sympathy-win (so not only did she win Iowa in 2016 and lose it at the same time, she also won and lost New Hampshire in 2008, because, really, people only voted for her because they felt sorry for her). Now Hillary Clinton is talking about "love and kindness" (though, to be fair, it's not really a new message for her). She must know that's a risky move. It's a decidedly "female" message, and it's a personal one. Again, she's attempting to share more of herself. Time will tell if we'll again repay her with unrelenting mockery.

And, frankly, that's partially what's so insidious about everything Clinton's been called. Whenever you confront the person doing the name-calling and point out the deeply ingrained sexism that underlies their comments - how it's strange that "ambitious" is a positive thing for a man, but somehow a flaw in a woman; how our obsession with her hair and her voice and her wardrobe is something you'd never see if she was a man; how's she simultaneously accused of being too cold and too emotional and so on - they always reply with some variation of: "We don't hate her because she's a woman. We hate her because she's Hillary Clinton."

Now, I hate to break it to you, but you can't separate Clinton the Woman from Clinton the Person. They are one and the same. She's both (women are people, too, you know?), and using misogyny against a particular woman, because you "don't like her", makes it ok to use it against any woman - after all, there's always something someone doesn't like about us, isn't there? It's policing. She's being humiliated and demeaned and even threatened with physical violence, not because she's a woman, but because she's the wrong kind of woman. See what happens when you don't do as you're told? See what happens when we decide you've forgotten where your place is? It's for this reason, by the way, that I have found myself defending Sarah Palin from (overt and subtle) sexism in more conversations than I care to remember - and there's not one single thing I like about any of Sarah Palin's so-called "policies".

"Sexism, you say? Pshaw! That's just an easy excuse for Clinton supporters to silence her critics!" I have to tell you that, back in 2008, I was actually surprised by the amount of sexism hurled at her. I did not expect it. I especially did not expect it from mainstream - or even so-called liberal - media.  And I didn't expect it to be so overt. Excuse? Which rock have you been hiding under?

When we have discussions, on national TV no less, of whether it's ok to call her a "white bitch", when it is (not so subtly) implied that she only won New Hampshire because she "cried", when she's alternately called "cold" and "emotional", when MSNBC (not even Fox News, but MSNBC!) asks whether she's a "she-devil", when the ever-present, dim-witted misogynist Chris Matthews has to apologize for more or less openly stating that she's only where she is because people felt sorry for her after the Lewinsky affair, when she simultaneously isn't allowed to take credit for any of the Clinton Administration's achievements and is held personally accountable for each and every one of its shortcomings ... I could go on and on, those as just a few "highlights" of the so-called press coverage that popped into my mind ... then I do not think anyone gets to dispute whether there was sexism at work in that campaign. Did it cost her the nomination? Many factors came into play that year for sure. Barack Obama's well-planned and executed campaign strategy. The country's receptiveness to his message of "hope and change", rather than her less-exciting one of political pragmatism and incrementalism. Mistakes made by her campaign, and by herself. But one factor was certainly the enormous amount of sexism she faced, not just from the right, but also from her so-called allies on the left. 

But this isn't 2008. It's 2016. Things are different. Right??? 
In some ways they are (or maybe it's just that I no longer have cable TV - God, how I wish I'd made that choice years ago!). I have noticed less blatant, unbridled, white-hot sexism - but again, maybe I am just too scared of what I'll find to really be looking. No "Iron my shirt"-hecklers or "Hillary make me a sandwich"-Facebook groups, no "Hillary Nutcrackers" and other delightful novelty items (discussed at great length on Fox News). And yet. We still talk about her voice. She "shouts" (gee, thanks, Sen. Sanders). She's "shrill". She loses, even when she wins (yup, didn't ya know, she might have won in Iowa, but it felt like a loss. And yes, she won SC by almost 50 points, but you know, she does have "problems" among white men, and she has to make sure that big wins like that don't alienate Sanders supporters). She's expected to measure up to impossible standards, and when she can't, she's called a "flawed" candidate. She's portrayed as an entitled "insider" expecting to be handed the nomination and an unlikable liability nobody will ever vote for at the same time. She still has to work twice as hard to convince people she's tough enough to be commander-in-chief, but when she's tough, she's a cold bitch. Even the fact that she's faced misogyny is used against her - just think of all the things the Republicans will call her in the general election! The fact that she's been attacked as a woman is somehow supposed to make her a non-viable candidate. 

But yes, some things are different now than they were 8 years ago. Clinton certainly is a better, more confident candidate - and no, Bernie Sanders didn't make her one, Hillary Clinton made Hillary Clinton a better candidate - she seems to find it easier to speak in her own voice, something we were starting to see more of towards the end of the 2008 primary. She seems to feel less pressure to prove she's not a weak, soft, emotional woman on foreign policy issues - maybe because she's got her tenure as Secretary of State as an indisputable credential for her expertise and knowledge. 

