Monday, January 01, 2007


New Year’s Day 2007

A dreary, rainy New Year’s morning it is, and it suits my mood this year just fine. I was unable to celebrate last night, just had dinner with my family and went to bed, remembering back glumly to so many other years when champagne was uncorked at midnight, when laughter and lights warmed the dark winter night.

Not this year, not for me. Although I remind myself that there were some things to celebrate in 2006—for example, the return of the American Congress to Democratic control, the election of women leaders like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Michelle Bachelet, and many women at lower levels of governance—still, 2006 has basically left a bad taste in my mouth, and I don’t expect much from 2007 either.

Global warming marches on. It still hasn’t snowed this winter in the Northeast, while the Rockies are being battered with record-breaking blizzards: isn’t that exactly the kind of erratic, extreme weather shifts that the scientists have been predicting to result from global warming? But our leaders are apparently still blind to the urgency of this issue, and lack the politcal will to tackle the problem head-on.

They’re too busy mopping up after the disastrous adventure in Iraq, which was, after all, designed to give the US another 25 years or so of carefree oil dependency, and further enrich all the contractors and military supplies manufacturers who were afraid, in the absence of the Cold War, that they might not have enough to do.

How fitting it is, in a somber, nightmarish way, that the 3,000th American soldier to die in Iraq should die on the very last day of 2006. Let’s all clink our glasses to that brave young man, age 22, who died defending truth, justice, and the American way of life…or was that some other movie?

Dustin Donica, the 3,000th American casualty in Iraq, died because of the shortsighted greed and reckless machismo of our political leaders. He died because his fellow and sister Americans were too busy worrying about our own small concerns to stand up and demand, in no uncertain terms, that this foolish war be stopped before any more young people have to die.

Then there was the lovely, fitting triple-death scene to send out 2006: James Brown, Gerald Ford, and Saddam Hussein. You could just see the media scrambling to try to distract American audiences from the grisly death of Saddam by focusing on the vacuous pomposity of Ford’s official funeral, and the glamorous legacy of James Brown.

By the last day of 2006, though, all attempts at diversion failed—it was impossible to keep Americans from witnessing the last horrific moments of Saddam’s life, as he was led to the gallows in the middle of the night and hanged to taunts and mockery.

Just imagine if every political leader in the world with blood on his hands were actually brought to “an eye for an eye” justice in this way! Bush and Cheney would be among the first to go.

But would it make the world a better place? Has the unceremonious hanging of Saddam Hussein made Iraq any less violent, any more humane? Is violence ever a wise response to violence?

It’s these sorts of thoughts that keep circling in my mind on this New Year’s Day, and keep me from my usual energetic, positive look ahead at the year to come. I don’t even feel like making any New Year’s resolutions, other than to just keep on keeping on.

But here’s a piece of news for my readers: I am going to close the book on my Women’s Crossroads blog, and start a new blog for 2007.

You can find me at The Glocal this year, where I’ll be commenting on what I’ve realized is my strongest interest: the interconnections between the local and the global, between what is happening here in my own little life and immediate surroundings, and what is happening on the big world stage—for women, of course, but also for all of the inhabitants of our struggling planet.

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Americans: Time to Stand Up!

It makes me feel sick—literally sick at heart—to hear the response of our president to the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations.

That bipartisan group, trying to find some way out of the morass created by BushCheney Inc., recommended phasing out most U.S. troops in Iraq by 2008.

I permitted myself a few days of cautious hope. But this morning’s news threw icy water on that faltering flame.

What has BushCheney come back with? A plan to increase the number of active-duty soldiers by tens of thousands, with additional recruiting efforts to start immediately.

How is it that we Americans are tolerating such incredible political deafness in our leaders? We don’t have the excuse that we are cowed by a ruthless totalitarian regime, as the Soviet people did when their leaders persisted in sending tens of thousands of young men into the maw of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Didn’t we send a clear message, in the November elections, that we were not happy with the Republicans’ conduct at home and abroad, and wanted change?

How could it be that those people now squatting in the White House just don’t get it?

And what will it take to get through to them?

The military generals have responded with businesslike approval—the military is a business, after all, and it’s natural for CEOs to take pleasure in watching their business grow in size and importance. Especially when it’s all paid for by the taxpayers!

Military planners estimate that
each addition of 10,000 soldiers costs taxpayers $1.2 billion (a year? It's not clear how this figure actually plays out).

That estimate probably doesn’t take into account the expenses incurred in the countries where these soldiers are deployed—costs of reconstruction, training local armies, “building democracy,” etc.

And it certainly doesn’t account in any meaningful way for the tremendous cost in lost lives, as these young men, most of them gullible teenagers who have been indoctrinated by war-based video games to think of military service as fun and recreational, are tossed onto real-world battlefields, to do and to die.

Enough talk about Iraqis “standing up,” please. It’s time for Americans to stand up and remind BushCheney—and the Congress—that THEY WORK FOR US, and WE ARE NOT HAPPY WITH THIS WAR!

