Saturday, December 26, 2009

Where is your Avatar?

In keeping with the traditional Jewish/atheist observance of December 25, I went to the movies with friends yesterday, followed by dinner at an Asian restaurant (Thai being the Chinese food of the West Coast). We saw "Avatar" in non-3D, because one of my friends can't deal with the 3D thing. Now maybe with the benefit of 3D glasses, this movie has some subliminal content that is new and different, but the version I saw should be called "Dances With Wolves in Space," though to be fair, the infinite battle scene comes straight out of Star Wars with some Lord of the Rings thrown in, the computer-generated animals bear some resemblance to The Golden Compass, and people who saw Pocahontas say there's a passing similarity there too.

Now I am curious whether the film's seemingly anti-imperialist message will get across to the millions who will flock to their local IMAX over this holiday season. If indeed the throwaway lines about the resource under the ground which justifies the foreign military attempting to drive the indigenous peace-loving "savages" off the land which gives them life translate into increased activism to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and U.S. aid to Israel, I promise to eat my words. Compared to "Lord of the Rings," the movie had good roles for women, especially Trudi, the fighter pilot, though of course the noble white guy gets to give the orders in the end.

I also have to acknowledge that I didn't actually fall asleep or look at my watch during the 2.6-hour movie, though I considered doing both. (Most of my friends did one or the other, some did both.) So if that's the standard by which we judge a movie, I guess it wasn't that bad. But when you consider that it took ten years and $500 million dollars – yeah that's right, twice the cost of one day of war in Iraq, I can't help asking if there wasn't something the undisputedly talented James Cameron, not to mention my beloved Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Rodriguez, could have been doing with themselves for the last decade.

But the worst part of the movie was not the feature itself, but the previews. Some I have mercifully blocked out, but "The Book of Eli" and "Legion" definitely seem like ones to miss (in fact, both bear some similarities to "Avatar," but as far as I can tell without the redeeming beautiful scenery and groovy messaging). So when I got home, I read for a while, and then turned on the TV, but there was of course nothing I wanted to watch playing, so I started surfing through the On-Demand titles, and found a movie that looked kind of amusing, called "The Truth About Charlie." I started watching it and it was okay, but then I realized it was a remake of "Charade." Now "Charade" is one of the great movies of all time, I watched it twice during my chemo months, would probably watch it again if it happened to be on TV, but why would I want to see a remake of it? Either it's going to be the same, in which case I already know it too well to get anything much out of it, or it's not going to be as good.

This all brings me to a question I have grappled with for years now: Why do they keep making the same movies over and over? Do they think there are just so few stories to tell, that they have to keep telling the same four or five again and again? I think the answer is yes, they do think that. In fact, in my days of attempting to be a screenwriter, I read a number of books that pretty much make that claim. All stories can be reduced to a few critical elements – the hero, the quest, the sidekick, the totem, the turning point, the misstep, the resurrection, the romance, the confrontation and the redemption. If you want to be cutting edge, you can throw in the character flaw, which of course the hero miraculously overcomes in the course of two hours. If you want to seem really brainy, you can add some just-for-its-own-sake existential dialogue, and then your movie will qualify to be called a "film" and may even get the sobriquet "carnivalesque." Okay, it's not a bad thing to keep in mind, that every story should have an arc, that there should be some kind of fulfillment, that we can't keep track of too many characters so you probably want to have one or two people who embody the qualities your protagonist doesn't have, and that characters should have clear, believable motivations. But that doesn't mean that there all stories are really the same retelling in different scenery; it just means that all stories have certain things in common.

So while I was unsatisfiedly watching "Avatar," I came up with a list of movies that I would like to see made, and my recommendation to whatever studios or producers or whoever has millions lying around to make movies with, would be to give two or three million to each of 150-200 people (possibly chosen at random - they couldn't do worse than the pros) and see what they can do with it, the only requirement being to make a movie that has NOT been made before.

Here's a short list of possibilities, just what popped into my mind yesterday:

A feature based on the documentary "Burma VJ," about the massive popular uprising in Burma in 2007 and the underground videography collective that brought it to the world (I know I said movies that haven't been made before, but "Burma VJ" is a documentary with subtitles, and not apt to draw a big American audience, so a feature film would do something different).

The story of Specialist Suzanne Swift and her mother, Sara Rich, who brought the issue of sexual harassment in the Army to the fore by refusing redeployment to Iraq and went to prison for it.

Crows Over a Wheatfield, by Paula Sharp, is a feminist adventure story dealing with the issues of domestic violence and child sexual abuse in a nonmelodramatic and complex way. When I read it 14 years ago, I thought it would make a great movie, and I'm really surprised that it has never been made into one.

Any and all of the Maisie Dobbs books (Maisie Dobbs, Birds of a Feather), about a woman detective in the aftermath of World War I, would make great movies, as would Laurie King's Kate Martinelli series, set in San Francisco, especially A Grave Talent and Night Work.

Michael Nava's mysteries starring gay lawyer Henry Rios deal sensitively with gay life in the age of AIDS, in a non-stereotypical way. The Hidden Law and The Burning Plain are my favorites. These have the advantage of being set in LA, so since Hollywood's favorite subject is itself, they should appeal.

There are tons of books about the Triangle shirtwaist fire in 1911, three that come to my mind are Elana Dykewomon's Beyond the Pale, Meredith Tax's Rivington Street, most recently Katharine Weber's Triangle, and all use the disaster to bring out the context in which the modern women's and labor movements were forged. Some hybrid of the three would make a great blockbuster movie.

Okay, that's it for today's rambling, but feel free to add your own movie ideas as comments here.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Where do queers go when we die? (For Andrea)

The other night I attended the memorial event for Andrea Lewis, renowned journalist at KPFA, New American Media and the Progressive Magazine. It was an evening chock full of inspiring performances, wonderful music, decent poetry (you know me and poetry) and heart-felt testimonials before a standing-room-only crowd of hundreds at the lovely First Unitarian Church in Oakland. The SF Symphony Chorus, of which Andrea was a long-time member, showed up en masse – that must have been 70 people right there, Poet Laureate Al Young performed some pretty good spoken word, and Krissy Keefer and Dance Brigade finished up (batted clean-up, as Andrea would say) with some amazing drumming that could have gone on a lot longer. And running throughout, the rich melodic tones of Andrea's voice, mostly from the radio.

Though I didn't know Andrea well, it was an emotional and satisfying evening for me. I interacted with her at KPFA just enough to admire her profoundly. I was interviewed by her once, on International Women's Day years ago; it was short and not memorable for either of us, though even then, I was impressed by her seamless transitions and easy manner in the studio. In retrospect, knowing what I do about the difficulty of doing live radio, I am more impressed because she made it look so effortless when it really is not.

Last night, in going through piles and piles of papers from the last few years in search of a paper I needed to travel to Canada (we won't go into that now, but suffice it to say that when Andrea's brother talked about her pack-rat-itis, I made a note to myself to try to throw some stuff away before I die), I ran across a handout from a class about interviewing. It said, "An interview is not a conversation, though it may sound like one after you've edited it." I always try to make my interviews sound like conversations, but they rarely do, even after editing. I've learned to use notes instead of a full script, but it's still too obvious when I'm asking a prepared question, and even my candid responses too often sound like speeches.

Andrea prepared superbly for her interviews – insofar as I did know her, it was because I do most of my work at KPFA on weekends, and when I was there on Saturday nights, Andrea was almost always there late into the evening getting ready for her Sunday show. But she always managed to make it sound completely spontaneous. I just listened to a bunch of her old shows, for a tribute that aired on Women's Magazine last week (pretty good, if I do say so myself – hear it at I was struck by how quickly she could create a rapport with her guests. Even if there were times when she didn't do all the research herself, but was handed a pile of papers by her producers – after all, that's what producers are for – but you could never tell. She would say, "I was looking at your website and I noticed …" or "The thing that really grabbed me when I was reading your book," and you believed it 100%. She would always find something to bond over, even if she was less than inspired by them. If she met someone for the first time at 7:35 and interviewed them from 7:40 to 7:45, it was five minutes of intimacy, and that intimacy was irresistible to the listeners. That's why at her memorial, when people tried to engage the crowd by saying, "Raise your hand if Andrea had a nickname for you," "How many of you got one of those 30-minute phone messages from Andrea?" only a few scattered hands went up. Hundreds of folks came out not because they knew her personally, but because they felt like they knew her, and more, because she had enriched their world.

