Weekly Rant: West Virginia, We Need to Talk

You know, for a while there I’m sure (as The Onion put it) that West Virginia was feeling pretty smug watching the slow-moving disaster in Virginia.

Well, never let anyone think that we can’t hold our own when it comes to looking like huge dumbasses on the national stage.

Cue Eric Porterfield, West Virginia Delegate. His behaviour over the past week has shone a spotlight on why it is that West Virginia struggles to keep its brilliant young people, attract investment, and in general remains a laughingstock to the rest of the country.

In a series of remarks, Porterfield has referred to the LGBT+ Rights Movement as equivalent to the KKK, argued that queer people are a public menace, and suggested that he would drown his children if he happened to find out that they were gay. All with no sense that anything he was saying or doing was harmful, bigoted, and cruel (unsurprisingly, he wore a red MAGA hat during a television interview). When pushed about his implication of drowning his children, he said he was just baiting the libs. Because yes, joking about drowning your gay children is sooo funny. What a great way to show the world how much you lack human compassion!

To me, though, the most upsetting thing about this whole debacle is that it is so unsurprising. When I was a member of the Young Democrats in the aftermath of 2004, I distinctly remember a speaker informing us that Kerry lost the election because of “God, Guns, and Gays.” As a young gay man and proud Democrat, it was one of the most insulting and dispiriting things I had ever heard, and I still feel that betrayal almost a decade and a half later.

Things have only gotten worse since then for queers in West Virginia and, despite the passage of protections at the local level (for which several cities deserve great respect and applause), the climate there is not friendly. Though I once thought about returning to my home after I finished my Ph.D., at this point I don’t think that you could pay me enough to go back there. I much prefer to live in queer-affirming states like NY and MD, thank you very much.

Nor am I the only one. In fact, there’s quite an expat community of queer folk from WV who have left the state, taking their talents with them. After all, who wants to stay in a state that seems so dead-set on alienating every minority group that it can?

West Virginians, I urge you to wake up and smell the coffee. I know that you’ve convinced yourself (or allowed yourself to be convinced) that your ignorance and bigotry are some sort of principled stand in the culture war, but you are literally hurting your loved ones. Every time that you allow a man like Porterfield to keep his seat after these kinds of hateful comments, you send a message to your queer family and friends that your own right to feel insulated from political and cultural change is more important than their literal right to feel safe in their own state.

If nothing else, you should realize that the problems you face–the flight of young people, the dearth of decent job opportunities, and on and on–are only going to get worse when people like Porterfield are the face that you present to the nation at large. No one wants to relocate to a state known for its bigotry, and that most definitely includes young people. How long do you think you can continue on this path?

West Virginia, I know you’re better than this, I really do. I know that there’s love and compassion and earthy wisdom in those hollers and mountains, but for the love of all that’s holy, you’ve got to start showing it and standing up for it. Looking like a bunch of ignorant rednecks isn’t a political statement: it’s a one-way ticket to desolation.

Despite everything, I still think that there is a lot of good in you, but you’re going to have to work really hard to show this to the world. I know you can do it, though.

I have faith in you.

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Weekly Rant: Barbara Ehrenreich, et al. and the Banality of Racism

Ugh. Some days.

I didn’t start Monday thinking that I was going to be struggling with rage all day; I figured that would come Tuesday, when the country would once again be subjected to the inane blatherings of Trump during his State of the Union.

Then, while playing on Facebook to avoid doing work, I happened to notice a frame capture of a Twitter exchange among Barbara Ehrenreich, Katha Pollitt, and Elaine Showalter. You can see it below.

Now, I would hope that most of you would recognize why this caused so much anger, hurt, and sadness among the Twitter left. Here we have these three giants of feminist thought openly trading in Orientalist language, at once dismissive and condescending. Ehrenreich’s crude neoconservative pining for the days of “American greatness” and Pollitt’s and Showalter’s patronizing language referring to Kondo as “fairy-like,” as a “pretty little pixie” and “Tinkerbell” are breathtaking in their offensiveness. I had to double-check to make sure that these weren’t trolls out to take down noted feminists.

Unfortunately, the exchange was all too real.

What astounded me the most about the exchange among these three feminist giants was how banal it all seemed. Nothing about the way they were talking suggested that they saw what they were saying as problematic, no awareness that they were participating in long-standing means by which white people have dismissed Asian culture, Asian people, and Asian traditions. How was it possible, I wondered (and still wonder) that these prominent intellectuals could be so complicit in this system of power and not even seem to know about it? How could they be having this conversation on Twitter for the world to see as if they were merely having tea in their parlors?

The answer, of course, is that their white privilege shields them from having to think about these issues, or they think it does (because it once did). Ensconced in their ivory towers, they think they can get away with this kind of language because they always have. One can’t help but wonder how Showalter’s casual racism has affected those of her students who aren’t white or, for that matter, how much it has influenced every aspect of her research and her pedagogy.

I suppose what really frustrated–frightened, me really–was how shocked I was by all of this, even though I know that white feminists have a long history of being dismissive of the concerns of women of color. I was also deeply angry, because even though I realized some time ago that Ehrenreich was a bit of a hack, I had continued to look up to Katha Pollitt and Elaine Showalter (Showalter’s feminist criticism was hugely inspiring to me as a young undergraduate). To find these two women trading in racist and Orientalist language was, for me, a profound betrayal. I particularly expected more of Elaine Showalter who, as a feminist academic, should absolutely know better. I guess you could say that I felt like my trust had been betrayed in some deeply personal way, even though I know that that makes me sound hopelessly naïve.