We are obviously going to have to say it REALLY REALLY LOUD, because it's clear that they have their hearing aids turned off, those gray-haired armchair warriors in the White House.

If the newly empowered Democrats in Congress let BushCheney and the generals get away with this new version of “staying the course,” their credibility will be ruined for at least a generation. And what will we do then? Who will we turn to, we hapless Americans?

Let's start by acknowledging that rearranging the nameplates on the chairs in Congress doesn't accomplish anything unless the voters remain vigilant and active after the elections. Nobody else is going to do it for us. If we want change, we've got to make it happen ourselves, one day and one battle at a time.

Let's start today.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, December 14, 2006


Circumcision: No Time to Waste, for Men or Women

We wake up to the trumpet of good news: a new study shows that circumcised men run half the risk of HIV/AIDS infection compared to uncircumcised men. A campaign is already underway to get men to voluntarily get themselves circumcised.


But we should also be acting more strongly on what we already knew: that the practice of female genital “circumcision,” most often carried out on young helpless girls in unhygienic conditions without anesthesia, sharply increases the probability that they will contract AIDS.

Just how sharp is that increase? Well, it would be nice to know, wouldn’t it? Common sense tells us that the practice (which usually involves cutting off the clitoris and labia with a razor or knife, and then sewing up the bloody wound to leave only a small hole for urine and menstrual blood to flow through) makes a woman more vulnerable to AIDS infection because she is far more likely to bleed every time she has intercourse. Indeed, intercourse for young women who have been circumcised can be a nightmare, since the man literally needs to “break into” the vaginal canal, repeatedly opening and tearing the wound.

You would think that given the fact that some 140 million living women in Africa have been subjected to female genital mutilation, studies would have been done by now to measure the connection between FGM and AIDS. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence, and the link is clear to anyone who understands the connection between sex, blood and HIV transmission. But as far as I’m aware, there have been no major research programs undertaken in this area.

Not enough profit in such a study, perhaps? FGM can’t be cured with an expensive vaccine or drug cocktail. Changing cultural practices and beliefs takes a long time, and lots of face-to-face communication with people who are naturally suspicious of outsiders.

Tostan is one African-based group that’s doing outstanding work in educating people in rural communities in Senegal and Guinea about the harmfulness of FGM. This month, 150 villages in the West African country of Guinea (where more than 97% of women undergo FGM) decided collectively, after months of workshops and education by Tostan's community organizers, to abandon the practice. That's great news, and hopefully will give more momentum to the growing movement to send FGM the way of Chinese footbinding of women.

I'm very glad to learn that studies have been done on the benefits of circumcision for men in regards to HIV/AIDS. But if we’re talking about circumcision, it seems at least as urgent, if not more so, to give a push to the campaigns already underway to eradicate the practice of female genital “circumcision” of girls. How about some studies on the health risks of female "circumcision"?

It's estimated that two million girls each year are subjected to this life-endangering ordeal. We don't have time to waste.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Reaching out with Manos Unidas

Sometimes you come across people that just restore your faith in humanity. Anaelisa Vanegas-Farrara, who spoke at Simon’s Rock yesterday, is such a person: a caring, kind, hardworking young woman who takes her motto from Margaret Meade:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

How true that is! Anaelisa, with her husband Diego and a small group of thoughtful, committed activists are changing our local community here in the Berkshires with their tireless advocacy work on behalf of immigrant workers and families.

“Immigrants are the backbone of our community,” Anaelisa says; “the tourism industry couldn’t survive without the work of immigrants, most of them Latinos. And yet they’re largely invisible; they don’t get promoted, and they barely earn a living wage.”

Latino immigrants, who make up the majority of immigrants in many areas, including here in Berkshire County (where the official number of Latinos is set at 12,000; the actual total may be far higher) make the difficult journey to this country in order to work and send money back to their families. They are good people by any measure—honest, hardworking, disciplined. One recent study showed that, contrary to popular belief, when immigrants move into a neighborhood, crime actually declines!

With their grassroots organization Manos Unidas (United Hands), Anaelisa, Diego and their associates are working to support and empower local immigrants through educational programs, art projects, festivals and outreach to the larger Berkshire community.

After ten years working out of their living room, Anaelisa and Diego have finally managed to purchase a house in Pittsfield to use as a center for their work. Called Casa Tierra Común (Common Earth House), the center will hold a bilingual lending library, a computer resource room, a food pantry and clothing exchange, a community garden, and a site for events and organizing work.

Anaelisa was at Simon’s Rock hoping to find students interested in volunteering, interning and participating in the grassroots work of building solidarity with the local immigrant community, and she received a warm welcome. Various interesting suggestions for collaboration were batted around the table:

mmigrants have always been the great engine of America, as we remind ourselves selectively on holidays like Thanksgiving, which celebrates the good fortune of earlier generations of immigrants who found a warmer welcome in New England than many immigrants do today.

At least in our little corner of the world here in the Berkshires, we can do better. And with the help of activists like Anaelisa and Diego, we will.

