Battle of the Flags

It’s been a time for flags the past couple weeks.  Rainbow flags, Confederate flags, and now that it’s July 4, American flags.

The American flag feels a bit shabby at the moment.  The rainbows are so cheerful and celebratory and spontaneously profuse that the route hauling out of stars and stripes around town seems anticlimactic.  

I’ve never liked the American flag much.  I am not built for–was not raised for–saluting any flag, but the difficulty of getting behind it this year is compounded by the fact that the country feels so divided, the wounds which have been festering beneath the surface suddenly so raw and red and glaring.

As one America celebrates the freedom to love in the sunshine, another predicts apocalypse.  As one America demands an end of honors for a symbol of hatred and bigotry, another trots out tired excuses for its continued place in public life.

So what does the American flag stand for?  Which is the real America?

I would love to believe that America is the nation that is moving forward, expanding its own definition, but the people who wave the flag most emphatically are the same ones who do not mourn the deaths of innocent victims of police officers, much less of the American military.  They are the same Americans who question the patriotism, indeed, the very Americanness, of its current President.

Someday I would like to feel a tear of pride when I see the American flag, but, despite some movement in the direction of inclusiveness, this will not be that year.  America remains too torn, its best impulses mixed with the ugly and hateful and bloody.

This year, I guess I’ll take my rainbow flag to the fireworks, or no flag at all.  The stars and stripes still have some work to do.


Yelling “Fire!”

The classic first amendment quandry of yelling fire in a crowded  theater has long been misunderstood. 

It is not about the content of speech, not about limiting speech, and certainly not about the speaker not having a right to say certain words. It is about speech as a discursive act, as an act of dialog, of action and reaction. 

The first amendment, this  example assures us, is really about open debate, the to and fro of  opinion. After all, the problem with the utterance “Fire!” in precisely that context is that it is immediately demanding of a response. It  short circuits measured, rational consideration of its own utterance.  

If the theater is on fire, the receiver of this news must respond swiftly and decisively. 

By such a criterion, many forms of political  debate in the past decade possibly should be banned as well. When a  phrase like “support the troops” or “too big to fail” is used to quell  thoughtful responses to the topics of war and modern finance,  democracy suffers in much the same way as it does when people announce a conflagration, real or imagined, in a public theater.

A Shade Late

Last week, the release in theaters of Fifty Shades of Gray produced an avalanche of response.  It seems that saying anything about it at this late date would be the equivalent of heart-shaped candies, wrapped in red foil, and marked 50% off at the drugstore, and maybe it is, but there were so many ways people responded to Mr. Gray, and none of them were entirely satisfying.

There were responses that felt prudish, but they were quite rare.  No one seems particularly shocked by BDSM any more, and the attitude that 50 Shades ought not to be seen or ought not to have been made because it presents one reading of a lifestyle slightly off the mainstream was more a straw man used by reviewers who wished to appear open-minded, those who insisted on remarking that they had “friends in the BDSM community” in precisely the way one would hope no one would ever claim to have “friends in the LGBTQ community” or “friends in the African-American community”, than an actual point of view.

There were responses which noted that the book was poorly written, a criticism which hardly seems relevant considering how often popular fiction is, in fact, badly written, and which seems even less relevant considering how very rare well-written erotic fiction is.  Vanilla sex is difficult enough to write well, and the criteria for good pornography are hardly the same as the criteria for good narrative fiction.

There were responses which took issue with the relationship presented in the novel.  Reviewers who did not claim first-hand experience with the lifestyle involved often couched their criticism in terms of abuse.  The relationship was abusive, was not consensual, felt rapey.  They often compared 50 Shades to its source material, the Twilight saga, and found both to be about unhealthy relationships.

As far as Twilight goes, the argument has merit.  Twelve-year-old girls were the intended audience of Twilight, and twelve-year-old girls probably do not need encouragement to pursue damaging relationships and go all gooey over dangerous boys.  Twelve-year-old girls may very well need to hear that rape culture is toxic, that consent is essential, and that abuse is not love.

And the problem with extending this argument to 50 Shades of Gray is that doing so treats grown women like twelve-year-old girls.

Reviewers who were involved (or claimed to know people who were involved) in BDSM disliked the relationship because it did not realistically portray the lifestyle with its rules and safe words and protocols.  A scene involving cable wire was apparently particularly offensive because it would have hurt but not in a good way.  Fair enough.

The problem with this argument is that the vast majority of readers and viewers of 50 Shades care as little about safe words as they do about bad writing.

