“Speaking for all feminists…”

July 28, 2017

I’ve never pretended to speak for all male feminists, let alone all feminists on earth. I don’t even speak for my own feminism from a year ago. Life, its lessons (and a few good articles in Gender & Society) have their impact. Just like a person can’t step in the same river twice, one’s understanding of the world is constantly evolving. Take a look at Donald Trump. A year ago he pledged to be the advocate of transexual Americans and now he’s throwing them under the bus to divert attention from his multiple dumpster fires. He’s (de) evolving!

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When I taught feminist theory at Portland State University, I would warn students about people who painted feminism with broad brushstrokes and feminists as simplistic caricatures. People like woman-hating personality Rush Limbaugh, who is fond of using the therm, “femi-nazi.” People who think being pro-woman means being anti-man. People who can’t even define feminism but spend their free time making the feminist-bashing memes that litter the internet.

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The reality is that feminism is a many splendored thing. It’s a huge umbrella under which there are multiple ideas about gender relations. I’ve spent some time on this blog discussing liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, radical feminism, and Riot Grrrl feminism. There’s first, second, and post-modern third-wave feminism. Eco-feminism has a voice but so does free-market feminism. There are Muslim feminists, Catholic feminists, and conservative feminists. Even Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist. There’s also a growing phalanx of male feminists who I hope will become the fourth wave, smashing male domination from inside the old boys club.

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There’s plenty of disagreement within these camps. Just read bell hook’s first book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981). In it she writes, “It is obvious that many women have appropriated feminism to serve their own ends, especially those white women who have been at the forefront of the movement.” There are plenty of people who call themselves feminists in the pop world and have no idea what intersectionality is (and I’m guessing that includes Ms. Palin).

So to say, “feminists think…” is hugely problematic. What is the feminist position on the Wonder Woman movie? I’ve read dozens of different positions, all rightfully feminist. The people that paint feminism with a broad strokes don’t truly understand what feminism is and is not. I got some chuckles when I presented a paper at a conference in the late 1990s making the case that the Spice Girls were an effective vehicle for teaching tweens about feminist principles. Nearly 20 years later there are a lot of millennial feminists making that exact same case.

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What feminists of every stripe have in common is a belief in patriarchy, a power dynamic that advantages men. Some see that as a individual level thing, like men’s use of violence against women, some see it as a macro-level systemic thing, including any religion that defines God as “He.” Even more see it as both. But after that, all bets are off. I often argue that all women understand the presence of patriarchy, whether it’s the glass ceiling at their job, or their rapey uncle, or the constant pressure to “look good” in the face of the tick tock of age. They might not have the intellectual vocabulary to “frame the present discourse,” but all women are feminists IMHO. Even anti-feminist women have a feminist brain.

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There are plenty of aggro feminists who don’t think men can be a part of the dialogue, just as there are black activists that don’t think there is room at the table for white allies. I get it. As a white person, I can dip into the struggle for black liberation when I have time and pat myself on the back for being “woke.” My male privilege is the same thing. I can work to smash patriarchy, but I’m still benefitting from that patriarchy even when I’m in the middle of a woman’s march. “Look, it’s a man here to save us!” I’ve been tackling both the issue of male privilege and white privilege in my Recovering Asshole podcast and some of the conversations have been challenging for this “woke” white boy.

There is this emerging concept of “solidarity work” – showing up to the liberation work of groups you don’t belong to.  It’s all about being ready to take a backseat and asking how to help. That means men can be feminists but they have to know when to shut up and listen to their female compatriots. Since men have traditionally been the “voice of authority,” it can be a new experience for guys to STFU, especially when males have been taught to disregard female voices. Remember when Trump said he didn’t think Hillary Clinton had the stamina to be president? I guess by “president” he meant “playing golf every weekend.”