When I started volunteering at KPFA, one of the things I hoped for was to get to know Andrea. I can't say that happened. We would say hi in the kitchen or downstairs, exchange a few words about our shows. Once she admired the Thai food I had brought for the women who were working on our show, and I invited her to join us. She declined, to all of our disappointment. I had two substantive interactions with her. The first was when Lisa and I were trading a DVD of "The L Word." Andrea asked what we were doing with it. Both of us were working on documentaries, and we were both basically using the TV series about high-fashion, mostly rich and white, lesbians in LA to illustrate everything that's wrong with the mainstream gay movement. Andrea defended the show. She had been at some of the shootings, I think, in LA, and had gone to a party to watch the last episode, and she said it moved her to tears. As a Black progressive lesbian from Detroit, she certainly didn't feel like those women represented her, but she just liked that they were out there, on mainstream television, being dykes and having sex. She was inclined, I think, to focus on the positive in popular culture and not expect it to be more than it was.

Then, a couple weeks ago, I was working with some younger lesbians of color who have started producing with us. They were saying that there are not lesbians of color on the radio, which is certainly true in general, and I thought, "Oh, I should make sure they meet Andrea so they know at least they're not the only ones here." I was on my way downstairs, and she was in her office with Mickey, debriefing the show they had just finished and the door was slightly open. I was nervous about interrupting, but I stopped in and asked if she could come by on her way out. She said she was not feeling well, but she would try. When I came back upstairs, she was in our office chatting with Christine and Kiki and Olga about the Richmond homecoming rape, which Kiki has been organizing around. When she left she told them to let her know if they had any extra material that might be good for her show, or if she could help them in any way, and thanked me for making the connection.

If you asked me about Andrea, the first words out of my mouth would be African American Lesbian Feminist. So imagine my surprise when in three hours of people talking about her on Tuesday night, neither the "L Word" nor the "F Word" were spoken. There were a couple oblique allusions to her being lesbian – Larry Samuels said she referred to him as "her weird straight guy friend," and a number of people mentioned that she always called out "racism, sexism and homophobia" (always listed in that order). In the two tributes that aired on the two shows she worked on, The Morning Show and Sunday Sedition, the word "lesbian" was barely mentioned, and only Krissy Keefer spoke about how important the women's movement was to her.

It's pretty amazing because Andrea was not someone to whom feminism or lesbianism were unimportant. There are women at KPFA who are feminists, and probably even lesbians, who don't necessarily consider those core parts of their identities, but Andrea wasn't one of them. She got her start in Bay Area journalism working for a Plexus, a feminist newspaper. Krissy Keefer mentioned in her tribute that Andrea called her a good friend, though they never socialized, and Krissy said she thought that was because they were connected through the women's movement.

In a short interview Lisa did with Andrea about feminism, which aired as part of our tribute, she talked about how she came to feminism as a young teenager, admiring people like Gloria Steinem, and appreciating the songwriting talents of Carole King. When her father denied that a woman could have written all the songs on an album, and told Andrea she shouldn't waste money on college, Andrea says "I just knew he was crazy." She also talked about believing that lesbianism and feminism were "part of the same package, not separate." When I was looking for pieces for our show to illustrate this commitment to women's and queer issues, I didn't find a single show that didn't have something that would have been appropriate. No matter what she was talking about, she always brought those lenses to it.

So I left the memorial asking, "Why is the first thing out of my mouth about this woman I barely knew the last thing out of the mouths of the people who knew her well?" I wasn't alone. As I made my way out of the church, I heard other women talking about how weird it was. This is not the first time I've had this experience relating to KPFA. When Mike Alcalay, a gay activist and doctor who reported on AIDS issues, died a couple years ago, his brother was interviewed on Democracy Now! And did not say that he was gay. In Mike's case, it was even stranger, because he had been married (to a woman) and had twin sons, which was mentioned in the obits. At that time, I wrote in my blog, "When I die, don't let anyone talk about me and not say 'lesbian.'" And some of you were nice enough to make that promise.

I think there are several reasons this keeps happening. One is that, even in 2009 and even in progressive circles, straight people still have trouble saying the words "gay" and "lesbian." I believe they still feel like it's saying something negative. No one thought that saying Andrea was Black or African American or a woman was diminishing her, but I think they felt like alluding to her as a lesbian feminist would make some people not like her, or make her less important than focusing on her love of the arts and sports, her golfing, her singing, and her journalistic brilliance. There's still a belief, in left journalism as well as in the mainstream, that a "lesbian" journalist or a "feminist" journalist is a "niche" journalist, not as "universal" as a straight woman who doesn't identify with those angry, man-hating feminists. Which makes me think of Harvey Fierstein's comment in "The Celluloid Closet," that when people say, "Your work isn't gay, it's universal," his (private) response is "Up yours."

The other piece of this straightwashing phenomenon is that Andrea wasn't married or domestic partnered. If she had a lover or six, no one seems to know about it. If she had had a wife or girlfriend, that person would have been central to her memorial and on air tributes. But when single people die, in our coupleist, nuclear-family-oriented society, it's our families of origin that tend to be centered and most of our families of origin, in Andrea's and my generation certainly (she was 52, two years older than me), even if they are very accepting, are not that comfortable with our sexual orientation. It's like we revert to being kids, and kids are not seen as having sexual orientation.

I had hoped this would be the year when I would conquer my awe of Andrea and find a way to make her a friend. Maybe that's why her death has touched me deeply, maybe it's because I've been around so many others who are grieving deeply for her, or maybe it's the public Andrea I'm grieving: the publicly unapologetic fat lesbian feminist African American woman who incidentally sang and played golf.

Go in peace, cherished sister.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Peace March in Richmond Responds to Homecoming Rape

A Peace March will be held in Richmond this Saturday
November 7, 11:00 a.m.
Richmond High School,
1250 23rd St, Richmond, CA (get directions)
For more info

Richmond girl raped outside homecoming dance

Richmond girl raped: A 15-year-old Richmond girl who had left the homecoming dance was hospitalized in stable condition after being assaulted and allegedly raped by several men on the Richmond High School grounds, police said.

Police received several reports shortly before midnight Saturday and when officers arrived at the high school several men ran away. One was caught.

The 19-year-old Richmond man was in the county jail in Richmond on rape charges, said Richmond Police Sgt. Bisa French. She would not release his name, saying they were trying to get more information from him and police were concerned that if his name were known he might be more reluctant to talk.

The girl was unconscious and flown by helicopter to a hospital.

French said police believe the girl was raped by several men an they are looking for "at least" four males.

"She left the dance at some point and that's when this occurred," French said.

She said the girl apparently knew at least one of her assailants.

Mike Taugher

Expanded mainstream media coverage
News and Commentary from savvy sista
Rape seen as almost inevitable
Friend of survivor speaks out on CNN

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Health Care Activism: Mobilizing to Lose?

It's been forever since I blogged, I know, and I'm sorry about that. I've been sooooo swamped, mostly with organizing, but also with some difficult personal stuff. A good friend of mine, Rosemary Lenihan, whom I worked with at Brobeck years ago and stayed in touch with through a lot of tough times for both of us, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August and died less than two months later. I went to her first and just about only oncology appointment, and was planning to put in motion all the great support I learned from you all when I had b.c., but didn't really get a chance to because she declined so quickly. Her sister, Eileen, and a couple of her other friends and I mainly tried to keep her company in the hospital for the last couple weeks as she essentially wasted away. I've witnessed a lot of difficult deaths, my father's, from brain cancer, and of course Stephen and Ron and David and all the others we lost during those early years of AIDS, my aunt Brina from lung cancer, and even the "easy" ones, like my friend Joan, who dropped dead of a stroke at 51, are not easy when you're losing someone you loved. But this was about the worst for me, although she was apparently not in pain once they got her on methadone.