No, she's not perfect. She's made mistakes - though she has generally had the courage to admit that, and to change her position when she realized she had been wrong, something that's been used against her, even though it should be something we encourage in a candidate and a political leader, the ability to learn from mistakes and evolve - and she has taken positions that I have disagreed with. The thing is, I can disagree with her without stating that her voice makes me want to punch her, and without calling her a mad bitch, corporate shill, or a witch. 

Do you want me to show you how it's done? "I strongly disagree with Secretary Clinton's position on X, because I think it would cause more problems than it solves due to reasons A, B, and C." "I think Sen. Sanders is better equipped to lead this nation because of his experience as Y or his stance on issue Z." "Hillary Clinton is certainly an enormously qualified candidate, but for me, the decisive issue in this election is A, and Bernie Sanders is just closer to my views." "I've read over Clinton's plans for X, and I don't think that's way to go. I would rather see the president approach this issue from angle Y, and Clinton doesn't seem to want to do that." "During the debate, Clinton said she supported policy A. I can't vote for a candidate who is in support of that policy." That wasn't so hard, was it?

So no, you don't have to vote for her, or agree with her, or even like her. What every one of us has to do, however, is be willing to question our motives for disliking her. Why is she "untrustworthy"? Why do you feel there's "just something about her" you don't like? Why are we so, so willing to believe every rumor about her, and assume her guilt, no matter what she's accused of? Why is it "funny" to accuse her of cheating, of wrongdoing, or being guilty, even when there's no evidence for it?

Two examples here: the first one concerns her "damn emails", as Bernie Sanders put it during the first debate. Do you remember when, in July of 2015, the New York Times couldn't wait to publish a -completely untrue - story of how Hillary Clinton was to be the target of a criminal referral? They SO couldn't wait that they did not even give her campaign enough time to respond before running the story, on the front page, and sending out a "Breaking News"-email. Now, why's that, you may ask? I can only guess. But my guess would be that they simply assumed it was true. It was about Hillary Clinton, after all, and she's always guilty as soon as charged - or even before. And that was the New York Times, not some no-name tabloid.
Not too long ago (can't find the link right now) I read a lengthy article, on ABC News I believe, where a legal expert carefully examined all the evidence in the Clinton "email scandal", only to conclude that, unless there was evidence we did not know about, there was no indication at all that she had broken any laws. He then added that, when he told a friend about this assessment, the friend's immediate response was: "I didn't know you were a Hillary guy!" 

Let that sink in for a minute. 

Apparently, the only reason anyone could possibly defend Clinton from accusations that, so far, have no evidence to support them, is that you're in the bag for her (because, after all, why would anyone accord her even a modicum of decency in their treatment of her?). Otherwise, all's fair when it comes to Hillary. 

Second example: Iowa caucus. Clinton wins, though it's a fairly close result. Apparently, a handful of precincts were virtually tied and decided by coin toss. Six or seven precincts, if I am not mistaken. I log onto Facebook a few days later, and a friend of mine has posted a meme, depicting Clinton looking at her smartphone, with the caption implying she's searching for "double-sided coins". Haha. Even though I had SWORN to refrain from political discussions on social media -  because, really, what's the point? - I could not let that stand without a comment, so I posted a link to a CNN story with the headline "No, Clinton did not win Iowa because of a coin toss", which did a good job explaining the situation. My friend's response? "It was a joke, lol!" Oh, I get that. I get that it was supposed to be funny. Why is it funny? Because it uses the old "Hillary always cheats"-trope. "Nobody likes her. When she wins, it's because she cried or cheated or both. Haha." It's such a well-used trope that every single person in this country probably understands the subtext as soon as they see that meme.Why? Because we are fed the same story about Hillary over and over, until we think it's the truth.

So to wrap things up, and finish my point: No, you don't have to like her. Yes, you can disagree with her without being a sexist. But maybe, just maybe, it would be good for all of us to take a close look at why we dislike and distrust her. Chances are, we'll find that it's really for no real reason at all. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Traveling While Vegan

While fining vegan food on the road, in airports and train stations and rest stops, has become much easier in only the last year or two, traveling while vegan can still be a challenge, especially when traveling with non-vegans or in rural, remote, or not necessarily vegan-friendly areas, and when one is unable to simply prepare and bring along one's own supplies.

I have recently spent some time traveling (some of my experiences can be found on my travel blog, Traveling Catlady), and while most of the time, it was fairly easy to find vegan choices even in chain- and fast food restaurants, I also realized that, when on the road, vegans sometimes have to do the best they can, which might not be what they want. For example, even when ordering a veggie burger without cheese and mayo, it is not always possible to make sure there is no egg or dairy in the patty or the bun. When toast or bread is served at a restaurant, one does not always know whether there is butter in it. And sometimes, even when things are expressly billed and promoted as "vegan", one cannot always be sure that those making these claims know, 100%, what the word "vegan" means. I, for one, have accepted these obstacles as being part of the experience of being vegan in a decidedly non-vegan world, and I was able to decide for myself that, if I was able to avoid clearly non-vegan foods, I would not worry about potentially hidden, impossible to detect non-vegan ingredients when on the road. For me, that is simply a necessity if I am to remain sane and vegan and leave my house at the same time.

