Thursday, August 04, 2011

Twelve Years And Counting

August 1 marks an anniversary for our family. On that date in 1999, we officially moved in to the parsonage in LaMoille, IL, marking our move from the South to the Midwest.

It was, without a doubt, the most insane thing we did. It was also the best thing. No disparagement to the folks in Jarratt, or the Commonwealth of Virginia, but neither Lisa nor I fit in there. Lisa wanted to be near her family as our children grew up. We were young - 34 and 32 - and had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. Finally, we had 9 weeks to arrange the move, pack, figure out the logistics of getting a two-year-old, two cars, a very large Great Dane, two cats, and ourselves to the prairie.

Somehow, we managed to do it all, and then some, but not without creating a whole lot of memories in the process.

In the intervening time, our family has expanded. We lost our precious Gretchen and gained Dreyfus, a marvelous St. Bernard who knows nothing more than love. Both our old cats have gone to wherever cats go when they pass, replaced with two new cats. We've added guinea pigs, and a livelier and more interesting pet I cannot imagine. We've moved twice since, and those moves have seemed more of a hassle than the massive trek across country.

Along the way, we've made more friends, enjoyed more laughs, shared special and wrenching moments with all sorts of people. And folks have been there with us. When Miriam was born. When Lisa's father passed away suddenly just a few months later. Helping out when the basement in LaMoille flooded. Painting the living room and kitchen in Poplar Grove. Building the safety fence around the backyard in LaMoille when Moriah, not yet three, took advantage of her parents' attention elsewhere for just a few moments, walked out the back door and decided to practice her high-wire balancing act on the retaining wall behind the church, giving us both heart attacks.

There are times it doesn't seem possible that so much time has passed. Some days, though, the thought of so much living can be a comfort. Either way, we are happy with our lives, and our life, and look forward to celebrating so many more years out here on the prairie.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

A Natural Moment

In the upper left is one of a number of orb-weaving spiders that make their homes out here in and around the grain fields. They are distinguished by their brightly-colored leg joints and their tendency to hang upside down. In the lower right, a daddy-long-legs has stumbled in to the web. The web's proprietor, sitting pretty in the center of the web either doesn't know or is a bit too scared because a large, roving hunting spider has taken advantage of the harvestman's oopsie, climbed on to the web, and is feasting away on it.

I love little moments like this. Don't ask me why. The usual run of things often includes little moments of drama like this, little stories that don't follow the usual narrative rules.

No Rhyme Or Reason

On Sunday, I heard a radio program remembering Studs Terkel. It was marvelous for many reasons, but I loved hearing him talking about the first time he heard Mahalia Jackson, standing in a small Chicago record store, the clerk playing him a 78 RPM single. Studs claimed the other customers stopped and just listened, the music catching them. I can believe it.

I've been craving Atlanta Rhythm Section, God knows why.

I just read an article that mentioned Throbbing Gristle. Besides having one of the best band names ever, they invented Industrial music, back in the early post-punk days of the late-1970's/early-1980's.

Let's see what luck and a shuffle button bring us. What do they bring you?
Moonloop (Live) - Porcupine Tree
Everything In Its Own Time - Indigo Girls
Not To Be Forgotten (Our Final Hour) - Pat Metheny
Lord, I've Been Changed - Tom Waits
Amelia - Joni Mitchell
Still Raining, Still Dreaming - Jimi Hendrix
Then - Yes
Lookin' For Another Pure Love - Stevie Wonder
Walking In The Wind - Traffic
Drained - James LaBrie

My wife bought The Beatles Rockband, and it confirms what I've always known. There never has been, and never will be, a band like them.

Sluts And Celebrity

This is the cover photo from Lady Gaga's Born This Way release. I do hope that the irony here - an image of a woman so enhanced by make-up and prosthetics that she is unrecognizable - is clear enough. In any case, an intrepid and tireless critic of mine has named Stefanie Germonatta, pretty consistently, as one of three celebrities whose public image is a moral hazard when trying to talk about the word "slut".

Another is Britney Spears

Of course, no discussion of celebrities whose names are tied to sexual hedonism would be complete without Lady Madonna of Detroit.

It is dodgy to use celebrities as exemplars, either positive or negative, precisely because we in the public are exposed to an image. We encounter an artifice, a carefully crafted public-relations product rather than a human being. When we see Madonna in a bustier singing to women to express themselves if they want their man, we are watching a commercial. When we hear Lady Gaga sing a song, using a card game as an innuendo for oral sex, we are listening to product placement. When we hear Britney Spears tittering in her breathy soprano, "Oops, I did it again," it is not phony intimacy we hear; it is much worse - the phony come-on of the coquette, made doubly false by its inherent illusory quality as well as the inherent refusal of the coquette.

