Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Taking Back Feminism

"Feminism is the radical notion that women are people."
- Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler

"[I was referring] to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident."
- Exchange between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson in "The Hound of the Baskervilles"

For the past three or four years, whenever a celebrity betrays a deep-seated prejudice against one of America's long persecuted groups, the rest of society seems to temporarily unite in paroxysms of condemnation. Whether it is about Mel Gibson and the Jews, Isaiah Washington and homosexuals, or Don Imus and African-Americans, a celebrity's sudden outburst of deep-seated bigotry draws widespread societal refutation like a slab of meat in the woods draws bears.

Considering that each of the aforementioned examples involve celebrities who were only guilty of making offensive comments, one would expect a far greater outcry when a prominent cultural figure actively practices discrimination rather than simply verbalizing it. Yet much to my deep disappointment, such damning has not yet occurred in the case of Dave Letterman.

I am not referencing, as some of you may suspect, his infidelity. While I certainly disapprove of adultery, I consider the private lives of major entertainment personalities, and to a lesser extent politicians, to be out of the domain in which I can rightfully pass judgement. Few if any of us are ever in a meaningful position to judge the motivations that underly the content of someone else's actions in his or her personal life, and as Plato once advised, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

No, my problem with Dave Letterman isn't what he did behind the closed doors of his bedroom; it is what he did using his considerable power as a veritable television institution. For further elaboration on this point, I first turn to Nell Scovell, a former comedy writer for Letterman's show who has an upcoming article in Vanity Fair:

Was I aware of rumors that Dave was having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Was I aware that other high-level male employees were having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Did these female staffers have access to information and wield power disproportionate to their job titles? Yes. ... Did I believe these female staffers were benefiting professionally from their personal relationships? Yes. Did that make me feel demeaned? Completely. Did I say anything at the time? Sadly, no.

Scovell also points out that, despite being on the air for twenty-seven years, Letterman has only employed seven women on his comedy writing staff. In terms of accumulated hours, male writers have worked for the Late Show host for a whopping total of 378 years, with female writers clocking in a mere 17. The key point for me, though, is one at which Scovell only hinted - namely, the very fact that Letterman used his power as a male employer to get his female employees to sleep with him. That is as telling a sign of sexism as opposition to gay marriage is of homophobia. While an argument could be made that Letterman was only guilty of adultery if he had merely had sex with one or even two of his own employees, engaging with more than he can even count - and for more than a quarter-century - is unmistakable evidence that he has created an unethically sexualized atmosphere in that working environment.

In spite of this, apart from a few "balanced" frontpage stories and an occasional reference in subsequent media, journalists and social activists alike have been remarkably silent about the Dave Letterman controversy. Some may argue that this is because Letterman is a victim of extortion and thus deserving of some sympathy. This line of reasoning, though compelling on one level, ignores the simple fact that even if the means through which Letterman's actions were exposed was criminal in nature, the accuracy of the allegations themselves is not in dispute. Letterman WAS guilty of sexual discrimination for at least a sizable portion of the twenty-seven years he has been working as the Late Show host. While the individual who tried to extort Letterman deserves punitive consequences, his wrongdoing doesn't negate the fact that Letterman used his power to discriminate against women. The obviousness of this fact makes me wonder whether the people who claim that the second wrong makes the first one right are, at least in part, motivated by a desire to justify their own apathy toward misogyny.

The Letterman scandal isn't the only instance in recent history of our culture's indifference to sexism. There was the massacre of women at a Pennsylvania gym by an outspoken online misogynist earlier this year, a terrible hate crime against women that New York Times columnist Bob Herbert accurately observed would have been plastered all over the news had it been perpetrated on the basis of race or religion, but was given a remarkably small amount of coverage when the victims were determined by gender. Our pop culture is full of sexism, blatant and subtle alike, from the rampant denigration of women in rap music to the sexualization of female roles in movies and television - why is it, for example, that only female superheroes are required to show as much skin as a PG-13 rating will allow, or that female movie stars fail to serve as high box office draws as much as males do?

The world of politics isn't much better. One can look to Congress, where only 17% of all Senators and House members are women even though more than 50% of our nation's population is female, and where America's first female Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, had to have the photo op of her swearing in take place while she was surrounded by children. Nor is this sexism limited to our legislative branch. One of our Supreme Court judges, Clarence Thomas, was confirmed despite being notorious for sexually harassing his female law clerks, with the social stigma falling on the women who came forward to testify against him rather than on the man himself (one such woman, Anita Hill, was famously branded with the description "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty" for daring to discuss her experiences). Even the Obama Administration isn't free from the taint of sexism - Lawrence Summers, the Director of the National Economic Council, was confirmed by the Senate despite having lost his job as President of Harvard University in 2006 after suggesting that women aren't as intelligent as men in mathematics and the sciences.

