No Cordelia in Trump’s Cabinet

Watching the circle of craven sycophants, aka the President’s cabinet members, compete to outdo one another in paeans of effusive praise for their toddler-in-chief, I could not help but wonder if English teachers all over the country were reminded, as I was, of Act I, scene 1, of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  Commanding the presence of his three daughters in the public space of the court, he requires of each that she declare her love for him as the price for such portion of his kingdom (He is dividing it up prior to retirement from kingly burdens.) as he deems the declaration of love deserves:

Tell me, my daughters,–
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,–
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?       

First Goneril and then Regan produce hyperbolic declarations of devotion and love

Goneril:

 Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;               
(1.1.56-59)

Regan:

Sir, I am made of the self-same metal that my sister is,
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
I find she names my very deed of love;
Only she comes too short.                                                            
(1.1.71-74)

Lear smugly accepts and rewards these avowals before moving on to ask his beloved youngest daughter Cordelia, “What can you say to draw/ A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.”

Cordelia answers, “Nothing,” going on to barely explain, “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty/According to my bond; nor more nor less.” (1.1.93-95)

As I watched the replay of Trump’s cabinet members, invited to say something about the accomplishments of his administration in front of the media, this scene played itself out on my English teacher’s memory screen. But there was no Cordelia refusing to utter puffed-up blandishments, so blatantly insincere that I was embarrassed to be witness to them, even coming from cabinet officials for whom I have little respect. Cordelia refuses to pander to her father’s vanity.  Starting with Vice President Pence, who declared his connection to Trump the greatest honor of his life, one after another of Trump appointees declared his/her gratitude and pride in serving this amazing administration led by this outstanding man. Reince Priebus offered the most fulsome response, his paean including the pseudo-religious “blessing given” by Donald Trump, as if from some Olympian height. “On behalf the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people,” the White House chief of staff said.

No Cordelia there to interrupt the chorus of obsequious adulation. If I wanted to extend this comparison, I might invoke the ghost of James Comey, the man who refused to pledge allegiance and loyalty (love?) to Donald Trump; but that perhaps remains for a brilliant dramaturge such as Oskar Eustis to incorporate into a relevant production of King Lear. Although he’d have to take liberties with the text, I can imagine Comey as a Cordelia figure, both of them honest and, truth be told, a bit self-righteous.   Of course Cordelia ends up dead and I would not wish such a fate on James Comey.  Eustis’ controversial Julius Caesar, now playing in Central park, is currently dealing with the withdrawal of financial support from corporate giants Delta Airlines and Bank of America because of its rendering of Caesar as a Trump look-alike (sort  of) with an affinity for long ties (Oh, don’t tempt me here!), a Slavic wife, and despotic power.  Remember, Caesar is assassinated, so to the corporate oligarchs who rule this not-so-democratic republic, the play must seem a Democratic/liberal plot to hide the fact that Trump won the popular vote. Remember that Shakespeare served under an absolute monarch, that his plays were subject to official censorship, and that the assassination of a head-of-state, good or bad, could not be presented as a positive feat. I suspect those who see subversion in the play have neither seen it nor read it all the way to the end. Maybe in their sophomore year in high school, they weren’t paying attention to their English teachers.  Maybe they lack a sense of irony or even of humor.

Trump’s story, no matter where it ends, can never be a tragedy.  Trump is no Lear, no grand, frail, flawed hero capable of recognizing his flaws.  I do not believe that Trump is capable of honest recognition of his ego-driven folly and foolishness, his need for constant praise.  He will never, I suspect, cry out in honest self-assessment, as Lear does when he begins to see the damage he has wrought,

I am a very foolish fond old man,

Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less.

And to deal plainly

I fear I am not in my perfect mind.”

(4.7.60-64)

Trump lacks the majesty of tragic hubris; his ego blinds him to the possibilities of honest self-assessment, of redemption.  He may suffer reverses of fortune brought about by his own prideful errors in judgment, but I doubt he will ever see himself, rather than the Democrats and leakers of either party, as responsible. Trump is as shallow as a vernal pond, as vain as Narcissus, as psychologically naked in public as the monarch in Hans Christian Anderson’s “The King’s New Clothes.” He is mindlessly cruel both to strangers and those close to him, loyal only to his own appetites, and heedless of the hurt and humiliation he disperses like contaminated seed. He will never be able to declare, as Lear does on the edge of mad regret, in the insightful and empathetic speech I love most in the play:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.                             
(3.4.28-36)

Lear learns compassion, caritas, and humility. He realizes that he is not the only sufferer, in fact hardly a sufferer at all, compared to those enduring poverty of body and spirit. Through his suffering and his consequent consciousness of self, he emerges as the tragic hero of a great tragic drama.

I can’t envision Donald Trump looking deeper than his own skin to recognize the suffering that he and, under his leadership, the ilk of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and Tom Price and Ben Carson and Rick Perry and Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions and Rex Tillerson, are inflicting on the least among us. His story will not reach the heights of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. It is more theater of the absurd, occasionally funny but mostly Godot-goofy, Brecht-bitter, Sartre-sardonic – at least from an audience’s view. To Trump himself, his reign is an amazing spectacle of the superlative, theater of the rococo, the vulgar and the vicious. To this viewer, his little drama is neither ennobling nor elevating. It’s not even sad enough to be considered pathos. I’d call it a national embarrassment with potentially dangerous consequences.

I swore off ranting about Trump a few weeks ago; hence the blog-silence. I had begun to feel the fatigue of constant outrage, indignation and disbelief. Instead I read poetry: Yeats, Auden, Brodsky, Wisława Szymborska, Anna Akhmatova, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde.  They expressed indignation, anger and apocalyptic terror so much more elegantly than the talking heads on TV or the columnists of the New York Times.  Today’s televised replay of the cabinet of toadies bowing and scraping before the petty wanna-be tyrant, competing with one another to lick even the dirty sole of the master’s boot, heated my simmering umbrage to a pasta-cooking boil. Silent no longer…at least for now.