When anyone uses persons in the entertainment industry as examples of moral turpitude, we are playing the game the industry wants us to play. Whether or not Madonna, or Stefanie, or Britney are or are not sluts is a question they want us to ask so that we will pay attention to them and, hopefully, buy their music. Of course, the persona they create is what we are really purchasing, with the music the soundtrack to our thoughts about them; pushing the boundaries of bourgeois sexual propriety is not only the method by which we are enticed to buy. It is what they are selling.

More than anything, calling these women sluts, bad examples young women should not emulate, is to accept the lie of the image. Even if you believe the constant barrage of carefully placed "rumors" and "stories" in the celebrity press, alleging bad behavior, you are still participating in the game. Here in the entertainment industry, its insistence on visibility and image, we have one of the best examples of capitalism eating itself. On the one hand we have bourgeois morality, with its tsking and tutting about what is and is not "proper" dress and behavior. On the other hand we have millions invested in ensuring these boundaries and mores are clear precisely because they are traduced so thoroughly and consistently.

Which is all the more reason I don't buy moral scolding. Morality has always been a product sold. Whether in ancient times, or feudalism, or in high or late capitalism, the ruling classes have always set out rules for proper conduct, including sexual conduct, which they have refused to apply to themselves. The best examples, of course, come from high and late Victorian England, when a whole striving middle and upper-middle class refused to use the word "breast" when talking about chicken, or covered the legs of tables because it might induce sexual thoughts; all the while the aristocracy was coupling like ferrets in spring time, the only rule being that none of this behavior actually be discussed.

When a group of young women insist that the police not hold them responsible for their possible sexual victimization by labeling their dress or conduct "slutty", this is not acceptable, either, because the word is as much a way of managing the conduct of others as it is a moral epithet. Celebrities can and do dress and act slutty for the public's enjoyment and their profit. A young college student, or a group of friends out on the town, however, are forbidden from imitating this behavior.

Rather than play the game, which is rigged from the get-go, isn't it far better to encourage people to ask uncomfortable questions, including questions regarding how moral epithets are applied? Dragging celebrities in to the mix not only confuses the matter. It also continues to play by the very rules that are being questioned.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Just A Word

Q: What's the difference between a whore and a slut?
A: A whore will sleep with anyone. A slut will sleep with anyone but YOU.
I first heard this when I was in high school. Say, a sophomore - the year we are all wise fools. Like my classmates, I laughed at it, even as I failed to grasp just how horrible it is all the way around. To say I am, in my middle age, ashamed now of things I did as a thoughtless adolescent would be a bit much. Nevertheless, buried within this horrid little bit of hate-filled humor is all we need to know about why the SlutWalk movement is so controversial.

If any of us really thought words were unimportant, the inclusion of "slut" in the title wouldn't upset so many people.

Without us even realizing it is happening, the word conjures up images and feelings in all of us. We associate the word with people. We associate it with the way some people talk about other people. We associate it with lax morals, or low self-esteem, or bad parenting. We associate it with privilege and dominance, with subordination and power. We hear the word and the whole web of inter-related meanings and emotions and incidents from our lives and interactions with others rise up and confront us with the question: Why this word?

In the offensiveness of this word, we hear our own culpability in continuing the power this word has. In seeking to claim it, that power is stripped, because all the questions and associations that hover around it like some dark cloud suddenly turn and demand, "Why?" Why does this word have power? In what lies the authority it seems to have to dredge up images of women free with their favors, dressed to seduce and entice, demeaned and considered of less worth and inherent dignity because of actions and decisions in their lives?

It is easy, I think, to fall back on stereotypes, images dragged from the media, and our own, usually feeble, grasp of who others are by their appearance. When answers are easy, they are usually wrong.

The most dangerous thing any individual or group can ever do is ask the question: Why do use this word to define me? Choosing to reject a name used by others, or even more hazardous, embrace the label and call it "good", takes from the powerful the most important weapon they have - defining reality. The reality of what is and is not proper behavior. The reality of what is and is not proper dress. The reality of what are and are not proper moral and life choices. When the powerless do this, it is more insidious, more threatening than any general strike or armed rebellion. Before either of those things can happen, a people who was no people - defined as "the mob", say; or worse, deemed beneath our moral and social concern as "sluts", deserving of whatever befalls them due to their own morally bereft choices - becomes a people by stealing away from the powerful the self-imposed right to define who others are.