50 Shades of Gray is not for “the BDSM community” any more than it is for twelve-year-old girls.  It is for grown women, many of whom will probably never engage in more than light spanking, and they really ought to get to have any fantasy they want without having it judged “rapey” because they don’t intend to, or even want to, rape anyone.

50 Shades may not be my idea of an exciting fantasy world, but it seems it is a lot of women’s idea of one, and they are not backwards or bad feminists for wanting to indulge in fantasies of kinky sex without consequences.  They’re not even kinky.   Rape, sexual intercourse without consent, is just about the most horrific thing a human being can experience.  And the nearest thing to a universal fantasy among grown women is to engage in sexual intercourse without consent.  Because in a fantasy, nothing happens that one does not wish to happen.  Because in a fantasy, control is a non-issue.

After all, the fans of 50 Shades of Gray are not submitting to the men in their lives, or to faceless men they have never met, or to Mr. Gray.  The pleasure for them is in submitting to their own fantasies and to the written word and to the projected image.

The pain is fictional, and badly written fiction at that.  Only the pleasure is real.

Bill Cosby: Imp of the Perverse Patriarch

When I heard about the allegations of rape against Bill Cosby, I wished I had been surprised. Everyone seemed surprised, shocked even. This was America’s father figure, the beloved patriarch.

I had grown up with Cosby as a constant, reassuring presence. I watched Fat Albert as a child, episodes of I Spy, too. His stand-up routine Bill Cosby, Himself had made me laugh out loud. My family never missed an episode of the Cosby Show. I liked him. I can’t remember a time when I did not like him.

But I do not recognize the fatherly persona so many articles about him have described. He is described as a stern, deeply moral authority figure.

But Bill Cosby was always more than that.

He was like a father when he taught kids on Fat Albert, told them what was good for them and what was bad for them. One episode included a song about the dangers of junk food, so it surprised me when he started hawking pudding and popsicles. This was the man who was supposed to tell us not to eat them, but he was telling us to eat them, and he was enjoying them with gusto himself.

He also sold cookies and Coca Cola, in one ad emphasizing that Coke was less sweet than Pepsi.

In the conflation of these two ads lies the charming balance Cosby always struck. On the one hand, he was like everyone’s father who ate fat free pudding and drank less sweet cola. On the other, he was childlike and self-indulgent, enjoying treats his educational children’s show told children they should not.

In the first episode of The Cosby Show, there is a famous exchange between Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable and his son Theo. Theo had D’s on his report card, but he tells his father, “You’re a doctor, and Mom’s a lawyer. . .but maybe I was born to be a regular person. . . If you weren’t a doctor, I wouldn’t love you less because you’re my dad. And so, instead of acting disappointed because I’m not like you, maybe you can just accept who I am and love me anyway because I’m your son.”

It is a moving monologue, and typical of the Norman Lear-style sitcoms of the sixties and seventies. Theo represents all the hippy sons and daughters of that era, and the audience, aging hippy children themselves, applauds.

Cosby slowly stands and says, “Theo, that’s the dumbest thing I have ever heard in my life. No wonder you get D’s in everything. . .You are going to try as hard as you can, and you are going to do it because I said so. I am your father. I brought you in this world, and I’ll take you out.”

Bill Cosby’s response marks the dawn of the Reagan 80s, the growth (often, unfortunately, without maturation) of the hippies into yuppies, and the nadir of compassion for everyone from confused sons of the upper class to children on welfare. The audience applauds madly, and Cosby becomes America’s patriarch.

But for all Cliff’s lectures to his children on good behavior, he does not always act like a grown, responsible adult. Over the course of the series, he is forever sneaking into the kitchen behind his wife’s back to snack on a treat his doctor has been denying him or to taste the forbidden holiday turkey before the guests arrive. His complaint against his children is less that they are not achieving their potential than that they are getting in his way, demanding time and energy and money when he would rather be self-indulgent. He just wants to rest and enjoy and do whatever he wants to do, but no one will let him.

Cliff is very like the father in Cosby’s stand-up routine “Chocolate Cake for Breakfast.” In this, a father is forced out of bed by his increasingly angry wife early in the morning to cook breakfast for his children. The implication is that she usually makes breakfast, and he insists he has no idea where the pots and pans are. When his youngest daughter greets him in the kitchen, she wants chocolate cake and grapefruit juice for breakfast, he happily obliges, and all the children wind up eating chocolate cake, drinking grapefruit juice, and singing, “Dad is great! He gives us chocolate cake!”