Labels: ,

Saturday, December 02, 2006


Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

Yesterday we were talking in my media studies class about the oft-noted issue of teenagers’ political apathy, and disinterest in current events. How could their peers be so oblivious to what was going on in the world, my students asked themselves. Why were they so escapist?

I seem to have this conversation fairly often with students, probably because I teach courses that necessarily bring “the real world” into the classroom. Students who are attracted to my classes tend to be more aware than most of their peers, and feel frustrated that it’s so hard to get other teenagers to become more politically active.

For instance, one of my current students started a campaign to get Coca-Cola off our campus. When she posted a notice on the student blog explaining why she believed Coca-Cola should be boycotted, and asking for support, she was deluged with comments, many of them angry dismissals of her proposal.

“People just want to drink their soda and not be bothered,” she said bitterly. “They just don’t get it.”

Is it true that teenagers “don’t get it?” Or could it be that what they see of the world is just so painful that they can’t afford to take it in, because it would totally paralyze them?

I am educating my children in a Waldorf school, one of the tenets of which is that children should not be exposed to media before high school, because they are developmentally unable to process what’s being thrown at them through TV, movies and the Web.

Few of us follow this precept to the letter these days, but I have tried to shield my children during their early years from the horrors that abound in our world today. Childhood is so fleeting, why should it be weighted down with apprehension of injustice, unhappiness, suffering?

We live in a time in which childhood and teenage depression is soaring; in which the use of psychiatric medications on children and young adults has reached epidemic proportions. I am wondering if there is some relation between the mental health of our kids and the constant diet they’re fed of media horror stories: global warming, HIV-AIDs, cancer and other serious health problems, constant war, strife and violence, political corruption, environmental degradation, abusive sexuality, and on and on.

Maybe the teenagers that I work with are acting in self-preservation when they opt out of politics and issue-driven activism. What they are doing, all the time, is relating socially with one another, and maybe that’s exactly what they most need to be doing in these days of their youth. That may be how they develop the social skills they’ll need to become effective players on the political and activist stage later in life.

It could be that the best we adults can hope for is to instill in our kids a basic sense of ethics, the self-confidence to speak their minds and stand up for what they believe, and the skills and tools they’ll need to make a difference.

And in the meantime, I don’t think we should expect them to take the weight of the world on their shoulders. There will be time enough for that later on. Right now, in their youth, let them play.

Friday, November 24, 2006


Power of the People

Many years ago, I visited the ruins of the ancient Zapotecan city of Monte Alban. It was a cool, overcast morning, and from the plateau on which the city lies the view of the surrounding sierras was breathtaking, the power of the place palpable. From the top of the huge southern temple, which some archeologists believe was used as an astronomical observatory, I watched threatening dark clouds moving swiftly towards us--so swiftly that we were quickly enveloped in the rain storm, and only with difficulty made our way back through the thick fog and driving rain to the shelter of the visitors' center.

A storm of this magnitude has engulfed the state of Oaxaca today, seemingly fueled by some of the ancient power that I sensed from Monte Alban. It's a political storm, grounded by the desperate resistance of the masses of Mexican indigenous campesinos and ordinary poor folk to centuries of oppression. Finally unwilling to stand for the open corruption and brutality of the state governor, the people of Oaxaca are standing up for their rights, and resisting police and military efforts to bludgeon them back into cowering silence.

As with the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, 1994, the movement in Oaxaca is benefiting from friends with internet connections. The declaration of the indigenous movement was posted online at the website on November 22, courtesy of El Enemigo Comun, and it makes for inspiring reading! Here's a small sample from the introduction:

"Today we are not only struggling against a local tyrant, but against an entire system, which for many years has implanted its political and economic structures and continues to import external cultural forms in order to dominate us. Thus, all the repression and low intensity warfare that we’re experiencing in the state and in the country as a whole stem from the confrontation between two projects: that of the oppressors and that of the oppressed, our project.

"We are resisting the demand to turn over our wealth to a few people and to become modern slaves in the new exploitation centers, the maquiladoras, or to become the muleteers of our natural resources. We are resisting the loss of our culture, of being governed by a gang of thieves that utilize power in their own self-interest and to serve those who keep us in dire poverty.

"We also remind you that it’s not only the powerful who are responsible for our situation, but also we, the oppressed people, who have let them have their way for many years, many decades, who have let those who degrade us stay in power. In other words, we’ve often elected our own executioners or have sold our dignity for a plate of lentils. And they’ve used our poverty to throw us a few crumbs. Our people have lived for too many years in this system that reduces us to beggars."

We here in the US like to think of ourselves as the most enlightened, modern society on the face of the planet, but don't you think we have a thing or two to learn from these grassroots activists from the sierras of Mexico?