However, in order to minimize the potentially non-vegan pitfalls hidden in inconspicuous-looking and -sounding food items, I have found my smart phone to be a great help. Specifically, certain apps geared towards finding vegan food on the road are invaluable for the traveling vegan. While "Happy Cow", the go-to website when trying to find vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants, has a tremendously useful app, this might not be a great help when traveling in more remote or rural areas, or stopping at fast food places along the interstate. For these cases, I highly recommend "VeganXpress", an app available for iPhone users, which lists vegan menu items at chain- and fast food restaurants. While many vegans try to stay away from these places for health and ethical reasons, it is tremendously useful on the road, when there may be few options for vegans altogether.

For more useful vegan apps, check out 8 Vegan Apps You Need to Download

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Adventures in Gardening - Part 1: Seed Starting to Hardening-Off

This is my first year attempting to succeed with a community garden plot, and so far, it has been quite the ride!

But let me start at the beginning. Before even knowing whether I would, in fact, be able to rent at plot at the local community garden, I started seeds as if I were sure of the outcome - in other words, I went a little overboard. In fact, I started so many seeds that I was able to supply a good number of my friends with little plants, and fill up a good chunk of my community garden plot. Just imagine what I would have done if I'd only had my (north-facing) balcony to work with!

I ordered all my seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds - well, all except the ones I had left over from last year.
I started eleven different varieties of plants: Three varieties of tomatoes (Pink TigerBetalux, and Tiny Tim), two varieties of basil (Genovese Basil and sweet basil from seeds I saved in 2012), Purple of Sicily cauliflower, German Chamomile, two types of sweet peppers (Friariello Di Napoli as well as  Mini Bell Peppers), Oregano/Wild Zaatar and Ground Cherries. I started the seeds in peat pellets, and ended up with 200 (!) pellets, divided between the 11 varieties. This is what my set-up looked like:

 I watered the pellets, distributed the seeds, labeled everything, and covered it with plastic wrap to create a little green-house of sorts.

This was on March 11, which, in retrospect, turned out to be a little early for Wisconsin. My plants germinated very quickly - the cauliflower after only two or three days, the ground cherry within about two weeks, and everything else somewhere in between - and I had pretty decent germination rates, ranging from 100% for some plants (such as the Pink Tiger tomatoes or the cauliflower) to 80% (Tiny Tim tomatoes, though these seeds were from last year). This meant that by March 30, things looked like this:

As you can see, some plants are already in slightly bigger pots. Those were my cauliflower plants, which germinated really quickly and grew surprisingly fast. Despite the fact that I had them under grow lights, and kept the lights really close to the plants, some of the cauliflower plants became slightly leggy. The same was true for the Pink Tiger, which exhibited their most pronounced characteristic (seemingly uncontainable growth!) from the very beginning. The following picture from April 8 shows how big the cauliflower and Pink Tiger seedlings had gotten in just under four weeks.

The following picture is a close-up of one of the Pink Tiger seedlings on April 12 - four weeks after I had planted the seeds! Given this rate of growth, I had to start transplanting most of the seedlings by mid-April, which caused several problems. For one, I had to do this outside, in order to prevent a huge mess in my apartment. I almost lost some of the tomato and basil seedlings to some cold wind. Even though the day I chose for transplanting the temperature was in the mid-40s (and I assumed the plants would be able to handle this for a short period of time), the wind was much colder and the basil and tomato plants quickly became limp and looked almost wilted. They recovered completely after I brought them back inside, but I was pretty worried about them.

The second problem, after the shock of exposing the baby plants to the cold too quickly, was one of space. The bigger pots took up much more space than the peat pellets. I gave away the first few batches of plants around April 25, much sooner than I would have wanted, and before they were fully hardened off. 

The photo below gives you a pretty good impression of why I had to make room for the remaining seedlings to be transplanted. It was taken on April 26, a good three weeks before the average last day of frost in Wisconsin. Some of the tomato plants are already getting very tall, and the seedlings that are still in the peat pellets are quickly running out of room to grow. Because the plants grew so vigorously and I had limited space, I also had a few issues with mold/mildew developing on the peat pellets. I was worried about this causing harm to the plants, from damping off to other fungal infections, so I sprayed the pellets with garlic water about once a week (crush several garlic cloves, soak them in water for at least two hours, strain the liquid and fill it into a spray bottle). Using garlic water too often can do harm, as the fungicidal qualities of the garlic can also harm beneficial soil organisms, but it worked well when applied about once a week. I also set up a box fan to blow air over the seedlings and thus create an airflow for a few hours a day.

I started hardening off the plants in ernest around May 3. Honestly, that was a little too early, but because of my limited space, I did not have a choice. That's another reason I will start my seeds about two weeks later next year. Below is a photo of the plants on May 3, on my balcony. 

They had to stay in that location until May 10. I was out of town for most of that week, and in that time, some of the tomato plants developed some sort of problem. Their leaves became yellow and spotted, which looked a lot like early blight - not a good sign at all. I removed the affected foliage and sprayed the plants with a water-oil-baking soda mixture, which is supposed to kill the fungus causing early blight. Unfortunately, I think I went overboard and made the tincture too strong - which seemed like it was effective against the disease (blight), but also led to the demise of several other tomato leaves - they seemed to dry out from contact with the baking soda-mixture.

