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Talking About A Revolution

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I spent much of my adult life certain that being born into an era of domestic assassinations must have affected my worldview. I often wondered why there weren’t studies of my age cohort. Did we grow up cynical and afraid? Did we superimpose targets on the backs of charismatic leaders? Did we think that dissent equaled violence? I assumed that my earliest civics lessons must have left a semi-dark imprint on my consciousness. And like most early assumptions, as time passes, I begin to see that I was wrong. In fact I would go so far as to say I was a complete 180 degrees wrong.

Unbeknownst to me I actually absorbed the other side of the coin all along. My worldview was shockingly optimistic. I grew up during a time and in a place rife with women leaders; Bella, Phyllis, Angela, Golda, Gloria; hallelujah. Ms. Magazine came to my house, that is until my mother felt her Erma Bombeck (with a smattering of Betty Friedan) brand of feminism was being dismissed. I came of age when access to birth control and prevention were an assumed right. For a small child there was nothing radical about Shirley Chisholm running for president. Nothing at all. I proudly wore my “Never Again In An Unratified State” button to school, not needing to explain the reference to the ERA and the DNC. It never occurred to me that I was experiencing a bubble. Just as it never occurred to me that; Joni Mitchell, Carole King. Judy Collins, Phoebe Snow, and Janis Ian should hire stylists, pyrotechnicians, back-up dancers and learn to simulate sodomy on stage. They appeared on stage in all their stupendously talented glory, no more or less spiffed, buffed, and polished than their male counterparts. This was my world as a child and teen. It never occurred to me that women were not equal to men.

In 2016 this worldview seems as grounded and realistic as Willy Wonka’s factory. I am continuously gobsmacked to discover how false my assumptions now are. The only realization more chilling than the severe backlash to feminism is how far reaching bigotry is today. In the 21st century. As children we made fun of Archie Bunker and his views on immigrants, gays, women, and people of color. He was a pitiful anachronism surrounded by an argumentative greek chorus on the side of right. It was his one loud voice versus the evolved masses. Something has dramatically shifted since then hasn’t it? I don’t mean to suggest that the 70s were all fun and games for underrepresented people. However, choose any group and you can find the ephemera of a movement. Migrant workers, “Chicano” and Black Power, Gay Liberation, and of course the ERA were in full force in the 1970s. Movements by definition are hopeful. People gather to make change because they believe they can. That’s a heady concept for adults let alone a 2nd grader.

Is it a handicap to grow up with such rose colored glasses? Does it lend itself to resting on one’s laurels and to missing the warning signs? Are we too tired and distracted to pick up the mantle? Is it no longer our problem? Has life just gotten in the way of our ideals? Is it all just too big, too daunting, too exhausting, too depressing, too deja vu all over again? I know my dabbling in protests, petitions and politics is not enough. But how does one muster the urge to fight after witnessing the erosion of progress? Isn’t that the very definition of insanity? Or is it in fact the very definition of the human experience? Do we keep trying regardless of the odds, regardless of the outcome, because to not try and right the wrongs is simply intolerable. Do we stop finding solace in raging with like minded people, and instead rage for change? When this whole world keeps getting you down it’s time to roll up your sleeves, slap on those protest pins and take to the streets, community organizations, polls, and elected office. It is not enough to tweet, Like, or blog. If it were, everything would be better by now. Today’s children are growing up with their own version of domestic assassinations, that on a personal level are far more terrifying than what my peers and I experienced. Is it not our responsibility to show them the other side of the coin? We have been there before; small people witnessing atrocities, we know the way out. We have been shown how to muster our outrage and hurt and create something liberating and good. We know that out of loss and pain can be growth and freedom. There’s no quick fix, but I suspect that if we can focus less on generalizations and surreal presidential campaigns, and more on specific issues, we will get somewhere. If we can focus on one or two issues and give them the kind of attention and passion they deserve, we might just start to move things. The thing about a movement is that once it starts it can really get going. But it’s got to start, it’s simple physics. So the next time a like minded friend engages me in conversation about the woes of the world, my response will be; “let’s do something about it.”

 

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Posted by on June 15, 2016 in Cultural Critique

 

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You May Find Yourself In Another Part Of The World*

Judy&Mickey

We are all creatures of our environment, often to a degree not realized until we step out of that environment. It is tempting and predictable to assume that one’s small sliver of the world is an accurate sample of a larger reality. It is only when we step away, even briefly that we have a “Yowza!” moment. If you’ve ever spent time in Times Square you’ve seen the “Yowza” expression synchronized on hundreds of faces. Many of those people have never seen anything so brash, so bright and so ludicrous in one place. They will go home & tell their friends how overwhelming New York City is. And they’d be right; for them NYC is overwhelming. For a New Yorker the equivalent experience would be traveling anywhere that is not NYC.

