Monday, March 5, 2012

Looking Forward in Anger

Given his history, Rush Limbaugh's excoriation of Sandra Fluke can hardly have come as a surprise. He thrives on being incendiary, delights in upsetting rational people by using such absurd language as "feminazi," and shrugs off any revelation of his vast hypocrisy. He's rich and has a powerful voice – presumably any detractors are just jealous. And of course they are liberal, which in his mind means they don't count.

The excrement that shoots out of Limbaugh's mouth with such force and regularity boasts a particularly impressive vileness. He may not be a clever man, but being unencumbered by reticence, respect, or decency, he's managed to build a platform and audience that guarantees he receives press attention in a way his social predecessors – working short-wave radio or cranking out spew-filled pages on mimeograph – didn't know they could dream of.

Limbaugh, along with Bill O'Reilly, who echoed many of his comments with a modicum less repugnance, has enjoyed his position at the top of the food chain. This time, however, he may be looking at a fall. He and his cadre of grouchy rich white men are doubling down in their attacks on women and minorities because they are terrified. As they ought to be. Supposed historian Newt Gingrich might just know an historical aberrance when he is one.

There were liberal movements prior to the 1960s. The union movements that began in the 19th century were one of the most powerful – during which women agitating for more rights in the workplace were referred to in much the same language used by Limbaugh and O'Reilly. Impugning a woman's sexual morality is ever the first and best means by which a terrified plutocrat attempts to silence her – it's no accident that women accused of witchcraft were also said to be sexual consorts of the devil.

The shock of the Depression in the 1930s gave rise to another liberal movement, wherein government regulations were placed upon the banks and government stepped in to give people real assistance and lay safeguards against destitution.

But in the 1960s, the power structure changed. As did the rules. Black people, always meant to remain within their borders and do as they were told, insisted upon their equality and humanity and that they wouldn't settle for anything less, even if meant being beaten, abused, jailed, and killed. They weren't going to settle for being second-class anymore.

Gay people did much the same thing, shocking the establishment with the Stonewall Riots and insisting that they would no longer be complicit in their own invisibility. They were proud of who they were and after a few thousand years of society telling them they should be ashamed, they weren't going to hear it anymore. It was time for society to broaden its voice.

Then women stood up and demand that they be granted full citizenship within the social and power structure as well. One of the most powerful weapons in their arsenal was the legal access to contraceptives, made possible in part by the ruling in Griswold vs. Connecticut (1965). Being able to control their fertility allowed women to storm battlements as never before. Even despite the prejudices against working mothers, marriage and the children that often follow are no longer automatic ejectors from the workplace.

This terrified the white, male, and powerful. It was one thing to have blacks, whom they probably only dealt with when they needed their shoes shined, or gays, whom they didn't think they dealt with at all, stand up and demand equal treatment. It was quite another thing to have their wives (or girlfriends, sisters, daughters, mothers), of whom they expected unquestioned loyalty and solicitude, start to say words like "no."

As for Limbaugh, he's made a career by being offensive, so it's interesting that only now is he hemorrhaging advertisers. Even despite his apology – worded with all the sincerity mustered by an indignant four-year-old – the flak is not dying down. He now bleats that he's merely an entertainer, that this was a joke. Quite the turnaround from someone who has effectively insisted that he be consulted in the makeup of the GOP platform. One imagines that if people take him at his word and think of him only as an entertainer, he will be displeased.

However, what was it about this bit of vitriol that has stirred up such a powerful counter-protest? Perhaps women and anyone else who thinks Griswold v. Connecticut was a proud moment in history has finally had enough. They laid into their supposed ally, the Komen Foundation, when that group turned on them - and won. If history is any indicator, more victories are ahead. You don't have to look back to the Civil Rights Movement or the Stonewall Riots to understand how anger is coalescing into action. Look more recently, to 1987 and ACT-UP.

ACT-UP – AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power was formed because a tipping point had been reached. AIDS patients and activists were tired of being at best ignored and at worst belittled, abused, attacked. They were done with being polite and playing by the rules to affect change. Instead, they engaged in civil disobedience. The forcefulness of their actions and messaging finally spurred real political action on AIDS, improving the lives of patients and channeling more funding and focus to developing a cure, so that today those living with HIV aren't living under a death sentence. As if this victory wasn't enough, it was arguably this re-politicizing of the gay civil rights movement that helped make marriage, employment, housing, benefits, and adoption rights such a regular part of the national and international conversation today. Anger begets action, which begets change.

And change is inevitable.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Nostalgia's Not What It Used to Be

Amid the usual hand-wringing about how the Oscars were boring, out of touch, silly, meaningless, etc, one point mentioned in various outlets was that the Academy itself is comprised of older white men, making it unsurprising that the Oscars are so, well, unsurprising. It's only natural that these members, though well-meaning and often politically liberal – if not progressive – would cast their votes for things white men like.

Much like Mark Twain's complaint that everyone talks about the weather but no one ever does anything about it, it's worth a quick thought as to why the Academy is so white and male, and considering what to do. One need only look at all the teams of men winning the technical awards (the ones everyone always thinks are so boring and yet it's the good work of these teams that make movies look and sound terrific so a bit more respect might be warranted – no reason not to give them a moment in the sun after all the time they spend in the dark. Besides, they often give the speeches that have the most spontaneity and humor). The women who work behind the scenes tend to be in the expected fields of costume, makeup, hair, and set decoration. They are brilliant, but they aren't doing sound effects editing. That's the sort of job a man gets into after having spent an adolescence developing wicked computer skills (social skills questionable).

So that's why there are so many men – the issue of why they are almost uniformly white can be answered with a few depressing considerations. Clearly, the stars in this field should be engaging in outreach, finding young women and people of color with strong aptitude and offering classes, internships, and fellowships to bring them into the audiovisuals room.