These are only the most prominent examples of this problem. In the workplace, women are still paid less to perform the same jobs as men. In the business world, they remain grossly outnumbered by men as CEOs and corporate boards of directors. Many areas of the arts remain out of reach for the vast majority of women, from film directing to stand-up comedy. Even as epithets against blacks, Jews, Latinos, Asians, and other minorities have become taboo in our vernacular, few take umbrage when a woman is harassed on the basis of their sexuality or gender, as indicated by the common use of epithets like "ho", "skank", "slut", and "cunt". Even in their private lives, women are threatened by the fact that their value is all too often based primarily or even solely on their appearance; those whose natural body types aren't in keeping with general aesthetic expectations, or who "lose their looks" by aging or developing acne or gaining weight, are forced to worry not only about failing to look their best, but about being relegated to the social status of "the ugly girl", "the old woman", or "the fat girl", titles that not only degrade them, but threaten to overwhelm their other personal qualities in defining how they are viewed by society.

The worst thing of all about these lists, though already voluminous, is if anything far too abbreviated. Even a modestly complete overview of sexism in modern America would require far more space than I have in this blog.

Similarly, it would be impossible for me to review the origins of American sexism with anywhere near the comprehensiveness the subject requires within the spatial constraints of a blog post. Instead I wish to address what I believe is the key reason that the proverbial dog, as mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes vignette mentioned above, has yet to start barking on the issue of American sexism - namely, that feminism has remained a bad word.

I say "remained a bad word" instead of "become a bad word" because feminism, like all movements dedicated to the acquistion of equal rights for an oppressed group, was held in contempt from the moment of its conception. There was nothing especially unusual about this at first; civil rights movements for African-Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and other groups that were initially persecuted in this country were always mocked and/or hated before their ideas became mainstream. When society develops a collective perception about a certain group as being in some way inferior, any assertion on the part of members of that group to shake off the perceptions and their consequences is inevitably greeted with ridicule and hostility. While it has usually been rare for the bigots in question to openly defend their bigotry (since being considered an outright bigot has, for the most part, been taboo), they almost invariably respond to the fight for fair play by the oppressed group with the standard reflex of all threatened bullies - by taking both an offensive tack (warping the public perception of the given minority group's agenda, mischaracterizing the members of a given group with spins on old stereotypes or brand new ones) and a defensive one (claiming that they, the bullies, are in fact the ones being victimized by the civil rights group in question, or by arguing that their views are based not on prejudice but oon things that "are just true but you're not allowed to say").

The key difference between America's other social rights movements and the feminist movement is that, unlike most of the others, feminists still have their legitimacy drawn into question. To this day it is common for them to be characterized - in pop culture, in political discourse, and in everyday casual social interactions - as bitter and misandristic, masculine and unhygenic, radical in their views and shrill in their demeanor. Right-wing demagogues who attract controversy almost daily for their venomous rhetoric can sometimes go completely unnoticed when they say things like “feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream" (Rush Limbaugh), or "[taking] away women's right to vote... is kind of a pipe dream, it's a personal fantasy of mine" (Ann Coulter), or "if you're an ugly woman, you're probably a progressive as well" (Glenn Beck), or “feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians" (Pat Robertson). Thus it should hardly be surprising that, even though America has had Constitutional amendments banning racial and religious discrimination for quite some time, efforts to pass a similar amendment protecting women have consistently failed.

That is why I believe one key component in properly addressing sexism is for the ongoing assault against feminism to be not only addressed, but effectively reversed. The process of creating true sexual equality in the United States is bound to be a long and difficult one, but the first and most important step in bringing it about lies in empowering both women and advocates of women with a social instrument through which they can voice their grievances and fight for change. That instrument is now, as it always has been and always will be, the feminist movement. The Letterman fiasco is just one more example of why, more than ever, progressives must take back that word.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Our Lost Sense of Honor

Since writing my article on Liskula Cohen, I have had many encounters - online and in the increasingly unpopular real world - with people who have condemned her for fighting to unmask her anonymous attacker. Rather than respond to each of these individuals one-by-one, I decided to lump them into three categories and address them here. Dispensing with the first two arguments was easy:

1) To those who claim that Liskula's argument violates the First Amendment: The right to free speech only protects you from being persecuted for your personal opinions; at no point does it guarantee you the right to say whatever you want without having anyone know your identity. Indeed, quite to the contrary, our laws specifically state that those who make defamatory attacks against another human being (such as the blogger in question was doing against Liskula) MUST be identified and held accountable. Otherwise, someone who has been personally harmed by a set of falsehoods being disseminated about them will have no means of recourse. Thus from a purely legal standpoint, the people who disagree with the outcome of Liskula Cohen's case are flat-out wrong.