For many the disorientation starts with food. We all know that seafood should not be eaten in landlocked areas, and that Chinese food is best prepared by those who’ve eaten it. A decent bagel or thin crust slice of pizza can be challenging to find between coasts. However seeking something as mundane as skim or soy milk for a good cup of coffee can also take on mythic proportions. (The holy grail of morning beverage can become all-consuming and sometimes it’s best to just switch to tea for the duration.) Familiar foods are very important to people; it’s why there are McDonald’s and TGIFridays in Times Square. But eventually a traveler adjusts (an average adult can go for three weeks without food) and can take a good long look around.

Much of what we know about the mood of the nation is through what we read or watch. We might be tempted to cherry pick stories and developments that suit our own political agenda. We might be lulled into thinking that people think as we do (a dangerous and narcissistic assumption if there ever was one.) It is by traveling out of our comfort zone that we discover how discomforting the world really is. It is embarrassing to discover how ignorant we really can be about our fellow Americans. There are few issues in America that are as topical a gauge as race and gay rights. It is tempting to assume that we’re rounding a corner and headed towards a finish line of sorts. Popular culture and media would have us believe that gay is the new, well, the new black. And black? Well black has been beautiful for almost fifty years, no? No.

One person’s experience in a Midwestern area (right outside of a major city) is hardly scientific, but it is illuminating nonetheless. Walking through downtown areas, socializing at large events, dining out and taking in culture, I was struck by the racial divide. Beyond the staff & entertainment there were few if any faces of color. I saw only heterosexual couples (which is barely anecdotal let alone scientific.) Far more telling were the conversations I overheard. If any reference was made to homosexuality it was in regards to entertainment. (Some readers might recall a time when African Americans were often only discussed in terms of entertainment.) I overheard an educated woman discuss attending a Halloween party in black face. It was so popular amongst the party guests that she did it again the following year. Twenty years ago Ted Danson, at the very height of his popularity, almost lost his entire career because of a similar antic. Twenty years ago.

I’ve no doubt that many of the people I encountered would find my way of life confusing if not abhorrent. Without question people are entitled to live the way they wish. It is imperative however that we all realize there is a larger world. We may choose to live amongst people who are like us (i.e., of like mind, religion or skin color) but we must stay conscious of the bigger picture. We cannot lose sight of the fact that not everyone views human rights as progress. We cannot discount what may very well be the majority sentiments of this country. It is far too tempting to look around our mini universes and slide towards complacency. Yes, it’s comforting to be surrounded by what seems “right” to us. But it’s important to keep in mind the larger reality. Taking that decaf cap with skim for granted is one thing (we can always get tea) but we should never take progress for granted.

*Once In A Lifetime (1981) – Talking Heads

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Travel

 

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The Lady Business Monologue

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There is nothing quite like old movies, advertising or television shows when it comes to social anthropology. Nobody would confuse plot points, costuming or set design with real life. But dialogue is very representative of the way in which people spoke at the time of filming. We can look at films from the 1940s and 1950s and sense racial views of the times. We can watch television of the 1960s and 1970s and see the overt anti-gay sensibilities. Today most film and television depicts bigotry only to make a point. There is one area of bigotry that never seems to have really changed however, and that’s misogyny.

Whether it’s in the casting or the storytelling, women are still objectified and marginalized. Male actors of every age, size, attractiveness and skin condition are regularly cast in prominent roles. Women of one size, one look, one age group and one hairstyle populate film & television roles. If you are an actress who is not a willowy, bouncy haired, 20-35 year old with a symmetrical face you’re lucky to get character roles. Yes, there are exceptions. But for the most part paunchy women over 70 are not getting the guy. The roles themselves often marginalize women. Accomplished doctors, detectives or spies still need to be fashionable and coiffed. When women are depicted as more than a collection of strategically placed highlights they are made to be a masculine cartoon. Even in the most “realistic” television dramas we never see women discussing or experiencing anything about being a woman. Has there ever been a cop show that explains how a female cop on a stakeout deals with her period? Sex, or servicing men is discussed and depicted continuously. Characters are always getting pregnant (and of course having the baby or losing the pregnancy naturally) so someone must be menstruating!