I Part 2 I will tell you about planning my garden plot, transplanting my plants, and starting additional varieties from seed.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

On Shame

Here's the thing: Shame is not a bad emotion. When do we feel shame? We feel shame when we have hurt someone, when we have done something bad or mean or hurtful, and we finally realize that it was just that. Shame is a social emotion - we feel it because we have harmed someone else and we feel bad about doing it. It is a "good" emotion in that it might prevent us from doing the same harmful thing in the future.

However, shame is also an emotion of social control. We might feel shame not because we have done something bad, or we realize that we have, but because someone else thinks what we did was bad. This might be because our actions were, in fact, hurtful or harmful or cruel, and we are just unable to see it, but we do not want to look bad, so we feel shame, or it might be because what we did was not actually "bad", but is still considered unacceptable to somebody else.

If you are a woman, chances are you have spent most of your life feeling ashamed for something. Sure, we also shame men (for all kinds of actions or inactions), but we specifically enjoy shaming women. You know all these magazines calling out celebrities for becoming fat or old or for wearing the wrong clothes or for being caught naked? Of course, these articles are not really about them - they are there to put us, the readers, in our place. And they are almost always about women. It's women, even famous women, who are bad mothers, who dare to look less than perfect, who sleep with people younger than they are (this has never been a problem for men), who screw up. We judge them, and at the same time, we feel ashamed of our own imperfections.

If you are a woman, you have probably grown up with a feeling that you are constantly being watched, constantly being judged, and that you are not "making the cut" in one way or another. You should be ashamed. 

Women are told to be ashamed of how they look. Ashamed that our bodies grow hair in places they "shouldn't". Ashamed that their bodies bleed once a month (oh, the humiliation of getting your period at the wrong time and discovering a bloody stain on your clothes!). Ashamed of not being a size zero. Ashamed of getting older. Ashamed of wrinkles and loose skin. Ashamed of wobbly thighs and wobbly arms. Ashamed of pregnancy scars on our tummies (think about all the advice we get on how to get a "bikini body" - and the underlying message is: Don't you dare wear a bikini when you don't look like this!). Ashamed of being caught without a bra (your breasts MOVE when you walk!!!), without make-up, in sweat-pants, on a "bad hair day".

We are told that we should feel ashamed of how we feel. Ashamed of feeling desire or lust. Ashamed of feeling hunger. Ashamed of feeling rage, even ashamed of wanting to feel pleasure. We are told to feel ashamed if we don't look "fuckable", and ashamed if we dare to actually want (or have!) sex. Ashamed of loving the wrong person, or loving in the wrong way. Ashamed of being too emotional and hysterical. Ashamed of being unemotional, frigid, and cold. 

We are told to feel ashamed of our relationships. Ashamed that we don't have a boyfriend. Ashamed that we don't want a boyfriend. Ashamed that we have too many boyfriends. Ashamed that we have - or want - girlfriends. Ashamed that we do not want monogamy. Ashamed that we do want monogamy, but at the wrong time or with the wrong person. Ashamed that we are not married yet. Ashamed that we got married too soon. Ashamed that we are divorced. Ashamed that we are the ones who asked for a divorce. Ashamed that we are not the ones who asked for a divorce. 

We are told to feel ashamed of our performance "as women" (yes, being a "woman" is a lot of work!). Ashamed that we are not feminine enough. Ashamed that we are too feminine. Ashamed that we are not serious enough (Really, you cannot be taken serious in a job like this if you use pink, sparkly pens!). Ashamed that we are too serious ("Smile!"). Ashamed that we do not want children. Ashamed that we do want children. Ashamed that we are not stay-at-home moms (After all, what kind of mom would leave her kids with strangers?). Ashamed that we are stay-at-home moms (After all, what kind of lazy slob would sit at home all day and let her husband do all the work?).

We are told to feel ashamed of getting older, of wanting to have sex, of being "inappropriate", of being too loud, too fat, too ugly, too hairy, too bitchy, too angry, too masculine, too girly, too slutty, too prudish, too nerdy, too vain.

We feel shame for never being enough. Not smart enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough, not sexy enough. You know all those blogs and magazines and books out there touting the Perfect Woman, the thin, athletic (but not too strong!), well-groomed (but not vain!), blond, white, smart (but not too smart!), successful (but not too successful!) mother of two (you might get away with one or three, but that's really all that is acceptable, and you might already be pushing it!) kids who works a high-powered job as some sort of important (but not too important!) semi-manager in a big financial company. She does all her own housework (and her house is always clean and spotless!), she cooks dinner from scratch every day, on the weekends she does her own gardening and redecorates the house. She throws elaborate dinner parties and birthday parties, and every night, she is shaved, and oiled, and perfumed, and decked out in lingerie, ready to pleasure her husband (because, of course, sex is a duty, so she performs it well, but she is a good woman, so she does not, herself, feel anything as dirty as desire or lust). If your life does not look like hers, you are taught to feel ashamed. You have failed, as a woman. If you had only tried harder or worked harder or been less lazy or less ugly or less outspoken or less ambitious, you would be her. But you are who you are, never enough and still somehow too much, and so you should be ashamed. And we are. If there is one emotion every woman on this planet has felt more times than she can count, I guarantee you, it is shame. Shame for who you are. Shame for how you feel. Shame for what you want.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sex, Age, and Objectification

I know I haven't written a blogpost in a long, long time, but several things happened this week that made me decide to take up the pen ... well, the keyboard ... once again.
For some reason, this has been the week for me to come across articles about sexism in all its forms in short order.