So, sure, it's just a word. There are lots of words that are just words. If I wrote some of them, I would pretty much offend the world precisely because words are not just words. They carry with them the weight of social, political, and moral approbation we all recognize but will not admit. Is it OK for some women, due to privileges that befall them due to race, or income, or other general social status, to demand the right to make the choice to dress in ways that others deem "slutty" if they so choose? A good counter-question is why is it that some find it necessary, let alone permissible, to use that word to describe the actions of others?

The SlutWalks are by no means perfect. There are conversations that need to be had about the very real limitations inherent in it. Were I to support only those social or political movements that perfectly aligned with my political and social beliefs, I would have to found them all myself, and they would have a membership of one. When I encounter a movement founded by a group of people dedicated to asking why those in power deem it both permissible and necessary to label and demean the choices, including dress and life-choices, even when there are problems most acknowledge, I think it is worth supporting.

Monday, August 01, 2011

It's All About Women Being Naughty

I came across two very different blog posts yesterday, offering very different views on the SlutWalks, and why the people writing these posts were in one way or another supporting them. The differences between the two pieces are many. For example, the piece at Feministing is largely critical of the movement, for reasons that should sound familiar:
Slutwalk – in its slick branding – runs the risk of facilitating the dominant discourse of ‘liberated’ women as only those women wearing mini-skirts and high heels in/on their way to professional jobs. In reality, capitalism mediates the feminist fa├žade of choice by creating an entire industry that commodifies women’s sexuality and links a woman’s self-esteem and self-worth to fashion and beauty. Slutwalk itself consistently refuses any connection to feminism and fixates solely around liberal questions of individual choice – the palatable “I can wear what I want” feminism that is intentionally devoid of an analysis of power dynamics.

Historically, this has come at a great cost to low-income women and women of colour who bear the brunt of institutionalized sexism – from lack of access to childcare and denial of reproductive justice to stratification in precarious low-wage work and disproportionate criminalization. In the post 9/11 climate, the focus on a particular version of sex(y)-positive feminism runs the risk of further marginalizing Muslim women’s movements who are hugely impacted by the racist ‘reasonable accommodation’ debate and state policies against the niqab. This marginalization has, at least in part, been legitimized through an imperialist feminist discourse that imposes certain ideas of gender liberation and perpetuates the myth that certain cultural/religious identities are inherently antithetical to women’s rights.
I should note, for the record, that I agree pretty much completely, with this. Indeed, I find much of what passes for feminist discourse in the United States to be, whether conscious of it or not, class- and race-biased, an exercise in the newly-powerful making sure they pull the ladder up after them. From rhetoric about abortion (more on that anon) to discussions of jobs (see Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickled and Dimed for a marvelous example of truly stupid pseudo-leftist nonsense from an alleged feminist), the combination of ignorance, arrogance, and condescension among elite feminists is so thick you could cut it.

While harboring these, and many more, misgivings, the author of this piece, a community activist in the South Asian community of Vancouver, BC, decided to march. Here's why:
I attended for the simple reason that I am committed to ending victim-blaming. The Slutwalks in Toronto and Vancouver came out of the specific contexts of comments by police officers in Toronto and Saanich that were reinforcing to young women about how to avoid getting raped. In Manitoba, Judge Dewar commented that a young Aboriginal rape survivor acted “inviting”.

Even though I did not march under the banner of ‘sluthood’, I marched to mark the unceded territory of women’s bodies. I marched because language is a weapon yielded against the powerless. I marched because rapists causes rape and sexual assault can never be justified. I marched to end the policing of women by other women. I marched because that day, though understandable, I happened to be tired of the Left ruthlessly eating itself alive. I marched in defiance of right-wing pundits like Margaret Wente to make visible the staggering reality of rape and violence against all women in so-called civilized countries like Canada.
The other, at Feministe, is different in tone and approach, and comes from a speaker at the San Diego SlutWalk, a man who is an independent film maker and Planned Parenthood activist named Echo Zen. A speaker at the rally, he was stumped as to what to say:
Trying to think of a fresh angle from which to approach the issue of slut-shaming, I remembered the last time I debated an anti-choice, anti-rights activist who wanted to see women stripped of access to family planning services. Naturally the argument he ultimately resorted to after all his others had been debunked was: “If girls don’t want to get pregnant, they shouldn’t be opening their legs to everyone.”