Then the wife appears, gorgon-like, and sends the father to his room, “Which,” Cosby tells us, “Is where I wanted to be in the first place.”

The idea of the patriarch is a grown, responsible man who is able to tell his children (and, in many cases, his wife) what to do because he deserves to have authority. While Cosby’s persona both in his standup and as Cliff is not the man-child of a Seth Rogan movie, it is a mistake to see him as a moral exemplar either. Cliff was responsible in that he worked hard, supported his family, loved them, and gave good advice–albeit occasionally laced with threats of violence if they failed to comply.

But once his responsibilities were fulfilled, he was selfish, sometimes greedy or lazy, and mischievous. We loved that part of him too, the inability to resist chocolate, the wish for a nap after hard work. It was the 80s, and like Cosby, America wanted to have it both ways, to be superego to others and id to itself.

It feels ironic to remember Lisa Bonet, cast out from the cast of the Cosby show for her nudity in Angel Heart. Her public nudity was not consistent with the world Cosby had created, yet his alleged drugging and raping of women was. It feels in retrospect like a microcosm of all patriarchies, the man taking by force what the woman is censured for giving freely.

The last time I saw Bill Cosby was at The Playboy Jazz Festival. I remember how he used to lend the event respectability. Hugh Hefner and his current crop of concubines might sit in the front box, but Cosby held court on stage. I can’t help but wonder if he will continue to MC, or if Hefner will determine that Cosby’s alleged behaviors have been beneath Playboy’s dignity and let him go.

It’s no surprise really that the man who tells younger men to pull up their pants has trouble keeping on his own. Bill Cosby has been telling us all along who he was, a man who knows how other people should live but who, like all patriarchs, will answer to no one about whether he lives that way himself.

The Next Ferguson

My Dear Fellow White People,

The next time a racist police officer kills an unarmed black man (and this is America, so there will be a next time) can we agree just to try the following:

1) Let go of the need to control the conversation long enough to listen.  If someone wants to talk about the event, there is no good reason to change the subject.  It may not be the right time to talk about black on black crime.  Black people know that black on black crime exists, and they don’t like it either, but do try not to deflect.

2) Let the black life matter.  Yes, all people’s lives do matter.  No one is saying they don’t.  The problem is that many white people don’t quite believe that black people are people, so the statement that black lives matter is an important one.  It does not require that you improve upon it.

3) If you want to discuss criminal behavior, please limit yourself to the criminal behavior of the person who unlawfully took a life.  You sound very foolish when you suggest that the stealing of cigars or the selling of loose cigarettes merit the death penalty.

4) In fact, please try not to set yourself up in any way as the white person who decides which black people are good enough to live and which aren’t.  The point is not whether a police officer killed an unarmed good person or an unarmed bad person.  Police officers are not supposed to kill unarmed people.  Period.

5) Yes, sometimes I find Al Sharpton silly too, but even if there are leaders in black communities who use tragedies as excuses to get in front of cameras, that does not make the tragedy less tragic, or even make what the person is saying in front of the camera less correct.  Sometimes I find him silly, but Al Sharpton can be profound sometimes too.  If you don’t believe me, try listening to him.

6) Try to remember that when people are sad and angry they sometimes do not express it well.  The fact that some people break windows is not the point.  The point is a lot in this country has been changed for the better due to protests.  Sure, I prefer peaceful too.  Maybe if white folks held themselves to the same standards of pacifism that they want to hold black folks to, there would be fewer reasons to protest.

7) Stop pretending that it is so difficult to be a police officer that we have to give them a pass to kill unarmed people.  Yes, there are good police officers.  We know them.  There are also nasty, racist police officers with chips on their shoulders.  We know them too.  We know that in cities across America the culture of law enforcement is tainted with racism.  This is unacceptable and can be changed and needs to change.

You get the idea.  Let’s listen.  Let’s stop trying to change the subject.  We can mourn with a family whose son was taken away from them.  We can admit that these were injustices and that they need to stop.  At least I hope we can.  If we can’t, I fear for the future of this nation.

