Single Story

Oscar Christ?

Around the time I was writing the novel Angel, I started a project of reading the New Testament with the books in the order that scholars believe they were written. (This was before the late Marcus Borg released his Evolution of the Word, which does this very thing for you.)

Reading chronologically you start to see how the idea of Jesus expanded over time as he moved from a more human figure in Mark to a thoroughly mystical Christ in John. One of the things that made an impression on me was how Jesus’s response to his arrest and execution evolved.  What was, in Mark, deeply traumatic was transformed over time so that in John, Jesus was aware of his destiny, nearly choreographing his own destruction, walking with a sense of the larger meaning this event would one day have for the world.

I was reminded of this while watching this interview with Rupert Everett about his new film The Happy Prince. Everett describes Wilde as stage managing his own ruin.

The tendency to cast Oscar Wilde as the gay Christ is something I have talked about occasionally here, particularly in the context of the Oscar Wilde shrine that was created by two artists in New York a while back. Stephen Fry is another actor who has portrayed Wilde and spoken of him in the same terms.

I have some reservations about this comparison. It depends a great deal on what you take a “Christ figure” to be.

The most obvious parallel is that Wilde was punished by society, he died as a reviled figure but was resurrected by his apostles, in particular by Robbie Ross and friends of his like Christopher Millard who preserved Wilde’s work and tried to bring it to new audiences.

This common refrain of Wilde as Christ figure certainly speaks to a need for a symbol to make the sufferings that gay men have enured meaningful, to spiritualize the pain and make it transcendent. A Christ figure is not just resurrected, the story of his rebirth is cleansing for those who identify with him.

This is easier to do, I think, with a symbolic Wilde than with Wilde as a man. But perhaps this was also true of Jesus of Nazareth. He has come down to us as both fully human and fully divine, yet not quite so human that he could make mistakes. (Whereas for Everett being “an idiot” sometimes is part of the humanity of his gay Christ figure.)

When I read the first chronological gospel, Mark, I was surprised by one episode I found there. (Also by the naked guy who went streaking through Mark 14:51-52.)

I am talking about the story of the Syrophonecian woman in Mark 7:24-29 (the story is repeated in Matthew 15:21-28).

A Gentile woman comes to Jesus. I am not informed enough to understand all of the ancient cultural politics between Syrophonecians and Jews. In any case, the woman begs Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter. Maybe he is tired and his nerves are frayed after the constant barrage of his own people asking him to heal them, now he is supposed to heal Syrophonecians too? He refuses and compares her to a dog. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

She answers, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Jesus dismisses the woman because of her social status. He doesn’t see her suffering as his problem. He speaks to her in a rude manner. What should a reader make of that?

The way Mark depicts Jesus at this point is like a celebrity being hounded by paparazzi. Jesus was getting tired, he wanted to be off the clock, and he snapped at this woman in an inappropriate way and she called him on it. He changed his mind and healed the woman’s daughter.

So perhaps Jesus was once seen as someone human enough to make mistakes too. But today Christ is not a man who makes mistakes, but a man who was too good for the world and was thus destroyed by it.

For someone like Oscar Wilde to be Christlike in this sense means he is a symbol of the best of humanity being destroyed by the worst of society. To make that case, it helps to make good and evil a bit neater and clearer.  Oscar Wilde has often been polished to enhance the tragedy of his downfall, a process that I wrote about in detail in Oscar’s Ghost.

An interesting question, one which came up in the comments on my previous article on The Happy Prince, is whether Lord Alfred Douglas became a scapegoat for some of Wilde’s own sins. Both men were snobbish, but Wilde’s snobbishness is often read as charming. Both were promiscuous, but Douglas has been depicted as the driving force in their amorous adventures. Both were careless with money, but Douglas has often been blamed for making Wilde overspend.

Because of his erratic behavior, his attacks on people like Robert Ross, his litigation, Douglas made himself an easy target for those who would try to find a vessel for some of Wilde’s sins.

I believe that today we might be inclined to forgive some of Douglas’s emotional extremes were it not for his cardinal sin, his anti-Semitism in his bitter middle years. The views that are so rightfully distasteful to us today were unfortunately common in his time. (And in fact, we seem to be in a similar era today with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment becoming increasingly accepted.)

One of the aspects of the story that I explored briefly, and wished I was able to explore in more depth was the time Wilde spent in the company of Ferdinand Waslin Esterhazy during his exile in Paris. At the time the Dreyfus trials had polarized French culture.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer on the general staff of the French army had been a convenient patsy when it became clear that military secrets had been passed to the German military attaché in Paris. Dreyfus was found guilty on questionable evidence and, before a howling mob shouting anti-Semitic epithets, exiled to the Devil’s Island penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. He was kept in solitary confinement, manacled to his bed at night. By the time Zola took up his cause, he was losing his teeth and hair and was unable to speak.

In February 1898, Wilde and Douglas’s friend, the journalist Rowland Strong, was in Paris covering the trial of the author Emile Zola who had been accused of defaming the high command of the French army with an open letter that alleged the Dreyfus affair was a gross miscarriage of justice.