“Wow,” I’d chuckled to myself, “he didn’t even wait 5 minutes before falling back on old-fashioned slut-shaming. Most anti-choicers at least pretend it’s about the fetus for a little while longer.” Suddenly I realised what I needed to talk about at SlutWalk – the intersection between rape culture and the anti-choice movement.
He then sets out the speech he gave, the key paragraph of which follows:
This is what rape culture looks like – the belief that what women do between their legs should have some bearing on what legal, medical and emergency services are available to them.

It is a reflection of a society where girls are taught in abstinence-only classes that men are such slaves to their hormones that girls are the ones who must take responsibility for keeping men out of their pants. It is a reflection of a society where a woman can be denied emergency contraception by her doctor, before being told, “Well, you should have kept your legs shut.”
While always dangerous, the attempt to reclaim and reimagine words that are ugly, hateful, and used by the powerful as weapons against the powerless (to quote Ms. Walia), it is also an important exercise. The word "slut" is an ugly word, used to demean not only women's actions, but to set a moral threshold by which society can and should determine our level not only of empathy, but legal and other services provided to them.

No movement is going to be perfect, no issue-advocacy pure, no statement of intent free from ambiguity and trouble. As these two very different pieces make clear, however, at the center of the SlutWalk movement is not a defense of privileged women to continue the privilege to define their sexuality and femininity at the expense of women of color and women of other cultures and classes. At the heart of the movement, as I have stated again and again, is the fight to ensure that women are treated by society, the legal system, and the medical services, as competent moral agents who are not responsible for their victimization.

The continuity between the SlutWalk movement and the pro-choice movement should be clear enough. Just as the leaders of the anti-choice movement are, at the end of the day, concerned far less with the fetus than they are with punishing women for being bad, so, too are efforts to redefine rape, to insist that women shouldn't dress or act slutty in order to avoid becoming victims of sexual violence, and the general effort to define what is proper, acceptable behavior and dress for women. The effort by various powers-that-be to police women's lives, bodies, and restrict their moral choice not only offend against the notion that women are capable of making informed choices about their lives; it also institutionalizes certain acts of violence against women as acceptable because some women, by choosing to dress and/or act in ways some would deem "slutty" deserve to be treated that way, and are not deserving of legal protection, or medical treatment.

Every effort to redefine rape, to restrict women's access to health care, to police women's behavior, comes down, in the end, to the belief by many powerful individuals that women, not being competent to make decisions about their own lives and bodies, are in need of protection from others. Failing to accept that protection - opening their legs, in other words - renders them outside the bounds of social empathy. This is why I support the movement, even for all its limitations. This is why, if I had the chance, I march. This is why I will continue to highlight efforts of supporters to make clear the stakes.

It isn't about being slutty. It's about taking that word away from the powerful as a weapon used to demean and further victimize women.

Sunday, July 31, 2011


There are few things that almost guarantee a yawn than reading something about method. Telling other how one does anything, from putting up a tent to reading a book, is by its very nature dull stuff. All the same, I think a few comments are in order in light of some of the comments made on yesterday's post.

It shouldn't need to be said that when we are reading the Bible, we are reading an assortment of literary styles, written over hundreds, even thousands of years, collected together in its final form over 1800 years ago, in languages that are no longer used. Except, of course, it does need to be said. It shouldn't need to be said that the people who wrote and edited these various writings carried around with them, usually without even thinking about it, all sorts of things - ideas, assumptions, mores - that are completely foreign to contemporary readers. Except, of course, it does need to be said. It shouldn't need to be said that reading and interpreting and appropriating any part of the Bible is always a provisional thing, a process that is never complete, and to be done together as a community in conversation (even heated conversation!). Except, of course, it does need to be said.

The discovery of history as a category to be applied to human society is a relatively recent invention. It was first applied as a critical tool to the Christian Scriptures in the newly invigorated Prussian University of Berlin. While it is not correct to claim, as many have, that prior to this little critical reading of Scripture existed - one need only consider the careful textual analysis the High Scholastic applied to various received texts to determine authorship to understand the error of this view - what became known, in its first incarnation, as Higher Criticism took a new approach to the Bible. While never calling in to question the inspired nature of the works under scrutiny, in treating the Biblical texts as the specific products of a specific people in a specific time and place, historical criticism put a distance between them and contemporary readers. This distance needed to be bridged through careful study, attention to revealing details, and an understanding of the many things we do not know about the authors, let alone editors and compilers, of the works. This space created both problems and opportunities for people of faith; by relativizing the textual witness, we can understand our own always partial grasp of the experience of faith and its subject. We also, of course, raise the specter of privileging one perspective over another - either that of the text, or of ourselves - in the process.

