Tag Archives: social welfare

On the Rights, Dignity, and Independence of Women

th[3]After the dignified, incredibly moving, and by-all-accounts credible testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday morning – and the obscenity of the incoherent, self-pitying, entitled rant and political performance that followed in the afternoon – it seems necessary to address the rights, dignity, and self-determination of women.

It is, in fact, necessary in this moment when a President, a majority in Congress, and an impassioned minority of my fellow citizens might be favorable to legislation (or judicial fiat) that criminalizes, not only all abortion – from the moment of conception – but also reduces or eliminates access to contraceptives.

Not the Gilead of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, perhaps, as encountered in her book or adapted on the screen, but some version or other of a Theocratic Republic of America. And this is not merely some dystopian fantasy, but the most extreme version of anti-abortion policy under discussion within the halls of power.

If our politicians really care about the health and welfare of our women and children – as they emphatically proclaim – they should consider the words of the activist Benedictine nun, Sister Joan Chittister:

            “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

But let’s put those sermonics aside, for a moment, while I entertain you with an anecdote and some light-hearted “book talk” as drawn – and mischievously adapted – from my journal of 6/29/03.

*

th[8]Last night at Capers while waiting on Anita, I created a stir by reading Loose Woman, by Sandra Cisneros, over a sinfully rich piece of rum cake with ice cream. Given the title – it hadn’t occurred to me to concern myself  about it – they were teasing Anita: “Hey, your husband’s over there reading about loose women!” Chris, the owner, approached me in his usual jocular manner and asked me if there weren’t any pictures in that book, folks were confused, they thought I might be reading pornography. Oh, just poetry. Though Lois, one of Anita’s waitress friends and an aspiring writer, had approached me earlier and said, “Oh, I like her books!”

Well, no, its not porn, then, but her poetry is certainly erotic, and isn’t shy of the extremely intimate. Not a book for the prim and proper, or for the matronly women and patriarchal authorities in Church and State who tell girls and young women how not to behave. But the verse is splendid, as anyone who reads her prose would expect. I thoroughly liked it. In places it is quite moving, a tender glimpse at the poet’s soul. Almost always it is really funny, full of exuberance and Latina flair.

Here, among many, is a personal favorite, erotic and playful, though the real subject is not what the careless reader might originally think:

I let him take me

over the threshold and over

the knee. I served and followed,

harbored up my things

and pilgrimed with him.

They snickered at my choice

when he took over

and I

vigiled that

solitude,

my life.

I labored love,

fierce stitched

and fed him.

Bedded and wifed him.

He never disappointed,

hurt, abandoned me.

Husband, love, my life –

poem.

thGIW5PNEYIn other places Cisneros further explains her refusal to be tied down into marriage, which might ruin friendship, a fear learned from seeing many marriages of older women. The poem, superficially, might seem to be also about those women; but on the deeper level, the place of the writing’s heart, it is just the poem, which to her is husband, love, her own and sovereign life. It is perhaps both of those things, but mostly and surely the latter.

So instead – instead of good girl, obedient daughter, married and controlled and programmed woman – she’s wild. As in the title poem, of which I cite beginning and end:

They say I’m a beast.

And feast on it. When all along

I thought that’s what a woman was.

 

They say I’m a bitch.

Or witch. I’ve claimed

the same and never winced.

[…]

I’m an aim-well,

shoot-sharp,

sharp-tongued,

sharp-thinking,

fast-speaking,

foot-loose,

woman-on-the-loose

loose woman.

Beware, honey.

 

I’m Bitch. Beast. Macha.

¡Wáchale!

Ping! Ping! Ping!

I break things. (pp. 112; 114-15)

In sum: Loose Woman is a fun read, linguistically and conceptually stimulating. But not for your stereotypical Sunday School teacher.