Lots of love,

One Crazy White Chick

When We Talk about Love

Dear _______,
I am astonished that you would ask me of all people about love, but since you ask, I will tell you what I believe. The following are things I wish someone had said to me at your age:
1) You mention having lost your virginity. Virginity is merely an absence of experience. It is not a thing that can be lost, given, or taken. It is a non-thing, a nothing. When I think of the harm this concept has caused to women over the centuries–to women raped or abused as children, to women made to feel dirty for loving someone, to women denied access to the pleasures of their own bodies, and to those killed, maimed, imprisoned or tortured in the name of purity. . .all I can say is that one’s virginity should mean no more to women than it does to men. The choice of a first partner matters as much as the choice of any partner. It matters, but choosing does not mean the chooser has lost or given up anything precious. One’s last lover matters much more than one’s first.
2) You seem overly concerned that you have a reputation. Reputations are not reality. I have taught at enough high schools to know that every school has reputations to assign to young women. I find those with the worst reputations invariably fall into one of two groups–those who have been much talked about but have not had a fraction of the experiences attributed to them and those who actually have been very sexually active. The difference between the two invariably boils down to the fact that the latter women were sexually abused as children, often by members of their own families. I say this to encourage you to withhold judgement both of yourself and of other women. Some women use sex to find love because they have never experienced love without sex. They do not deserve to be castigated for that. (The rest of us with “bad” reputations are always surprised to learn whom we have reputedly taken as lovers–and often amused as well.) Try to remember that those who talk about others only do so because they are doing nothing worth talking about themselves.
3) You say you want to be a good person sexually. I must admit that I only believe in sexual morality as summed up in the following rule: have the same sex your partner is having. If your partner believes you are monogamous, either be monogamous or cop to being otherwise. If your partner believes sex between the two of you will be lovemaking, either make love or clarify your own motivation to your partner. This rule sounds like a low bar, but it requires brutal honesty both to oneself and to one’s partner. It precludes the using of another human being and demands respect on both sides. I once lost a beautiful young man because he would have preferred me to be less than honest with him, but people deserve to have the opportunity to accept or reject actual experiences rather than hearing pleasant lies. Imagine how much less pain there would be if everyone followed this one rule.
4) You speak of marriage as though it will solve the problems inherent in sex for you. Marriage is not a solution to sexual issues, and in many cases it changes nothing or even makes matters worse. Married couples, when held to the rule above, do not necessarily have more moral couplings than casual acquaintances. Two friends mutually agreeing to have benefits may demonstrate more basic human respect for one another than a married couple on any given night in which one has sex recreationally while the other seeks to bond, not to mention when one is being unfaithful. I wish I could tell you that marriage will mean greater sexual freedom within the context of monogamy, but as one who has been both judged a wife who likes sex “too much” and sexually betrayed by a husband, I cannot reassure you. I can only say that the fact that a man wants to marry you does not mean he wants to be a kind or faithful husband. Do not see marriage as a solution in itself.
5) As for being a “passionate” person, I have some very serious advice for you. Love deeply and well, but fall in love slowly and with great discernment. There are men who are not good enough for you. Take time to discover who they are before assigning them places in your life. Some make wonderful casual lovers but do not have it in them to be in serious relationships. Some should be friends, and others should be avoided at all costs. Never try to save or reform a lover. You can only either have a relationship with a man as he exists at that moment or not. Love yourself enough to give yourself time to learn what you need to know and to discriminate based on what time teaches you before giving yourself emotionally.
6) You suggest that you wish to be more attractive physically. My dear girl, know your power. I chuckle when I hear young women talk about trying to be attractive. You are a woman. Attractiveness requires no effort. You wake up every morning beautiful and sexy. Spend your efforts developing other aspects of your life. Cultivate kindness and intelligence and competence in new areas. Follow other passions. Men do not require pursuit or seduction.
7) Never hesitate to set your own limits and boundaries and to stick to them. Require safe sexual practices. Do not do anything that is physically or emotionally uncomfortable for you. If you will not be pleased, say no. Set your limits in your own mind in advance, and you will know when to put on the brakes. Anyone who tries to push you beyond those limits is not for you.
8) Finally, I remind you that you must not judge your own worth based on how others treat you. Those who are unkind and dishonest are no reflection on your value, and you must not allow bad relationships, even if you might in hindsight have avoided them, to affect your understanding of how precious and worthy of love you are. Let the bad behavior of others be about them. Do not own it.

I wish I knew more. I wish there were ways to be certain in love that I could teach you. There aren’t. The best any of us can hope for is to be as kind and loving and honest as we can to ourselves and to others. Love in action, as Dostoyevsky wrote, is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.
I feel very sorry that I am unable to be more romantic in my advice to you, but I do still believe in love. I do believe that it is worthwhile to love, even to love the wrong people, even to the point of wasting one’s youth (I still can’t imagine what else youth might be for) and “ruining” one’s life (if such a thing is really possible).
I wish you love and pleasure and best of luck. Let me know what you learn along the way.
Ms. Silvey