Every day someone posts an article on Facebook assuring us like-minded users (Of course, we see only the like-minded on our own pages along with the ads for anything we have ever coveted on line.) that the end is in sight, that impeachment or indictment or implosion of government is surely at hand, like the “sly beast slouching…” so often referenced. Then another day passes and Trumpkin is still on the throne, still twittering like a mad wren, still proclaiming accomplishments the likes of which no one has seen since perhaps George Washington’s day. I ask myself: is the outrageous becoming the new normal? People post that love will conquer hate. I think that I don’t think love has much to do with our current national dilemma. I think action has to challenge hateful legislation and language and lies. Writing is action, even though it requires no elbow grease or shoe leather or dangerous provocations of authority. Words are what I have to send out into the marketplace (good capitalist diction!) of ideas. Sharing the page with William Shakespeare helps keep me humble. Sharing citizenship with the likes of Donald Trump makes me wistful for the days when my ancestors were still living in Quebec, speaking French. I remind my adult grandchildren to be sure their passports are in order. I am writing checks to Planned Parenthood in lieu of birthday gifts. I am not hopeful but neither am I totally without hope, not when I have poetry and drama to terrify and console me. I will let Auden have the last words, from a poem he came to reject but that continues to inspire me.

From “September 1, 1939,” last stanza.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Advertisements

Thoughts on the Morning of a 77th Birthday.

You awaken slowly, slats of light through the blinds, the vague realization that you are alive again, that it is another day again, that soon you will move your limbs into the motions of getting out of bed. Into this bleary foggy early awakening comes an intrusion, an interruption of the ordinary: it is your birthday, your 77th. You are, says the calendar, 77 years old today. The number is indifferent and stunning.

When you rise, you know, there will be messages on the devices –the IPhone, the Kindle –because, even in these late years, you have adapted, in an elementary and limited fashion and despite daily frustration, to the technology of instant communication. While you still experience a little frisson of anticipatory energy when you open the mailbox in the lobby and find therein a “real” letter or card, as opposed to the endless flyers, catalogues, and bills, you have learned an appreciation for e-cards and e-gifts certificates and cyber-greetings. You seldom resort to such greetings yourself, at least not as the only acknowledgment of occasion, still retaining your title as “Hallmark Queen” and helping to keep the US Post Office in business.

You will rise as a 77-year-old woman, having lived long enough that events of your past experience are now “history” in the textbook and classroom sense of the word. You will rise into a broken world, your own country and many others still at war. Your life began in 1940 as WWII raged; you have a vague memory of sitting on the porch steps of the house in Buzzards Bay with a cooking pot on which you were banging, with the grown-ups approval, a metal spoon – war’s end. You came into your own first wave of political consciousness in the McCarthy-red-scare era. Influenced by your father’s views, you learned to speak of “pinkos” and “fellow travelers” with patriotic scorn. You remember the Rosenberg executions. You have a cocktail napkin autographed to you personally by Richard Nixon, whom your father, district manager for Western Union,  met while handling communications for Nixon’s campaign tour of New Hampshire. You will leave for college in 1958 as a conservative and graduate in 1962 as a liberal, the civil rights movement having replaced your father as authority on justice. You will hope to change the world.

And then you will fall in what you think is love, fall pregnant when you are sure that can’t happen, get married because there is no real alternative, have three children in 17 months (a singleton and twins), move from Maryland to Connecticut to Kansas to New Jersey, there to stay through divorce, raising your children into adulthood, growing in your career as an educator, writing a bit, getting published a bit, gaining some limited recognition in your field, growing older alone, sometimes lonely, sometimes not. Then after 30 years, early retirement, too early perhaps, and a move to a small town in the Adirondack mountains, there to interact every day with grandsons and every summer with Manhattan grandkids. And then to Utica, here where you are waking to the realization that you are 77 years old.

Old age is strange place –not Byzantium, for sure, pace Yeats. The strangeness is exacerbated when one lives, as you do, in an apartment complex segregated by age –one must be 55 to live here; many, perhaps most, residents are older. The appearance of children, guests, arouses in various residents, either sentimental delight or irritation. There are many dogs here, and they, too, evoke similar responses from the residents. There are fewer couples than there are women living alone –widows, divorcees, and just plain single women. There is a comfortable, safe, secure flatness to this world of old people. Their conditions illustrate the fickleness of fate: the active ninety-year old with all her faculties intact; the woman in her seventies who sometimes can’t find her apartment and roams from building to building until rescued by a friend, those of different ages dependent on walkers and scooters and other people to move about. You know you should feel grateful for reasonably good health, having done so little to maintain it. You know you should not eat so much chocolate. You don’t drink alcohol any longer –at least there’s that.

This birthday morning you realize again that you didn’t change the world, that you never really got to emulate Joan of Arc whose name you took at confirmation, that you now understand too well Stephen Spender’s lines:

What I expected, was

Thunder, fighting,

Long struggles with men

And climbing.

After continual straining

I should grow strong;

Then the rocks would shake

And I rest long.

