Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Identity Politics Are Not For Me

The idea of identity politics is to give a voice and a presence to the historically disenfranchised, which is good and necessary. For many people, identifying themselves as part of a group or community is empowering and it gives them a sense of self, belonging and purpose. This helps them become a more visible, cohesive and accepted part of society. However, what often ends up happening in the cacophony of conflicting identity politics currently being broadcast at an alarming volume by social media, is absurd (college cafeterias that serve sushi are accused of cultural appropriation), divisive (pitting men against women, gay against straight, liberals against conservatives, black against white, etc.), and overly simplistic.
I have always had an aversion to clubs, even those I can conceivably belong to. In that respect, I'm with the Marx who would not belong to a club that would have him as a member. And I'm even more averse to identifying myself by some willfully chosen slice of my complex makeup. I am from Mexico, born and raised there in a Jewish family, with an atheist dad and an observant mom. This is complicated enough, if not downright exotic.
The other day I was ranting about white people when someone interrupted to remind me that I am white. This stopped me in my tracks because I don't see myself that way, being Mexican and Jewish and all. Indeed, I am pale, have blondish hair and green/gray eyes, and according to everyone, I am swimming in great vats of privilege (another overused word currently in vogue to make certain people feel guilty for existing).
Having grown up well-fed, clad, educated and traveled in a country where children beg for food on the street, I have been aware of my privilege and my enormous luck since I was a toddler. In Mexico, the color of you skin may very well inform your station in life, with whites mostly on top. Still, I find that making people feel bad because they were born rich, male, white or lucky by accusing them of "privilege" is spurious. Privilege is not a choice. I am an accident of history. I find it a precious privilege that both sides of my family had the presence of mind to escape Eastern Europe long before the nazis came to get them, and that, having had less than zero privilege as Jews in the shtetl, for circumstantial reasons they chose Mexico, where it turned out I could be born free of persecution, into privilege.
I was straight for about 40 years and then fell in love with the woman who is now my partner. However, I like to say that if Michael Fassbender shows up, she'll be toast in a New York minute. I have been accused by gay friends of being in denial about my own sexuality when I have protested that I don't consider myself a lesbian. I had a gay male friend who, upon hearing me confess I had a girlfriend, exclaimed, "I always knew you were a dyke!" Well, isn't that rich? Because I didn't know, and not because of some closet I have yet to come out of. The problem with identity politics is that there is usually someone expecting you to be what they think you are.
I was invited to join Pantsuit Nation, a group of Hillary supporters on Facebook. A man was banned from the page because he had the temerity to put forth his views, which were in agreement with the liberal tenor of the group, albeit in a way which some women considered offensive. In truth, his post had an admonishing tone. But was this a reason to ban him? The responses to his post and subsequent deportation from the page went from puerile put-downs to women sensibly if timidly chiming in that banning him was a bit extreme. In fact, it was appalling. The guy was not disrespectful, just full of himself. He did not say anything offensive. He was contributing something of value. Do we expect all of us to think alike and agree on everything and sound exactly the same? In a democracy?
The current climate of polarization separates all of us into rarefied niches that end up floating away into their own select, put-upon bubbles. Recently, some of these bubbles have burst into attacks by legions of offended people, such as the reprehensible student behavior at Charles Murray's lecture at Middlebury College, or the brouhaha over a painting of Emmett Till created by a white artist at the Whitney Biennial, that devolved into some people demanding that the painting be burned. I was compelled to write on a Facebook post:
You may criticize the aesthetic and conceptual shortcomings of the painting all you want, but saying that a white person cannot make art about a topic that is judged unrelated to their ethnic background is absurd and a noxious kind of censorship. Does this mean that I as a woman writer can only write about women or women like me? If I want to write a story about Japanese internment camps am I not allowed? Till's is a story that shocks, saddens and outrages many Americans who are not Black. Is it possible that the artist feels the same? Attacks like this are a threat not only to freedom of thought and expression but they are against art, since according to this logic no one can create anything that is not directly related to their own personal history. Identity politics is reductive and instead of liberating people, it categorizes them into one-dimensional stereotypes, which is ironically what it is supposed to protect them from.
This tiresome cacophony of grievance, in my view, is related to seeing everything through the prism of one's identity -- it leads to the escalation, exaggeration, and distortion of alleged offenses against whatever labels define you as a person. I'm not saying that we should deny who we are, quite the contrary. The more people are antisemites, the more Jewish I'll be. The more anti-Mexican, the more proudly Mexican. All I'm saying is that we are greater than the sum of our parts.
Our enhanced sensitivity on behalf of ourselves and others is preventing us from fighting real evil. Accusing students of racism because they put a sombrero on a bottle of tequila for a Cinco de Mayo party, or firing a college teacher for defending the right to wear offensive costumes on Halloween doesn't help against the real forces of darkness, it actually abets them. In fact, the forces of darkness are rolling on the floor with glee at the crypto fascist excesses of the politically correct "left".