Without a doubt there are people who have hijacked feminism for their own purposes. This includes the “victim feminists” who see all women as inherent victims of men. This is not feminism. These fake feminists erase women’s agency, including to be sexual beings who want want they want and have every right to go after the shama-lama-ding-dong. Consenting adults, even the female ones, can get up to some freaky hanky skanky. (This is a theme in my recent book, The Dream Police.) No leading feminist, not Andrea Dworkin, not Catherine MacKinnon, has ever said “All sex is rape.” But the enemies of feminists repeat this fake feminist mantra, and it’s not just Rush Limbaugh doing it.

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There’s a whole world of feminism to explore, something for everyone, and none of it is set in stone. People’s perspectives evolve. Just ask a roomful of feminists whether or not transwomen are part of their struggle. You’ll get lots of answers. Then ask that same room six-months later. My own feminist path as been a jagged path with plenty of missteps. Becoming a father of daughter certainly has played a role in that. So beware of anyone who claims to speak for all feminists. You just can’t have that many brains in one head.

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It’s all a part of asshole recovery

June 15, 2017

Other than Donald Trump, does anybody truly like the sound of their own voice? Mine makes me cringe when I hear recordings of it. I feel for the thousands of the students who have had to listen to me over the years. But I do love to talk and maybe my jabber has some value in the world. Those students got a lot of stories from my weird life to illustrate points, hopefully finding applications in their own stories. Maybe I should keep talking.

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The reason for talking is that I’m an asshole. But I’m trying to get better. I was featured in a front page interview in yesterday’s Oregonian newspaper. I casually chatted with the reporter about all things related to racism in Oregon. I assumed this was background research for a larger story, but it was an actual interview. I was trying to make the case that institutions are changing from the inside and said, “I’m the last person in the world that says human resource ladies are giving us hope in the world, but they are a reflection of how much institutional change has happened. Every HR department has an equity and diversity department now.”

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I was trying to make a joke about the stereotype of people who work in Human Resources offices and how they are, in fact, agents of change. In print it fell flat. I just looked like an asshole and the online commenters sunk their teeth into my quip. I could’ve gotten defensive, bleating, “It was just a joke!” but I’m in recovery and that means taking responsibility for my mistakes.

There are two types of people in the world, (I love it when people bisect humanity like that) assholes and people who know they are assholes and are trying to not be. I’m trying to be in the latter category and that requires more listening than talking. So why am I starting a podcast about my privilege? Shouldn’t I shut my privileged mouth up?

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Privilege is such a dirty word in our culture. Everybody’s “worked hard” for whatever they have. Try telling a white guy who is homeless that he has white privilege and male privilege. It might be a hard sell. But he does. Devah Pager’s profound 2003 study, “The Mark of the Criminal Record,” found that African-Americans without criminal records faced more job discrimination than whites with criminal records. For years I assigned Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to my Intro Sociology students. (“1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”) Most of them were smart enough to get it. Having an unearned privilege doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means the playing field that you walked on to is not even.

I had a trick that usually worked pretty well in the classroom. I’d ask the left-handed students to raise their hands. Then I’d have them testify to the multitude of advantages that right people have. Usually the right-handers would be a bit surprised. “Well, I never thought of that,” they’d grunt. Then I’d ask the righties how many had lefties in their life that they cared about. “Is it possible that there’s a similar dynamic with race or sexual orientation?” “Oh,” they’d grunt.

I’m right-handed.  And a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, heterosexual, male, middle-class homeowner. I’m pretty damn privileged. Some days it doesn’t feel like it, but even on those days I am. If I ignore it or, even worse, deny it, I’m officially an asshole. So I thought I’d make my own recovery a public one. Growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia (the birthplace of the modern KKK), I can recall some pretty racist moments in my life. I wrote a paper in high school titled, “If they have Black History Month, why can’t we have White History Month?” I was a product of my environment. Now I’m actively anti-racist, but I have to acknowledge there is racist residue (it’s sticky), and it is strongest when I deny my white privilege.

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So I’m kicking off my first podcast, Recovering Asshole. I’m going to talk to people who don’t have privileges I enjoy. Maybe they can help me (and you) be a little less of a privileged asshole. In the wake of the Portland Max stabbings, I thought we’d tackle immigration first. It made sense to talk to my fabulous wife, Andrea Barrios, about her boarder crossing. In the spirit of John & Yoko, we did the interview in bed. It gave me a deeper appreciation for what she went to just to be in this country. I won’t discuss what happened after the interview. (Maybe I should launch Recovering Asshole: After Dark as a paid subscription podcast.)