In the wake of Zola’s article, the French public became divided along familiar fault lines as to who was the real traitor. On the right were those who believed the verdict had been just. This group included nationalists, the military and the Catholic church. On the left were the Dreyfusards, mostly Protestant, Socialists, Freemasons and intellectuals. In fact, the word ‘intellectual’ was coined by Georges Clemenceau, the politician who published Zola’s letter, to describe the Dreyfus supporters.

One might expect Wilde, who had so recently suffered public prejudice and a painful jail term, would be sympathetic to Dreyfus. Instead he spent a number of evenings in the company of the real culprit, Esterhazy.

There were a number of reasons he might have made this choice. One may have been his personal feelings about Zola. Zola, whose works were also frequent targets of censorship, had fathered two children with his live-in seamstress under the nose of his wife, but had refused to sign a petition calling for clemency in Wilde’s conviction.

Most of the people in Wilde’s circle at the time were anti-Dreyfusards including Douglas, Strong, and journalists Frank Harris and Robert Sherard. Was Wilde the singular standout among his circle? As I wrote in Oscar’s Ghost:

What Wilde actually thought of the Dreyfus affair is hard to discern. Douglas was an anti-Dreyfusard, although he in September 1898, admitted in a letter to Wilde that things looked rather bad for his side. It is not clear from the letter whether he believed Wilde agreed with him or not. At the very least, he did not think Wilde would be shocked by his opinion. Sherard was not much better at defending his friend against the charge of anti-Semitism than he was against homosexuality. He explained that Wilde’s sympathies were, of course, with Dreyfus. He liked Jews. “’The Jews,’ he used to say, ‘are the only people who lend money.’”

Could Oscar Wilde have been, at the same time, the victim of prejudice and on the side of those who perpetrated it against others?

I was quite interested to read a review in the Guardian of Michèle Mendelssohn’s new book on Oscar Wilde, which I am looking forward to reading. According to the Guardian’s review, Mendelssohn presents Wilde during his famous American lecture tour as someone who was sensitive to being marginalized both as an Irishman and as a homosexual whose feminine mannerisms made his difference apparent. (Max Beerbohm described Wilde as “Effeminate but vitality of twenty men.”) She describes some of the public pillorying he endured in post-Civil War America.

One episode that bookends quite nicely with his socializing with Esterhazy was his visit to meet the Confederate president Jefferson Davis. He publicly identified with white Southern farmers, the former slave owners, and told stories that connected him to the most manly of men.

The story, for instance, about the miners he met in Leadville, Colorado – one he loved to tell audiences at his Personal Impressions of America lectures on his return home – was almost entirely made up to make himself seem more masculine.

Wilde would be far from the first or last marginalized person to seek protection by identifying with the oppressors. This tendency could help explain his snobbishness, his attraction to a young man with a title, and his fateful decision to sue the Marquess of Queensberry for libel.  He expected to be able to win over the legal authorities as he had done with so many other establishment figures. It is understandable, but it certainly complicates him as a pioneer of gay rights or a gay Christ. As the Guardian’s article concludes:

Wilde returned from the US in 1883. By 1892, he was London’s leading theatrical phenomenon, the writer of Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Woman of No Importance. What impact did his American adventures have on his comedy? Mendelssohn links these early hits to the influence of the Christy Minstrels show, an American blackface group that went in for much witty repartee and which always placed a dandy centre stage. Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance is, she believes, a near relative of the blackface dandies who parodied Wilde while he was on tour (he must have known about them; these troupes were attracting audiences far greater than his own). Wilde’s most successful characters often wear masks; he had created, Mendelssohn writes, “his own kind of white face theatre”, one that used the sweetening effect of comedy to expose hierarchy and social prejudice.

Why are these influences largely forgotten today? In his own time, after all, the critics were certainly aware of them. Mendelssohn’s research is prodigious; she has tapped sources previously unavailable to other scholars. But the thought also occurs that, perhaps, there is something willed at play here, too. In the 21st century, the good and the bad, the tolerant and bigoted, the free and the closed, are simply not allowed to snuggle up together. Our understanding of what it means to be human – by which I mean to be flawed – grows ever more limited. As we all surely know, Wilde’s extended afterlife has been every bit as extraordinary as his corporeal one. He has long since become a saint, gay history’s Christ figure. It may be that we can only see him as a victim of the attitudes of his age, when, at key moments, he was also in cahoots with them, an accomplice after all.

Together these episodes from two ends of his life show how successful Wilde was in crafting his own biography.  The 1997 film Wilde opens with the playwright’s visit to Leadville. Lord Alfred Douglas is depicted in the film (as he was in Richard Ellman’s biography on which it was based) as the alluring but sinister influence he was in Wilde’s De Profundis. The film ends before the story has a chance to get too messy.

With the help of Robert Ross, the story of Oscar Wilde’s operatic downfall and resurrection has endured and continues to intrigue. The biography of Oscar Wilde may be Wilde’s greatest work.

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If I Ran a News Channel

I have a pet peeve. I cannot stand the expression “the other side.” By that I mean when people on television talk about political issues and describe a group of people as “the other side,” generally as a euphemism for a member of the political party to which the speaker does not belong. It drives me crazy because it flattens everything into only two possible worldviews. It assumes that the only way to view things is as a liberal or a conservative and that what you will say about any given issue can be pre-determined by which you are. It even comes up in conversations about ending polarization. “Talk to someone from ‘the other side.'” Well there are lots of sides, and we have lots of identities and lots of feelings.