There's been quite a lot of other death in the last few months, two friends lost their mothers, one of whom I also knew and was fond of, my coworker's long-time lover died of HIV complications after being in a nursing home for 15 years, two women I knew slightly died suddenly of heart attacks, and Nancy Redwine, a writer and activist I admired a lot who was close to friends of mine in Seattle and Santa Cruz, died of breast cancer after battling it for years. She and I were the same age and of course, my cancer experience made me feel more connected to her.

So this Halloween/Day of the Dead promises to be a highly emotional time for me. I planned to go to the Spiral Dance, but due to the Bay Bridge closure I just can't face taking that much public transportation in San Francisco on Halloween. Last night on BART I felt truly homicidal. I'll just have to light my own candles and think about my gone-beyond people while enjoying some much-needed solitude and calm quiet time, oh, and cherishing that extra hour of sleep.

I went to two pretty good actions for health care this week. One I was heavily involved in organizing – a blockade of Blue Shield in San Francisco on Wednesday, part of the national mobilization for health care for all. We worked really hard to get about 30 people to risk arrest – I had hoped for 50 but still it was good, and there were about 200 people at the rally, also good but a little disappointing because I’ve been to some very large pickets for single payer and I think a lot of people didn’t hear about it because of infighting among the various groups here in the Bay. We publicized the action for a nearby building that houses United Healthcare, where we rallied for about half an hour before marching to Blue Shield, and that worked out really well because they had no idea they were the target so they didn’t lock everything down ahead of time. They didn’t make a complaint so the cops ignored us and after about an hour, we decided to call it a day, leaving behind a lot of crime scene tape and sidewalk chalking. Everyone had a good experience, and a lot of different groups participated together for the first time, which was excellent. (Check out the great video and photos.)

Then on Friday there was an action organized by the San Francisco Labor Council at the office building which houses Cigna (and also Aetna, although the group didn’t seem to know that). This one was fun because we wore costumes and went into the lobby of the building, but of course didn’t get anywhere near Cigna’s second-floor offices; the security guards informed us that the elevator would not go up with us in it.

Incidentally, the reason I had pushed for Blue Shield as our target was specifically because they have a whole building, with their logo prominently displayed all over the outside of the building, in contrast to these other companies which are hidden in the bowels of generic office buildings. I think that a lot of activists are not as attentive to the visual impact of their actions as they could be. It’s fun to go chant in the lobby, and I’m sure the companies that are targeted hear about it, but is pissing off the security guards of highrises really our goal?

Yesterday’s action was politically all over the map – some people were all about public option, some were saying single payer one minute and public option the next. Our action was very consciously supporting only single payer, and some people went ballistic because one of the national organizers put out an email telling people about our action in which she said people should demand the public option. I personally think that it doesn’t make that much difference, I mean, of course it makes a difference, I’m totally for single payer, but we’re not going to get either, and I think we should not let the divisions within our movement overshadow the main points which are, 1) that we need health care for all, and 2) thirty cents of every health care dollar goes to insurance company profits. I’m sure all those tea party people don’t agree on everything, in fact I know they don’t, some of them are complaining about Wall Street bailouts while others are busy demanding and grabbing those same bailouts, but they don’t let that stop them from coming together to destroy their enemies – Obama and the Democrats.

Now people are gearing up for more actions next week, to pressure Pelosi, Waxman and Miller, the House leadership, to restore the Kucinich Amendment (allowing states to elect a single payer system) to the bill that will go to the House floor. Some people are saying we have to do them on Monday because the decision is likely to be made that day, others that we should wait until Tuesday because we don’t have enough time to organize for Monday, and others that it doesn’t matter because we can’t influence the legislative process anyway.

Myself, I think that we need to pressure Pelosi in her home district, remind her that she still works for us, even if she doesn’t think so, and that she can’t be speaker of the House if she doesn’t represent San Francisco at least occasionally. But more than that, I just think it’s great that there are rowdy well-organized health care actions several times a week in this area and in a number of cities around the country. Okay, so the mass media are not giving us as much hype as they did the right-wing-nut-cases, but when did they ever? We are making noise, we are coming together, we are building a movement, and that’s what we need to do, even if it’s late. Until National Nurses Organizing Committee, Physicians for Single Payer and Health Care for All started interrupting Congressional hearings, Pelosi, Reed and Obama were sure that they could just tuck the public option and any other concession to the idea that insurance companies are not our pals in a drawer and say no more about it. The activism has forced them to at least give lip service to what they once claimed to believe. And as my friend Deeg says, we need to start reminding people that win or lose, and it’s almost assured we will mostly lose, the vote is not the end, it needs to be the beginning.

I don’t really know whether I hope the Democrats win or lose the health care vote. If they lose, that is, if they don’t succeed in passing a plan, they’re pretty much through. The Republicans will doubtless take back Congress next year, and then even if Obama wins a second term, he’ll be like Clinton in his second term, hamstrung and moving ever to the right – and let’s face it, he doesn’t have that far to go. And while we can say that it doesn’t make any difference, they’re all the bourgeoisie (which they are), they’re all sold out to the corporations (which they certainly are), they’re all warmongers and robber barons and liars and torturers and imperialists and Zionists, all of which they are, it’s also true that there are some differences, and the small differences matter most to the people who are the closest to not making it in this country. My friend Jean mentioned the other day that in 2000, she was going around West Berkeley campaigning for Nader, and an older Black woman said to her, “I can’t afford that.”

If the Democrats and Obama lose the battle for health care, it’s not going to get written as a victory for the progressive forces, punishing them for writing us off. It’s going to be seen as a massive victory for the Republicans and the insurance industry, which despite their posturing (“We were the first to call for health care for all” claims the CEO of Blue Shield, who did in fact author a plan in 2006 which is very similar to the one Obama is pushing now) and their back-room deals with the Democrats, are really hoping to derail any reform. I voted for Nader in 2000, and I probably would have voted for him even if I lived in Florida, and I would probably do it again. But the fact is that voting for Nader that year did not bring us closer to being a real democracy or to breaking the two-party stranglehold. It certainly didn’t make the left look strong. It proved that going all out, with a celebrity-level candidate, the left could muster 2.75% of the vote, not even enough to qualify for federal funding. Erstwhile Republicans John Anderson and Ross Perot did much more to challenge the two-party hegemony in their third-party presidential bids, getting 7% and 18.9% respectively, in 1980 and 1992. (And Perot can take credit for getting Clinton elected, which I’m sure is something he wants on his epitaph as much as Nader wants electing Bush on his.)

So working to make sure the Democrats don’t succeed in passing a crappy health reform bill, with or without a lousy public option hardly anyone has access to, is not going to help win single payer, nor is it going to prove that the left is a force to be reckoned with in this country. At best, it is going to make the less-right-wingers in Congress look more like a house divided than it already does. At worst, the 40 million people and rising who currently have virtually no access to health care will have even less as the public health systems continue to be eroded and the numbers of people dying for lack of health care will climb.

On the other hand, if the Democrats do succeed in passing some form of health reform, they are going to be unstoppable in their drive to run over anyone who tries to challenge them from the left. It’s going to prove that Rahm Emmanuel and Max Baucus were right to bulldoze over the progressive caucus and the single-payer advocates and the people who pointed out that the main beneficiaries of this bill are going to become gods. And realistically, barring some major upheaval in this country, it will be at least twenty years before we will be able to build a major movement for reforming the reformed health care system.