*

And let’s be honest: some things do need to be broken. None less than the base corruption of power and the moral turpitude that dominates our political reality and discourse, in these dis-United States of America, at this moment. The spectacle of what took place in the Senate this past Thursday – while Paul Ryan and his allies in the House pushed through another tax giveway for, primarily and most grandly, the billionaire class – is sufficient to make my point. Though countless disasters come to mind that fill out the picture and clamor for our simultaneous and no less urgent attention …

manifestacic3b3n-feminista-en-nueva-york-1970[1]… the chipping away at social-welfare programs in order to pay for the continued detention of nearly 13,000 immigrant children in desert prison camps, without education or legal aid; our continual failure to confront the dark history, and present reality, of race in America; the dismantlement of every regulatory agency that stands in the way of unlimited greed and profit; the related and redoubled assault on the environment and casual indifference to the suffering of victims of Climate Change from Puerto Rico to Bangladesh to the Philippines, not to mention the melting ice cap and increasingly brutal storms, floods, and fires on our mainland; an ever-expanding military budget that supports the wanton murder of children in Syria and Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan, maybe additional and undisclosed places hither and yon; the false equation of anti-Semitism for criticism of the State of Israel for its ongoing genocide in occupied Palestine …

But I digress.

My immediate subject is the rights and dignity of women, the much-disputed principle of their sovereignty over their own bodies – even if some of them behave in ways that our pioneer ancestresses might not have approved of.

My real subject is the actual sham and political theater of Thursday’s proceedings, which was the barest pretense of “listening” to the voice of a remarkably composed and collected woman (a prosecutor’s ideal witness, according to many observers).

My subject is the afternoon’s swift descent into the dominant politcal discourse of the day:  a bullying demeanor, a shaking of fists, a refusal to give straight answers to straight questions, an obnoxious and evasive sense of entitlement – the bluster, in the end, of a tribunal of privileged and dangerously powerful white men, some particularly old and, most, abundantly crotchety.

(And I use that word advisedly, with deliberate attention to its regular usage and dictionary definition – no crotch-related pun intended.)

From Kavanaugh to Grassley and countless others (and Grassley, at 85, fits the “old-and-crotchety” characterization marvelously well) – from this tribunal of arrogant power come, drip drip drip, the requisite commonplaces (paternalistic; dismissive) about how Dr. Ford was a credible witness and that something had probably happened to her sometime and someplace; but that, obviously the Immaculate Anointed One cannot have been present at that place, at that time, on that occasion: in that role; and the armchair psychologizing about displaced memory or whatever else – while the real psychologist in the room, who has testified convincingly about issues of trauma and memory, is ignored.

patriarchy-134102395x-56aa23945f9b58b7d000f9de[1]It has been pointed out many times that when a woman speaks of sexual assault – though she is usually telling the truth – her attacker’s version of truth is almost inevitably believed over hers. And she will inevitably be dismissed with the idiotic question (just open your ears and heart and you will have your answer!) of why she didn’t make her accusation 30 years ago.

I could go on about all the lies the Honorable Judge Kavanaugh has made in the course of these weeks and in 2006 when he was interviewed for his present job in the federal judiciary, but others have covered that topic relentlessly. As for the profusion of falsehoods committed during his Thursday Afternoon Tirade – if you have time time – see the dispassionate and detailed article by Nathan J. Robinson at Current Affairs, where he is the editor: [https://www.currentaffairs.org/2018/09/how-we-know-kavanaugh-is-lying]. I owe that link to my good friend, Charles Allen.

But the central fact of our political life at this crucial moment – the essential and monumental problem – is the sad state of civic discourse and the ancient arts of rhetoric (good, not mere rhetoric). Because, at the end of the day, at least in the eyes of those crotchety members of the Senate Judicial Committe (variously old or not so old), the testimony of that brave and embattled woman did not matter at all.

To those men, most of whose judgment was already set in stone, she was a mere prop, an appeasement to the liberal Democrats and unsettled masses. There was never a real intention to listen, to engage in a process of honest inquiry, to honestly strive to determine what is true or most likelely true in the matter before them.

That was clear from the moment Lindsey Graham opened his mouth and destroyed any pretense of civility and order, opening up the wave of bellicose rants and posturing that followed in defense of their man – the real bullies in the room, intent on the effective erasure of the woman who had spoken her inconvenient truth.