I saw an interview lately with Senator Elizabeth Warren. She was asked about how immobilized Congress is by partisanship and she pushed back against this. She told a story about a bipartisan bill to make hearing aids available over the counter that made it through both houses and was signed by the president. Why did this happen? Because it was not an issue that played into any culture war narrative about the left or the right.

We can discuss all the same issues, but there are important topics that we need to depoliticize. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in a recent Ted Talk said “We have an existential threat on our hands. Our left/right divide is by far the most important divide we face… This is the urgent needs of the next 50 years and things aren’t going to get better on their own.” (A few seconds later he used my hated expression “the other side.”)

I don’t have a billion dollars to launch my own cable news network to compete with the big three, but lately I’ve been giving some thought to what I would do if I had. If you look at the cable news networks today, there is a network that has a left focus and one that has a right focus and one that tries to position itself in the center, but they are essentially doing the same thing. There is a great deal of agreement between them as to what kinds of things constitute news, what types of issues warrant discussion as news and how to talk about them. They frame almost every event in terms of what it means for the democrats or republicans chances of re-election. There was, for example, much more discussion of whether the ACA (Obamacare) would pass or be repealed and how it would effect politicians careers and the balance of power in congress and the White House, than what the law consisted of. Same with the recent tax plan.

A while back I found myself watching this Youtube clip of Alain de Botton promoting his book “The News: A User’s Manual.” I was taken with his idea, which comes in about the 35:00 mark, (sorry, I couldn’t figure out how to book mark the video with a start time on Word Press) that the problem with news is that it does not have enough biases. That is to say, rather than framing discussion through the lens of left/right we could frame them through other biases or perspectives. His example of possible alternative biases are a Buddhist bias or a psychoanalytic bias or through the perspective of Walt Whitman.

Some biases that I could imagine, and would like to see represented on my imagined network, would include an aesthetic bias, a community bias, a citizenship bias. Perhaps these would be particular hours of programming– the Buddhist hour, the aesthetic hour…

De Botton’s “School of Life” experimented with the idea of news through a philosopher’s bias in the now defunct The Philosopher’s Mail.

A key principle was that news should target our needs. When a train in France was fatally derailed by a falling rock, we took the view that this was important news; not because we need to know about the state of transport in mountain regions but because it provides a sombre memento mori: a lesson for everyone about the fragility of existence and therefore, of our duty to forgive others, to get on with what really matters and to appreciate what is good in our lives. 

(I am reporting on this late in order to combat a bias that de Botton points out early in his Google talk, the news’s assumption that the most important things are the most recent.)

In any case, if had my own news empire, its bias would be focused on eliminating left/right framing. There would be no talk about “both sides” of an issue: because there are many sides to every issue. And I would love to see hours devoted to these different sorts of biases with watchable, well-informed hosts who took fresh views at the events of the world.  This might produce a different way of looking at the same events being covered on other networks, or it might priorities different stories entirely.

If politicians or political candidates came on the network to discuss current events or legislation, they would not be identified with an R or a D. This would take some getting used to. People look to those letters to decide, before the person speaks, whether they should agree or disagree.

There is, however, other information I would include. We have amble space on the screen and have become accustomed to tickers at the bottom and bullet points at the side. So instead of the R or D, the screen would show information about the politician’s geographic region, what the main industries are there– to give a sense of who that person represents. Additionally– and this is important– the biggest sources of campaign funds would be listed.

There is a strange disconnect in journalistic standards in this area. You would expect that if a news source reported on a scientific study on germs they would not leave out the fact that it was funded by Clorox bleach. It may be that the researcher would have found bleach is most effective in killing the particular kinds of germs it studied regardless of funding source, but it is a factor that people should know about. Not so with politicians. Yes, the information is available if you’re proactive. You can find out that your local senator was mostly funded by the chemical and banking industries, but that information should be made available at the time the viewer is evaluating a representative’s statements. The fact that a particular politician’s campaign was largely funded by health insurance companies may not impact her vote on health care policy, but we should be able to evaluate whether it does or not easily.

Being reminded regularly that this is the representative’s constituency, and these are their financial supporters, might change politician’s behavior to avoid the optics of caring more for one group than the other. If nothing else, it would help voters make informed choices.

I would also issue a moratorium on basing which stories to cover on what is trending online. As I’ve noted here before, there is a kind of story which is naturally suited to thrive in the digital environment. That is a story that allows someone to use it as an identity claim on social media. They tend to be tied to the culture wars in some fashion, often revolve around someone saying something stupid, which have little real world impact on people’s day to day lives, but which can elicit outrage and backlash against the outrage.

My channel would also not report on polls and day to day fluctuations in politicians approval ratings, treating that metric like a value on the stock exchange.

While we’re at it, I think enough channels cover the ups and downs of Wall Street. If you want to find that, there are plenty of places to look. Instead, my news channel would find different measures of economic health to report on.