 

What I had not foreseen

Was the gradual day

Weakening the will

Leaking the brightness away,

The lack of good to touch,

The fading of body and soul

Smoke before wind,

Corrupt, insubstantial…

 

You have lived your life in literature; books have limned the life you dreamed, the exit lines you wanted for yourself, the plots you wished to inhabit. Poems spoke for you, the poems of others better than your own. The hardest realization this morning, this 77th birthday morning, is that your life, like that of most people, has been small, average, relatively insignificant. You are supposed to take heart from the fact that your children, now in their 50’s, live decent, independent lives; that they have raised children whom you love and who give you moments of joy. But you also know that the greater number of people you love –three children, then six grandchildren—the more anxiety, pain and disappointment you can expect. Your expectations, for self and others, is often too high. The “gradual day” can be long and colorless, bland and lonely.

Now you understand King Lear as you never did when you taught the play many times years ago. Not so much the selfish Lear of Act I, but the mad Lear on the heath and wandering alone afterwards, deranged by the realization of his own insignificance, powerlessness and selfishness.

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!

Like Lear, you have realized how little care we have taken of the less fortunate among us, how the current administration will strip the poor even more naked, how powerless you feel at this realization. Later, Lear, bending over the body of his finally beloved daughter Cordelia, begs someone “Pray you, undo this button.” you understand this plea now, very well, as a prayer to be unclothed from one’s flesh, to be free to die unencumbered by the trappings we wear to cover the pathos of mortality. In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus, the man for whom you would have become a camp follower, speaks of “the hour of consciousness,” that allows us to consider Sisyphus happy despite his endless, repetitive struggle to push that rock up the hill. You have been conscious, as Lear becomes and Camus explicates, of the absurdity, the randomness, the essential smallness of a human life. The consciousness began as youthful aspiration –to be Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Cady Stanton; as time, with its relentless pounding away at illusions, went on, you began to realize the limits of your own courage and vision. You settled into the middle class and safely bordered life of career and suburbs and literature. Now in old age, you see it all too clearly, the long sadness that comes of consciousness, loss of faith, depredations of age, the simple fact of mortality.

Yesterday you heard from a young man whom you encouraged to write poetry and who thanks you for mentoring him into the life of the intellect. He called to tell you he has been accepted into a prestigious MFA program in creative writing. He will be a poet, and he credits you for inspiration and encouragement. There have been a few such young writers whom you, like so many English teachers, have mentored into the confidence to write and publish poetry. You realize with a mix of sadness and pride that you are a better editor and mentor of emerging poets than you are a poet yourself. That the poems you write lack verve and energy even when they “work.” But you have been unerring in spotting a potential poet or novelist. They have acknowledged you in autographs and acknowledgments. You love to read their work.

Is that enough? As the end comes nearer and seems both inevitable and perhaps desirable, is it enough to know you have influenced young people, that you have raised good children and influenced the raising of grandchildren, all of whom love you? Is it enough that you did not change the world, lead an army, earn an obituary in the New York Times? You ask yourself as the sun stripes the comforter you huddle under and your cellphone chimes as a message comes in, probably a birthday greeting. Perhaps it has to be, you think, it has to be enough. Every life you have touched has also touched and changed yours.  Perhaps that really is enough. Time now to get up and make a day of this one, your 77th birthday.

Republican Cruelty

Samantha Schmidt in the March 7 issue of The Washington Post reported, “In an attempt to deter illegal immigration from Mexico, the Department of Homeland Security is considering separating children from parents caught crossing the border, Secretary John Kelly said Monday on CNN. The proposal would result in detention for the parent while any accompanying children would be placed in the care of the government or sent to live with any relatives in the United States.” Explaining his reasoning to Wolf Blitzer, Kelly said, “I would do almost anything to deter the people from Central America getting on this very, very dangerous network that brings them up from Mexico.”

Every day elicits from me another gasp as the Trump administration demonstrates over and over again a complete lack of human compassion or even of attempts to understand the cruelty of their various proposals: to destroy healthcare for the poor, to deny women coverage for reproductive health, to question why men should have to pay for insurance that covers prenatal care, to suggest that the poor don’t really want health care, to suggest that the poor should give up expensive cellphones so that they can pay for health care, and on and on.

I have tried to read and listen, tried to figure out what goes on inside the heads and hearts of the men (and they are mostly rich white men) as they gather to discuss and plan ways to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, all  in the name of saving money and demolishing “big government.” I struggle against hopeless cynicism and despair, not only about Trump’s administration and its proposed policies but also about my faith in the basic goodness of human beings who hold positions of power.

Kelly’s statements about separating parents (mostly mothers) from their children in the name of deterrence left me literally wordless. I couldn’t help imagining a conference room full of Homeland Security officials calmly discussing Kelly’s proposal. Of course we don’t have the transcript, but I try to imagine what was going in their heads as they seriously considered ripping traumatized refugee kids from their equally stressed mothers. These women are trying to protect their children by escaping from countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras where the dangers of gang-related violence, forced gang recruitment, extortion, poverty and lack of opportunity make the dangers of fleeing to seek asylum pale in comparison.

Having survived a perilous journey from countries where they lived in imminent danger from ruthless gangs and corrupt governments, probably having been further traumatized by the craven coyotes whom they paid to guide them to the illegal border crossing, having made it through hunger and thirst and even sexual abuse, they arrive on American soil only to be forcibly separated. This inhuman move on the part of U.S. government agents would supposedly deter other mothers from attempting the perilous journey with their children.

How can humans being actually consider such a proposal? How can a room full of federal officials seriously discuss with one another an idea so counter to everything we supposedly stand for, to the family values the Republicans like to trumpet, to the universal concept of sanctuary? How can these officials, part of an administration whose leaders claim a Judeo-Christian heritage (with an emphasis in this administration on “Christian”) propose and defend the idea of separating children from their mothers, turning them over to government agents or relatives and immediately deporting their mothers? Where in the Gospels, in the words of Jesus, in the larger ethos of human compassion can they find justification? These women seeking asylum represent no threat to our safety. This proposal, however, represents a threat to the ethical center of  American ideals.