It’s not all that surprising that in the 21st century we still don’t discuss menstruation except as an insult. That’s right, in 2013 it is still perfectly acceptable to refer to someone as “having their period” when the accuser dislikes the behavior of the accused. It is still acceptable to refer to men as “ladies” or “girls” as an insult. In all manner of workplace you can hear these accusations. Imagine just for a moment that instead of hurling a female term as an insult, it was an ethnic or racial term. We wouldn’t and shouldn’t tolerate it. But insulting someone by calling them a woman; that’s cool. And why not; women tolerate it and even perpetuate it. Women will use the word “girl” to deride (ex., you are such a girl.) Women screenwriters, directors and casting agents perpetuate the one-dimensionality of female characters in film and television. And almost all women everywhere persist in using the incorrect terminology for their own genitalia.

Even those now famous monologues about that part of the body, use the wrong terminology. The vagina is one very specific part of the genitalia. The vagina is the internal, or birth canal, part of the female genitalia. Vulva is everything else (and from a sexual response perspective; what matters most.) Using inaccurate terminology is always troubling. Often, if not always, there is an underlying message in such choices. It is quite possible that the term “vagina” first became popular in the medical field (that same medical field that labeled women as hysterics and viewed sexually responsive women as flawed and/or dangerous.) The (male) medical field singled out the part of the female genitalia that most affected them. The vulva has no role in male satisfaction or in birthing. This is a reasonable explanation/theory. But why have women perpetuated this inaccuracy? We teach our children the word vagina, while we teach them all of the proper terms for male genitalia. We don’t refer to testicles as penises. We don’t refer to foreskin as penises. We use the correct terminology for all parts of male genitalia.

Does all this sound cranky, distasteful and maybe even a bit irrational? Are you thinking; “well someone’s got her period!” As a matter of fact, I don’t. But if I did, I wouldn’t whisper it or discreetly palm a tampon on my way to the bathroom. I don’t routinely discuss anyone’s genitalia in public, and wish I didn’t feel compelled to now. But it is one (important) piece of a troubling puzzle. We should teach our children body pride not body shame. We should correct them when they accuse someone of “throwing like a girl” or “crying like a girl.” We should stop ourselves and correct others when insulting someone with female allusions. It’s not a matter of political correctness; it is a matter of correctness. There is something wrong with considering “acting like a man” to be a compliment and “acting like a woman” to be an insult.

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Media/Marketing

 

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Modern Family

Music

“De Blasio Takes His Modern Family On The Campaign Trail” blares the headline. My heart skipped as I searched for the photo (or at least mention) of Rosie the Robot. After a sip of coffee I came to my senses and instead sought mention of adult children living at home, or surrogate, biological and adoptive parents living as one big happy family. Finding none of these, I briefly considered that perhaps the newspaper was sensationalizing a large family filled with triplets, quadruplets or more! Blurry eyed but caffeine fueled, I found none of these.

It would seem that the newspaper of record considers a family of more than one race/ethnicity to be “modern”. In 2013. Mr. De Blasio appears to be of European descent (with a name that backs up that theory) and his wife appears to be African-American. His son, featured in a recent ad, sports (brace yourself) an old school, pick in the back pocket, Afro. How terribly terribly modern! In 1963.

This is a New York City political season (and race) filled with more marital horror stories than ever. On a local level we’ve transcended Gary Hart and Bill Clinton, in the lying, adultery and arrogance. And there are the wives, one of them a protege (in apparently every sense of the word) of Mrs. Clinton. They stand by their husbands (at least while the cameras are rolling) and sport huge bubbles of balance sheets (of what’s most important to them,) over their heads.

Perhaps this is what makes the De Blasio family so modern? Look a married couple in which the wife hasn’t endured public humiliation! Perhaps De Blasio’s family is modern compared to his strongest competitor; Christine Quinn? Ms. Quinn’s wife is a lawyer (snore.) They were married by a judge in the most traditional of ceremonies (yawn.)

This headline is not unfortunately just the result of some “old white guy” on the editor’s desk. Other major and generally liberal, media have remarked on De Blasio’s son’s hairstyle. A more optimistic person would think these comments stem from enjoying the throwback of a fluffy symmetrical Afro. It would be nice if newsreaders were flashing back to The Mod Squad and the uber coolness of Link. But even if that was the case, why don’t we look at women with their ubiquitous stick straight blown-out hair and flashback to Julie? And why don’t shaggy haired Caucasian young men remind us of Pete? It is much more likely that these newsreaders view the Afro as some sort of statement.