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We’re here on iTunes. Please subscribe. It’s free. And share. If you don’t have iTunes, you can find it on Soundcloud. Maybe we’ll get a sponsor. Maybe we’ll bring a bit of empathy into our lives. I know there are a ton of great conversations coming.

I’ve got lots of interviews lined up. We’re going to talk to Muslims, African-Americans, Trans people, gay parents, domestic violence survivors, and, yes, even left-handed people. I’m a podcast fan (Fabcast is my current favorite), so I think I know how to keep the listener engaged. My hope is that people who find Recovering Asshole with share it with their friends (especially the assholes) and it can grow into something that can have an impact.

We’re allowed to make mistakes on this journey. It’s not easy. I’m sorry if my comment about “HR ladies” came off as sexist. I’m using it as a moment of reflection. My tagline for the show is my tagline for life – We’re all works in progress, so let’s get to work.

PODCAST EPISODES ARCHIVED HERE

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Join the discussion on the Recovering Asshole Facebook page.

 

The Art Teacher Was a Lady

March 2, 2017

Art Lady, you saved me.

It was big thrill when we got out of our usual elementary school routine to go to art class. It may have been for only one hour once a week, but it gave the kids a chance to use a different part of their brains. The teacher was usually a lady with crazy make-up and funky clothes (a big deal in 1970s Georgia), but we were happy to be unleashed. I seem to remember making a lot of crappy ashtrays for my parents who didn’t smoke. But whoever she was, Ms. Art Teacher always let us do our own thing. And I don’t ever remember any Mr. Art Teachers.

There was a coded message that art was feminine. Men taught math, even football coaches, and women “let you” do art. History (as the history of wars) was necessary, but art was extracurricular. When President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law in 2002, public schools saw a dramatic defunding of “non-essential” arts and music programs (as well as history and language classes) to shift resources to math and English. Once again the feminine was devalued. So the millennials got even less time with the Art Lady then we did. Gee, what could go wrong?

There are a truckload of studies that show the benefits of exposing kids to arts in school. Students that have arts, music, and dance in school score better in reading, writing, and math and have higher graduation rates. Kids with an art background become better citizens and add to community cohesion. Schools with art programs have fewer disciplinary problems. Students who take art classes even have healthier brains. And the findings go on and on. But why waste our time with artsy fartsy arts when we could be teaching our youth to find the value of x?

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I’ve been reflecting on my own arts education, or lack of it. The elementary school arts teacher didn’t follow us into high school. (There was no middle school in Georgia in the 1970s). There was a small arts club at our school but not much beyond that. (The Industrial Arts Club had more members.) Certainly if you showed any affinity for the arts you were called a “fag.” This was especially true for boys. I’ve written about my short tenure playing high school football as simply a performance of the narrow definition of high school masculinity. I was riding the bench when I would have rather been reading and listening to records. It wasn’t until the arrival of punk rock to rural Georgia that I found righteousness in being bullied. Iggy Pop saved me from a life as a half-assed jock.

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I was one of the lucky ones. My parents were from Cleveland, not Stone Mountain. My mom played saxophone in a jazz band and got to hang out with Louis Armstrong. Her mother was a globe trotter and brought us musical instruments from all over the planet. (I used the balalaika to mime to Kiss songs.) My dad traveled for business and brought the outside world back with him. We had a baby grand piano in the house and regularly gathered around and sang the songs of old. I liked to act in school plays. (I was Mr. Grumpy in Mr. Grumpy’s Toy Shop, dammit!) My great love of literature was nurtured at home, so while my friends were off getting drunk in a field, I was reading George Orwell, Jim Carroll and barbarian stories by Robert E. Howard, while listening to Blue Oyster Cult albums. My cohort seemed to reject anything connected expression, by themselves or others. (Although there was a brief moment in 1980 when it seemed that half of Redan High School was reading Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire.) The mission, as it is in every high school, was to manage conformity. And anyone a few steps outside of normal had to be punished.