I want to hope that at least one voice in that room full of Homeland Security officials spoke up to suggest the essential wrongness, the immorality, the cruelty of this proposal. When asked if he worried that public opinion might be outraged, Kelly said he would do anything to stop this flow of traffic.  The Washington Post referred to “Barbara Hines, an immigration law expert, who argues that it shouldn’t have to be a choice between detention or separation — families should be released from the beginning. She also argued that such a policy change probably would do nothing to deter women from crossing the border illegally with their children.”

“The experts have established that when people are fearing for their lives, what is going to happen at the border is not going to deter them. The women that I’ve seen over the last two years are fleeing for their lives,” Hines said. “They’ve gone through such incredible trauma in their home countries.” Separating them from their children, she said, would be “unthinkable.”

The Washington Post article also quoted the American Academy of Pediatrics, a credible source of wisdom about children: “Federal authorities must exercise caution to ensure that the emotional and physical stress children experience as they seek refuge in the United States is not exacerbated by the additional trauma of being separated from their siblings, parents or other relatives and caregivers.”

I assume that some of the officials in the discussion with Kelly are parents, fathers, maybe some mothers (although I cringe to think of any mother agreeing to this proposal).  Kelly himself raised three children, one of whom died in action in Afghanistan, so he knows the grief of losing a child. How many others in that room have children whom they love and cherish? Why is it so difficult to demand of people in positions of power that they seek to understand and perhaps, although it may be asking too much of the rich and powerful, to empathize with the least who seek to be among us? What elements of power and comfort deaden human feelings or defend the old argument that reason must override sympathy; that promoting fear of the other makes us safer in the long run? Or even more cynical, Kelly’s suggestion that concern for the safety of the fleeing mothers and children justifies making object lessons of those who have already made it to what they hope is safety?

I just don’t understand. I realize that there are so many other outrages: the denigration of the truth; the blatant misogyny of a president who claims he respects women; the attempts by a party that valorizes the importance of the individual over government to strip women of control of their reproductive freedom; that talks up motherhood and family values while stripping the poor and middle class families of health care; that parades the nanny-supported motherhood of wives and daughters who go “to work” in designer outfits. I am outraged daily by all of these assaults on reason and emotion.

I am, however, particularly outraged by this particular story. I am not even sure that this proposal will be enacted. I hope it is not; I hope there are people in power who will share the outrage I and others feel. I make this story the topic of this blog because it seems to me a potent, pathetic example of what is happening in our country today. I am no Pollyanna. I understand that politics are not usually informed by high moral standards and that moral views can differ, as they do around the abortion issues. I just can’t stop thinking about that conference room full of Homeland officials listening to John Kelly propose this draconian measure. I can’t stop hoping that someone stood up and cried out in protest at the very idea of ripping children from their mothers just as they begin to think they are safe to claim asylum in the land of the free and home of the brave. If anything will push me over the edge into a morass of cynicism and despair about my membership in the human community, implementation of Kelly’s inhumane and cruel proposal to rip apart the bond between mothers and their children certainly will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Woman’s Response to President Trump’s Exploitation of a Widow’s Grief

 

When Shakespeare’s King Lear demands that his daughters tell him how much they love him, Goneril and Regan comply with effusive, insincere declarations of devotion, their eyes on the territory Lear is dividing up among his three offspring. Cordelia, his youngest and most beloved, responds sincerely, “I cannot heave/My heart into my mouth.” She refuses to be manipulated into dishonest flattery. Of course Lear, a selfish, egotistical old man, furiously disinherits her on the spot.

I was reminded of that scene last night during the President’s address to the legislature. In a maudlin, hypocritical and dishonest rendition of the death of Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, President Trump directed attention to Ms. Owens, the grieving widow who sat beside Ivanka Trump in the visitors’ section. Ms. Owens was obviously and understandably distraught as she struggled to maintain composure, to contain her tears. Of course most of the assemblage on both sides of the aisle rose to offer long sustained applause, while Trump, his thin-lipped smirk stretched smugly, pickerel-like, across his face, clapped and nodded. “Ryan is looking down right now, you know that?” he assured the widow, then quoted General Mattis saying, “‘Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemy.’” Then a stroke of rhetorical hyperbole: “Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity.”

Immediately after the speech, some talking heads on PBS and CNN agreed sagely about the emotional power of the moment –the widow’s gallant attempt to stay strong, the dramatic sustained response of the audience. One or two suggested that Trump had exploited the death of the Navy seal, our “hero” of the moment; but most bought into the televised drama.

Today, as I read the news and scrolled through Facebook responses to the address, I note that several voices bitterly denounced the few legislators on the Democratic side who chose not to stand for the ovation. I am writing this because I know I would not have stood, would not have applauded. In no way am I seeking to trivialize or denigrate Ms. Owens grief, nor will I criticize or comment on her willingness to attend the event as the President’s guest. As background we have read about her father-in-law’s refusal to greet the president when Trump and his daughter went to pay respects to Owen’s body as it arrived at Dover Air Force Base.  “I told them I didn’t want to make a scene about it, but my conscience wouldn’t let me talk to him,” Owens said. He asked that his son’s death not be used to hide the truth.

Ms. Owen’s grief is real and her struggle to maintain her dignity brave. Perhaps the wave of applause and the president’s words comforted her and validated the canard that her husband did not die in vain. Ryan Owen’s father’s grief and anger are no less valid, however, given what we know (or don’t know) about the success of the mission. People grieve in different ways, to which they are entitled.

I understand, however, those who did not stand. As I watched the televised display of enforced patriotic feeling and human sympathy, I was angry and embarrassed. Trump wielded Ms. Owens’s grieving presence as a cudgel to force a public reaction that validates his claims of a successful mission that justified an American hero’s death.