--> Identity politics affect people on both sides of the divide: the rabid conservatives with their bizarre sore winning and brutal contempt for the whining liberals, and the whining liberals with their p.c. concepts like cultural appropriation, microaggressions and triggering, which increasingly feel like censorship. Social media amplifies the abuse of terms like oppression, privilege, safe space, and has made them into overbearing clichés that weaken the actual meaning of those words and ultimately threaten the free exchange of ideas, which is the cornerstone of progress. If everything is offensive, then nothing is offensive. If everyone is a racist, then no one is a racist. Skirmishes about identity politics leave everyone exhausted and none the wiser. Everybody loses.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Two Circuses

I watched the Academy Awards and Trump's address to Congress in their entirety.
For the first time in years, if ever, something unexpected happened at the Academy Awards last Sunday. As everybody who doesn't live under a rock knows, the wrong Best Picture award was given to La La Land when it was actually destined for Moonlight. It took forever to right the wrong on stage, but in the end, Moonlight won Best Picture. It was all the more bizarre because since Trump became president we seem to be living in a particularly sadistic episode of The Twilight Zone, in which we are all starting to question our mental sanity and if Trump and Bannon have their druthers, reality itself.
Which leads me to the second circus: Trump's first address to the Joint Session of Congress. He has heretofore been so inappropriate and embarrassing, that we could not believe our eyes and ears as he managed to read from the teleprompter for an hour without losing his marbles. Everybody was shocked and relieved that he finally behaved like a president and not like a 5-year old brat. But what is important about his speech yesterday is not that he was able to read from the prompter, which should not be considered a heroic feat, but the content of what he read. If you listen closely to that speech, he is still not behaving like the President of the United States. He thinks he is the Sun King.
I assume linguistic scholars are hard at work on the thoroughly terrifying Trump rhetoric. By terrifying I mean not only the content: but also the way in which the order of his words and his usage mess with people's minds. It's like being tossed about by a raging storm at sea. There are calm passages of reassurance followed by hateful, paranoid exaggerations. Do not expect this guy's speechwriters to inspire anything but arrogance in his followers and dread in his opposition. It's horrible language.
In the case of NATO, for instance, Trump started paying his respects to our partnership with Europe, and the free world, yada yada, so much so that Chuck Schumer stood up and clapped. Once Schumer sat down, however, Trump tore the NATO allies a new one. In the case of immigration reform, not only did he not assuage a single fear for the millions of families who stand to be separated or deported, but he made them all sound like they are to blame for all the troubles in the United States. This strategy of demonizing immigrants, painting them all like criminals, drug dealers, and murderers should chill the blood of every American citizen. It's scapegoating, pure and simple, and already scores of decent people are suffering all kinds of abuses. Not only undocumented brown people; totally innocuous visitors with legal papers are mistreated and abused because the people at ICE are feeling emboldened to treat foreigners like shit. So is the case with a famous 70-year-old Australian children books' author, a French Holocaust scholar, a Nigerian engineer, an American citizen of Puerto Rican descent in Chicago, and countless more we don't even hear about.  It is the systematic dehumanization of an entire group of people for nefarious political purposes. Nazism 101.
 Trump only wants immigrants with money to come here. It is still not clear what will happen to the crops, and all the shitty jobs Americans won't take, but I guess we will find out soon. I think criminals should be deported, but ICE considers criminals the kind of people who got a speeding ticket 15 years ago. They took a Salvadoran woman who was waiting for emergency surgery for a brain tumor out of a hospital and into handcuffs. Will this really make America great?
This ugly side of the United States is not new. It's as old as the Mayflower and has been here since Native Americans were betrayed and killed en masse. It has made itself known through years of slavery and state-sponsored racism, antisemitism, the Japanese internment camps, the Joe McCarthy trials, Abu Ghraib, the abuse of undocumented workers, etc. This xenophobic, racist side of America has always lived side by side with the visionary, democratic, generous, expansive side we all like to believe the US still represents in the world: a land of progress, of justice, of equal opportunity, of personal freedom.
Until now, the hateful side was relatively in the fringes, growing stronger thanks to Fox News and talk radio and shit media like Breitbart. Now it's out with a vengeance, legitimized and enabled not only by Trump, but by most of the Republican party. I have been here for 25 years and this is the first time I can remember a spate of antisemitic vandalism, bomb threats and violence.
Now we have the most reactionary government this country has seen in centuries; an administration that uses propaganda and hateful rhetoric straight from the playbooks of tyrants. And which came through power through extremely sinister means.
The Republican cheering that accompanied Trump's every bombastic, unrealistic promise is repugnant. The fact that they are doing everything in their power to obstruct the investigation of Russia's involvement brands them all traitors. There is no decency left in this Congress, and except for a few glaring Democrats, that goes for both sides of the aisle.
I was looking forward to the Democratic response, only to be baffled and deflated by the ridiculous, pandering, toothless, inauthentic choice of having the ex-governor of Kentucky sit in a charmless diner where no food seems to be served, surrounded by a cast out of the Lawrence Welk show.
What on God's green Earth are the Democrats thinking? How can I unregister from this stupid party?*
I know what they are thinking. That somehow with this ersatz display of down-home heartland bullshit they are going to win votes in 2018. They're not fooling anyone.
Bernie Sanders, who gave his own impassioned and eloquent response, should have been the one to respond to Trump. He is his direct opposite, and an equal rock star to his base, which the party insists on ignoring, and he talks about the issues that affect everybody living in this crazy country.

*Serious question. I want out.