Feministing in Havana

14 August 2016

Going to Cuba was a lot easier than I thought it would be. My second major at Emory in the Reagan ‘80s was “International Studies” with a focus on Soviet and Latin American politics, Cuba being the connection. My mother was there as a bobby-soxed teenager in 1959 and flew out Havana the day Castro took the city. The one paper my she saved from her college days was about Kruschev and the Cuban Missile Crisis. So Cuba has always seemed completely off-limits to me. But if Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house, I can see Cuba from my balcony here on Isla Mujeres. Actually, it’s just over the horizon. If I had a frisbee and a good south-eastern trade wind, I could probably land it inside a cell in Guantanamo Bay, where the U.S. government is still actively creating terrorists. So why not just go?

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That’s what Andrea and I did. On a mad impulse we bought tickets to go. On Tuesday I went scuba-diving and on Wednesday I was on a Cubana Airlines flight over the water from Cancun to Havana. Barely an hour in the air and we were there with our hastily prepared visas and access to the world’s last “socialist paradise.” (Your Nikes are made in Vietnam and your iPhone is made in China, so they are disqualified and nobody is claiming North Korea as anything but an Orwellian nightmare.) Off to the land with no internet, leaving our wi’s and fi’s behind.

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There’s so much to write about the experience. We were there as the country was getting ready for Fidel Castro’s 90th birthday. I can’t believe the guy has been there my entire life. His brother, Raul Castro, has somewhat normalized relations with the U.S. and since Obama eased the embargo, you can feel the Starbucks shops just lining up to come in and change the nation overnight. Ask anyone from a small-town what Wal-Mart has done to America. Havana had plenty of construction cranes and the new hotels were coming. I’m sure the names “Hilton” and “Trump” will become part of the new oceanfront skyline. (Although nobody seemed to know who Donald Trump was. God bless them.)

It reminded me of my first trip to Czechoslovakia in 1991, right when the country opened its doors to the west. The people and infrastructure in Prague had no idea how to handle the rush of tourists who wanted to come and look around. There were no hotels or restaurants and capitalist entrepreneurialism was a foreign language. We stayed in people’s homes and ate whatever we could find in beer halls. When I returned in 1992, all that had changed. Western money flooded the “Paris of the East,” and there were billboards proclaiming (in English), “There are now four McDonalds in Praha!”

So we’ll see if Brother Raul lets that happen to his island. I have feeling it’ll look a lot different next time we go back. We stayed in a wonderful casa in the center of the city that might be a Quality Inn this time next year.

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But I thought I’d write a little but about gender on the streets of Havana. Cuba has been known for being on the vanguard of gender equality issues for a long time. Women, like Celia Sånchez, were at the forefront of the revolution in 1959, fighting alongside Fidel and Che. The Federation of Cuban Women was formed shortly after that. Half of the judges and justices in Cuba are female, over a third of the parliament is female and 62% of university students are female. There are great feminist Cuban rappers, like Krudas Cubensi and Obsession and 31 Cuban women are competing in the Rio Olympics.  (Watch for Yorgelis Rodríguez in the heptathlon finals.) Unlike in the United States, gender equality is a part of the Cuban constitution. “The state guarantees women the same opportunities and possibilities as men in order to achieve woman’s full participation in the development of the country.”

So it must be a great place to be a woman, right?

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Andrea and I were walking around our little neighborhood on Friday morning, just behind the Cuban capital building and some guy, seeing her, angrily shouted out to his friend, “She got fucked by the French!” He probably thought I was French and what was this brown girl doing with a white guy. It was in Spanish so I totally missed it but Andrea was visibly upset. After a similar comment she felt abused enough to return to our room and just hang out, away from the catcalls. She was shaken as the daily war on women followed her all the way to a communist outpost that supposedly outlawed sexism before I was even born.

Cuba is an incredibly diverse place, from dark Afro-Caribbean to Europeans (and probably some Hemingway descendants). Andrea, who would be punishingly sexy in a medieval suit of armor, noticed the comments were coming from men of color and asked me why that was. I assured her that white men were not free from the same behavior but there might be some good feminist explanations of the race-gender interaction.