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By my senior year there was a small group of us punk kids and it was brutal. We’d get physically attacked by boys who demand that we stop listening to “fag rock” and “go buy some Nugent.” Gender conformity extended to even music. (I actually had Ted Nugent in my LP collection, between the New York Dolls and Gary Numan.) Thanks to rock magazines, like Creem and Circus, I got into the Australian band AC/DC long before they broke in the US. But I knew if I wore my AC/DC t-shirt to to RHS in the 70s, the reaction from the rednecks was like the drool of Pavlov’s dogs. “Hey, Gayzak! AC/DC? That means you’re a fucking faggot! Ha, ha!” Two years later they would worship this band, but they had to make it to the overground first. Anything from the underground was associated with “fairies.”

Of course, for me, the underground is where I wanted to be. I wanted to escape to the Lower East Side of NYC and hang out with Patti Smith and the Ramones. Or San Francisco and sip cappuccinos with the bastard children of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Or the Sunset Strip in LA where I could have a funny haircut and hang out with actors. There was one store at Lennox Square Mall in Atlanta called Rain that sold “new wave clothes,” and once I got my drivers license I was a regular customer, fully knowing that identifying myself as “other” would lead to more beat downs from the boys. Saint Iggy, protect us.

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The world of art was my escape. I was never told by the people that mattered to me, including parents, teachers, and rock stars interviewed in the sacred pages of Rolling Stone, that I should not search for my own voice. When you’re a kid, it’s mostly consuming to find the idiom that most speaks to you. Am I a realist, surrealist, goth, or mod? And then you start, in bits and pieces, and five-line poems and napkin sketchings, to externalize your own internal chaos. For me it was discovering the teenage poetry of Liverpool writers, like Roger McGough and Adrian Henri, that got my #2 pencil moving. “In forgotten graveyards everywhere the dead will quietly bury the living and you will tell me you love me, tonight at noon.” They opened the door to bebop jazz and the world of bohemia. My mind was gone and my body soon followed. Out, out, out of Stone Mountain.

I’m reflecting on all this because the strange world of Facebook has given me a fascinating (and totally unscientific) longitudinal data set. It’s allowed me to reconnect with my high school peers and peek in on their trajectories over the last 30+ years. Those of us who hung out on the fringes of conformity, the formerly despised “art fags,” generally ended up in some pretty cool places and are still rooted in a cultural defiance that others never got to enjoy. The Nugent-crowd still has a vested interest in the status quo. (“Give Trump a chance. Get rid of those illegals. Religious freedom of cake bakers to discriminate!”) There are certainly exceptions to this, but the art-averse climate of my little Georgia Klan town is not that dissimilar to the defunded arts program world that gave us Trump and the “mandate” to not offer protection to transgender kids who need to use the goddam bathroom.

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At what point did we become truly human? One could argue that it was when Paleolithic people first began making art. Artifacts dating as far back as 50,000 years show our attempt to translate our experience for others. The 10,000 year-old cave paintings in France are vivid depictions of not only the real but the spiritual. What is life? There is a direct link from a cave dweller banging out a new rhythm on a hollow log to the latest Ed Sheeran song. (Well, I’m guessing cave drummer didn’t see the beat as “product,” but you get what I mean.) The arts tell us we are unique and have our own voice. You don’t need Ted Nugent to speak for you.

It’s funny how the arts are framed as feminine. All the most famous artists are male. Name one female painter other than Frida Kahlo. Meanwhile girls and women are creating amazing works because it is an innately human act. It’s like how cooking is a “feminine art,” but all the highest paid chefs are men. Casting the wide world of the arts, whether it’s playing a cello or writing a memoir, as a feminine world allows it to be marginalized. Artists are in touch with their feminine side and soldiers are in touch with their masculine side. And we wonder why ISIS blows up libraries and Donald Trump wants to defund the National Endowment for the Arts to help pay for record build up of the military.

Our future as humans depends on fostering the arts among our youth. I bet the Art Lady would agree.

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