On one side, there is what could be called "traditional sexism", as maybe exemplified by this article by Ashley Judd. She talks about the kind objectification that we generally think of when people mention sexism. The sexually explicit threats and taunts. A woman says something you don't want to hear, or behaves in ways you don't want her to behave, so you use this tactic to "put her in her place". Ever wonder why the worst thing you can call a woman is ... well ... a woman (albeit, of course, a "deviant" woman or an "ugly" woman.) Or - worst of all - you could refer to her as part of the female anatomy. This, of course, could be seen as the culmination of successful objectification - you have turned her from a complete human being with wants, needs, flaws, dreams, skills, and wishes, into a body part you threaten to use as you please. Not only have you dismembered her and taken away her agency, but furthermore you have reinforced why you have the right to do - because she is, after all, just a woman, and if and when she misbehaves, you know just what to hold over her head to make her shut up.

Of course, this particular article also serves as a good starting point for thinking about the specific nature of online interactions, and the intersection between online "life" and sexual harassment. In other words, would all these people using sexualized and gendered threats and insults online feel equally comfortable saying the same words to a woman's face - and what would be less disturbing: if the answer to this question was yes, or if it was no? Has social media, and this new way of interacting with each other, propagated this kind of behavior, or are we simply seeing more unfiltered thoughts, but thoughts that have always been there and have always been widespread, even before the advent of the internet? 

From there, it is only a short step to thinking about human nature. What is it that leads us to think it is ok to treat others this way? Why do we think we can violate another human being's bodily autonomy and integrity with threats of violence, or actual violence? And where in our messed-up history have we gotten sex and violence mixed up so profoundly? How did we end up taking something like sex, which is supposed to be about respect, appreciation, pleasure, and intimacy, and have turned it into one of the nastiest weapons, one of the most common and most effective ways to violate, humiliate, and degrade another person. I know many people, especially feminist authors and scholars, have said that rape and sexual assault are not actually about sex but rather about power, and that makes sense. On the other hand, we are deliberately using sex as the means to establish this power structure - which does indicate that, as a species, there is something fundamentally wrong with us. 

Of course, you can't talk about degradation, humiliation and violence without at least acknowledging how we treat other, non-human beings. In other words, the only way to end the objectification of other humans may be ending the objectification of non-humans first. If it is ok for me to objectify a cow simply because she is a cow and I am not, who is to say that I am not going to objectify another human being by the same logic (for example, because she is female and I am not)?

In addition to all these already "rosy" thoughts, I came across an article written a few months ago about the complicated intersection between sexism and ageism
Everyone knows that the rules of aging are different for men and women. Think what you may about Madonna, but she is not doing anything that men of her age haven't been doing for decades - and nobody cares. Mick Jagger or Robert Redford can be "sex symbols" way past their 60s, but if a woman in her 50s presents herself as a sexual being, she gets ridiculed. Now you can argue that this is just Madonna, and that she is not the norm when it comes to middle-aged women (which is true), but in the end, that is not the point. The point is that we have a double-standard for men and women. This double-standard starts in early childhood and remains in place through young adulthood and middle-age all the way into old age. The biggest perfidy, though, is how the double standard changes over the course of our lives.

What does this mean? It means that, as a young girl, you are supposed to be well-behaved, pleasant, calm, clean and quiet. As a young woman, you are supposed to be attractive (but God forbid you actually have sex! Make men fantasize about having sex with you, but don't express desire yourself or you are a slut!), sexy, smart (but not too smart or it interferes with your attractiveness!), and once you enter middle-age, you are supposed to disappear.

What does that mean, you may wonder? It means that, as soon as your body does not (or no longer) conform to this standard of youthful beauty, because it is too "ugly", too "fat", or too "old" (see how you will always be "too" something? Too smart, too loud, too bitchy, too fat, too old, too boring, too ... fill in the blank). If you think about it, this demand for women past a certain age (what that exact age is fluctuates a bit, but seems to hover somewhere between 38 and 42) to become invisible is simply the continuation of the sexual objectification is described above. Your body, the object at someone else's disposal, is not supposed to belong to an autonomous being with wishes and desires. What could drive home the point about your worth being tied to an impossible standard of youthful beauty better than the experience of having your worth disappear overnight. We all need to be seen. It is, I would argue, one of the most fundamental needs of human beings - to be seen for who we are. What does it tell you about power structures in our society if we can take away another person's visibility for no reason other than that they have lived for more than x number of years? What could teach them about their inherent worthlessness better than ridicule as an accepted response to the expression of their own needs and desires?