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I took a moment to play professor and tackle it from three of the many feminist perspectives. Liberal feminists would argue that black Cuban men have be raised with a different relationship to women than white Cuban men which may be more vocally aggressive and seeing a Latin woman with a white man viewed as a betrayal of an ethnic subcultural value. Marxist feminists would say that even in allegedly communist society, poor people still exist and are alienated and poor black Cubans are alienated the most. (Stats back up that black Cubans have the lowest paid jobs.) So Marxist Feminists would argue the one place those men have power in a patriarchal world is over women. (Stats also show black women in Cuba experience more domestic violence.) Finally, radical feminists argue that patriarchy will rear its ugly head in spite of popular values of gender equality, finding any way possible to subordinate females, either through institutional means (less pay) or old-fashioned scare tactics. So on our little block, mostly populated by men who were poor and dark-skinned, it was the catcall.

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I don’t know if this discussion was of any value to my wife. The conversation became one of how do we get men to raise their sons right so our daughter won’t routinely experience the same harassment. We both absolutely loved our brief time in Cuba and want to return as soon as possible, before Starbucks and Wal-Mart (and future bankrupt Trump casinos) erase a nation frozen in revolutionary amber.

There’s a great line about Cuba – “Cuba got three things right: education, health care, and baseball.  And it got three things wrong: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” The food can be pretty bland. I would say it’s been wrong on lots of human rights issues as well (although the last ten yeas have seen massive improvements for the lesbian, gay, and transgender populations). But all the socialist good will hasn’t stopped men from being dicks. I have to side with the radical feminists on this one. You can get rid of capitalism, but until you get rid of patriarchy it’s the same old shit. Cuba libre.

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Prince Died for Your Sins: Prophecy and Phallacy

April 28, 2016

Dearly beloved, I want you to explore the infinite mystery in your own special way, the God power, the cosmic tick-tock, Yahweh, Science, Gaia, the Holy Trinity, the Hubble Array, whatever you want to call it. But I have a little story for you about the prince of paisley.

I had to listen to Prince records in silence. They were too dirty to play out loud. I worked in a record store in the fall of 1981 when Controversy came out. It was Georgia so we couldn’t play it in the store for fear of offending Bible Belt shoppers looking for the new REO Speedwagon album. But we took turns taking the store copy home so we could play “Do Me, Baby” in the privacy of our bedrooms, under the sheets.

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There are a million Prince-related stories like that, always about sex and shame and how Prince didn’t give a fuck who or how you fucked. When he died last week, everyone who never saw Purple Rain talked about how much they loved Purple Rain. Somehow the sinful sexuality, the androgyny and the personal freedom that were so despised 30-years ago by the PMRC have become the property of the most uptight unsexy-MFers in the world. Did you know that Matt Lauer was a “big fan”? But I’m here to tell you something different.

Prince is a deity and he died for your sex sins.

How do I know this? Because I am his prophet. I first became aware of his divinity on October 13, 1988. That’s when I saw him in Atlanta on the Lovesexy tour. He arose out of the stage and ascended into the air in a red Corvette, bathed in a celestial purple light. I felt something stir deep inside me. There was a ringing in my ears after the show that said, “Don’t turn away from me. I am the purple light.” But I did just that. I forsook my sex lord.

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A few years later, after the Diamonds & Pearls (1991) album, I turned away from Prince and his message of sexual freedom. Oh, sure I’d check in once in a while, I even bought Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999) and Musicology (2004). But of his last twenty-four albums, those are the only ones I let into my world. And my life began to suffer. I experienced copious alcohol consumption, divorce, job loss, I even wore a goatee for many years. All because I let Prince out of my heart.

Then right after he died, a strange thing happened. I was in the laundry room, in the basement of my house, washing whites. Alone. Suddenly a fantastic bolt of light emerged out of the dryer and knocked me off my feet. Standing there was the angel Gabriel, bathed in a purple light, the same light I had seen emanating from Prince in 1988. I could barely breathe. Then, in a high-pitched yet genderless voice, Gabriel said,

“The New Power Generation is here and you will be its leader. I will provide you God’s 23 positions for sexual liberation on 39 golden plates. These verses will become known as The Book of Prince and will lead the rainbow children to the emancipation of Planet Earth and the golden experience of eternal joy.”

And I said, “Right on, Gabe! What do you want me to do?”

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The angel replied, “The new power age will have no churches. There are thieves in the temple. Set up a GoFundMe account and tell each person who sends you $19.99 that, when they die, their souls will be funked up by Lord Prince and they will get off for all eternity.”

The angel then dropped a purple sock into my load of whites, donned a raspberry-colored beret and zapped back into my dryer.