It seems pretty clear to me that whatever passes, if something does, is likely to double or triple the costs of health care coverage for people like me, people with pretty good employer-paid health insurance. It’s likely to cut quality and drive up costs of care to people on Medicare – the Republicans are not actually lying about that (of course, they are lying when they claim that they are the defenders of Medicare, when they have consistently voted to privatize or kill it). In exchange for all of that destruction, some people who currently can’t get health insurance, or who have insurance but can’t use it to get health care because of preexisting conditions, etc., will actually be able to see doctors. We can’t let our principled objections to bad compromises obscure that important point.

People say, “Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.” No one could call this plan good. But one might say that we should not let the good become the enemy of the slightly better. True? Who knows?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Cause and Effect

A week or so ago, I had the late news on TV while I was doing some household chores, and I heard a teaser for what was coming up that caught my interest. They were announcing a breakthrough in research offering new hope to people who suffer from migraines. I have several friends who suffer from severe migraines, so I ran back into the living room to be sure not to miss the item. Guess what the breakthrough was? Turns out that the main cause of migraines is … drum roll please … you guessed it, obesity! Since the two people I was hoping to be able to tell that their days of suffering are over are both painfully thin, I turned off the TV in disgust.

A week later, a news headline in the elevator at work – those of you who read my last blog are going to suggest I stop reading those headlines – announced that the common thread linking people who had died from the H1N1 virus is – da da da da – yup! obesity again! More specifically, “stomach obesity,” leading to the headline, “Fight The Flab To Fend Off Swine Flu.” Okay, I admit, I’m not an epidemiologist, but I found it really hard to believe that among Mexican college students, New York schoolkids, Argentine workers and Indian computer programmers, everyone who was fat got H1N1 and died from it and no one who wasn’t obese did. Of course, my skepticism turns out to be right – the obesity-swine flu-linkage data are only for the U.S., the samples are small, most of the research was on mice, and the people doing it were, not surprisingly, obesity researchers.

Last week it was hot dogs. Apparently the hot dogs they sell at ballparks cause colon cancer – at least, that’s how they reported it on the news. Cause for concern, even panic. I thanked my stars that I’ve never eaten a hot dog at a ball park, and haven’t eaten a hot dog period in over 35 years. But wait. If eating hot dogs caused colon cancer, then at least 10% of the population would have colon cancer, because surely at least that percentage of people have gone to a ball game and eaten a hot dog there. So maybe that’s not quite what they mean. Presumably what they meant to say is that eating hot dogs increases your risk for colon cancer. In fact, the spokesperson from the group suing to get warning labels on hot dogs says, “Just as tobacco causes lung cancer, processed meats are linked to colon cancer,” so he sort of splits the baby, implying cause-and-effect without quite asserting it.

I learned about causation and risk factors years ago in the AIDS movement. The issue of whether the HIV virus causes AIDS is one that has been rumbled about in activist and scientific circles for years. In general, the scientific community put it to rest in 1993, by modifying the definition of AIDS to include the presence of HIV. But before that, most of us accepted that HIV, along with other risk factors, does cause AIDS, while a small but vocal group who became known as “AIDS deniers” insisted that HIV was a harmless virus that happened to be present in people who had a collection of unrelated illnesses with no known cause. In between there were some scientists who generally accepted the HIV-AIDS linkage but were troubled by the existence of a few people who had HIV but never developed AIDS and a few cases in which people seemed to have the symptoms and other markers of AIDS but no HIV. The AIDS deniers seized on this data to point out, correctly, that in order for something to be the “cause” of something else, it needs to be present in every case.

A friend from the AIDS movement, who had been homeless for many years and is a housing rights activist, used to get furious when people suggested that drug use and alcoholism “cause” homelessness. She would point out that if that were true, then Elizabeth Taylor, Betty Ford and Ted Kennedy, among many others, would be homeless. I got her point, but also felt that in making it she seemed to want to deny that there was any connection between alcoholism or drugs and homelessness. I’ve definitely known people who were housed when they weren’t using drugs or alcohol, and homeless when they were. It’s true that their homelessness was also caused by poverty, because when their friends/roommates/girlfriends threw them out, they had no alternative to the streets, while if they’d been rich, they could have gone to hotels or rented apartments. But if our definition of “cause” and “effect” is that there has to be a one-to-one relationship, then poverty is also not a “cause” of homelessness because plenty of poor people are not homeless. We can’t say that capitalism or greedy landlords or even our general lack of compassion as a society causes homelessness, because most of the people who live in this wretched capitalist uncompassionate society still have homes, however tenuously they’re clinging to them.

Once I started thinking about these contradictions, they kept popping up everywhere. Most recently, they appeared in my reflections on the controversy over today’s showing of the film “Rachel” at the Jewish Film Festival.

The Zionists constantly claim that Hamas is the cause of Israeli violence, and in fact, that Arab intransigence is the cause of the entire conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and its neighbors. And I wonder how anyone can make that claim, when Hamas never existed until 20 years into the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, 40 years after Israel conquered most of the land that had been allocated by the U.N. for a Palestinian state. It seems quite clear to me that the root of the problem is Zionist aggression and insistence on having a Jewish state in land that other people had been living on for generations. But to them, that is a mere outgrowth of the underlying problem, of which Hamas and the Palestinians and Iran are a symptom, which is the irrational, inevitable and omnipresent hatred of the Jews.

Inevitably this line of thinking leads me to the desire to be rid of my association with this group of crazy fanatics who call themselves the “Jewish community.” As I went from the Women In Black vigil outside the movie, “Rachel,” about the death of Rachel Corrie, to a huge rally in solidarity with the people of Iran (where, according to an Iranian friend, many people were carrying monarchist flags – yuk!), I told myself, “These people cannot make me hate being a Jew. They are not fomenting all this hatred and attempting to censor everyone who disagrees with them because they’re Jews.” But how can I say that, when they insist that they are doing it because they’re Jews? How can I say that their Jewishness is not the cause of their viciousness, if they say that it is? Just because I’m not like them and I’m a Jew, my friends from Jewish Voice for Peace and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network aren’t like them, isn’t that just like saying, but there are poor people and alcoholics who aren’t homeless?

Does it matter which is the chicken and which is the egg? Does it matter if eggs or chickens are more likely to cause obesity? Isn’t the thing that really matters that both the chickens and the eggs be able to enjoy their chickenness or their eggity? Has anyone studied the negative health impact on “obese” people of constant haranguing about the health risks of their weight? Probably not, because what obesity researcher wants to know that, but a recently released Harvard study found that “only women gain weight when stressed about strained family relationships, while men gained weight when stressed about their lack of decision authority and their ability to learn new skills at work.” As if that told us something we didn’t know, or needed to know.

I decided some day, if I get rich enough to fund studies (you’re holding your breath on that one, I know), I’m going to commission a study on the health advantages of political activism, because I’m pretty sure that’s what accounts for my having fewer health problems than most people I know, despite my love of fried things and ice cream.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What Do You Do When It's Not Your Moment?

I was leaving work and they have these headlines in the elevator. Sometimes they’re news – I know things are bad when I realize I’m getting most of my news that way – and sometimes they’re entertainment or the Word of the Day (today’s was “lamster”), and they also have opinion polls. So tonight when I was leaving, the inspirational factoid they had decided to share was “60% believe obese people should have to buy a second seat on airplanes.”

I was stunned. First, I thought, “God, people are mean!” Then I thought, “What are they doing asking people that question?” It’s like asking if people think women should have the right to vote, or if gay babies should be euthenized. A lot of people think a lot of stupid things; who cares? So when I got home, I went online to see if I could find out why they were even talking about this. I didn’t exactly figure that out, because it didn’t seem like anything had happened in the last few days that makes it particularly relevant, but I did find out that back in April, United announced a new corporate policy requiring “obese” people to buy a second seat. Continental, Delta, JetBlue and Southwest also have such policies (Southwest has had it since 2002). Air Canada did but the Canadian Supreme Court, which is doubtless more enlightened than ours will turn out to be, struck it down.