In the US, the tactics of repression have indeed grown more subtle. For example, we don't deny the masses education, we use education as a tool of indoctrination into conformity to the system. Kids who aren't sufficiently pacified by mind-numbing media and multiple-choice pedagogy are put on expensive cocktails of psychiatric drugs. Their parents struggle to maintain the middle-class American dream--a nice house, two cars, a family vacation every year, and putting the kids through college--by locking themselves into endless cycles of expensive debt, and see it as a personal failure, rather than systemic inequity, when they just can't make their dreams come true.

Meanwhile in the halls of power, the pharmaceutical, financial, energy and insurance industries seem to have a stranglehold on our political system that mirrors the ironfisted control of the elites in Mexico. Both countries claim that their political systems are "democracies," but in reality, here as throughout the world, money talks, and the vast majority of ordinary people have to try to survive on the crumbs.

Those of us who are interested in the possibility of truly inclusive and fair democracy should pay attention to what's going on in Oaxaca these days. The grassroots leaders there are envisioning a system of governance that is non-hierarchical, consensus-based, and free of elitist corruption. Let's try to imagine what it would be like if Americans at the local level started embracing the radical vision expressed by the indigenous people of Oaxaca in their declaration, to whit:

"We must earnestly seek a new way of conducting politics.

"The APPO [Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca] now has the ability to change the correlation of forces in favor of the people because it is the people themselves. It can’t betray itself. We must understand that. That’s why we must all be heard. We can’t build anything if not through consensus. That does NOT mean voting and following the will of the majority. It means looking for a solution that we all agree with. Our program should be based on NEVER AGAIN MAKING DECISIONS WITHOUT CONSULTING THE PEOPLE."


Labels: ,

Sunday, November 19, 2006


We Give Thanks

What I love about Thanksgiving is the fact that it celebrates coming together and enjoying good food. What I hate about it is—a much longer list.

The holiday celebrates a duplicitous moment in American history, when the pilgrims were saved from starving by the generosity of the Native Americans, and gave thanks to their God for sending them such beneficent friends. It’s duplicitous because as soon as they could, those same smiling, grateful pilgrims turned around and massacred their Native neighbors in droves, savagely murdering any men, women, children or old people who had the audacity to think they could continue to reside in their ancestral homeland.

In the succeeding years, American capitalist culture has taken this nice family-oriented holiday and turned it into an orgy of gluttonous excess. We’re not supposed to just sit down to a special meal together, we’re supposed to stuff ourselves into total lethargy, like geese being force-fed to produce fois gras.

Most Americans celebrate Thanksgiving at home, not in a restaurant. And who do you think is responsible for producing this great feast? You guessed it, the women of the house.

Over the years I have asked hundreds of students to write about Thanksgiving at their homes, and it’s amazing how every one of them describes their mothers or grandmothers getting up at the crack of dawn to put the turkey in the oven, and slaving over the side dishes and desserts—not to mention serving and cleaning up after the meal. And then there’s the shopping that goes on for a good week beforehand—many hours spent in accumulating all the food that will be laid out on the groaning board that day.

In traditional American homes—and I warrant we are still talking about the majority of American homes here—the women do all the preparation, serving, and cleaning up for Thanksgiving. Maybe the man of the house carves the turkey when it’s presented to him on a platter. But the main activity of the men in the house, from little boys on up to grandfathers, is watching football, eating and drinking.

Someone please tell me I’m behind the times, and this picture has changed! I know there are some men who love to cook, and take responsibility for preparing holiday meals. But as far as I know, these men are exceptions to the rule.

The truth is that on Thanksgiving, we give thanks for the Native Americans who happily gave us this bountiful land, and for the women who have happily shopped and cooked so we could enjoy this bountiful feast.

Who the hell are “we”?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


It's 2006, America. Do you know where your children are?

Oh Happy Day! It appears that America has finally awakened and begun to roar out its disapproval of the Republican leadership, from the President on down. The Democrats have been given a mandate to try to put out the raging fires of war and crisis that have erupted under Bush's mismanagement, and although it's going to be one hell of a task, the sooner we can get down into the bowels of the burning building and shut down the gas valves, the better. Donald Rumsfeld, here we come!

There will be many many pundits talking in the coming weeks about how best to get started on this monumental project, so I'm going to leave that discussion to them for now and turn to a more local matter.

It's 2006, America. Do you know where your children are?

Did you know that your teenager children are not welcome to congregate on the quiet, picturesque and touristy streets of downtown Great Barrington, in Berkshire County, Massachusetts?

Did you know that if they're on the streets of Great Barrington, not only are they likely to be harrassed by the local police and threatened with loitering charges, not only are they going to be watched by surveillance cameras with a live feed to the World Wide Web, but they (along with your younger children, I might add) are going to be subjected to blasts from a "Sonic Youth Repellent" to clear them from the streets?

Are our kids rodents, to be dispersed with such harsh electronic weapons? What's next? A police-enforced curfew for all kids under the age of 18?

When I was growing up, the public service announcement "It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?" used to run on TV every night. The implication, in those pre-cellphone days, was that if kids weren't at home, parents should be concerned about their whereabouts, for the safety of their children.

Now, in 2006, it seems that rather being afraid for our teenage kids, we are afraid of them.