As to age, well, it's a lifetime membership and a numbers game. But considering most people don't perfect their skills to award level until they are at least in their late twenties, it's unreasonable to expect a younger Academy. In point of fact, the Oscars is just the big show – what the Academy really does year round (it works in film preservation, education, outreach) is far more involved and demands members who know what they're doing. By last count, that isn't going to be the average 14-year-old, no matter how many movie tickets he buys.

But the other question begged in considering the average age of the Oscar voter is, "So?" Does age mean an end of discretion, or talent? Christopher Plummer's Oscar is of the sort people insultingly refer to as an award for longevity and a body of work, but his work in Beginners was almost universally hailed as very fine, some of his best. So why not allow that everything came together and this was his time to win an award for a specific job and not denigrate it by insisting that it's only because everyone felt guilty?

Then there's Woody Allen.

As everyone carped that the nominees and winners this year were all about nostalgia and had nothing to do with the modern world and what life really is, Woody Allen and his film Midnight in Paris was dropped into the category of "irrelevant film written by irrelevant old white man." Never mind that Midnight earned glowing reviews and made extremely respectable box office returns – the best of Mr. Allen's career. Once he won the award, plenty of people had to comment on his age and the "nostalgia trip" his film was – an old man's yearning for youth and a glittering past. Which completely ignores the film's full story. It's not about wallowing in the past, but embracing the present…and the future.

The film's hero, Gil, is obsessed with Paris of the 1920s, as is just about any lover of art and literature. By chance, he is able to visit that long-gone world and take part in its glories, meeting Gertrude Stein, the Fitzgeralds, Picasso, and Hemingway, among others. He also falls in love, despite the fact that he's in Paris with his fiancée and her family. Frustrated with his writing and lost in his life, Gil is renewed by these jaunts into the past. Stein advises him on his work and the others advise him on his life. But in the end, though sorely tempted to stay in this past he loves so much, Gil opts for the possibility of a new life for himself in the modern world. Which is to say, he learns from history and uses that knowledge to inform his decisions in the present and the future. The movie is about looking back only to guide you in going forward.

In other words, exactly what the study of history is all about.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Blog for Choice

I had a friend who was born on January 22, 1973. She told me that all her life, people joked about how lucky she was to have made it in under the gun like that, else she might have been aborted. Whatever end of the political spectrum they fell upon, somehow anyone who knew her birthdate felt compelled to comment on its being the date abortion was made legal throughout the United States.

My friend was always very easygoing about these comments, although she told me privately that she found them astounding. Why anyone would think it was all right to joke about her being possibly unwanted was bizarre. She handled it with a remarkable aplomb, however, and always made a point of emphasizing that she was wanted, planned for, prepared for, and welcomed. That this made all the difference in the world. That her entering the world, this already loved child, on a day when it was at last legal for women to end unwanted pregnancies, was something in which she and her parents took great pride. Because all children should be born this way – loved and wanted. Because to have a family and a home are blessings that, if guaranteed at the very first breath, will help create a good life from the outset.

In 2004, she and I attended a special screening of 'Vera Drake', where Mike Leigh talked quite bluntly about issues surrounding legal abortion in the UK and conceded that there was certainly a movement to abolish it, but it was nothing like the "barbaric medieval fundamentalism" seen in the US. We couldn't help laughing – it's just not often that you hear people being that marvelously blunt – but as someone who's studied medieval history, it's definitely not a time I'd like to see re-created for the modern era.

And yet medieval thought is very much the order of the day. Many Republican politicians are proud of their anti-science, anti-intellectual stances, which is effectively anti-Enlightenment. To say nothing of profoundly dangerous. In proclaiming their insistence that, the minute they have the power, they are going to plunge us all back into a pre-Enlightenment world, they are touting the sort of early-Modern mindset that led to witch-burning being the major entertainment of the day.

Putting aside that without the scientific advancements borne of the Enlightenment, Newt Gingrich would likely have died twenty years ago (we think about all the ramifications of that progress and then politely move on), it is a continuing peculiarity of conservative politicians to aim further and further backwards. Doesn't that go against all tenets of Western civilization? We're supposed to take the lessons of history and use them as guidance to propel us forward, seeking to improve upon our past, not wallow in it. If you must wallow, I can recommend a number of reenactment societies.

What the extreme conservatives need to understand as they rail against abortion and birth control (and before they start railing against women's education and right to go out in public by themselves), is that a free society is never going to measure up to one group's aesthetic ideals. Freedom is not by its nature tidy and orderly. In artistic terms, it's a bit more like abstract expressionism. It looks easy, but that doesn't mean it is.

Above all, a free society means that there will be aspects some people don't like. The fear of change looms large, and even though birth control and abortion have been legally available for decades, the change they represent in so far as women enjoying real freedom to direct their lives and their health is still alarming to a contingent that would prefer to see women controlled. The control of women, relegated strictly to a defined and intransient sphere, represents a perceived continuity. An incorrect perception, because women have insisted upon equal rights for centuries, but frightened and desperate people cling to whatever they can. That's sad for them, but it's vital that their fear not be allowed to dictate societal practice and state and national laws. A quick scan of history indicates that doing so has never worked out very well.

I've lost touch with my friend in the last few years, but I hope she hasn't had to deal with anyone joking about how lucky she is to be here today. If she does, I know she'll answer as she did before, saying, "Yes, I am lucky that I was wanted before I was conceived and welcomed with ecstasy when I was born. With abortion being made legal and birth control accessible, the hope was that every child would start off that way. I'm still fighting for that, cause I can tell you from experience that it's a pretty great way to grow up."

Happy Birthday!