So now I’m asking, “Why haven’t people been up in arms about this?” The articles I found online quoted people from NAAFA and even a woman from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University saying that the policies are discriminatory, but I didn’t find anything about a boycott or picket line against United or any of the others. Incidentally, I also learned that the standard for seat width, 17 inches from armrest to armrest, dates from 1954, when the average U.S. woman weighed 140 and the average man 160. Those numbers themselves surprised me, because 20 years later, I was told unequivocally that a woman who was 5’4”, which I think was the average height for women at that time, couldn’t weigh more than 120. So even then, before Kate Moss, we were basically being sold an impossible standard.

This small-ish (though in fact, it’s really not that small; national health data consider 32% of us “obese” so theoretically, one-third of our population could be double-charged because airlines are too cheap to provide enough space) incident got me thinking about something that I’ve been hovering around for the last few days: What can you do when you realize the moment you’re living in is not the one that you wish it were?

Sounds like kind of a duh moment, but it’s not really. My whole life, I have secretly believed that things were going to change for the better. I think most of the left cherishes some kind of hope that a different way of organizing society is somehow just around the corner, or at least that it might be, or that if we just work hard enough, form the right coalitions, craft the right strategy, cover enough butcher paper with the right power analyses – that we can push neoliberalism out the door and usher in a compassionate green society.

It started when I was watching the news and they announced that California legislators are close to an agreement with the governator on the budget. I thought, “Is that good or bad?” It’s good because people have been getting IOUs instead of checks, and no one will cash the IOUs or accept them as payment, so people are being thrown out of their SROs (another time when “How can people be so mean?” comes to mind), and not being able to buy food. But it’s bad, because the gov has made it clear that the only deal he’s willing to consider is one that slashes every social service while preserving tax breaks for the rich, so if a deal goes through, people might be able to eat today but a lot more are going to be starving tomorrow. And no matter how long it drags out, it’s not going to get any better because the people making these decisions will never have to choose between putting food in their kids’ mouths and putting shoes on their feet, and they determinedly have no compassion for the people who are making that choice every day.

I know people who are working on “reforming” Proposition 13, which is one reason we’re in this mess, and some people are talking about an initiative to repeal the two-thirds majority required for a budget which is another reason. And both of those would be good things to do, but I don’t have real hope that either of them is going to pass any time soon. And if they did, they would help but would they help enough? Because isn’t the real problem that people don’t believe everyone has a right to eat, be housed, have medical care and enjoy their life?

The health care debate is another thing that drives me crazy. 72% of the voters support single payer, which is pretty amazing given how steadfastly the media has refused to even mention it. Lot of credit to Michael Moore and the National Nurses’ Organizing Committee. But we’re not going to get it. We’re not even going to get a good “public option” plan. Why not? Because somehow, the people in Congress don’t have to do what the voters want, and we can talk about voting them out, but who else are you going to vote for? What seems most likely is what happened in 1994, that the Republicans are going to take back Congress because the Democrats didn’t deliver on anything they promised. And I know people who will say that that won’t make any difference, but as unlikely as it sounds, I know it will. Things are terrible now but they will be worse if the right wing sweeps back in with a mandate to scrap whatever’s left of the social welfare state.

I do know that if there were Million Voter Marches for Single Payer in every major city, or even in Washington DC and a few other places, that would be our best chance to actually get it. But I haven’t heard any of the activist groups organizing for single payer propose that. Instead, they’re mounting endless internet petitions and sending a few people to Washington to disrupt hearings (which is great), standing in for the rest of us. It’s like they’re trying to bore people into voting for it. But wait ‑ Cleve Jones is planning a Million Gay March for marriage, which is just kind of insulting. They keep saying the reason they want marriage is for health care, so why not call for a huge health care march and then you can have a marriage contingent – but of course, if we really had universal health care, we would not need marriage so they don’t want to join forces lest people notice that they’re asking for first-and-a-half class citizenship for some rather than equal rights for all.

Why can’t what is happening in Iran happen here? Two elections were stolen outright, and a third was by public relations, and still people won’t go out into the streets. Everything right now is about symbolism. Sonia Sotomayor is about symbolism and Obama is about symbolism and marriage is about symbolism, Guantanamo is a symbol and Afghanistan is too. It seems like symbols are somehow satisfying people, even people who can see that their real lives are getting worse and worse. And it’s not only here. I watch Charles Taylor in the Hague, denying that he committed war crimes, and think why is he up there and not Bush? Why are the same people who put Milosevic on trial shaking hands with Tony Blair? Why is Europe so stirred up about Muslim overpopulation that an Egytpian woman in Germany is killed for covering her head?

It doesn’t make sense to me to keep trying to chip away at the crust of cruelty that is covering everything. I mean, maybe I will, because I’m an activist at my core, but I know know know that it won’t make any difference. We need to strip away, not chip away; we need a revolution in our core values, so that people value an equitable society, or at least one in which people have their basic needs met, more than they value the opportunity to feel better than someone else. I don’t know what it is going to take to bring that change about, but I know it’s not in our control.

So what should you do, when you realize it’s just not your moment?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Thoughts on creativity and judgment

On BART last night I was sitting next to a woman who seemed to be writing a blog or journal. I couldn’t help reading what was on her screen, which I realized was incredibly rude on one hand, but on the other, I feel like if you’re going to type on your computer on BART, you can’t necessarily make any special claim to privacy. The thing was that this woman was not a fabulous writer, or better to say that her writing was not that polished, but she was very engrossed in it, spending a lot of time getting it right, and I found the subject matter compelling in a certain way, and I kept sneaking peeks to see if she had written any more.

This experience made me really think about what it means to write “well.” What makes me hunger for this woman’s next rough-hewn sentence, while something much more finely crafted can leave me cold? If I want to know what comes next, isn’t that the most important thing, more important than whether the adjectives are perfectly chosen or the metaphors scintillating?

Earlier today, I was trying to break down, in writing, what I found disappointing in someone’s radio piece. It didn’t challenge me, I said. It raised important issues but didn’t give particular insight into them, or suggest ways of looking at them that listeners might not have thought of themselves. The commentator reported that someone could not find “appropriate” clothing for his daughter, but didn’t delve into what would be appropriate.

I don’t know if the person I gave that feedback to found it at all helpful, but it was helpful to me, to have to get really concrete and specific about what makes a piece work for me. At the same time, I realize how subjective this standard is. Is there such a thing as writing which is objectively “bad” or “good”, or is there only writing one person likes or doesn’t like? This is hardly a new question, but it’s one that’s very much on my mind because I am once again knuckling down to the process of sending out my novel, this time to small feminist or lesbian publishers. As I steel myself for the inevitable flurry of “Thanks, but not right for our list” replies, I can’t help wondering, how many rejections does it take to tell you your book is no good? I know all the stories about John Grisham getting rejected however many times, “Star Wars” getting turned down by every studio, Jane Austen recently being rejected by every agent in Britain. But the fact is, Grisham’s writing is actually pretty bad, though some of his stories are engaging. Really, he could use some better editing. Jane Austen was a genius at capturing the ironies of her time, but despite the obsession with remaking movies based on her novels, it’s not very surprising that in 2009, novels written in that style get a pass.

If I can’t score a publisher, and end up self-publishing online, am I a failed writer? How many people have to read your self-published work before you get to climb out of that particular category? Or is the only failed writer one who stops writing? I know that’s the established answer, but I always get this nagging feeling that writing that is not read by anyone but one’s close friends is fairly useless in the world, that if no one wants to read what I’m writing, my time is better spent doing things people do want – whether it’s making money to give to charities or organizing demonstrations or giving parents a break from their kids.