The main point would be to widen the frame and to view the world differently.

If anyone is out there with a billion dollars to launch a new news channel, please feel free to use my ideas.

 

 

Crackpot Literary Theories

p30200_d_v8_aaLast night I watched the film The Luzhin Defence, an older title, which I got from the library. The film is based on the novel by Nabokov, which I have not read.

After watching the film, I developed an entire literary theory, which I subsequently discovered is utter nonsense, but it is so satisfying I feel I must share it anyway.

The ending of the film reminded me of something my Russian partner once told me.

We were talking about the “American story.” The hero wins against overwhelming odds and there is a happy ending. Good triumphs over evil and we can feel safe and secure knowing Truth, Justice and the American Way are safe. Americans are comfortable with the happy ending even if it’s an illusion. We agree to this conceit the way a ballet audience agrees that it is normal for women to wear tutus and walk on tip toe. It is a narrative convention.

So I asked my partner what the Russian Story was. His answer blew my mind. In the classic Russian tale, he said, boy meets girl. Boy dies. Boy comes back as a ghost. They live (or is it die?) happily ever after and there is a lesson- a moral.

The hero of the Russian story DIES before it has even gotten interesting! The American story is about winning. The Russian story is about what you learn from losing. American heroes continue in the face of all obstacles. They do not waver, and eventually win through sheer force of character and will.

Russian heroes, according to my are destroyed before they even have a chance to begin. Then the hero is reborn to the circumstances, he is victorious in failure and he brings his lesson back to the world. The American story does not teach us what to do with failure. It simply does not give us the option. Villains fail. Heroes succeed.

Now, my partner is a ballet dancer, not a writer. He has not made a study of Russian literature, and I don’t know if his off-the-cuff description of the “Russian story” is accurate or not. It was, in any case, thought-provoking.

When I saw The Luzhin Defence I felt I had confirmation. Spoiler alert: I will now talk about the end of the film.  The Luzhin Defence is the story of a man being driven mad by his obsession with chess. He only knows how to view the world as a chess game. The film focuses on Luzhin’s relationship with a woman named Natalya, who becomes his fiancee. In the film, Luzhin (brilliantly played by John Tuturro) has been sabotaged, and suffers a nervous break-down during a pause in the final game of the world championship. Told that chess is driving him mad, he must choose between a “normal” life with his fiancee but without chess, or chess and madness. He jumps to his death. In the final scene, the grieving Natalya finds Luzhin’s written plans to complete the chess game. Luzhin’s opponent agrees to let her play the game out using his strategy, and it wins.

Remembering what my partner once said, I concluded that Russian drama is not about what one achieves in his lifetime, but about his legacy. It is not the happy end, the tragic end, or the noble end. It is about the after-effects of a life.

Here’s the problem: The epilogue was not in the novel. From a review in The Guardian:

What was a beautifully structured narrative of mental drama becomes a rather over-familiar costume romance, pillowed by a swooningly sentimental epilogue that has nothing to do with Nabokov’s novel.

So it turns out it is just another example of a film maker adding a happy end (of sorts) to a novel that is felt to be too unsatisfying for the screen.

Steven Poole, in his review sheds some light on the problem film makers often face when translating a novel to film.

A clue is to be found in Nabokov’s 1943 short story, The Assistant Producer, in which the narrator draws a lugubrious parallel between cinema and life, both of which mock the unwary with fatal coincidence. “Indeterminism is banned from the studio,” he writes. That is precisely it: the cinema simply cannot maintain creative ambiguity. How do you preserve the master’s playful indeterminism when a movie must show one thing or the other?

So there is a perfectly good literary theory all shot to hell. This all made me think of Oscar Wilde’s story The Portrait of W.H. in which he has his character put forward a theory that the W.H. of Shakespeare’s sonnets was a boy actor in his company. After the character explains all the clues that point to his conclusion (and gets someone else excited about it) he abandons his theory because it pre-supposes the very thing he is trying to prove– the existence of the boy actor W.H.

You can imagine Wilde himself becoming excited about the idea of W.H., building a grand narrative about it, only to make the realization that his reasoning is circular. So he shifts his focus and makes his story not simply about W.H., but about the beauty of believing a beautiful story, rather than the factual underpinnings of the story itself. (Lord Alfred Douglas, always a black and white thinker, in his later years set out to prove W.H. did exist using church records.)

In the spirit of Wilde, I’m not going to abandon my beautiful theory just because it happens not to be true. Clearly the end of the film has nothing to do with Russian story-telling. But for a moment, when I believed it did, I glimpsed something– another option for viewing narrative.

What if our stories were more concerned with legacy than with success in the here and now? Would we live our lives differently?

Beyond Saying “Yes” or “No”: Power, Sex, Empathy and Agency

I found myself the other day listening to a podcast by Marc Maron talking about the allegations against his friend Louis CK.

It was fascinating to me to listen to this man trying to empathize and understand what it was like for a woman to be faced with an unwanted and unexpected sexual advance. The only comparable experience he had involved a male teacher who he admired trying to kiss him.

As a woman, until recently, it had never occurred to me just how rarely straight men have the experience of an unwanted sexual advance. “Of course not,” you may say, “because they always want it.” I do not believe this is true, and I think that view is part of the problem.