Richard Stanley, the Great Barrington landlord who has taken his distaste for loitering teens to extraordinary lengths, claims that the groups of kids hanging out in his parking lot behind the Triplex Cinema are frightening off his customers, as well as the potential customers of other stores in buildings he owns in the Railroad Street area (you can read more about the issue in The Berkshire Eagle).

I've been in that parking lot at night, and observed the knots of teenagers hanging out, smoking cigarettes, talking enthusiastically and yes, sometimes loudly with each other. Although I am a former Manhattanite with alert antennae as regards the possibility of danger lurking in dark alleys, and a seemingly inborn fear of boisterous groups of young men, none of my warning bells went off in the presence of these kids.

Indeed, there have been no muggings or assaults in the Railroad Street area in my memory, and that may in fact be thanks to the regular presence of so many of our teenagers on the street!

I'm not starry-eyed about the possibility that some of the kids hanging out in town are, among many other activities, engaging in the commerce of illegal substances. It may certainly be true that some kids are buying or selling drugs in town, as some of them do in school, and in the privacy of their own homes. I don't condone this, but I do accept the reality that it happens today, just as it was happening when I was a teenager.

But as a parent of a young teen, I would far rather my kid hang out in the public square, as it were (and although it's a pretty sad excuse for a public square, the Triplex parking lot does serve that function by virtue of its central location in town) than be off in some dark park at night, where he might be at risk of becoming a victim of crime or drug pushing himself.

If you think back to your own teenage years, you may remember the exceptional happiness that could come from simply kicking back with friends and talking about anything and everything. In these academically pressured and media-bombarded times, many kids don't have enough time to just relax and enjoy each other's company, in person, rather than online.

In fact, one thing that's especially positive about the fact that teenagers want to hang out together in town is that it actually provides them with an unusually media-free environment, where the chief form of entertainment is--gasp!--talking with one another, face to face. Isn't this much preferable to the options that are available to most of them at home: playing video games, surfing the Web, watching TV, or chatting endlessly on MySpace?

We should be celebrating the fact that in our little town, a good number of our kids are choosing to make friendship a priority in their lives. And we should be glad that our kids are choosing downtown Great Barrington as their stomping ground--it's good for the kids to be in the public eye, and it's actually good for most of the merchants in town, especially those providing inexpensive meals and--yes, Mr. Stanley--movies.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


War Against Women, Worldwide

Just a quick birthday post before I run off to work, to thank Bob Herbert of the NY Times for sending out a cry for help on behalf of the world's women in his column today! I couldn't ask for a better birthday gift. Even though it's such grim news he's spreading, it's news that needs a wider audience, and what better pulpit than the op-ed pages of the NY Times?

Herbert is responding to a recent U.N. report on the "permanent world war" being waged against women all over the planet. He gives examples, familiar to those of us who follow international women's issues: sexual trafficking, honor killings, wife abuse, female genital mutilation of girls, systematic rape as a weapon of war or ethnic cleansing, infanticide of girls...the list goes on and on and on.

And the abuse is by no means limited to Third World nations--those "savage" countries! Herbert tells us that "The most common form of serious abuse against women and girls around the globe is violence by intimate partners. Huge percentages of female murder victims, even in such developed countries as Australia, Canada, Israel and the United States, are killed by current or former husbands or boyfriends."

Indeed, he continues, "A study of young, female murder victims in the U.S. found that homicide was the second leading cause of death for girls 15 to 18, and that 78 percent of all the homicide victims in the study had been killed by an acquaintance or intimate partner."

Women are targeted because they're women, and they're targeted in all kinds of ways--from the subtle forms of fashion and beauty standards that lead to anorexia and other self-dstructive behaviors, to the more open treatment of women as property, to be abused at will in many places in the world.

Herbert is right to call this a World War, and to demand that those sitting safe on the sidelines--readers of the New York Times, for example--take note and take action.

What can you do? Support the work of the United Nations on behalf of the world's women, for one thing: make a donation to UNIFEM or the UNFPA. Get involved in your own community, working on behalf of local women. Celebrate International Women's Day with a big event or an intimate women's circle!

The first step toward action is simply becoming aware, and letting your compassion and concern resonate until it finds the appropriate channel for you to act. It's never too late to start, and nothing is too little a step to help the women and girls of the world put this war behind us and move on into a peaceful, prosperous, equitable future.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


Colonized chic

Odd, isn't it, that Western women's fashion errs on the side of semi-nudity and outright promiscuity, while in the Muslim world shapeless drapery that even covers the face is de rigueur? There's seemingly little that emphasizes the difference between East and West more than the fashions our women don.

And yet, how different are these extremes really? In both cases, women wear what men want to see.

Here in the U.S., young girls announce their sexuality boldly, wearing halter tops or spaghetti strap tank tops with their brightly colored bra straps peeking out. Their tight jeans are so low-cut you can see their hip bones and the smooth dip of their backs rising to meet their buttocks. There's very little left to mere suggestion!