There was, of course, no mention of the nine children killed during the botched mission. American lives matter; the children were collateral damage.  Trump insisted again that the raid secured valuable intelligence that will save many more lives; there are convincing reports to the contrary. The appalling truth is that Trump’s exploitation of Ms. Owens’ grief created a tsunami of sentiment that obfuscates rational critique. Perhaps those Democrats who refused to be manipulated into ringing applause realized that Trump was hearing approval for himself, his decision to approve the mission, and his pledges of safety for the American people. As he nodded and looked from side to side to survey who was applauding, that self-satisfied smirk widened. The most telling signal that Trump remains obsessed with the size of demonstrations of approval came as he bragged, as though he were citing crowd or poll numbers, “ And he’s [ Ryan Owens] very happy, because I think he just broke a record.”  That remark is exploitation taken to its callous extreme: suggesting that record breaking applause can make a dead soldier and his grieving widow “happy.” To those who chose not to join the cast of Trump’s melodrama, I say they acted with personal integrity.  Sometimes one cannot heave one’s heart up and out in response to an emotionally manipulative demand from an emotionally stunted and dishonest man, however elevated his status.

 

 

 

A Valentine Poem

Valentine in the Snow

 

What if I fill a bucket

with paint or blood

pull on my tall boots

and wade out

into the back yard

where thigh high snow

gleams whiter than white

dimpled with rabbit tracks

freckled under the feeder

with hulls of sunflower seeds?

 

Carefully I’d tip

the bucket to pour

like maple syrup

a thick and steady stream

with which to draw

into the snow

a huge lopsided heart

with a little curled flick

at its bottom vee.

 

I’d have to walk

my way all around

the perimeter of the scarlet

that could be seen

by passengers on planes

and birds en route

to the feeder

the chickedees and red polls

and one cardinal one day.

 

I guess no one would see

me splash my crimson cry

against the black and white

and endless winter

Even so I think I’d lie right down

in the center of that heart

a performance artist

shivering out a message

in the Adirondack snow.

 

               “I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened/ or full of argument…”  

Mary Oliver, from “When Death Comes”

That’s what I’ve been: sighing, frightened, and most of all, full of arguments. I have also been angry, every day angry, angry when I get up and remember in whose reign we live now; angry when I turn on the computer and see his latest tweet or read his latest lie; really, really angry as I watch the evening news, an hour of PBS’s The News Hour and another shuttling back and forth between CNN and MSNBC. (No, I don’t turn to Fox. There is some shit I will not eat, as e e cummings so famously asserted.) I do visit Breibart’s site now and then, just to give the other side another chance to outrage me. And I am angry when I go to bed and return to my reading, currently Eric Michael Dawson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. It is not an easy read; but with each chapter I finish, I think it is an important book for white Americans to read with deep concentration and a suspension of the easily summoned reactions of denial, defensiveness and guilt we hear when white privileged is mentioned.

In an attempt to distract myself from current events, yesterday I went to the movies. One luxury of the retired life is the early weekday matinee, further sweetened by lower ticket prices offered to seniors. The theater is never crowded, the largely senior population is courteous, if a bit noisy, possibly because we cannot hear one another’s whispered questions and comments. “What” softly ricochets off the seats and voices raise themselves to answer. Because and despite, I love afternoons at the movies. I went with a friend to see “Hidden Figures,” directed by Theodore Melfia, a conventionally satisfying film that tells the untold story of three African American women mathematicians, Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), whose genius contributed to  launching John Glenn into space. Who knew? I surely did not until I heard about this film. I expected to love it, seeing as it uncovers history at the intersection of race and gender. Of course, as I noted by way of introduction, I have been at an angry simmer every day since the election and longer than that about racism, personal and institutional, and its causal guardian, white privilege. In summary, I arrived at the theater as an angry, elderly, white, and always critical woman hoping to simmer down and enjoy.

The film follows a feel-good, happy-ending formula, albeit with a generous nod to Jim Crow and the early days of the Civil Rights movement. The heroes are the three Black women, boffins, a word I will bet some of you, like me, didn’t know. Ever the English teacher who never misses a chance to teach vocabulary, I’ll define it. A boffin is a person engaged in scientific or technical research, a person with knowledge or a skill considered to be complex, arcane, and difficult. The women portrayed in the Hidden Figures were, in real life, incredibly gifted mathematicians and engineers who built careers at NASA in 1961 segregated Virginia where they endured and prevailed against personal and institutional racism and discrimination by dint of patience, good manners, and sheer brilliance.  Katherine becomes the brains of the division whose mathematical calculations ensure the spacecraft’s liftoff and splashdown; Mary, encouraged by a survivor of the Nazis, turns to the court system to win admission to courses she needs to become an engineer; and Dorothy, the unofficial and underpaid manager of the “colored” human computers, as these human calculators were known in the old days before real computers arrived on the scene, figures out how to operate NASA’s new  room-sized IBM, gets promoted to official manager, and liberates her “girls” from their segregated office space. We see historical footage of early test launches and of John Glenn’s liftoff, glimpses of archival TV showing Russian space triumphs, Civil Rights marchers, Martin Luther King, John Kennedy. The film also features an amazing line up of period cars, their long fins sparking sunlight in a parking lot.  Lest the viewer feel stuck inside the grim bare halls of Langley, there are human interest sequences in which the three women socialize, attend church services, and dance. There’s a love story too, between the widowed Katherine and Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali). Although the white people in power do not dominate the action, they play important roles that cry out to be interrogated. Kevin Cosner, always a reliable actor, does a fine job as Al Harrison, the bossman of Katherine’s section. As Paul Stafford, Jim Parsons does dour duty as a racist, sexist mathematician who tries to foil Katherine’s genius at every turn. Vivian Michael (Kirsten Dunst), Dorothy’s supervisor, is an indifferent ice princess who looks down her nose at Dorothy’s girls. By the end, however, all of the white folk learn their lessons and mend their racist ways, their reformations signified by small acts of kindness, such as Stafford offering Katherine a cup of coffee from a shared pot. Kirsten promotes Dorothy and they share a warm and fuzzy moment in the women’s room. After challenging Jim Crow law in court, Mary graduates as an engineer and continues to work with her mentor in the space program.