2) To the people who say that Liskula should have "just ignored" the attacks: It's very easy to be cavalier about how people who are victimized by malicious gossipers and other cyberbullies should "be the bigger person", "not let it get to them", and "try to keep perspective". Yet the people who say this conveniently overlook a key detail - namely, that they have the inestimable luxury of not being the person under attack. Anyone can show superhuman stoicism when fighting a hypothetical battle; it is quite another matter to display those same qualities when you are actually the one being victimized by vicious attacks.

The third argument with which I was confronted would appear, at face value, to have been the simplest to address. It simply consisted of the various people who, after hearing about how Liskula responded to having lies spread about her online, replied with some variation of "Why is she making such a big deal about it? So people are lying about heronline. Why does she care so much about what other people think of her?" In short, their rebuttal amounts to a giant "So what?"

For a while it was difficult for me to identify why this line of reasoning bothered me so deeply. What I soon realized, though, was that the personal philosophy of the people who sincerely offered this response was indicative of a much larger social problem - i.e., the manner in which modern Americans have lost touch with the value of honor.

Defined by Merriam-Webster's dictionary as "good name or public esteem, reputation", the need to have a sense of personal honor is a critical component of the human condition. That is because human beings are, on the most primordial instinctive level, social creatures - i.e., just like dogs, chimpanzees, elephants, crows, and countless other animals, our ability to both live and be happy is dependant on our interactions with others of our own species. While it is technically possible for any one of the aforementioned creatures (homo sapiens included) to "survive" in complete isolation, trial and error has made it unavoidably obvious that living in some form of a pack - be it a pride of lions or a city of humans - greatly facilitates the process of having one's biological needs met. Likewise, although it is technically possible for some human beings to find a reasonable measure of happiness in emotional or even physical solitude, the overwhelming majority of people can only feel happy if they:

A) Feel they are liked and respected by those with whom they directly interact on a regular basis, and;
B) If they are satisfied with the way society as a whole perceives them.

That latter need - the one summed up in Point B - lies at the core of why honor is so important. No matter how high a regard a person may have for his or her personal attributes, most of us feel that those qualities have been wasted unless they have been exposed to and applauded by a larger audience (as the ancient Roman poet Ovid once said, after being exiled to the Black Sea, "Writing poetry without an appreciative audience is like dancing in the dark.") In the same vein, it is extraordinarily difficult for all but the strongest person to not be distraught when a negative perception about him or her becomes widespread, even if he or she knows that that perception is untrue (as Arthur Miller's protagonist in The Crucible famously declared, when declaring why he was refusing to falsely confess to being a witch even if doing so would spare him a horrible death, "Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!").

In most other societies - eastern and western, ancient and modern - Liskula Cohen's desire to identify her attacker and repair the damage done to her name would have been not only understood, but considered both appropriate and necesssary. The ramifications of this are not always positive - one need only turn to the death of Alexander Hamilton or the recent honor killing of a Muslim girl for being "too Westernized" to find examples of terrible moral wrongs committed in the name of honor. At the same time, veering off toward the opposite extreme - as America today has done - can be equally detrimental. When a sense of pride in being perceived positively by others is replaced by a mere craving to be famous, one gets incidents like the Balloon Boy hoax or the rise of celebutantes. When shame in being viewed negatively by society is no longer viewed as making it impossible to being considered "successful", it becomes natural for Wall Street's "best and brightest" to engage in unethical and socially destructive financial practices in order to become wealthy, since the only factor that could have curbed their behavior (apart from conscience and a strong financial regulatory system) has been completely removed.

Perhaps most important of all, with honor comes a constant sense of personal accountability. When a high premium is placed on how one is perceived, the act of attempting to destroy someone else's reputation carries with it an implicit requirement that you reveal your own identity, lest you be viewed as adhering to a double-standard (one in which you wish to change the way others are viewed by the public but don't want what you say to be able to affect how the public views you). As soon as that requirement is gone, people who want to lie without fear of responsibility - whether it be by disparaging Liskula Cohen's character, by spreading sex/drug/weight related rumors about whichever celebrity happens to be a fashionable punching bag, by denying John Kerry's heroic service in Vietnam or Barack Obama's American citizenship - can do so with ease.