It is important to keep in mind that the historical critical method, as it grew and developed, was itself a product of certain historical forces, unstated assumptions, and specific to a time and place - a newly reformed Prussian Kingdom yearning to break free of the choke hold of the Holy Roman Empire. In the tragedy and triumph of the Napoleonic Wars, many saw the hand of God moving the give the German people a land of their own. The triumphalist philosophies of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling became reimagined and reworked in Hegel's works, which saw in History the movement away from barbarism and toward true humanity and freedom. In the 9th Symphony, Beethoven - whether he understood it or not - expressed this same sense of triumphant renewal and possibility.

Inherent, however, in all these various intellectual and artistic movements were sinister moments, minor notes among the major themes. Antisemitism is rampant in the writings of the moralists Kant and Fichte. The naked nationalism of Hegel, the inherent superiority of the German people over other nations and races is "proved" through the movement of the Idea expressed in History. The discovery of history was as much about proving the superiority of the present moment over the past as it was recognizing the simple, banal reality of temporal distance creating social and cultural difference.

Historical criticism, then, carries as much baggage as any intellectual movement, is limited in how far it can take us in to any text (Biblical or otherwise), and recognizing and acknowledging that is an important part of using it.

I always find it fascinating to read people who use the Bible to support odd ideas. Leviticus to support discrimination against gays and lesbians; the admonition that women are to give birth in pain as punishment as justification to keep anesthesia from them; St. Paul's letter to Philemon to justify slavery. What is fascinating to me is not only the lack of critical acumen involved in doing this. It is also the absence of any theological hermeneutic. The purpose of Scripture is to give to ever-new generations of the faithful an account of the original witness to who God is, by showing us how God interacts with humanity. We see a piece of that puzzle when we read the Bible. It helps us, if we are faithful and carry on the tradition of reading and figuring it out together, to fit our own piece in to the picture that is not yet finished.

It is important to recognize the limited nature of the Biblical witness. It is necessary to insist that the description of the LORD's presence and action as given in the passage from 2 Samuel quoted yesterday is socially and culturally light-years from us. It is important to call it what it is - a view of the Israelite's God, carried around on his little wooden box throne from place to place - of a piece with ancient views of deity. It might even be necessary to note that the story in question - the striking of Uzzah for daring to reach out his hand to the Ark of the Covenant - an example of a kind of magical thinking about divinity that is completely foreign to us.

Historical criticism can tell us these things. If we stop there, however, we are only telling part of the story. Unless we are willing to insist that this story, for all that it comes from a time and place and people who ways of thinking and living bear no relationship to ours, the story becomes unintelligible. It becomes historical artifact, rather than living testimony to the living God we profess in faith. The story becomes an interesting piece of historical fiction, rather than something that tells us who God is. It isn't enough to proclaim historical continuity between the faith of Israel and Judah and discipleship to Jesus Christ, if we are unwilling or unable to claim texts which are strange, or socially or morally offensive, or simply unintelligible (try reading Numbers and making sense of most of it, which is little more than a census roll, interspersed with legends and tales of the Israelite "murmuring" against God) for our living faith today.

The very different example is the way texts from Leviticus are used to justify bigotry against sexual minorities. No matter how hard pressed to justify lifting these texts above the rest, the only thing we continue to hear and read is that, having been included in the Bible, they are there for our instruction. My own view is slightly different. Yes, the texts are in the Bible, but it would seem ludicrous to lift just these couple verses and privilege them above all the others, when the church jettisoned the rest of the Levitical code almost from its founding. At the same time, it is necessary to acknowledge, in both sorrow and repentance, that they are a part of our Scriptures. We cannot ignore them. We cannot set them to one side, or explain them away. We are called to wrestle with these texts, no less than those we find more acceptable, less offensive. We cannot dodge the reality they exist as part of the Bible anymore than we can dodge the triumphal calls to military slaughter in Joshua, or the talking donkey in Judges, or Lot's wife turning to a pillar of salt.

It is never easy to make sense of the writings in the Bible. Anyone who says otherwise has never really tried. It is necessary, however, if one wishes to be faithful, to use whatever critical tools are available, to take the texts seriously as witness to the Divine life with creation. In order to make sense of who this God is whom we claim to worship, we need to be willing to refuse to privilege our own prejudices, even when we so clearly see the prejudices of others. We need not to set aside whatever we may call texts of terror. To do so, for me, betrays a fear of confronting our own faithlessness in the face of offense to our own sensibilities, sensibilities we so easily see as limited in others.

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