If you read Robin Korth's essay that I linked to above, you may have been surprised by the cruelty and callousness with which the man she calls Dave informed her of her unacceptability as a sexual being. She, he told her, did not conform to his standard of beauty, because she was too old. He informed her what she could do to make herself look younger - and thus more desirable to him.  She writes: "He was totally oblivious to the viciousness of his words. He had turned me into an object to be dressed and positioned to provide satisfaction for his ideas of what female sexual perfection should be." This could be the textbook definition of objectification: for him, her body is an object he has the right to use for his pleasure, and if she does not make it appealing (that is to say, young) enough for him to find her acceptable, she immediately becomes invisible. 

What is, then, the logical consequence of the way we teach young women that their worth is defined by their sexual desirability and then teach them that their worth will disappear when they dare to age? I am sure you guessed it - they will try everything in their power to keep their bodies "young". Plastic surgery, body "re-contouring", breast "enhancements" ... all these are natural consequences of objectification. To add insult to injury, women who torture themselves with botox and surgeries only end up being ridiculed for it. The ultimate punishment: demean human beings for trying to conform to a standard that was impossible to reach in the first place.

So what should we take away from this? Is there some great lesson to be learned from Ashley Judd and Robin Korth? Maybe. If so, the message is that true beauty comes in many shapes, forms, sizes, and ages, and those who are superficial enough treat others this way are not worthy of your time and affection anyway. How much more satisfying and rewarding our relationships would be if we simply related to each other as individuals, truly saw others in their all their unique, glorious, flawed beauty, and treated each other with dignity, kindness, and respect.

So in the end, I think one of the root causes of all this cruelty and objectification we encounter even (or especially?) in what should be our most intimate (and thus safe) relationships has to do with who we view other people.

To put it simply, our lives have become so economized, so governed by business transactions, that we have become unable to relate to others without applying the same principles. A relationship, especially a romantic relationship, thus becomes a business deal. What can you do for me? What can I get out of this? We evaluate and we judge. Instead of trying to connect, for the sake of closeness and intimacy, we connect because we want to own, because we want to possess, because we don't want to be alone, because we want to feel validated, because we want another person to tell us we are loved and important and special. We see them as an investment, thus we basically see them as an object to be used. One of the ways this mindset materializes is through objectification, as discussed above. We - especially women - are trained to "trade" sex for affection. We are trained to not actually want sex, but to use it as a bargaining chip. Men are told that they are allowed to judge the "merchandise" they are investing in. Of course, this has been so internalized that women judge and evaluate other women in the same way. We have accepted that youthful, conventional beauty is our currency, and thus we judge our own and each other's worth based on it.

So how can we get away from this? I have no answer. I know that it took me many years to see these things. It took me many years to realize that it is ok not to want what most others seem to want. It took me many years to realize that the only relationships - may they be friendships or romantic connections or both - worth having are the ones that are based on respect, freedom, and trust. In fact, we are so conditioned to think our worth depends on being partnered that we rarely stop to examine why we should want to form close, intimate ties with someone. Is convenience and convention really a good basis? Shouldn't we try to create a life that we are simply happy to live, on our own and according to our own rules so that, when we choose to connect deeply, to share ourselves intimately, we know we are doing it out of affection and not out of fear? 

These are not easy questions to ask ourselves, and engrained behaviors are hard to shake - they are hard to see. Furthermore, who wants to admit to themselves that they are doing things simply because they have been trained to? I had a couple of long relationships back to back when I was in my early and mid-twenties, and after the last one in that string ended, I decided to do some serious soul-searching. Why was it that I thought I should be out looking for someone, when I was really quite happy on my own? Why did I feel guilty for not dreaming of marriage and children? Why did I feel like others pitied me? Did I pity myself? I realized, after much reflection and meditation, and hours spent writing down what I wanted and felt, hours spent acknowledging, maybe for the first time, some of the wishes and desires that I had kept hidden from myself, that I did not pity myself. I did not feel incomplete, but I did feel like I should be feeling these things. Messed up, I know. I decided then and there that I would never again enter a relationship out of convention or because I wanted to avoid the endless questions ("Have you found someone?") and pitying looks. I promised myself that I would only choose to share myself for the right reasons from now on - out of affection, love, and the wish to connect deeply with that particular individual. I have stuck to this rule ever since, and my life has been that much easier and my connections with others that much more fulfilling. Would a change in perspective, similar to the one I had, help us end objectification in all its forms? Probably not by itself, but it would put us on the right track - towards seeing others as individuals with gifts, flaws, desires, wishes, and traumas, and it would ensure that we see them as souls to connect with because of what we have to give, and not because of what we hope (or expect) to get.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

We Cry

Wir weinen (we cry). Outpourings of a different kind, in German and in English.