Okay, but maybe this woman sitting next to me on BART thinks no one wants to read her writing. Yet it’s obviously not true, because I wanted to read it. Maybe she will never post it on a blog or send it to a publisher, because she assumes it’s not good enough. Maybe she will read it at a writing group, and people will gently suggest that it’s not quite there yet; maybe she will send it out and get polite letters from publishers saying it’s not right for them. And maybe she’ll put it away and decide that no one wants to read her writing, so she should spend her time seeing more clients or getting another degree. And the world will be poorer for lack of her writing.

My friend Steve wrote last week that his goal is to write something that approaches the best things he has read. So what if he never gets there? Not to say he won’t, but that’s a high standard. If his writing is only okay, but people who read his book enjoy it – which I did – did he succeed or fail? What if he never tries to publish it because he never thinks it’s ready? A guy I used to work with worked on a novel for something like 25 years, from when he got out of college, or even longer. And he kept revising and refining it, and finally he sent out a few chapters, didn’t get any responses, and then a few years ago, he died. And I swore that wouldn’t be my life, but how can I say that his effort was more wasted than that of someone like James Patterson, who has a factory grinding out a dozen formulaic best sellers a year under his name?

If I spend three hours writing a flier and no one who gets it takes any action, did I waste my time, as well as the people who spent time handing it out? If we hold a vigil to stop U.S. Aid to Israel or shut down Guantanamo, and no one converts to our cause, did we waste our time? For some reason, I can see the usefulness of things like those, despite the objective evidence of their futility, while I can't seem to value my own creative expression independent of other people's judgments. I don't usually make those same judgments about other people's efforts, though sometimes I might seem to. Certainly I feel that Tom, the guy who worked on the same novel for his whole adult life, spent his time better than some of my current coworkers, who spend all their non-working time (and most of their work time) being depressed and wishing they could get it together to write a novel. On the other hand, I can't help feeling like people who garden are using their time better than any of us, but if I published my novel - even if it wasn't any better than the ones people didn't publish - I would not feel that way.

Okay, enough of this not-so-scintillating brooding.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Our Daughters, Our Selves

Last weekend, I went to a Radical Queer Convergence in Chicago. The first day, I went to the women's caucus meeting. There were probably 100 women there, pretty much all of them no more than half my age. Things started out slowly but pretty soon they were sharing stories from their growing up, interactions with their moms, with their friends, with guys. The discussion turned to harassment, and one woman said that whenever she tells her radical friends she's been hassled or grabbed inappropriately on the street or in her building, they ask, "What did you do?" and then proceed to tell her what she should have done. Another young woman said, "I have never told anyone this, but I was visiting in another city, and I was supposed to stay with some friends, but I was locked out. So I ended up going home with a guy and he raped me." She said that if she had had her car, she wouldn't have been hanging out on the street and wouldn't have needed to go somewhere with a guy. Now, she said, she drives her car and her radical biking guy friends rag her about not being green enough.

The next topic was body image. One woman after another talked about how her mom put her in Weight Watchers at 10. Another reported that when she came home from college, where she eats one meal a day for lack of money, her mom criticized her for eating too much at home. A Persian woman said that when she was in high school, her grandmother demanded she get a nose job. My mind immediately went to my sister, who saved up from the day she got her first job to get her nose "fixed" – the Semitic woman's answer, apparently, to cultural dis-ease. (Someone later told me that Iran has the highest proportion of nose jobs in the world.)

A rather square-jawed white woman sitting next to the Persian woman was the next to speak. Her voice trembled a little as she said that when she was fifteen, her parents made her get an operation where they broke her jaw and pushed her teeth back to correct the overbite that years of braces had failed to resolve. Now, she said, she has no feeling in her lower lip. She had taken it for granted, she said, until recently, when she started to wish she could feel her mouth. She didn't want the operation, but her parents insisted until she finally agreed.

I was sitting there thinking, "That's one of the most horrible stories I ever heard," at the same time wondering how it was any different from the other woman's grandmother insisting she get an operation where they broke her nose. And then another woman said quietly, "Oh, my parents made me get that operation when I was fifteen too, after nine years of braces." Doing the math, I thought, "So this girl got braces when she was six? But you don't even have your adult teeth then. Could that possibly be WHY her jaw never developed correctly (if in fact, there is one "correct" way for a jaw to develop)?" She too, she said, couldn't feel her lip; she too didn't want to get the operation. She had never talked to anyone about it, feeling it was her private shame. As I was contemplating the unlikely possibility that two women in the same relatively small gathering had the same rare operation, when the woman next to me mumbled, "I had that too." "Can you feel your lip?" I asked her. She shook her head.

Okay, so this hideous form of child abuse is obviously rampant among a certain class of white people, or maybe more widely than that. Why hadn't I ever heard about it before? Where's the women's movement on this? We scream about clitoridectomy in Africa, and we should, but this barbarism is happening in our own front yards. Did I miss the issue of Ms. and the many Katha Pollitt columns in The Nation where they exposed this epidemic of mutilation? (No, is the answer. I just searched Ms. Magazine online,, and for "maxiofacial surgery," which this particular travesty is called, and came up completely blank.) And while I was sitting thinking about this, another woman said, "Well my parents made me get an operation when I was fourteen, because I sweated too much." "Oh, yes, I had that too!" came a chorus – two or three other women had had sweat glands removed, presumably so they would only glow as women are supposed to. (When I was young, they used to say, "Horses sweat, men perspire and women glow." But I, who have always been a profuse sweater (not to be confused with a cashmere sweater), thought it was just a saying.)

I felt like an anthropologist, learning about an alien culture. In the past, I've tended to be angry at young women either for not being feminists, or for misrepresenting Second Wave feminism and claiming everything good about it for the Third Wave, or for not knowing or not respecting their history. But hearing these young women talking to each other for the first time about these violations of their personal rights, I felt angry at myself and other Second Wave feminists. I feel we have failed these young women, nearly all of whom seem to identify as feminists; it's their moms who don't.

They are reinventing the consciousness raising group, but they don't know that's what they are doing, because they never heard of consciousness raising groups. They don't know that's how Second Wave feminism got started. We didn't pass it on Рwe didn't have it to pass on, because we stopped doing it. I, in fact, never got to be in a CR group, because they were already pass̩ by the time I was in college (circa 1977), and these young women's moms are probably just about my age. Nevertheless, I thought that every girl was being taught in school that sexual assault is not her fault, that being pro-sex is not an invitation to rape, that she has the right to control her body. My fifteen years in Women Against Rape, which ended ten years ago, were dedicated to ensuring that in San Francisco, but these young women did not grow up in San Francisco. They grew up in places like Ohio, where I went to college, and Maryland, where my sister raised her two kids. They reported having abstinence only sex education, consisting of a teacher drawing a cartoon condom on the board and explaining how the microbes go through it to give you AIDS.

Of course, this is not all the fault of feminists. Feminism didn't lose ground because of its own failings, any more than the Black, Chicano or Puerto Rican Liberation movements did. Every progressive movement has been pushed back over the last twenty years, and feminism has been subject to an unrelenting backlash nearly since it began. And of course, it is because of feminism and other liberation movements that that women's caucus was happening at all. Perhaps, history is cyclical and these young women, having accidentally unearthed the CR group, will share their discovery with other young women and they will create the Fourth Wave to challenge the particular system of repression bequeathed to them by their mothers, the kind that says you can be president, almost, as long as you don't talk too loud or eat like a normal person.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Where's the Market for Feminism?

Now that the death sentence of our women’s radio show has been temporarily reprieved, we have been thinking and talking a lot about what we want to do with it. Especially, we’re talking about what we can do and want to do to boost our listenership, since management’s main objection to the show is that, as they put it, “no one listens to it.”