 

Hidden Figures is a serious film with a significant purpose: to tell an important untold story.  I am sure it will take its place in classrooms during either Black History or Women’s History month. So why did I leave the film feeling so conflicted? As I shuffled toward the exit, sorting through levels of anger to find what troubled me, I noticed that my friend was sobbing. She has a tender heart, but I could not figure out how this particular film could elicit tears. When I asked her, she said, “Oh, we were so hopeful back then and now it’s all gone.”  We were both alive and aware during the time period of the film, so I sort of knew what she meant. Then I found myself (remember, I am reading Dyson) thinking, “Who are the WE in that plaint?” I wondered if Black Americans were as hopeful back then that, as the film suggests,  good manners, good grooming, and patience allow Black people –geniuses in this case — to prevail and rise, pulled up by their own bootstraps and eventual good will of white folk, earned by all that non-militant behavior. I shocked myself with that angry thought, as if I were denigrating the efforts and endurance and courage of the real-life Black women, trying to survive and succeed at NASA.

I don’t know where fact and fiction part company in the film. I know the story is “based on” facts, and I am not questioning in any way the facts of the women’s genius, their importance to NASA, and their struggle to be recognized. Margaret is given one scene of straight up, loud indignation when she has to explain to her boss Al why she takes such long breaks. Soaking wet after running in high heels in pouring rain the half mile to the only building in which there are “colored” bathrooms (She has been told she cannot use the “white” bathrooms nearby.), she raises her voice indignantly; there is anger in her outrage but also self-control. In response, Al,  who has seemed oblivious to the callous discrimination Margaret endures daily from his all-white, all-male department, assumes the default position of the white male hero –he springs into action, wielding a crow bar to knock down the “colored women” sign outside the lavatory door. The scene is extended through several athletic whacks as the women from the “colored” computer room stand in a phalanx of surprise and awe. Old story: man rescues women in distress; white man uses white power to demolish racism.. Al proclaims as he strides away, “At NASA everyone pees the same color.” (Remember the line in the latest inaugural address –reassurance that we all bleed red?) That’s a feel-good moment for a white audience Later, in a less physical act of destruction, Al tears the “colored” label off the coffee pot reserved for Margaret’s use. And still later he asserts his authority to admit Margaret to secure briefings, inner sanctums reserved until then for whites. Glen Powell as John Glenn also gets to be a good white guy when he insists on shaking hands with the Black women gathered along with, but separate from, the white folks greeting his arrival at NASA.

As if to reassure audiences (male?)  that sexism is not the sole province of white men, Theodore Melfi builds in a scene in which Margaret’s Black suitor, Colonel Johnson, initially earns her scorn by questioning how a women can do her job. While I realize that serious drama requires some comic relief, I was discomfited by the chuckles prompted by repeated scenes of Margaret’s awkward run, in high heels, to the “colored” toilet. I found the repeats of the scene painful, maybe because I wore such high heels back then and know how hard it is to run in them, but more because I felt Margaret’s foot pain, bladder pressure, and embarrassment. I understand the uses of comic relief, but her humiliation is not funny. Am I carping here? Nit-picking?

I hope not, but I was conflicted, with yet another specific target for my anger, a feel-good film that didn’t make me feel all that good. On the positive side, Hidden Figures corrects a historical sin of omission. I am grateful I learned about these heroic African American women. We need to recover our lost histories. I also realize Hollywood movies have to make money; to do that, they have to entertain. When the subject is race, they also have to reassure their white audiences that African Americans can and do succeed, that our country is essentially fair, despite its long history of racism. And most significant (and dishonest to me), the film aims to reassure or convince us, depending on our personal views, that if Black people dress neatly, remain stolidly patient and dignified in the face of unfair treatment, mind their manners, and avoid making trouble or demands, they can eventually achieve the American dream of equal opportunity for all. It’s a version of you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps if you make sure your boots are well polished. Yes, I know there were Eyes-on-the-Prize newsreel shots of civil rights activists, lunging dogs, and white racists. Yes, I know it was a long time ago. And yes, I know many people who will say that Black people have equal opportunities today; that as allies and advocates, we white folk can and should speak up, march, wear our buttons, vote, protest. What the film does not address, except glancingly if we read NASA as an institution, is the fact of white privilege deeply embedded in America from the time the first Africans were brought here as enslaved people. The film further reifies the old feel-good narrative of the “color-blind” white person who has an epiphany and begins to acts as an ally, if not an advocate.