That entrenched and arbitrary power is the Leviathan that must be broken: at the ballot box, yes, but more importantly by an increasingly vigorous and honest practice of rhetoric – or of sustained dialogue, which requires a listening ear and an empathetic heart.

512px-Feminism_symbol.svg[1]In the face of such a fractured media and so many contradictory voices, I suspect that much of it will have to happen face to face, citizen to citizen – with our neighbors who might not agree with us, but with whom we can find common cause – the harmony necessary to sustain, or to build, the structures of a functional democracy (as Paul Woodruff argues in his book First Democracy, which I have recently discussed in this space).

So bring on those loose women and the men who support them, the ones with spirit and verve, as well as (among so many other things) the wisdom to entrust women, not a bunch of power-mongers in our state or national centers of political power, with the governance of their own bodies.

enhanced-24361-1400969325-1[1]Feed, educate, and house them and their children, too (along with a few other small matters), and imagine what forgiveness and harmony might begin to sprout.

As Cisneros also writes, in an especially tender mood:

You Called Me Corazón

That was enough

for me to forgive you.

To spirit a tiger

from its cell.

[…]

Said corazón

and the word blazed

like a branch of jacaranda.

[Poetic excerpts Copyright © 1994 by Sandra Cisneros]

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Leslie Marmon Silko and the Gift of Perspective

Author Leslie Marmon Silko A blurb for Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1991 epic Almanac of the Dead compares it favorably to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Indeed, having recently read her earlier novel Ceremony, I had a similar thought as I encountered the richly told episode of a sacred eagle hunt – which at the time I compared favorably to the famous fox-hunting scene in Tolstoy’s epic. Certainly, unless there is a more recent work that I don’t know about, this more recent novel is her masterpiece. And perhaps its central virtue, at this strange and terrifying political season, is its stunning rhetorical power to show us the present world through the eyes of its most disaffected and marginalized people – indigenous peoples of all the Americas and an unlikely assortment of the similarly aggrieved: a single mom coming off of a cocaine addiction and searching for a lost child; homeless Vietnam veterans both black and white; cyber- and eco-terrorists; drug and arms smugglers; humanitarian Catholic smugglers of Latin American refugees from anti-indigenous wars to the sanctuary of El Norte; to name a few.

This ability to see the world through the eyes of the Other – even that Other we find most obnoxious and, perhaps more to the point, threatening – is surely a vital skill in this time of competing absolutes and escalating (even apocalyptic) conflict; when, whether or not at the end of the day we share some of their perceptions, it might at least be helpful to know where they are coming from, to catch a glimpse of their humanity. The problem, otherwise, is that we are each always looking at the world through different lenses, informed by different prejudices and assumptions – and yes, even experiences – into intransigent and often violent and destructive postures of last resort.

Consider in this context the Republican Presidential candidate’s suggestion that the whole Israeli-Palestinian problem (which I have discussed in earlier blogs) is essentially unresolvable, that instead of trying we may as well just take a spectator’s seat and see what happens. Likewise the tendency of the principals’ in that conflict – Israelis and Palestinians both – to in their opposed struggles, as Nietzsche aptly warns us, become the monsters that they wish to destroy. Even as we exceptionalist United-States Americans, in an effort to protect ourselves from terrorists, may indeed risk becoming – as in some eyes we already seem to be! – a terrorist nation ourselves. See it imaginatively from the eyes of the child maimed (all or most of his family killed) in a drone strike on a traditional Afghan wedding, as has happened. If it were any of our wedding, imagine the hell to pay! Yet I wonder in this respect if Governor Romney thinks it treasonous speech, a crime against our own exceptionalism, to apologize for even such an accident of war? Not that President Obama, given the astronomical increase during his Administration in the number of U.S. drone attacks, might not himself be culpable.

But I digress. The focus here is on Silko’s novel, which as I commented possesses the not-always-appreciated virtue of showing exceptionalist America our world as perceived – rightly or wrongly or (more probably) a combination of the two – by the Other even among us.

Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon SilkoThe brunt of the action in Almanac of the Dead takes place in our American Southwest, with Tucson at its center, and in northern and southern Mexico. At dead center are the characters of Lecha and her sister Zeta; in particular Lecha, who has been assigned (by their plain-spoken eccentric grandmother Yoeme) to the sorting out and electronic storage of the papers of an immense book – or “almanac” – of indigenous America, with its convoluted and partial layering of history of the dead and prophecy for the living, present and future. The Indian grandmother and these twins, who are now in their sixties, originate in the Mexican state of Sonora, and the sisters are ensconced on a heavily fortified ranch outside of Tucson – at the center of a smuggling ring that has recently, under the guidance of Zeta, tended away from the smuggling of cocaine toward the more reliable profit maker which is military arms and weaponry.

But Lecha, who has just come home after a decades’-long career as a television psychic, is focused primarily on the almanac. Which emerges over the course of Silko’s novel in fits and starts and fragments.

Interspersed with all of this, and with a multitude of intense action that makes the novel quite a page turner, is a great deal of authentic history which reflects the years of intensive research that she put into the work. Particularly enlightening to me is the less than flattering view of the founding of Tucson, was built on the ill-gotten fruits of the long Apache Wars – directed at the legendary and in fact almost mythic figure of Geronimo. I came to a rich new understanding of the recent episode of the banning – by Tucson school authorities – of books from the Mexican American Studies program, which I also spoke of in an earlier blog; certainly a fair number of books exist – this one undoubtedly among them – that might seem threatening to an elite society built on a notion of white superiority (not to say “supremacy”), and that they would thus want to remain hidden: especially given continuous border tensions – and the fear of a migration of brown hordes from the South – that this novel brilliantly evokes.

But to return to the problem of point of view, and our urgent need to perceive much more than our own perceptions: one of the most sympathetic characters in this novel, it might surprise some readers to know, is the reforming cocaine-addled mother who is jarred out of her self-destructive complacency by the kidnapping (not by anyone unknown to her, it might be added) of her little child. This character, named Seese (I am not sure how to properly pronounce it), is present in the novel from its first page to almost its last, where she is still alive but shattered by a series of violent events and the realization that she will never again see that child. The point I would make about her, though – and of other stereotyped “welfare” moms (though there is no indication that she ever received a dime from the State), the vital point, I think, is to know that she, as others like her, has a personal history that (while this might not excuse her choices) has led her to the place she is; and is not oblivious to the sordidness from which she now struggles (not at all un-heroically) to arise.

This is something that I wish Governor Romney, who would stigmatize and disparage all Americans who presently struggle in their various ways, would give some thought to. It doesn’t appear that he has an accurate notion of what it’s like for people who struggle from day to day just to keep or find jobs; to keep their houses from foreclosing; to keep or acquire medical insurance; to send their kids to college; to go to college without drowning in debt for the privilege; to live a meaningful life and find a little tranquility before dying. Nor does it appear that he has considered that a person who plays by all the rules and takes personal responsibility and only takes what he has earned might somehow end up falling through ever widening cracks. Certainly not the likes of someone like Seese who might still, despite all her failings, have a right – granted by our nation’s wealth and by our supposed state of civilization – to at least shelter over her head and medical care.

As for Leslie Marmon Silko’s wonderful book, it well deserves the designation of a Native American War and Peace and will likely resonate more powerfully to today’s readers. At 763 pages it is long (so are some extremely popular books by the likes of Stephen King and J.K. Rowling) but it reads well and for the most part swiftly. Not always a pleasant or consoling read, but almost always enlightening. And which does end – at least to those willing to take a long view and cry with the world’s multitude of fellow sufferers – on a hopeful note.

Above all, to me, it is a powerful example of what Kenneth Burke calls literature’s rhetorical power to persuade to attitude. It teaches us, it is true, how not to live, but also how to live with dignity and a higher purpose. Even through the perspective of people (as if we all weren’t!) so richly and variously flawed.