Of course, one question that springs to mind is how do they know who is listening and who isn’t? The answer seems to be primarily from hits on the website, and that in itself might skew the results. According to a 2005 study by the Pew Research Center, men are faster to adopt new internet technologies, though women in most age groups spend more time online. In the 2005 study, women made up only 22% of those who downloaded podcasts, which was a very new technology at that time. Women seem to have made up a lot of ground over the last few years, and at least one study has women making up a majority of online listeners to public radio, but if the people I know are any indication – and they are at least a reasonable indicator of who might be interested in the issues that I cover – women are less likely to be in jobs that enable them to listen to the radio all day online. Geeks (otherwise known as IT professionals), for instance, are certainly listening to more internet radio during the day than schoolteachers or social workers. At my job eight of nine staff in IT are men, and the woman is the trainer. I decided that making a generalization based on nine people in one office might be considered a little unscientific, even for me, so I went online to see if my impressions were accurate. The National Center for Women in Information Technology reported that as of March 2008, women accounted for only 27 percent of the U.S. IT workforce, while making up over half of all professionals. In fact, according to the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) Taskforce on Workforce and Education's 2003 study, the gender gap in computer professions is widening, while other gaps are shrinking. “In 1984, 35.8% of all computer science degrees were awarded to women, but only 28.4% in 1996. Looking earlier in the pipeline, the College Board reports that only 17% of those taking the Advanced Placement test for Computer Science were female.” (

By contrast, 98% of kindergarden and preschool teachers, 79% of elementary and middle school teachers, and 83% of social workers are women.

Okay, so those are some interesting facts to mull over, and in fact maybe do some programming about, assuming we have a program. But in the long run, they are neither here nor there, because if people aren’t going to listen to us, even I have to admit that maybe we shouldn’t be on the air. After all, we’re not doing all this work just to amuse ourselves. If no one wants to hear what we have to say, no matter how brilliant it is, we might as well save ourselves the trouble and do something else.

So I go back to the question, why aren’t people listening to us? And more importantly, what are they listening to? I decided that maybe I should listen to some popular shows to get ideas. So I thought, okay, what are feminist radio or television shows that are popular? And that was when I had the epiphany – there are none! And moreover, there have NEVER been any! Is that possible?

I mean, there are shows that have feminist hosts, including Oprah, Rosie O’Donnell, Rachel Maddow and Ellen DeGeneres. I would guess that even Amy Goodman and Terry Gross consider themselves feminists, though they sure don’t show it in their interviews, more than 70% of which are with men (more on that another time – the Democracy Now! survey 2008 is on the way, along with my survey of the last year and a quarter of The Nation). There are shows like “The View,” that pit conservative women against liberal ones. But there are no shows that focus on women’s issues, even loosely defined, unless you include the cat-fight, nails and hairstyles shows or the pop culture, gossipy ones. Oprah probably does more segments on serious issues of concern to women than anyone, but she also takes care to keep it non-threatening to the guys, and don’t get me started on her obsession with dieting.

The book Women and Journalism, by Deborah Chambers, Linda Steiner and Carole Fleming (2 Brits and a Yank, accounting for the strange spellings), contains only this short statement on the subject, “US experiments in feminist radio have been relatively sparse, although the left-wing ‘progressive’ network WBAI [she means Pacifica] has aired feminist programmes, as have assorted college and university radio stations. Many of these have emphasized music and poetry rather than news, and so, strictly speaking, they are not key to the history of journalism….”

So my first reaction is just sheer shock, that in all this time, over 40 years, since the second wave of feminism began, with the explosion of women into nearly every field, that there has not even been one attempt to capitalize on that energy with a regular national broadcast.

My next reaction is to get pissed off at women, who fail each other on so many occasions. I think about all the women’s businesses we used to have here in the Bay, which went under largely because of our fickleness and lack of support. Bookstores Old Wives Tales, A Woman’s Place, Mama Bears; Woman Crafts West, which sold lovely local jewelry, pottery and cards; bars Ollie’s, Amelia’s, Maud’s, Peg’s Place, A Little More; cafes Artemis and the Brick Hut; newspapers Feminist News, Lesbian/Contradiction and Sojourner (which was from the East Coast); I could really go on and on. And I think, well our little radio show won’t be the first or the last casualty of this curious inability to maintain a feminist version of brand loyalty.

Finally I get around to thinking, well what about looking beyond those who identify as feminists, and thinking about women. What would draw women to listen to a show that is not going to do segments on hair and diet, that is not going to be the public radio version of The View? What about this casually mentioned fact, that “many of these” feminist shows have emphasized music and poetry? We have done some shows that had a lot of poetry and they were never my favorites, because I don’t love poetry, but I think they were pretty well received.

The best solutions I can come up with are:

1) that we try to develop ourselves as a kind of Democracy Now for women. That is, we listen to what DN! does and try to do it too, but always looking for women with interesting things to say and a women’s/gendered perspective on the issues of the day. This is what my coproducer Rivian has been saying for a while. We obviously couldn’t do it by ourselves, because we’re a tiny little volunteer women’s collective, while DN has eight or nine full-time producers, plus interns, so we would need to join forces with all the other embattled women’s media projects out there, which I am pleased to say we have already started exploring.

2) that we do more pieces on relationships – not stupid self-help ones, but serious pieces that look at the dynamics of women’s relationships with each other, with men, in lesbian couples, with parents, in the workplace … Just in my casual research for this blog, I discovered a couple things that seem interesting to do interviews about, including a survey about bullying in the workplace which reports, among other things, that 37% of workers have been bullied, 57% of targets are women, 60% of bullies are men but women who bully choose other women as targets 70% of the time. I know that months ago, I mentioned wanting to do a piece about how women who are long-term single (like me) have to make new friends every few years, as our friends disappear into couples. And the women I mentioned it to immediately said, “Oh, yes, I’m really interested in that,” and volunteered their own stories on the topic. More recently, I’ve been thinking about my mom, who was only 54 when my dad died, which is 4 years older than I am now. She has now been single exactly as long as she was married and she’s had to create new circles of friends several times because so many of her friends have died out.

3) that we try to find a way to look at celebrity culture in a way that is not mainstream or mean-spirited. Katha Pollitt, the wonderful feminist columnist for The Nation, mentioned that when I interviewed her as something that women are very interested in, that left media typically won’t devote time or space to. When Eryn (a young African American woman who works with Women’s Mag) interviewed a couple of her friends just before the inauguration, one of the things they talked about was the Obamas’ relationship and contrasted it to Coretta King and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s relationship. Something I would never have thought of, but it was quite interesting and not dippy. I know a lot of really smart, critical, progressive women who are really drawn to celebrity gossip, and I think it’s something we should try to harness.

Okay, enough for now, if you have any feedback on any of this, please let me hear from you.

BTW, the agent I’ve been working with on my novel for the last two years just told me that she can’t do anything with it for the foreseeable future because one of her junior agents is ill and she had to take over all her clients. I’m getting ready to start combing The Writer’s Market again, and sending out queries, but if anyone has any suggestions, they’ll be most welcome.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On the Silence of the Left and the Spectre of Fascism

More than any previous time in my life, I feel like I’m living in a schizophrenic community. Half the people I know are in rapture at what Obama has done in his short time in office. And it’s not just mainstream people who feel that way – some of the fiercest left-wing activists I know fall into that category. They talk about his initiatives in arms control and climate change and softening the embargo on Cuba. Half of the other half are deep in loathing of Obama and everyone around him. Armed with the daily litanies of his failings on KPFA and Democracy Now, they point to his appointments of Clintonites and Bushites to high positions, his failure to do anything to step the tide of corporate looting of everything we have left, his refusal to consider single-payer health care and of course, his stepped-up bombing of civilians in Afghanistan and refusal to condemn even the worst Israeli atrocities.

Then there’s the other quarter, epitomized by my coworker. He sways back and forth like a pendulum, depending on which left-wing talk show he’s listening to at the moment. These are the people whose minds and ideologies tell them one thing, and whose emotions and perceptions point them in another direction. Which is to say, they love Obama, while being ambivalent about his policies. As one friend put it, “I still have a crush on him.”