Ordinary, well-meaning people can perform individual and collective acts of non-racist solidarity and advocacy until hell freezes over. I can write and speak and argue and wear my buttons and agree with Ta Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander and Rev. Dyson; in fact I do. I have come to believe, however, nurtured on their words and those of James Baldwin, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde and so many others, that we cannot cure institutional racism by individual acts of good will. I believe we need some kind of national acknowledgment of the historical effects of racism on the fabric of our culture; I believe we need some mechanism of reparation as well. Recently Georgetown offered a small scale model of acknowledgement and reparation. The school acknowledged that it had profited from the sale of enslaved people; then it moved to make reparations by offering a kind of legacy leg up in admissions to the descendants of those enslaved people. One school, one model, probably not enough to some critics. But they are trying, as an institution, to admit and pay back.  Remember: it took until 2016 for the National Museum of African American History and Culture to show up on the National Mall. In Montgomery, Alabama, the Equal Justice Initiative is just now building a memorial to victims lynched by white mobs. We need similar action and education at the national, institutional level:  formal admissions of the damages of slavery and its aftermath. Then reparations. I am not a policy wonk or an economics expert. I can think, however, of areas such as housing, medical care, education, nutrition, safety in which African American citizens still suffer from the effects of a long history of systematic discrimination, ghettoization, poverty, and incarceration. It takes money as well as will to make amends for historical injustices; in this time of alternative facts and tax breaks for the wealthy; of vast sums of defense money wasted in the Middle East, of plans for a multi-billion dollar wall,  I do not expect to see any effort, gesture or viable initiative pointing toward acknowledgement and reconciliation.

So what do I do with this chronic anger that Hidden Figures did not soothe? Well, for me anger about the persistent effects of racism is a liberal luxury in the sense that while I am so angry and indignant, I still enjoy the benefits of white middle class privilege. I can hear some of you telling me how hard I worked, in school, in my career, as a parent, to get to this comfortable retirement that allows me afternoons at the movies. I did work hard, but I had a head start, not in the form of wealth but of opportunity.  Born in 1940, I had the burden of sexist laws and rules to throw me off track. Women’s Rights and Civil Rights were the first causes for which I acted. Although sexism was deeply institutionalized, we demolished most of the legal barriers and official discouragements. Our culture more or less admits that women were objects of systemic discrimination and that such discrimination was more or less wrong. (Again, since the election, I suspect that institutions will conspire against women again, especially in terms of reproductive rights. And the women most affected will be poor women, among whose ranks Black women number many.)

I call myself a radical feminist, one who wishes to see patriarchy overthrown. Years ago, I and many other white feminist activists failed to share power with women of color. We assumed that white women’s issues were common to all women. Of course we denounced racism; many of us were veterans of the Civil Rights movement.  So while we agitated for reproductive freedom, equality in professional schools and board rooms and Ivy League colleges, we didn’t pay attention to the ways poverty, de facto segregated schools, access to affordable housing, mass incarceration were also women’s issues. When I began to study the ways race, class and gender intersect, I started seeing the world through a different lens. Race is a cultural construct: I can’t be white (and therefore privileged) unless there is a non-white category as well. White and black as identities are what they are because they have been historically constructed to privilege one group over another. Obama was a “black” president because of a cultural construct that he embraced but did not create. The concerns of Trump’s white underclass –low pay, poverty, lack of access to affordable education –have long been the unaddressed concerns of a large portion of our African American community. Part of Trump’s appeal was to convince followers that they had been neglected as the government poured tax dollars into crime and drug ridden inner cities. He played on the old myth of white superiority and unleashed raw expressions of racism that we thought were at least publicly silenced.

In terms of racism, we have not officially admitted our historical defects, nor have we made amends to mend the cultural fabric. I must look to people more experienced than I to put forth realistic suggestions for such a process. Among others, Ta Nehisi Coates has made a case for reparation; it was not greeted with enthusiasm or action.  I see nothing on the horizon that bodes well for future efforts. Thus I must conclude, we are dammed up together in a river of collective anger and sorrow. We expect, we blame, we diagnose, we deny, we rage. Our current leaders encourage the dogma of individual effort and responsibility along with tough law and order. A country-club’s worth of rich white men rule our country, with Ben Carson allowed token membership. The poster boys of white privilege will go after anything that smacks of affirmative action, sentencing reform, prison reform, fair wages, housing assistance. My critique of Hidden Figures arises from my opinion that the film reassures and validates the American ideal of individual will and power without acknowledging, let alone exploring, institutional racism and white privilege. In fairness, the film intends to tell a story, a real story about three brilliant and determined black women who endured and prevailed. The actors are terrific, the period details perfect, the tone uplifting. It is, however, also the reassuring story of how “good” white people exercised white power to challenge discrimination based on gender and race. I think the film says to me, a white woman, that my acts of advocacy, my willingness to be an ally, my good will and tolerance can make a big difference. At this point in our history, I think we need to do more as a nation to demand institutional, systemic change. I don’t expect that change to happen any time soon, but I want to add my voice to an urgent call.

I end this entry as angry as when I started to write it. Finally this is what I can do, write, even if it does not make any difference at all. I can critique popular culture as it informs and affects us. I can try to speak truth to power. So if you are reading this rant, stay tuned for a review of another film, the documentary “13th,” directed by Ava DuVernay. I suggest Rev. Eric Dyson’s new book as well, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.

Thank you for reading. I will be interested in your comments.

 

 

 

 

In Honor of Martin Luther King Day

Today we honor Martin Luther King, the giant heart and mind of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. The president elect has chosen to twitter callously in response to Rep. John Lewis’ challenge to the legitimacy of Trump’s pending ascension to the highest office in the land. A wave of public revulsion and anger washes over the country as people, black and white, respond.

It’s Martin Luther King’s day of honor, and I want to do something, add something to the national conversation about racism. I am a white woman, an old-time radical feminist, and, I hope, an ally in the struggle for equal rights. While I am too old and creaky to attend the Women’s March in DC the day after the inauguration, I support the event and follow the news of mobilization and enthusiasm as organizers develop plans.