In the Muslim world, I don't know how women dress when they're in the confines of their own homes, but out in the world the most pious and admired among them wear the full hijab with the niqab, a head-to-toe black body bag with a black veil hiding all but their eyes and the center line of their nose. In Afghanistan under the Taliban it was those blue one-piece burqas, with a lace grille covering even the eyes.

So in the West we get women dressing as tramps in order to flaunt their sex appeal to the male gaze, and in the Muslim world women dress as walking drapery in order to conceal their sex appeal from all but the particular male gaze of their husband. The story goes that these respective dress codes oppress Muslim women and liberate Western women, who are free to let it all hang out.

Poppycock. In both cases, women are being objectified and used to satisfy male desire in a way that does not give equal weight to their own desires and that does not treat them as equal to males.

There's such a thing as "internal colonization," a term invented by Tunisian psychologist and sociologist Albert Memmi to describe the way colonized people tend to internalize the mind-set of the colonizers, even those aspects that elevate the colonizer as superior to the colonized. A sense of inferiority is in this way implanted into the colonized, generally in childhood, which can be almost impossible to overcome in later life. It's an incredibly effective strategy of indoctrinating a subject people.

I would argue that this process of internal colonization is on display in women's "choice" of fashion. Western men want women on display as sex objects; Muslim men want women concealed. But in both cases, it's what the men want that counts. Women's comfort and sense of dignity is irrelevant. And in both cases, women are trained from earliest childhood, by the media and by watching their elders, to accept these fashion dictates as inevitable and desirable, worth fighting for.

Yes, men too have their fashion dictated by social mores--men don't get to wear high heels, I admit it. But why is it that men's fashion is all about comfort and dignity, while women's fashion either turns them into sex kittens or walking body bags?

Freedom? Liberation? Equality? Muslim women don't have it, to be sure, but Western women have no business thinking we do either. Fashion does provide a window into a society, and for both Western and Muslim women, the view through that window is very depressing indeed.

Saturday, October 14, 2006


Do the RED thing

"She was the first woman of whom it truthfully could be said that she shopped until she dropped," writes Liesl Schillinger of the doomed French Queen Marie Antoinette.

Although she's purportedly reviewing the new Marie Antoinette novel Abundance, by Sena Jeter Naslund, Schillinger seems much more interested in non-fiction book Queen of Fashion, by Barnard professor Caroline Weber, which argues that the queen, a 14-year-old Austrian cast adrift in a hostile environment at Versailles, used her adroit fashion sense to craft an "image of influence and splendor...using fashion as her buttress."

Americans have always been entranced by the splendor and excess of Versailles--which of course at the time our Puritan-led nation deplored. Sofia Coppola's new movie, in which the beautiful young Kirsten Dunst plays the daring and doomed Queen, is getting all kinds of fawning publicity--we love to see the beautiful queen prance in her finery, and we love to see her punished for it too, apparently. Versailles meets the White House.

Marie Antoinette used her fashion sense and purchasing power to "project power," Schillinger writes. "“Through carefully selected, unconventional outfits and accessories, she cultivated what she later called an ‘appearance of [political] credit,’ ” Weber argues."

Using fashion politically is nothing new. But what is new, and seems to be gaining steam, is the practice of using fashion to appeal to consumers' moral sensibilities. Shop til you drop, by all means! But buy MY brand, which is hip and cool not just on the basis of quality and visual appeal, but on the basis of the politics it represents.

Thus we have the amazingly lavish and undoubtedly ferociously expensive new GAP campaign launched this week, in which the likes of Stephen Spielberg, Don Cheadle, Penelope Cruz, and many other cool dudes and dudettes pose winningly in Gap outfits, all bearing the signature color RED.

"GAP is collaborating with (Product) Red and the world's most iconic brands to help eliminate AIDS in Africa," the advertising copy reads. "Every time you purchase a GAP (Product) RED item, half of the profits will go directly to the fight against this disease. Do the (RED) thing."

Okay, yeah, let's all go out and "do the red thing," why not? Shop til we drop to fight AIDS in Africa--thanks, Bono and Bobby Shriver, for coming up with such a brilliant campaign!

There's just one problem. What if, like the tragic Marie Antoinette, we get so caught up in our own image (as well-dressed, well-heeled, well-intentioned shoppers) that we lose sight of the fact that there is a difference between "doing the RED thing" and "doing the RIGHT thing"?

I'm glad, I really am, that GAP and the other corporate sponsors of the (Product) Red campaign (what, pray tell, is the function of those oh-so-Derridean parentheses?) are going to donate as much as half their profits on certain products to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Channeling Americans' fashion sense into social responsibility is certainly better than the mindless consumerism we're known for. But does anyone else agree that sometimes, in order to do the right thing, we have to forget about our own image for a while, and think deeply, with real compassion, about someone else for a while?

Sunday, October 08, 2006


What Women Want

Just a quick post to note my irritation with the continued media-driven marginalization of women in American politics. If it's obvious in the enlightened pages of The New York Times, just think how blatant it is in the mass-media, places like CNN and Fox News!