So if you want a funky eternal life, just send $19.99 to: gofundme.com/2chh6ftg

The moral of this story is…

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All religions are created by people. Prophets are people who other people believe to be divine. Holy books are written by people that other people believe to be sacred. There is no religion without human invention. How do you know that Moses or Muhammad or Joseph Smith or me are or are not actual prophets? You don’t. That’s the value of faith. Prince was a Jehovah’s Witness, a religion started in the 1870s and run by a group of “Elders” (i.e. people) in Brooklyn who are in charge of telling followers what the Bible REALLY says. And apparently Armageddon is coming any minute, so get out your debit cards. Every single religion is a house of cards built on the work of human beings that claim they speak for God or gods. Religious followers faith is not in God, it’s in the people who invented the religion; faith that they are not con-men.

That does not mean there is no transcendent mystery in the universe that people have called, “God.” It is entirely possible that when you die you get to see your grandmother and your dead cat and get to jam with Jimi Hendrix (Poor dead Hendrix). There may be an intelligent design to this mess after all. Or it might be a lot of wishful thinking that some very clever people have capitalized on. I don’t know. I’m agnostic. Joseph Campbell, who spent his long life studying the thousands of religions in the world once said, “He who thinks he knows, doesn’t know. He who knows that he doesn’t know, knows.” I don’t know.

What I do know is that for the last 3000 years, the people who have been inventing religions are mostly men and conveniently created a god that looks like them, typically an old white guy. (For shits and giggles, Google Image “God.”) Jews, Christians, and Muslims learn that God has existed for all eternity and then suddenly created the entire universe in six days. Makes you wonder what God was doing before those six days. Did He Netflix and chill? With himself? Guys.

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I totally respect whatever you want to worship, whatever your god or gods look like. If you want to pray to a lord that looks like Ewan McGreggor or a god that looks like an overly ripe avocado, I’ve got your back. Just know that unless your are a follower of some ancient pagan goddess, there is or was some dude behind a curtain pulling the levers. This is how we got patriarchy (and Melania Trump).

When you look at child marriage in Pakistan, the arrest of women for having abortions in Northern Ireland, the brothels of India, or Ted Cruz and the normality of rape culture in the United States it starts with the idea that God has a phallus and created MAN in HIS image. As Mary Daly so famously said, “If God is man than man is God.” There’s a ton of celebrated rape in the Old Testament of the Bible, in books written by men.

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So the next time someone wants to use some “sacred scripture” to justify something, especially the oppression of some other group of people, ask who wrote that scripture. The answer is that is was a person, just like Prince. You are free to put your faith in the scribblings of some men from the Bronze Age, or the 1800s (or the 1950s if you are a Scientologist). Or you could put on Prince’s Sign o’ the Times album and find some great wisdom there. It’s pretty much the same thing. The men who wrote Leviticus, the Koran, 2 Corinthians and the Book of Mormon were built exactly the same way as the man who wrote, “Your face is jamming, your body’s heck-a-slamming, if love is good, let’s get to ramming.” So lovesexy. That’s what Lord Prince wants. Believe me, I’m a prophet.

Feminist Herstory Pt. 4 – The Swingin’ Second Wave arrives

April 10, 2015

We’re back for the occasional history of feminist theory. Earlier posts are here:

Feminist Herstory Pt. 1 – It is discovered that Women are PEOPLE!!!

Feminist Herstory Pt. 2 – Here comes the FIRST WAVE

Feminist Herstory Pt. 3 – Let’s Judge Ourselves as People

The 1960s were exploding with numerous waves of consciousness raising. In a short period of time, masses of people (especially young people) were re-evaluating how they thought about race, war, politics, social class, sexuality and gender. Boys began to grow their hair like girls and reject the marriage/house in the suburbs trajectory. Girls, with the help of the birth control pill in 1960, stopped waiting for Prince Charming and started practicing “free love.” A lot of the same old bullshit continued, but second wave feminists were active on numerous fronts.

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In popular culture, Gloria Steinem not only went after Hugh Hefner on a 1960s talk show for referring to grown women as “girls,” but helped change the language itself. Single women were referred to as “Miss,” while married (claimed) women were “Mrs.” There was no equivalent shift for males. They were always “Mr.” whether they were single or not. Why not refer to females as “Ms.”? (Steinem founded Ms. Magazine in 1971, which became the standard bearer of second wave feminism.)

Feminist themes began creeping into 60s pop culture, in TV shows, like That Girl, and songs, like Aretha Franklin’s reworking of Otis Redding’s “Respect” and even the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper.” Much of the feminist energy was not just a rejection of the plastic suburban lifestyle, but the gender politics of larger liberation movements. For example, young women would show up to participate in anti-war and New Left groups, like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and find males running the program and females expected to prepare food, not author manifestos.