This is New York City not Sweden (which by the way is not entirely made up of pale blondes.) Every color, size, shape, religion and orientation resides here. For decades this city has, if not welcomed, than sheltered, people and families who did not fit their hometown mold. This is one of the places racially mixed couples flocked to in the early days (when it was still illegal in some places.) So how in the world could there be anything modern about an interracial couple in NYC in 2013?

 
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Posted by on August 8, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Eyes On The Prize

Joey

Most people don’t have lengthy attention spans or an endless capacity or thirst for data. There’s an awful lot of information to process on a daily if not momentary basis. So we can be forgiven for grasping at headlines as if they were articles (or “reading book reviews like they was books,” to quote Madame Rose.) Quite frankly a lot of what’s buzzing around us doesn’t warrant more than a cursory glance; quinoa’s in, bulgar’s out, cycling to nowhere is in, aerobics is out, and so on and so on. But then there are those big & important things that may be too large to ponder or tackle on a regular basis; issues that mercifully may not affect us on a daily basis.

Until your life and home are threatened by nature you might not get too riled about climate change. And even then, quite frankly, the most pressing (and perhaps only) issue is reclaiming your equilibrium. If you don’t experience prejudice and/or marginalization on any kind of regular basis you might not give biases all that much thought. When a story reaches media blitz proportion you may find more school gate/dinner party conversation about racism/sexism/bigotry than you would ordinarily. But when the headlines ebb and the talking heads shift their focus to another bright and shiny topic, the volume of those conversations probably lowers. It’s tempting (and completely understandable) to look at our biracial president, our recent strides in gay rights, and think “right, well I’m glad all that’s done with.” And that would be wrong.

There is far more danger in assuming things are okay and consequently turning our attention elsewhere than there is in not recognizing a social ill as a problem. Thirty or forty years ago mainstream America was (generally speaking) accepting that perceptions needed to change. In the 1970s civil rights began to find its mainstream footing. It no longer was acceptable to use certain words in public (at least in the Northeast.) This is hardly the hallmark of equality but it is a very strong indication of the public’s embarrassment at their overt bigotry. It would be another couple of decades before a similar semantics change occurred in regards to the gay community. One need only pour through some pop culture to confirm that “gay minstrel” was alive and well during the Reagan years. You’d be hard pressed in the 21st century to see African Americans or gay men and women as punchlines. Rest assure however, there are still plenty of ethnicities, religions and orientations that are ridiculed or “minstrelled”.

When it comes to the black or gay experience you might just think that all is mostly well. That is, if you weren’t affiliated with either of those groups. Most of us, no matter where our head is in proximity to our rear end, suspect that racism is alive and if not exactly well, at least on some form of life support. You can’t live anywhere (except perhaps off the grid) and not know (or at least suspect) that the color of one’s skin affects the perceptions of others. Simply turning on the television or picking up a magazine will confirm this. You may (that’s may) see male celebrities with a rich dark skin tone, but you rarely will see a woman with anything darker than a mocha skin tone. Pop culture may not be good for much, but it does paint a picture of our collective taste/desires.

You might also think that all is great on the gay front. People are marrying; coming out all over the place and letting kids know it gets better. But they’re also getting arrested in Louisiana for agreeing to have sex with undercover police officers. And the California federal appeals court is deciding if gays can be barred from a jury. This issue has come up because a drug company (defending a drug used in the treatment of AIDS) wanted to bar a juror who seemed gay. Clearly a gay man could not be neutral about drug companies, corruption, unethical medical practices or corporate greed. After all, are such “gay” issues. The assumption that a gay man (versus anyone with an ounce of compassion or a shred of decency) would feel strongly about AIDS and our storied history with the disease is absurd. But there you have it. Our legal system (that system we rely upon more and more to make very important decisions for our society) can view people as nothing more than their most visible characteristic.

We have come a long way baby, no one can reasonably argue that. But there is a danger in letting our guard down now. Things have changed enough on the surface that we can slip into a complacency that hinders progress and may in fact turn time back. We are so close to what we can be. Just consider how far we’ve come in only forty+ years. In 1967 interracial marriage was so rare as to be the entire story line of a Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn movie. It was a serious and moving message movie. There was a little bit of levity of course; like when the “Negro” groom offers proof of the naivety of the Caucasian bride: “she feels that all our children will be president of the United States!” A laugh line has become a wonderful reality. But we must be very careful to not see that and other equal rights strides as an end point. Our work is not done here.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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