Wir weinen. Ohne Tränen weinen wir, durch Erkenntnis zu Stein erstarrt. Die Zeit spült über uns hinweg, ein stetiger Strom. Er spült die Ecken rund und ebnet die Furchen und Kanten. Wir verschwinden, lösen uns auf. Der Himmel vergießt rote Tränen, ein Strom von Blut, das aus den Wolken quillt. Wer blutet? Im Panzerhemd reiten wir in die Schlacht, jeden Tag eine neue Schlacht, jeden Tag ein neuer Feind. Und zugleich immer derselbe, wir kennen ihn und doch erkennen wir ihn nicht. Er tötet unsere Seelen durch Kälte. Wir erfrieren in Gleichgültigkeit. Wir ersticken in Stille, denn wir haben unsere Stimme verloren. Oder haben wir sie nie gefunden? Wir kämpfen ohne Aussicht, doch wir kämpfen um uns. Wer aufgibt, hat verloren. Wer aufgibt, ist verloren. Verliert sich oder findet sich nie. Wer sind wir? Wir sind die Kinder dieser Welt, die Kinder Gottes, die Kinder der Tränen. Wir kommen aus dem Nebel, aus dem Vergessen und doch dürfen wir nicht vergessen. Erinnern ist leben, ohne Vergangenheit haben wir keine Zukunft. Wir sind die Zukunft und die Vergangenheit, das Gestern, das Heute und das Morgen zugleich. Und doch sind wir nichts. Wir sind ewig und vergänglich, wir sind Licht und Dunkel. Wir sind und doch sind wir nicht. Alles strömt, fließt, gleitet und wir mit ihm. Wir wissen nicht, wohin wir gehen. Wir sind viele und doch sind wir allein, jeder mit sich, jeder für sich, gefangen in sich selbst, gefangen vor sich selbst. 
Wir sind Krieger und Bekriegte, sind Leben und Tod. Wir sind Blinde und doch können wir sehen. Wir sind Sehende und doch sind wir blind. Unsere Seele verbrennt, aus Angst zu erfrieren. Feuer und Eis leben in unserer Brust. Wir sind Gottes Tränen, zum Leben erwacht. Wir wollen lieben und doch lieben wir nicht. Wir wollen nicht hassen und doch hassen wir. Wir sind alle anders und doch alle gleich. Was uns trennt, verbindet uns. Was uns verbindet, trennt uns. Wir sind Wasser und Luft, wir sind Meer und Sturm. Wir sind Anker und Segel, Fleisch und Schwert. Wir verletzen die anderen und mit ihnen uns. Auf der Erde verwurzelt schweben wir über den Wolken, zerissen. Unser stummer Schrei hallt über die Erde, doch wir hören uns nicht. Das Leid macht uns taub und der Schmerz macht uns stumm. Wir drehen die Messer in den Wunden, jeden Tag. Wir wollen die Welt verändern, aber nicht uns. Die Erde zuckt und bebt und die Verzweiflung brennt tiefe Furchen auf ihrem Weg ins Meer. Jemand steht uns im Weg. Wer ist es? Wir erkennen ihn nicht, denn sein Gesicht ist im Nebel verborgen. Er wendet sich ab und verschwindet. Wir selbst sind es. Wir wollen alles wissen, nur nicht, wer wir sind. Angst fesselt die Träume und erwürgt uns von innen. Wenn die Träume sterben, sterben wir mit ihnen.  Ein Eiszapfen im Herz schwelt mit kalter Glut. Wut ist wie Feuer, das verzehrt, Liebe wie Feuer, das wärmt. Gleichgültigkeit macht die Herzen taub und blind, wir bemerken den Hass nicht mehr, wir bemerken das Leid nicht mehr und nicht den Schmerz. Wir sind die Kinder der Freude und der Trauer. Hinter uns die Wüste und vor uns das Meer kämpfen wir verbissen für unser Paradies. Zu oft kämpfen wir gegen Verbündete und der Feind lacht, genährt durch Demütigung und Blut. Wenn wir das andere hassen, hassen wir uns. Hass vergiftet und Gleichgültigkeit erstickt. Wir kommen aus dem Nebel, doch wohin gehen wir? Ins Licht oder ins Dunkel? Wir sind die Kinder der Tränen. Tränen der Verzweiflung oder Tränen der Freude?