And then there’s the mainstream news, which is having a love affair both with the man and his beautiful family including now their perfect dog, and even more with the idea of him, and what they believe it says about race in our country.

So while I’m trying to navigate these pretty unfamiliar streets, figuring out where exactly I’m wanting to go, along comes the Tea Party movement and the wave of secessionist bills passed in state legislatures in the last week. Yeah, that’s right. Not just Texas and South Carolina, from whom we expect such things, but 28 states including California, are entertaining bills to declare their “sovereignty.” And it’s being kind of calmly reported in the media, pretty much ignored by KPFA which is busy bringing on Scott Horton and Michael Ratner and others to talk about what we already know about the torture memos, and no one is taking seriously the fact that for better or worse, we have our first Black president and for the first time in 150 years, we have major right-wing protests and secessionist movements across the country.

Now it’s true that none of the tea parties were very big, and it’s true that without Fox News, they would have been barely a blip, but the fact is that we do have Fox News and the mainstream media promoted the tea parties as well. Remember, the first lunch counter sit-in had six people participating.

What am I trying to say here? Just that I fear that while the left is busy convincing ourselves – with plenty of help from Obama and his peeps – that the current administration represents no change from the last, the right is capitalizing on what is widely perceived as a sea change. I remember the coup that brought Schwarzenegger to power in California, and it was a time very much like this. We had a conservative Democratic old-time politician in office, after 16 years of right-wing republican administrations. The left sat on our hands because we rightly hated Davis, who was pro-death penalty and pro-corporate, but we also didn’t believe that the right would actually succeed in removing him from office, and when they did, we didn’t believe it would be as bad as it has been. And now we have a situation where a huge Democratic majority in the legislature can’t pass a budget without giving massive hideous concessions to so-called “moderate” republicans. And I’m really quite worried that the left is going to sit around talking about how Obama is just like Bush while the fascists are mobilizing to prove us very very wrong, and when it’s all over, we’re going to be asking “How did we get here?”

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

International Women's Day

Sunday was the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, and I asked my friends to do a few simple things to commemorate this special day.

First, I have some good news. Although KPFA management was not willing to put Women's Magazine back on the air before the end of April, they did offer us the opportunity to produce a special which aired Sunday evening from 9:00 to 10:00 p.m. My friend Rivian Berlin and I produced a program on the history of International Women's Day. It includes great interviews with feminist historian Eileen Boris and long-time local activists Aileen Hernandez and Judith Mirkinson. It also presents an excerpt from an incredible documentary by our friend Malihe Razazan on the International Women's Day protests following the Iranian Revolution in 1979 - the first resistance to the imposition of Islamic law in that country, led by left-wing women who had supported the overthrow of the Shah and U.S. imperialism, but were deeply disappointed by the turn toward theocracy.

Please, wherever you are, show KPFA that you appreciate women's programming by listening to the show at And if you like it, ask your friends to listen as well.

The second thing is this: In my writing class last week, a woman told us she was reading The Feminine Mystique. The teacher asked who the author was, and she said she couldn't remember. I said, "Betty Friedan," and it turned out that only two of us in the class had ever heard of her. Then I mentioned that I was doing a show for International Women's Day and the woman who was reading Friedan asked, "When is that?" So I told them and I asked who had ever heard of International Women's Day and only one person had!

So, I asked my friend Lisa, who's a wonderful designer, to make a sticker that says "Today is International Women's Day" with a website for more info, and I'm attaching it. I asked people to wear them on Sunday so people would ask them about IWD, and I printed out a bunch of them to give to people I saw over the weekend. People loved them. I've uploaded it here, so bookmark it for next year. They're formatted for Avery 5196 labels, if you happen to have any lying around, but if not, you can print it on a piece of paper and cut it out and pin it to your jacket.

For those of you who would like to learn more about the history of IWD, go to Happy IWD!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Chomsky responds:

Thanks for the generous words.

I don't see the disagreement about investment. I just looked at the transcript, and what I said is: "divestment became a proper tactic after years, decades of education and organizing, to the point where Congress was legislating against trade, corporations were pulling out, and so on. That's what's missing: the education and organizing which makes it an understandable move. And, in fact, if we ever got to that point, you wouldn't even need it, because the US could be brought in line with international opinion."

The time-line seems very close to what you sketch below. There was no epiphany, and it wasn't sudden. It was a long-drawn out process, which by the late 70s and early 80s had gained enormous popular support, elite support as well. Pressure for the Sullivan principles was in 1977, but the movement really didn't take off until the 1980s. That was after decades of serious educational and organizing work.

However, there is a fundamental difference between South Africa and Israel. In the case of South Africa, the goal was to undermine Apartheid. In the case of Israel, the goal is to end the decisive military, diplomatic, and ideological US support for Israel -- more narrowly, to bring the US to support the international consensus on a two-state settlement that the US had blocked, unilaterally, for over 30 years. If that happens, Israel will have to go along. So BDS directed against Israel is a very seriously misleading tactic, which absolves the US, the major actor in this affair.

If organizing and education reached the level of opposition to Apartheid, BDS would be beside the point (as well as misdirected), because it would by then be able to shift US rejectionism.

Noam Chomsky

Friday, January 23, 2009

Ask Chomsky to Think Again About Divestment

Dear Professor Chomsky,

I’ve long been a huge admirer of yours, and I remain so. I heard you on Democracy Now this morning and really appreciated how clearly you articulated the gap between what President Obama said and what needs to happen in order to have a genuine and just peace.

On the issue of divestment, however, I really must take issue with your statement. You are right, of course, that education and organizing are necessary for a divestment campaign to be effective and comprehensible. But you are wrong to imply that the movement for divestment from South Africa did not begin until that organizing and education had already taken place. You are helping to perpetuate the myth that everyone in the U.S. and other countries in the global North always opposed apartheid and came to the divestment solution simultaneously, in some kind of epiphany. And this is very harmful to the young people who are now getting involved in the movement for justice in Palestine, making them feel that they are up against insurmountable odds.

I well remember the movement for justice in Southern Africa. I entered college in the fall of 1976, months after the Soweto uprising, and the first wave of campus divestment actions consumed my college years. I remember sitting in lecture halls and listening to well-reasoned, liberal professors explaining why divestment was the wrong tactic, that it would be morally wrong for Oberlin College to divest, that we needed to use constructive engagement. I remember that the U.S. government’s position was that the ANC was a terrorist organization and that Mandela needed to renounce violence before the South African government could be pressured to negotiate.

We were largely unsuccessful during that period, as you will recall. It was not until ten years later, 1986, that colleges began divesting in large numbers – only three years before the fall of the apartheid regime. The struggle for divestment, boycott and sanctions against South Africa took a very long time, and the U.S. government and major U.S. institutions joined it very late.

Yes, we who want justice in Palestine need to do education and organizing, but divestment/boycott itself is a tool for education and organizing. When you ask a church, union or college to divest from Israel, you are of course going to have teach-ins and panels and all manner of activities to educate people about why divestment is necessary. When you ask consumers not to buy L’Oreal or Sara Lee, you are going to hand out fliers and pamphlets and do street theater to show them what the connection is between their hair care products and tanks and checkpoints.

As one of the most influential intellectuals in this country, and one of those who have done the most to bring the issue of U.S./Israeli colonialism into the light, you are in a unique position to influence how people think about this issue. Therefore, I urge you to carefully consider the issue of divestment/boycott and why you are reluctant to embrace what have unquestionably been the most effective pressure and organizing tactics of our time.

A South African friend wrote to me the other day, “here in South Africa, we can’t find any white people who voted for the apartheid ... sometimes I wonder if apartheid was just a figment of our collective imaginations ... inshallah zionsim will suffer the same fate.”

I believe we can make it happen. The first step is reminding people that yes, apartheid did exist and yes, people did support it and yes, people did refuse to oppose it vigorously and yes, all that changed because people refused to be deterred.

With sincere admiration for all you have done,

Kate Raphael