I remember a while back listening to an interview with Trevor Noah where he was talking about the value of diversity in the writing room of the Daily Show. They were doing a segment on catcalls on the streets of New York. Noah said he thought it would not be a big deal for women. If women on the street whistled at him and called him hot, he imagined it would be kind of nice. But the women on the staff let him know that it is terrible to be walking down the street, minding your own business, and to be catcalled.

Why don’t men get it? I think it comes down that an antiquated notion– one we would do well to be done with– that women are the givers of sex and men the recipients of it.

Let’s get this straight, because I’ve heard a lot of commentary lately that men are just awful by nature and women are virtuous. Poppycock! There are two main reasons why you’re not hearing loads of stories of powerful women groping their underlings. 1. There aren’t enough powerful women with underlings. 2. And this is the focus of this article–We are actively socialized not to initiate. (See my previous article on “making a pass” vs. “throwing oneself.”)

Because we do not usually make the passes, for fear of being seen as sluts, we are much less likely to find ourselves saying, “I thought he was over 18,” or “I thought he gave me signals…” And men, socialized to believe female sexual attention is a gift they should always want, are not nearly as likely to come forward and report to HR “she kissed me and put her hand on my knee…”

It wasn’t always this way. Consider this from The Good Man Project:

Of course, assumptions about male libido, as godawful as they are, pale in comparison to the incredibly creepy cultural ideas about female libido. One of the earliest known postclassical joke books is the 15th-century Facetiae of Poggio, in which we find the following anecdote, presented in the painfully stiff English translation:
A woman who was once asked by a man, why, if the pleasure of cohabitation was equal for both sexes, it was generally the men who pursued and importuned the women rather than vice-versa, replied:
“It is a very wise custom that compels the men to take the initiative. For it is certain that we women are always ready for sex; not so you men, however. And we should therefore be soliciting the men in vain, if they happened to be not in the proper condition for it.”
Somewhat later, in the first season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, we find this bit, described thus in the DVD package for those who don’t want to watch the video:
Larry is drifting off when Cheryl asks him, “Why am I the one that always has to initiate sex?” Larry explains that he’s always available, and all Cheryl has to do is tap him on the shoulder. Otherwise, he tells her, “I’ll just be mauling you all the time.”
In other words, it is the exact same joke, but the genders have been reversed.

A researcher who studied sexual habits in other cultures reports, “the Biwat of Papua New Guinea think women are the sexual aggressors and men are the receivers. They have this saying: ‘Of course the female is the aggressor and aggressive. Has she not a vulva?'”

And, as it turns out, women are the aggressors more often than you might think even in our culture. The BPS Digest calls it one of the 10 most widely believed myths in psychology that men are much more likely to be abusers than women.

A British survey published in 2014 found that over 65 per cent believed it was probably or definitely true that domestic violence is overwhelmingly committed by men. It’s easy to understand why – men are responsible for more violent crime overall, and being bigger and stronger, on average, men are seen as a more obvious threat. Yet official statistics (cited by Scarduzio et al, this year) show that partner violence against men by women is also a major problem. For example, The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey in the US found that one in four men had experienced physical violence, rape, and/or stalking from a partner (compared with one in three women) and that 83 per cent of the violence inflicted on men by partners was done so by women. This is not to diminish the seriousness or scale of the problem of partner abuse by men toward women, but to recognise that there is also a significant, lesser known, issue of women being violent toward men.

But that is not what our culture tells us, not what it reinforces and rewards. I was struck by this sign at a recent protest march to end workplace sexual harassment.

hollywoodmarch
This sign expresses a woman’s right to say “no” and her right to say “yes.” In either case, she is viewed as the recipient of the man’s advance. There is no sign that I can see about her right to make the first move.

Samantha Bee, in her funny PSA on how not to masturbate in front of employees assures men that their dicks are ugly and that no woman actually wants to see one in any context.

And this is totally true, right ladies?

We hear it all the time. Women’s bodies are beautiful. Men’s are disgusting. Then there are the Viagra jokes. They operate on the idea that a man’s desire to have dependable erections in late middle age can only be selfish. It’s selfish because sex is something men get and women give. The jokes don’t work if you envision male sexual function as something that is mutually beneficial to both partners.

Samantha Bee is right, it is easy not to masturbate in front of your employees, and a lot of the behavior we’ve heard lately is reported because it is so disgusting and outrageous. No one wants to be confronted with sex when they’re trying to make a serious business presentation.

DO-vy_CWkAAdU1jBut when it’s in the right context, when it is welcome, it feels good to be appreciated for your sexual attractiveness. It is nice to hear that expressed, and to have someone take a risk and go out on a limb to make an overture.  In the right context it feels good to be viewed with lust. We all want to be desired.

Put another way: To be sometimes considered as a sexual being is a natural human need. To be always considered as an object of desire is a burden.

Men don’t get enough of that. Women get too much. I think we should correct that. We need to go beyond the right to say yes or no, waiting for advances, and calling out the ones that are inappropriate–we need to start claiming our own desire and making more of the moves ourselves.