My mother was typical of many middle-American women who heard about the feminist movement (“women’s lib”) from the fringes. She was 20 in 1963, when Friedan’s book came out, and newly married. She remembers seeing her on TV frequently in the 1960s, talking about The Feminine Mystique but not making the connection with her own situation. She recently emailed me about it:

Men were getting paid more than women for the same job, (and they still are). The big saying in the 60’s for men was “keep your wife barefoot and pregnant.” I also felt that with or without the feminist movement, a women could get ahead on her own with hard work a few brains, and knowing how to maneuver in a man’s world, such as starting a company, which I did.

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I think my mother, like a lot of women, didn’t see herself in the faces of the activists who were railing against “patriarchal oppression” and protesting against Playboy magazine and stay-at-home moms (which was never really the target). In the 1970s, she found a space to start her own consulting business. But that small space was created by the feminist pioneers who fought to get their foot in the door. It’s interesting that she pointed out the 1975 film, The Stepford Wives, as more influential on her ideas about gender power. The horror flick was rooted in the core principles of The Feminine Mystique; that you can only treat women like robots for so long.

The feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s was wide-ranging and defied any simple characterization of what a “feminist” was. (But, as we shall see in the Part 5, it wasn’t exactly inclusive). Liberal feminists, like Friedan, pushed towards an equality of the sexes, focusing on issues like equal pay and an end to job-discrimination. Marxist feminists, like Jeanne Gross, pointed out that women gaining access to the same jobs that exploit men is not true liberation. Their position was that, since capitalism turns women into commodities (and not just prostitutes), the best way to end sexist exploitation is to end capitalism.  Radical feminists, like Charlotte Bunch, pointed out that patriarchy predates capitalism and what feminists should focus on is various systems of oppression. And then socialist feminists, like Barbara Ehrenreich, were concerned about how all of these issues impact women’s individual economic lives.

So when people tried to characterize feminists as “bra-burning man-haters,” they were really just perpetuating a caricature favored by those who defend sexism. First of all, despite some of the un-evolved men at the SDS meetings, there were men engaged in consciousness raising groups and exploring their own male privilege. The debate within feminism was healthy and held together around two basic ideas. First was the idea that society is primarily organized around male power and that patriarchy is insidious in virtually every aspect of life. The second idea was the slogan, “The personal is the political.” Individual experiences of oppression are manifestations of social patterns and the solution to personal problems is collective action. The personal is the political!

By the early 1970s, the debates within the feminist movement were raging. Liberal feminists mobilized women to break through the old boys clubs of power and start cracking the glass ceilings. Radical feminists asked if claiming 50 percent of a world created by men was really best for women. Would a military in which half the members were female really be a transformation of society, or just one where women were good at playing men’s games? Some feminists were increasingly frustrated with the reluctance of the men in their lives to share power. Is it possible to have a truly equal relationship with a man? Some feminists suggested lesbianism and separatism as the only way to escape abuse, oppression and dehumanization. This extreme position actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it but separatist groups, like the Furies Collective, added to image of feminists as hating men.

As men (including many progressive men) dug their heals in to defend their patriarchal power (you could be Mr. Radical and still want “your woman” to get dinner on the table), the rhetoric heated up. Rage towards “male domination” and “male chauvinist pigs” may have been justified, but it fed into the hype that feminism was all about stoking the “battle of the sexes.” For me as a 9-year-old in Stone Mountain, Georgia, this was all manifested in a tennis battle between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. Riggs was a loudmouth who’d been a tennis champion in the 1940s. He seemed personally offended by the notion of female equality and made something of a comeback by challenging female tennis pros. The grand match was on September 20, 1973. There was a ton of hype about the ultimate “battle of the sexes” and anyone with a soul was rooting for King. Billie Jean beat Bobby’s ass in all three matches and he disappeared back into his cave. If you know the Elton John song “Philadelphia Freedom,” you know the right person won that round.

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Despite some of the rhetoric from some of the more militant factions, feminism was never about turning the oppression of women into the oppression of men. I think that was the fear of a lot of men. Just like Southern whites feared free blacks would torture whites as blacks had been tortured, many men feared free woman would go all Amazon on men, forcing them to bake three-level cakes and wear open-toed high heels. But feminism was geared towards ending oppression in general and men could be strong allies in that cause. But in the early 1970s, feminism needed a good look in the mirror to achieve that.