What I'm talking about is today's political commentary on the opinion pages of the Times. Out of 18 pundits whose views are presented, only THREE are women. Of those three, two were invisible speechwriters for male politicians; the other is Ellen Malcolm, the president of the women's political action group Emily's List.

In her commentary, "What Women Want," Macolm informs us that women might be persuaded to pay attention to the elections if politicians start "talking about issues that directly affect their families and showing them how voting for Democrats — especially women candidates — can make a difference. They’ll be receptive to Democratic policies like protecting Social Security, making college affordable and finding an end to the morass in Iraq."

Okay, these are worthy issues. But I find it insulting to suggest that women are only interested in politics if the issues are directly related to our families. There's a whole lot that women want out of politics, and the scope of our interest goes way beyond education, health care and social security, though of course these issues are important to all Americans, regardless of our gender.

If the Times wants to know what women want, they should ask more of us what we think. Ask some non-elite women for a change! Ask some Latinas or African American women! Ask some ordinary teachers, nurses, and bank tellers, for pete's sake!

If, like me, you're impatient with the mainstream media's nelgect of women, a good place to look for more vibrant coverage would be the blog Feministing. The blog itself is always interesting, but what's really useful is the amazing blogroll and resource list running down the right side of your screen. Want to know what women want? Spend a little time exploring that blogroll, and you'll find out!

Thursday, October 05, 2006


Moral Authority vs Joy

In a week when deaths in Baghdad from roadside bombings and sectarian violence reached an all-time high, what are Americans focusing on? Something much more sexy: the scandal over Congressman Foley's sexually explicit email come-ons to a 16-year-old Congressional page from Louisiana.

The Times is right to worry that Republicans and conservatives may use this scandal as the basis for more ugly gay-bashing. As spectators, would we be any less horrified by Foley's behavior if he'd been suggestively emailing girl pages? I have a feeling the answer there is yes--heterosexual male Congressmen flirting with the young women who bring them coffee can be brushed off far more easily than gay male Congressmen hitting on teenage boys.

But haven't we learned by now (thanks, Monica Lewinsky) that young people in the halls of power are at risk of sexual predators--some of them very illustrious men indeed?

Power corrupts, and what more gratifying way to display and enjoy personal power than by sexually manipulating a beautiful young thing, male or female?

David Brooks, bless his soul, has seized the occasion to compare this real-life story of sexual predation with a fictional one--Eve Ensler's monologue in The Vagina Monologues, told in the voice of a young girl who was seduced by an older woman, and loved every minute of it. The Ensler monologue celebrates the awakening of a young girl's sexuality, and passes over the fact that it was an older woman who called the shots in their sexual encounter.

Both scenarios are wrong, Brooks says, "because when an adult seduces a child, it tears the social fabric that joins all adults and all children. "

Family values, here we come again!

Brooks drives his point home in no uncertain terms:

"In a country filled with parents looking for a way to raise their children in a morally disordered environment, Foley’s act is just one more symptom of a contagious disease.

"In the long run, the party that benefits from events like the Foley scandal will be the party that defines the core threats to the social fabric, and emerges as the most ardent champion of moral authority."

Of course I don't believe it's a good idea for adults to engage in sex with minors, however consenting they may be. But trust David Brooks to take every opportunity to castigate the very idea of joyful sexuality, linking Ensler's "vagina-friendly" fictions to the sordid account of Foley's transgressions.

The problem is that the "moral authority" Brooks is invoking here is synonymous with abstinence-only sex ed, parental consent for teenage abortions, and the sanctity of exclusively heterosexual marriage. Foley himself fades in importance behind this much larger, much more dangerous agenda: it's no longer about the rights of young people on Capitol Hill to mingle with their elected representatives unharmed, it's about tightening the screws of "moral authority" in an increasingly decadent society.

Where is that decadence coming from? Not from Eve Ensler. Not from sex ed. Not from upholding a woman's right to control her own body and reproductive health.

It's coming from sleazebags like Congressman Foley and the whole stinkingly corrupt Republican leadership now falling all over each other in their efforts to point fingers at others and get out of the mud-wrestling match unsmeared.

It's coming from an increasingly sexualized media, from internet to TV to film, that gets off on portraying women and children as sexual objects to be hit on and abused.

It's coming from our heartless capitalist system, which forces parents to work ever longer hours, leaving children alone and exposed to predation--whether through media or in vivo--and without enough guidance and support.

Our age of innocence has most definitely come to an end, in more ways than just the sexual. Americans must finally turn and confront what we have become. And we must summon the vision and the backbone to set ourselves on a new path. More "moral authority" is not what is needed here. It's more kindness, more compassion, more of the true joy that comes from giving joy to others.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Just another death

What a busy week it's been already! a CIA report blaming the Iraq war for the upswing in terrorism since 9/11 is "leaked," throwing the Bush team on the defensive; Maureen Dowd skewering Hillary for being too calculating as the 2008 presidential elections come into the political crosshairs; John Tierney lambasting Donna Shalala and her all-woman panel of experts for concluding that yes Virginia, there really are still barriers to women entering career paths in math and science.