Maybe that sense of being undesirable is one of the drivers that leads some men to aggressively over-compensate.

I appreciate it when I hear someone like Maron or Noah trying to understand the female point of view. I think a lot more men are trying to empathize these days. I am optimistic that maybe the moment has come when we will stop putting the burden on women to protect ourselves, and start asking men to be responsible in their behavior.

But if some men have trouble imagining what it is like to be in our position, some women also have trouble imagining the real confusion of some of their male friends who would never dream of doing what Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose or Roy Moore are alleged to have done but who are still a bit nervous that some episode from their past might come back to haunt them. The difference between an “unwanted advance” and a “wanted advance” is whether or not it is wanted. There are some cases when it is clear. (She’s 14, she’s your employee and you have to threaten her, you’re considering masturbating in front of someone at work) There are others where it is not so clear. If you’re going on hair twirls and head tilts as a guide, there is some room to make the wrong judgment. This is why I am concerned about the conflation of different types of stories.

Right now there is only one question being asked: “Do you believe the accuser or not?”

In some cases–not all, but some– you can absolutely believe that an accuser is telling the truth, and also ask if there is some possibility of misunderstanding.

Tara Isabella Burton, writing in Vox, used Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure to talk about the long history of the misuse of sexual power. In Measure for Measure, a man named Claudio is arrested for getting his fiance pregnant before they are married. Sex outside of marriage is illegal in Vienna, and while it is widespread, Claudio has been sentenced to death as a scapegoat– to show that the duke is tough on crime. His sister, Isabella, goes to an official called Angelo who tells her that he will spare her brother if she will sleep with him. In her outrage, she goes to her brother.

Isabella is sick and tired of men avoiding responsibility for their actions, and in this scene she lets herself go, telling her brother it’s better someone so shameful will die quickly. “I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,” she cries, “No word to save thee.”…

It’s easy, especially in the post-#MeToo world, to sympathize with Isabella’s plight — plenty of women I know, myself included, respond to each new public accusation of sexual misconduct with joking-but-not-really-joking misandry, or comments about “banning all men.” But what Shakespeare does so well is present us with an Isabella who’s totally right (a lot of the men in Vienna are terrible!) and who also, through her rage, is perpetuating the same uncompromising black-and-white worldview that got Claudio arrested in the first place…

This play serves as an important reminder that, despite some people’s idealized narrative of the “pre-women’s lib” past, people were still grappling with the injustice of sexual misconduct. Shakespeare knew that sexual harassment is made possible by sexual hypocrisy: that harassed women are rarely believed, that women are only allowed to be wives, widows, or virgins, and this is what makes it so easy to make them victims.

Overt sexual harassment is only part of the story. And sexism is not only a problem of men. We all buy into it in big and small ways.  Studies show that both men and women–including feminists– have implicit biases that men are associated with leadership and women aren’t. (You can check yourself with this implicit bias test. I came out with a “slight bias” associating men with leadership and women with supporting roles.)

We need to change our cultural dynamic so women have more agency in all areas of life.  If you look back at some of my past articles you will see all sorts of examples where women are encouraged to think of ourselves as “being” while men are encouraged to think of themselves as “doing.” It begins in childhood, where boys are praised for their efforts and girls are praised for our inherent traits. We read children’s literature where boys go off on adventures, and girls try to get home. We’re even sometimes taught that math is important because it makes us more attractive to boys. We try to “empower” girls by teaching self-esteem while we send boys off to build fires and earn medals for achievement. We’re given entirely different messages about risk- boys are encouraged to take them, and girls are warned we’re inherently vulnerable. Into adulthood, stories for men are about saving the world. Stories for women are about being OK with yourself just as you are. Publishers and agents bring their assumptions about those stories to the fore when judging work by male and female authors. We seem to picture female writers as doing it for self-gratification and men for work. Therefore men’s writing is viewed as serious and worthy of academic study, while the very existence of famous female writers of the past is erased. (A reviewer in a prestigious literary review publication recently expressed surprise that my “Oscar’s Ghost” was “not sentimental.”)

I have to admit that my own two novels reflect these biases. I found it much easier to write about male beauty from the point of view of a male character in my first novel Angel. In my second novel, Identity Theft, I made fun of how the (female) director of the film The Holiday felt it was important that Jude Law’s character be wearing a tie before Cameron Diaz’s character invites him to her bed– if he were of a lower social class it would make her a slut. Nevertheless I gave in to gender expectations in my own writing. The main female character, Candi, fantasizes about a sexual encounter with a rock star. In my initial conception, she had an uninspiring life and lots of stress and she wanted a fun adventure. I came to realize that she was coming across as not “likeable” or “relateable” enough.  So I gave her body image issues which provided a socially-sanctioned sympathetic motivation for her sexual desire. She wanted the affair to boost her self-esteem, not to pro-actively go out in search of pleasure.

We do not just need to change how men think about us, we need to change how we think about ourselves.

Sexual Harassment and the Single Story

Sexual harassment allegations continue to dominate the news. I applaud the social movement to change our culture on this issue, but there is something in our national discourse that has been troubling me.