As the second wave moved into the 1980s, many feminists began to explore intersectionality and expand the big tent of feminism (that’s the subject of Part 5). Some liberal feminists, like Hilary Rodham Clinton, figured out how to beat men at their own game. But some Second Wavers got stuck in the early feminist thinking that cast women as universal victims and all men as dastardly agents of patriarchy. Some of those folks found an enclave working in Human Resources departments, zealously looking for sexual harassers, denying the agency of women. As we will discuss in a coming section, third wave feminists rejected this reductionary view as denying the complexity of gender power. But it makes for engrossing movies on the Lifetime Channel. Those evil men! But we still owe the second wave a great debt for naming the problem with no name and fighting it on multiple fronts.

The following book was mentioned in this post and available at Powell’s by clicking the cover below.

Cozy’s dad is on TV again.

December 18, 2014

I’m getting good at doing things with a baby on my man-hip. I’m not sure if peeing should be one of them. I am definitely not an expert in child rearing. I have Facebook for that.

When Andrea was pregnant, I felt like I was the first person to ever have this idea, reproducing. Having a kid. Apparently, women have been having babies for decades. Nearly 6000 years, according to some Christians. That’s a long time! The point is that, as it turns out, I have a bunch of friends in Portland and on-line that are experts.

I do hold some expertise on some topics. As a criminologist and sociologist with a PhD, there is a whole range of topics I can offer perspective on. I was live on KATU this morning talking about the Kim Jong Un/Seth Rogan Sony international crisis. I talked to KGW on the subject yesterday. Live interviews are always more fun. I got to say, “We spend trillions on the war on terrorism and with just one vague threat, America folds like a cardtable after a poker game” on live TV. I practiced that line so I wouldn’t say that America folded like a poker game, which half-way makes sense but requires a working knowledge of poker.

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Usually, I’m the “hate crime” guy. I’ve done a million interviews on the subject, from 60 Minutes to Good Morning America. I’ve been on shows from Gangland to (my favorite) The Sally Jesse Raphael Show (Hey, it was a free trip to NYC. And yes, I was hung over on the show.). My mom Googled me once and called me in horror finding all the hits that were connected to hate groups. “Those people really hate you,” she said. Believe me, I know.

If you’ve got a mass murder, serial killer, gang activity, terrorist bombing, police or school shooting, I’m your man. You can call me the professor of mayhem. When the news is bad and you need two more minutes to fill your newscast, call me. You know I’m good for a soundbite that will link today’s tragedy to the “big picture.” I know the research and the academic language but let me try to frame it so Joe the Plumber, who probably lives in the right-wing of society, can process it.

Now, let me say, I say “no” to lots of interviews. Even more now that I’m “with child.” I learned my lesson after a local news station asked me about a dead cat on a railroad track and the chyron below my talking head said, “Randy Blazak, Voodoo Expert.” There are lots of people at Portland State who are experts on topics I can only Google, so I often say, “Call Professor So and So in the Psychology Department. She knows more about this than me.”

[FULL DISCLOSURE: Driving into KATU at 5:30 this morning, they were discussing the Sony hack on NPR and compared it to the US hack of Iranian nuclear power plants in 2010. When I got to the green room, I Wiki’ed Stuxnet and worked it into my interview a few minutes later, like I had a big fucking brain. Expert!]

Society has an over-reliance on experts who supposedly know something more than the common schmo. I do read the research and obsess about data and so I might have some insight on something. But, personally, what I am trying to do is offer a critical perspective of power and institutions that has disappeared from the mainstream media. I can put a tie on and get a few lines in about institutional racism and maybe Joe the Plumber will think, “Yeah, that makes sense.”

Where I try to do this the most is around discussions of gender. Viewers do not expect a radical feminist perspective to be coming from a white guy in a corduroy jacket. I can use the authority of my privilege like a Trojan Horse to at least make allusions to patriarchy and destructive forms of masculinity.

After one horrific school shooting, I was live on KPTV. I turned to the camera and channelled my friend, Jackson Katz, and said, “I want all the viewers watching this to imagine that all these school shootings had been done by girls instead of boys. Don’t you think every newscast in the nation would be talking about gender right now?” There was a lot of positive response from female viewers. (One male commenter called me a “college pussy.”)

I hope this expertise is of some value to my daughter. Not that her dad is on TV all the time, but that he has something to say about power. There is value in speaking truth to power, even if you are not an “expert.” And it should never be a one-sided conversation. That would be me if I was a preacher.

Talk Box: Sociology Professor Randy Blazak on Ferguson