But what's really caught my attention this week are two stories which at first sight do not seem to have much in common: Nicholas Kristof's two-part series on maternal mortality in Africa, and the revolutionary Spanish ban on stick-thin fashion models, discussed at length in Judith Warner's blog "Domestic Disturbances."

Kristof's description of a 24-year-old Cameroonian mother of three dying unnecessarily in childbirth, for want of a $100 worth of surgical supplies to support a Caesarian section, is harrowing and heart-breaking, especially after he drives home the point that 500,000 young mothers die like this in childbirth every year. "An African woman now has one chance in 20 of dying in pregnancy," Kristof reports. "In much of the world, the most dangerous thing a woman can do is to become pregnant."

Meanwhile, in the fashion capitals of the West, young women face quite a different threat: self-inflicted starvation. Bravo to the regional government of Madrid, which recently legislated that fashion models participating in that city's annual fashion shows must have a body-mass index of 18--much higher than the average model's B.M.I. of 15. Normal B.M.I. for women is around 20.

If for women in developing countries getting pregnant is the most dangerous thing they can do, for women in developed countries, it's opening a magazine or turning on the TV. How many young girls are starving themselves today to try to meet the "ideals" they absorb from the media?

Some 8 million American women suffer from anorexia nervosa, the self-starvation mental disease. Another several million are categorized as bulimics, who alternate between binging and starving. And there must be many many more borderline cases who don't make the official statistics, but who are at risk nevertheless.

Did you know that:

This is pretty frightening! But what's really jarring is the disparity between what's happening to women in the developed world vs. the developing world. In rich countries, women starve themselves to increase their sex appeal, and end up dying as a result. In poor countries, women don't worry so much about their sex appeal, but they end up dying for it anyway: sex=pregnancy=death. That, is, if AIDS doesn't get them first.

As Kristoff concludes, if men were suffering and dying at this rate over their sex appeal, the world would pay more attention.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


A Mighty Mouse for Our Times

Oh, the audacity of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela! He is fast becoming a modern-day David, or, more colorfully, a Mighty Mouse of Latin America, rivaling and even surpassing his friend Fidel Castro in shaking his fist at the huge Goliath of our time, the US of A.

The difference between Castro and Chavez can be summed up in one short word: OIL. Sitting on top of one of the largest oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere, Hugo Chavez can literally afford to be cocky.

But what cheek, what gorgeous and appropriate rhetoric, to stand up at the United Nations and call George W. Bush the Devil himself!

The New York Times reported: "Speaking on Wednesday from the same lectern Mr. Bush had occupied the day before, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela announced, to gasps and even giggles: “The devil came here yesterday, right here.

“It smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of,” he said."

Can it be denied that Mr. Bush has led the U.S. with fire and brimstone, and the victims of American aggression abroad probably do feel themselves in hell? (On American military might, by the way, see David Unger's excellent Times Talking Points piece on the way billions of dollars of the Pentagon's budget are going to support obsolete, Cold-War era weaponry, money that could be much better used for education, welfare, and genuine efforts at Homeland Security (a phrase I detest)).

It didn't surprise me to hear that Chavez was making waves at the United Nations. What did surprise me, however, was the reaction of the audience. Times reporter Helene Cooper plays up the "gasps and giggles" in her article, burying down towards the end of the piece the fact that Chavez's performance was met by"loud applause that lasted so long that the organization’s officials had to tell the cheering group to cut it out."

He drove his ethical position home, Cooper reports, by pledging to "double the amount of heating oil Venezuela donates to poor communities in the United States. He reminded reporters that Citgo, which is owned by Petróleos de Venezuela S.A., delivered free and discounted oil to Indian tribal reservations and low-income neighborhoods in the United States, including the Bronx.

"“We are ready to double our oil donations,” Mr. Chávez said. “That is a Christian gesture.”"

Go Chavez!

I just want to take a minute to express my annoyance with Ms. Cooper for faithfully reporting that Chavez made the faux pas, in front of reporters, of saying that Noam Chomsky was already dead:

"He brandished a copy of Noam Chomsky’s “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance” and recommended it to members of the General Assembly to read. Later, he told a news conference that one of his greatest regrets was not getting to meet Mr. Chomsky before he died. (Mr. Chomsky, 77, is still alive.)"

How about cheering a world leader who actually reads and appreciates Noam Chomsky!

How many many many many faux pas has the press let our fearless leader GW Bush get away with? And what, pray tell, is his bedtime reading?

My advice to readers? Buy Citgo!

POSTSCRIPT, Sunday 9/24: Al-Jazeera reports that since Chavez told Americans they should read Chomsky's book, "Hegemony or Survival" has jumped to first place in sales, from its previous position at #26,000! How's that for a marketing ploy!

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

technorati tags: , , ,

<%radio.macros.staticSiteStatsImage ()%>