The individual tales of bad behavior are being merged into one story. There is no distinction between transgressions, whether they are isolated or part of a pattern, whether with adults or people under age, whether in a social setting or at work, whether a rebuff was followed by retaliation or not, whether it was decades ago or ongoing, whether the accusation has been carefully vetted or is just something someone posted on social media with a MeToo hashtag. All transgressions are equal, none can be examined deeply without accusations of victim blaming, and the only remedy on offer is firing the perpetrator and permanent ostracization.

The noted scholar Mary Beard wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that she is “conflicted” on the issue of public shamings.

When I say ‘conflicted’ I mean exactly that. Part of me feels that the majority of the allegations that have followed since the Harvey Weinstein cases are probably true, and — in the absence of any real likelihood of criminal prosecutions  (even in cases where that would be a technical possibility) — a bit of public naming and shaming might be the best way of changing the culture on this (and, as I said before, changing the culture in ordinary workplaces as much as in celebrity culture).

But another part of me feels that some of these allegations are probably not true (or at least there is another side to them) — and that no newspaper account is ever going to let us judge which those (albeit minority) cases are. And those innocents have no way  of putting their side of it (at least a legal trial allows you to do that).

In a recent article in Jezebel, Stassa Edwards argues against appeals to due process or any talk of redemption for the accused. She makes the case that such talk is an attempt to sweep the problem under the rug and to return to a comfortable status quo. Certainly such arguments can be, but they are not by definition, and we should not be so quick to dismiss the idea of giving the accused a fair hearing. We need to be especially careful precisely in cases where emotions and stakes are high.

Edwards argues against a New Yorker piece by Masha Gessen, who she quotes here:

“The affirmative-consent and preponderance-of-the-evidence regimes shift the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused, eliminating the presumption of innocence,” she writes, never pausing to consider that jail, suspension or expulsion from school, or job loss are hardly synonymous, or that their long-term repercussions are the same.

Indeed, jail and losing a job are not the same. But we should not be too quick to minimize the impact of social shaming, loss of career and personal identity.

Jon Ronson, who studied those who have been publicly shamed found that years later, the shamers had gone on with their lives and assumed the forgotten targets of their public shamings had too. They’d just lost a job, what’s the big deal? But, he reported, “…we want to think they’re fine, but they’re not fine. The people I met were mangled.”

So “only a job” is not a good excuse to abandon the presumption of innocence. If you were accused of something, you would want an opportunity to respond and be heard whether in court or in the court of public opinion– whether the stakes were jail or losing your job or simply a loss of face, wouldn’t you?

Are we not sophisticated enough to hold these two thoughts at once: that these offenses represent a serious, far-reaching, systemic problem and that we need to be fair to the people who are accused as well as the accusers?

Those who have, at some period in our lives, experienced unwanted sexual advances and want change, should be the most concerned with giving the accused a fair shake. Exaggerating and conflating undermine our own efforts by making us easy to dismiss. Every example of over-zealousness provides an excuse for someone to say the problem doesn’t really exist.

We are a culture that uses celebrities as symbols in our shared mythology, much as we once told tales of the gods. Politicians and film stars are a common point of reference to talk about our dreams, aspirations and values. So the celebrity who transgresses is shunned in order to demonstrate our cultural values. Symbolically, if Louis CK’s actions are forgivable, then so are your wretched boss’s, and therefore we cannot yield.

Nor do we welcome much nuance if it disturbs the important process of myth-making. If individual cases do not quite fit the pattern, they are sometimes made to. Let me give you an example. I believe Anthony Rapp’s accusation against Kevin Spacey. Spacey did not deny it. What upset people so much in that case was Rapp’s age– 14 at the time Spacey allegedly made a move on him.

Since then, many additional accounts of bad behavior have been levied against Spacey, but they have mostly been by adults, although you would be forgiven for not noticing that. To be clear here, I am passing judgment on the accusers or saying their statements are not truthful. I simply wish to make a point about how the various cases have been synthesized in the reporting to create a seamless narrative.

Consider this passage in a USA Today article on another Spacey accuser. I have edited it to remove the name and some identifying information of the accuser:

It was July in New York and [he] was just 27, in his first major job out of college [at a theater where] he was running the fledgling film program. He was in his office one day, phone in hand, when Spacey walked in and sat down at an empty desk.

 [He] knew who [Spacey] was. Then 22, Spacey was an up-and-coming actor, playing a minor role in Henry IV Part 1, according to records.

The narrator goes on to report that Spacey groped him and became angry when he was rebuffed.

The article goes on “… he was shocked, then freaked out. Would Spacey get him fired?”

I removed the accuser’s name because I do not want to make this about him or to make it appear I am trying to minimize his experience or call his story into question. That is not my point. Rather, I have some questions on how USA Today chose to relate his story.

If you scanned the article quickly, you’d be forgiven for not noticing a few things. The victim is described as being “just 27.” The word “just” emphasizes his youth, although 27 is an adult in anyone’s book.  Spacey’s age does not earn a “just” even though– take note– he was five years younger than the other man. Note also that Spacey is described as an “up-and-coming” actor. This makes him sound notable. This is in contrast to the language used to describe the 27-year-old’s job: his first out of college, a fledgling program.