When the media covers a women’s march or any feminist initiative, there is nothing reporters like better than dissension in the ranks. The press falls like hyenas on any hint of what many like to call a “cat fight.” And as the NYT article Women’s March on Washington Opens Contentious Dialogues about Race by Farah Stockman (Jan.9, 2017) proves, the current march is no exception. The article quotes a white woman, indignant at being reminded of white privilege by a black volunteer who posted a suggestion that “‘white allies’ listen more and talk less.” The white woman, obviously dismayed by the comment, pulled out of the march.  “This is a women’s march,” she said. “We’re supposed to be allies in equal pay, marriage, adoption. Why is it now about, ‘White women don’t understand?’?”

A while ago, I read an academic comment that when white people write about racism, even when their views are non-defensive and anti-racist, they are always writing about themselves. I am worried that as I write this blog, I am writing about myself from inside the cage of my whiteness, my white privilege. Now that label has been much in the public eye of late. My favorite NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a series of columns trying to explain white privilege. Many comments from his mainly white readers ranged from contemptuous dismissal of his PC attitude to angry assertions about how poor white people enjoy no such privilege. Kristof kept trying, but his well-meaning, fact based arguments fell on many deaf ears. Like Kristof, I don’t know how to write outside of who I am; I have, however, again like him, learned to listen better to African American voices and to read more deeply about their experience of life in our country. I have learned that in many ways I experience life differently than my Black sisters and brothers. From another white woman dedicated to enlarging the conversation, Dr. Peggy McIntosh, I have learned a list of seemingly small, often dismissed as insignificant, realities of daily life we experience differently depending on perception of our race. (See White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, http://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack)

Today’s NYT carries an interview with President Obama about the books that have helped to sustain him during the eight years of his presidency. Obama reinforced something he said in his farewell address in Chicago a few days ago. Then he referred to Atticus Finch’s comment that one cannot understand another person until one has walked in his/her shoes. In today’s interview Obama talks about what reading fiction, stories, does for him. .He tells of his pen-pal relationship with Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead and other novels populated largely by white people in the Midwest. Obama says, “I loved her writing in part because I saw those people every day. And the interior life she was describing that connected them — the people I was shaking hands with and making speeches to — it connected them with my grandparents, who were from Kansas …”

Emily Style, a friend and colleague, wrote a much circulated paper about how schools’ reading curricula should offer both windows and mirrors that invite students to see reflections of the world as they experience it and images of the worlds that others, different in ways from themselves, inhabit. I remember in my early days as a high school English teacher emphasizing the “universality” of experience described in the classics of the canon we then taught – famous novels by famous white men. I remember when a student complained that she didn’t’ understand how she could relate to Paul Baumer’s experience in All Quiet on the Western Front and how I shut her down, telling her to look beyond the particular to the universals. I forgot that we live life in its particular details.  I should have told her she was looking through a window at an experience different from her own, but one she could imagine and learn from. I should have offered the wisdom that Obama offered in the interview when he said, “I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.”

So back to reports of dissension and disagreement among women preparing for the march on Washington.  It is not a new story, this disconnect between white feminists and feminists of color. We struggled to understand and listen to one another in the early days of the modern women’s movement. Back then, I read bell hooks and Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Adrienne Rich and many other “old” radicals. They helped me to understand that there are more sins of omission and commission on the part of the white women in the movement than there are on the side of women of color. But there was deafness on either side. It got better when we began to examine seriously the intersectionality of race and gender with economic inequality and lived experience. It got better for me when I learned to listen harder, to talk less, and most important, to educate myself out of the position of lived ignorance and denial, not so much of personal racism but of the institutional racism from which I benefited.

As ShiShi Rose, the blogger who so offended the white feminist, said, “Now is the time for you to be listening more, talking less…You should be reading our books and understanding the roots of racism and white supremacy. Listening to our speeches. You should be drowning yourselves in our poetry.”

What I suggest today, in honor of Martin Luther King and all the black women who participated in the civil rights struggle, often unsung, unnamed and forgotten, is that there is no excuse for white people to jump immediately to defend ourselves when white privilege is pointed out, described or explained. Instead, let’s listen and read and take time to view important films. As my celebration of Martin Luther King’s legacy, I take time today, instead of shopping, to offer these suggestions. I have chosen to list books written relatively recently and which I myself have read.

Between the World and Me by Ta Nahisi Coates. Then re-read  The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.  Think about the time gap between these two writers and ask what, if anything, has really changed.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness by Michelle Alexander. Then view Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th and ask yourself if you think white privilege had anything to do with the disparity between the numbers of white men and men of color in our prisons. And if you want to learn a little more about the effect of mass imprisonment of black men, try Ta Nahisi Coates’  “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” in The October 15, 2015, issue of The Atlantic.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. Eye opening examination of the effects of housing discrimination in Milwaukee. Desmond is a white Harvard sociologist, whose book deepened my understanding of institutional racism and class discrimination in urban housing.

Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward

Negroland: A Memoir by Margot Jefferson

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

Novels that offer windows into African American experiences. The plural is important; like all groups, African Americans have a variety of experiences. It is not all about being victims. Pity is a poor substitute for understanding.

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Mothers by Britt Bennett

The Fire This Time: A new Generation Speaks about Race (anthology edited by Jesmyn Ward)

Beloved and every other novel by Toni Morrison.  Morrison’s work is, for me, the widest fictional window into African American experience at various times, in different places.  Her Nobel Prize acceptance speech is another powerful exhortation.

And of course, the poets. This is not an exhaustive list; these are some of my favorites.

Audre Lorde, Rita Dove, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Claudia Rankine, Ai, Elizabeth Alexander, Alice Walker

Finally, here is Toni Morrison, from her Nobel lecture….

Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction. But who does not know of literature banned because it is interrogative; discredited because it is critical; erased because alternate? And how many are outraged by the thought of a self-ravaged tongue?

Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference – the way in which we are like no other life.

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.