This is why the last assertion made by those who disagree with Liskula's decision to defend herself is so worrisome to me. In a society that is humanitarian in the most meaningful sense of the term, a person who attacks someone else's reputation should be expected to accept responsibility for what they say or else be condemned as a coward. Instead we live in a time where the impulse is to side with the coward and condemn the person fighting for her honor.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Are underlings too underling-y?"

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Normally I have a very high regard for the writing of Thomas Friedman, which is why I am especially appalled to have read something so extraordinarily idiotic drip from his usually erudite pen.

In his new editorial brainchild, Friedman claims that the problem with Americans, and the reason why we're experiencing such high unemployment, is that too many of us are used to having work handed to us rather than taking initiative and being creative. This, he then says, is why foreign workers are snapping up all of the positions currently being created, and is a problem that can only be remedied by improving our nation's education system. Let me identify the various obvious flaws in his argument:

1) Rising unemployment is a global problem, not merely an American one. Friedman's argument would make sense if employment rates were rising in other countries but falling here; since they are falling everywhere, the most basic proof he would need to validate his assertion is lacking.

2) The reason people are losing their work is that consumers have less money to spend, which caused a decrease in supply-and-demand and a consequent tightening of the fiscal belt by all major employers. The way to solve this problem is to increase the incomes of American consumers by creating new jobs that directly stimulate the various industries where people need and/or want to spend their money. Some of those jobs require initiative and creativity; others do not. The presence or absence of those attributes, however, has absolutely nothing to do with the jobs themselves. What matters is the industries they are in, not the nature of the work they involve.

3) He says that other countries are surpassing us in producing "initiative takers" and creative thinkers, but fails to provide any evidence that the reason jobs are being exported there is for this reason and not, say, because NAFTA and other free trade programs allow companies to hire people in other countries at one-tenth the rate that they can employ Americans. He just assumes it's because the workers there are more assertive than Americans, and doesn't explore the real reason why that happens, which is that it's cheaper for American companies to hire them regardless of their personal characteristics. Once again, most of those countries are hemorrhaging jobs just as badly or worse than the United States, but to the extent that they are being preferred over us, it has absolutely nothing to do with education or the quality of our workforce.

4) He says our education system is inferior to those of the countries who receive our jobs. While I certainly have my problems with American education (as discussed in one of my earlier blog posts), is he really going to argue that our system is worse than that of India and Mexico? Even China, much as it is fashionable these days to fear it, has a very poor schooling system compared to that in the United States. After all, you don't see American exchange students going to Chinese, Indian, and Mexican schools.

5) Even if his diagnosis of the problem WAS correct (and incidentally, it isn't), he doesn't offer any solutions to the problem apart from a vague need to "fix education". Not only does this make his article more of a glorified gripe than a potentially constructive contribution to our national dialogue, but it also allows him to conveniently avoid identifying what exactly is wrong with our education system that requires improvement. Is it our math and science classes? Do we need to create more classes in which students engage in independent projects? Should we be teaching philosophy, or assigning more homework, or extending school hours? By not offering a solution, he creates a chimerical bogeyman in "education problems" that he never needs to define, and thus is absolved from having to prove actually exists.

However, the single most flagrant error in his thinking - the one that would cause me to etch a giant 'F' onto his paper were I a seventh-grade English instructor and he the stereotypical smart student who believes he can turn in lazy work and still be rewarded - is this:

6) The type of "creative" jobs that he is talking about are all upper management, whereas the "work handed to you" jobs he says are being lost (correctly) are all lower management. In essence, he is looking at the fact that the Americans who lose their jobs are the ones who receive orders rather than the ones who call shots and deduces that unemployment is rising in this country because too many Americans are order-receivers and not shot-callers. What this ignores is the obvious fact that, in the real world, everybody would LOVE to be a shot-caller, but the only ones who get to call shots ARE EMPLOYERS while the ones who take orders ARE EMPLOYEES. In short, he's saying that the reason high-ranking employers are firing low-ranking employees (as opposed to the other way around) isn't because the employers have more money, political power, and overall socioeconomic status, but rather because the underlings are just too darn underlingy.

I would expect something this mind-bogglingly stupid from the elitist pen of Ann Coulter or the rationally-challenged Glenn Beck. I am disgusted to read it in a column by Thomas Friedman, a man whose incisive thinking I generally respect. Let us hope that this is just a temporary slip-up on his part and not the beginning of a phase that afflicts far too many intellectuals - the more ensconced they become in a cocoon of respectability and applause, the less rigorous they become in actually thinking through what they argue.