Other language could have been used to describe an actor who was not-yet-famous and who had only managed to land a “minor role” in a Shakespeare production. You might go so far as to call him a “struggling actor.” In an interview years ago about his career at that time (ironically with Charlie Rose) Spacey said he couldn’t get work and was pleased to get a role as a “spear carrier” because he didn’t want to wait tables.

It is not clear whether the victim’s concerns about being fired were his own. They were not presented in the form of a direct quotation. Was this 27 year old, who ran the film program at the theater really worried that a 22 year-old, then-unknown actor in a minor (easy to recast) role would get him fired? Was that what was on his mind? Or did he simply describe behavior that he found weird and notably aggressive and the reporter speculated on his feelings? Perhaps the writer decided that a story of an awkward and unpleasant sexual advance between two co-workers (in which the person who made the advance arguably had lower status) did not fit the growing narrative of male abuses of power well enough.

These stories get reported under headlines saying that “a new accuser” has appeared.  Six out of ten people share news stories having only read the headline, which means most people will naturally assume that the stories that follow are more of the same even if there are important differences. To people who see headlines flashed across their newsfeeds, they are all Anthony Rapps.

A person does not have to be innocent to be a scapegoat. A scapegoat is someone who is made to carry the sins of others, to take on the burden of punishment to absolve an entire group. We use our celebrities this way, as symbols. We have always used them this way. They deserve it, we feel, because they courted fame in the first place. They get to be treated as small gods, and when they fall, they take on the sins of all who shared their transgressions.

But celebrities are just people. They should be held accountable for their actions in proportion to their severity, not in proportion to the severity of the social problem as a whole. Each accuser should be listened to and judged on the basis of her own story, not as a representative of the collective sufferings of women.

Edwards writes “what’s at issue here is civil rights—freedom from discrimination in the form of harassment because of gender or sex.”

She is right. Civil rights is the issue.

We can’t be champions of civil rights without having a concern for fair treatment of both the accused and the accuser.

History Obscured

Over the past couple of years in this space I have talked about how our desire to have history conform to a notion of linear progress has obscured the achievements of people who were supposed to have gained social rights only later. Two years ago I put it this way:

It is much easier to tell the dramatic story of increasing freedom for women– a straight line from corsets and arranged marriages to women’s suffrage, 1970s women’s lib, and then Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and female CEOs– if you leave out the women of previous ages who did the things we imagine they only later gained the right to do.

Another article here called Vanishing Women asks how many exceptions to the rule that women did not work outside the home do we have to come across before we start questioning if the rule is actually valid?

Another example of this surfaced recently, as reported in The Guardian. The title of the article by David Olusoga tells it all really, “Black people have had a presence in our history for centuries. Get over it.

The article describes a twitter storm over a cartoon set in Roman times which depicted a dark-skinned character.

Sensing a politically correct plot to take over British history, one presumably orchestrated by the liberal elite from somewhere deep within their headquarters in the out-of-touch, metropolitan, media bubble, Watson went on the offensive. “I mean, who cares about historical accuracy, right?” he tweeted.

This started the ball rolling. (If you’d like to read more on my thoughts on the idea of “revisionist history” you can go back to the post History as a Straight Line.)

Olusoga goes on to give an overview of recent scholarship that shows that Roman Britain was more ethnically diverse than many people have assumed. (I recommend a read.)

He concluded his article with a question.

The deeper, more fundamental question is why? Why are some people so affronted by the very idea that the black presence in Britain stretches back so many centuries? Why, even when historical evidence is presented and the opinions of experts given, are they determined to dismiss the facts and, as we have seen in this case, seek to trash the reputation of respected scholars? The refusal to accept that the black presence in Britain has a long and deep history is not just a symptom of racism, it is a form of racism. It is part of a rearguard and increasingly unsustainable defence of a fantasy monochrome version of British history.

The notion that Britain was monochromatic or that “European Christians built this nation” legitimizes the claim of certain groups to be the true inheritors of a society. It is easier for favored groups (and groups that fear falling out of favor) to point to history and tradition than to argue that there is an inherent reason they deserve favored status.

One of the first posts I ever wrote here was inspired by a poem by Beau Sia, and Asian-American who tried to empathize with a woman who got caught up in one of those viral online shamings after posting a video rant about “Asians in the library.” Her mindset, he concluded was:

“I’m so afraid I’ll have to fend for myself without what I’ve been told was mine.”

 

Quote of the Day: Space for Imagination to Play Out

We endure in a society where the mainstream orthodoxy would like us to accept that ‘there is no alternative’. One of the last great taboos is money and the associated economic system. If you consider our mono-currency as a societal tool imposed from the top down, it shapes and informs how we behave and the values we are expected to live by. In a way, it is like DNA; if we can change the DNA of our economy we could create new exchanges, values and social relations. We have become so used to this abstract construct that it is the water we swim in and the box we need to think out of. In order for people to start thinking that another world is possible we need to open up a space for imagination to play out. Art, games and play are some of the few remaining arenas available to engage in speculation about the future.

-Neil Farnan from an interview in Furtherfield on Utopoly, a version of the board game Monopoly that encourages players to imagine society based on values beyond the economic monoculture.