We cry. Without tears we cry, turned to stone by realization. Time washes over us, a continuous stream. It smoothes corners until they are round and evens out grooves and sharp edges. We disappear, dissolve. The sky is shedding red tears, a stream of blood oozing out of the clouds. In a coat of mail we ride into battle, every day a new battle, every day a new enemy. And at the same time always the same one, we know him but we don’t recognize him. He kills our souls with coldness. We freeze to death through indifference. We suffocate in silence, we have lost our voice. Or have we never found it? We fight without a prospect, but we fight for ourselves. She who gives up has lost. She who gives up is lost. Loses herself or never finds herself. Who are we? We are the children of this world, the children of god, the children of tears. We come from fog, from oblivion, but we are not allowed to forget. Remembering is life, no future without past. We are the future and the past, simultaneously yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And still we are nothing. We are eternal and ephemeral, we are light and darkness. We are and yet we are not. Everything flows, streams, floats, and we with it. We don’t know where we are going. We are many, and still we are alone, everyone with herself, everyone for herself, imprisoned within herself, imprisoned before herself. We are attackers and attacked, life and death. We are blind and yet we see. We are seeing and yet we are blind. Our souls burn, for fear of freezing to death. Fire and ice live in our chest. We are god’s tears come to life. We want to love and yet we don’t love. We don’t want to hate and yet we hate. We are all different and yet we are all the same. What separates us, connects us. What connects us, separates us. We are water and air, sea and storm. We are anchor and sail, flesh and sword. We hurt others and with them ourselves. Rooted in earth, we float above the clouds. Our silent screams echo across the earth, but we do not hear ourselves. Suffering makes us deaf and pain makes us mute. We turn the knife in the wound everyday. We want to change the world, but not ourselves. The earth twitches and trembles and desperation burns deep grooves on her way to the ocean. Someone is standing in our way. Who is it? We do not recognize him, his face is hidden in the fog. He turns and disappears. He is us. We want to know everything except who we are. Fear shackles our dreams, and chokes us from within. When dreams die, we die with them. An icicle in the heart smolders with cold embers. Rage is like fire that consumes, love like fire that warms. Indifference makes the hearts deaf and blind, we no longer notice the hate, we no longer notice the suffering, or the pain. We are the children of joy and sorrow. Behind us the desert, in front of us the sea, we doggedly fight for our paradise. Too often we battle our allies, and the enemy laughs, nourished by humiliation and blood. When we hate the other, we hate ourselves. Hate poisons and indifference suffocates. We come from the fog, but where are we going? Into the light or into the darkness? We are the children of tears. Tears of desperation or tears of joy? 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

"I'd Rather Be A Hammer Than A Nail" ...

When did we come to live in a world where empathy is equated with weakness? Where caring is seen as irrational and somehow inferior? And what does it mean for us to live in a world like that?

Our beliefs and convictions about the world shape how we see it, and consequently also how it is. In other words, we create, in a very real sense, the world we live in. If we believe it to be a hostile place, where you have to take advantage of others, or be taken advantage of, that is the kind of place it will be. If we think that you have to be ruthless and selfish to be successful, that is how it will be. If we think that being successful means taking as much as we can from as many others as we can, that will become the reality we face. This is the purest self-fulfilling prophecy there is. 

A little while ago I encountered, in the deepest depths of the internet, a discussion about humanity's deepest fear. People were discussing what we, as a species, were most afraid of. Answers included the usual suspects: death, the unknown, fear. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that we are, in fact, most afraid of vulnerability. To make yourself vulnerable means to give someone else the power to hurt you. It means to give someone else power, period. And given the world we have created for ourselves, we can reasonably expect that the others will use that power against us. Every time you tell someone about your fears and insecurities, you risk them using that knowledge against you. To throw your words back in your face, to put a finger in the wound when you least expect it, because you have just told them where it hurts the most, where that chink in your armor is located.

I remember a friend telling me how she ended a relationship because she feared that her boyfriend was about to break up with her, and she wanted to be the one doing the breaking up. She did not want to be the nail. I remember years of holding in my feelings, afraid that if I expressed them, the people I cared about would no longer like me, or that they would use the insights into my soul to hurt and manipulate me. To some extent, we all wear a mask, in a desperate attempt to remain in control. It is ironic, in a way, that so many of us seem to strive for intimacy of some kind, for a connection with another being, while at the same time being terrified of allowing ourselves to be seen in our flawed vulnerability. That is why we posture. We put on a show. We succumb to "peer pressure". We tell our young men to "man up". We are ashamed of tears. We distrust. Not too long ago, I was riding on the bus. After most of the other passengers had disembarked, and only a few of us remained, a woman asked me if I had a cell phone. My first reaction was to say no, because I thought of all the instances that are reported in the news where people are taken advantage of. They allow a stranger to use their phone only to have their phone stolen. They take out their wallet to give someone change only to have that person grab the wallet and run of. So I said, no, I don't think I have my phone with me. And then I thought: is that really the kind of world you want? A world where, if you ask someone for a small favor, they will automatically say no, because they expect you to take advantage of their kindness. And so I changed my mind. I told the woman I would check and see if my phone was in my backpack. I let her use the phone to make a call. And nothing bad happened to me - quite the contrary.

Some of the indifference we see towards the immense suffering of humans and non-humans is certainly due simple complacency - life is easier if we don't stop to contemplate the consequences of our actions. Some of it is due to a sort of denial that allows us to continue living in a profoundly inhumane system with our soul intact. And some of it is due to our misperception of what it means to be strong. Our whole system is built on the exploitation of the vulnerable - the "weak" - humans, and especially non-humans. We tell ourselves that we have a right to exploit, torture, and kill millions of non-human animals simply because we can. Because we are "stronger" than they are. But isn't kindness and compassion the greatest form of strength, in a world where empathy is equated with weakness?

Does this mean that we should trust blindly? Bare our heart and soul for everyone to see? Let people use and abuse us time and again? No. It simply means that maybe we can imagine a world where we don't have to choose between being a hammer or being a nail. A world where we can be neither. And maybe we can try to create that world, by overcoming our fear of being vulnerable - and by not taking advantage of those who dare to be vulnerable in our presence.