But then again, perhaps it’s a good thing that all of this played out on Twitter, so that we could at least have a public accounting. One can’t help but wonder, though, if this is the kind of racist trash they peddle in public, what do they say in private? It almost doesn’t bear thinking about.

And all of this on the same day that Liam Neeson admitted (apropos of nothing, really), in an interview with The Independent, that at one point after a friend of his had been raped he had gone out hoping to violently assault a random black man (you cannot make this stuff up).

And all of what I have just described took place during the same few days when it was revealed the Virginia’s governor has a racist past of dressing in blackface.

Sometimes, you just have to admit that the world is broken.

Weekly Rant: Dear Dr. Stein

Dear Dr. Stein:

I struggled with writing this letter and with whether or not to put it out into the public. Finally, though, I decided that I need to have these thoughts in the public sphere, so that you can know how your decision to deliberately undermine the candidacy of Hillary Clinton has had real consequences for people like me.

This election, American voters ultimately had a choice. This was more than about the two candidates. This was about choosing a flawed but progressive candidate who represented an incremental but steady march to the Left on many issues and a raging, xenophobic, racist know-nothing that proudly assaulted women (to say nothing of his running mate, who has made no secret of his disdain for LGBTQ+ Americans). This was between bringing into power those who would work to protect our country’s most vulnerable citizens, rather than ushering into power a man buoyed by the absolute worst impulses in the American psyche. This was about forward progress against a descent into the worst sort of barbarism.

Once it became clear that the match-up would be between Clinton and Trump, the ethical thing for yourself and the Green Party to do would have been to make a sacrifice–and make no mistake, that’s what it would have been–in order to help rouse and excite the Left for Clinton. Instead, you went out of your way to paint Hillary as the epitome of all that was wrong with politics, and in the process you have helped bring into power this creature known as Trump, as well as his legions of deplorables. You helped to obliterate the Obama legacy and have helped solidify the tide of hatred and danger that threatens to sweep away everything you claim to hold dear.

Already, we have seen the effects of this as social media has exploded with reports of assaults on all of the minorities that Trump has targeted throughout his campaign. People that I know personally have been assaulted by Trump supporters, emboldened by his victory.

And for my part, for the first time since I came out of the closet as a queer man in 2002, I feel afraid to be who I am. I am afraid to be queer, and I can’t help but lay some of the blame at your door.

You and yours could have prevented this, but instead you valued principle and ideological purity over and above the bodies, lives, and well-beings of people of colour, immigrants, Muslims, women, LGBTQ+ people, and countless others. Rather than helping to unite the Left, you continued to sow division, diminishing enthusiasm for Clinton and in the progress throwing many others under the bus for the service of your own ego. You could have encouraged your followers to vote for Clinton, but you didn’t. And this is the result.

I will forgive you, those who voted for you, and those who were persuaded enough by your message that they sat this one out. I’ll forgive you because I have far more in common with you than I do our mutual enemies on the Right. I’ll forgive you because I know that we have to move forward together on a progressive agenda.

But I will never, ever forget what happened this year.

And you shouldn’t either.

Weekly Rant: Misogyny Rears Its Ugly Head in the Democratic Primary

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the last 48 hours, you’ve probably heard that a Sanders surrogate, by Dr. Paul Song, referred in his opening remarks to “corporate Democratic whores.” Of course, such a comment would be problematic in the best of times, but it is especially so during a campaign in which one of the two leading candidates in the Democratic race has the very real possibility of becoming the first female President of the United States. Fortunately, Sanders did disavow the remark, but it took a rather long time to do it, and that strikes me as especially troubling and, dare I say it, problematic.

I guess I’m not entirely surprised by this course of events. I’ve long suspected that there is a strong edge of misogyny lurking underneath many of those who support Bernie Sanders. This is not to say that everyone who supports him is a misogynist, only that there is a great deal of woman-hating animus motivating the opposition to Hillary. There is something deeply threatening about the idea of a woman, especially this woman, ascending to the nation’s top executive position, so it makes sense that many would leap to the use of words like “whore” to disparage her.

And make no mistake, the use of the word “whore” was deliberate. For all that some might like to make the argument that assuming the word is gendered feminine is the sexist act, we cannot escape the fact that, like so many words in our cultural lexicon, this word carries cultural baggage along with it. To pretend otherwise, or to somehow argue that pointing out that words matter is somehow disingenuous or making a mountain out of a molehill, is a betrayal of the very progressive politics that we all claim to espouse. Progressives, of all people, should know the importance of words and how they carry with them implications and connotations that are deeply embedded in structures of power.

Even more discouraging was the fact that the hashtag #DemocraticWhores began trending on Twitter, unironically. How is it possible that the Democratic Party, the party that has long taken the lead for the rights and dignity of women, would give birth to the use of the word “whore” in the public sphere? Did I somehow blink and miss our conversion to the Donald Trump method of politics? Somehow, legions of Bernie supporters were using the word “whore” as if it were suddenly a word that hadn’t been used to viciously and poisonously denigrate women’s sexuality for centuries. Whatever candidate you support, you should be concerned. This is not acceptable, and you should spread that message as far as possible.

So, what’s to be done? Well, for one thing, both campaigns should begin demanding more accountability from their followers. That’s not likely to come from either of the two candidates, not least because the stakes are so very high for both of them, and they have both gone too far to come back. Perhaps just as importantly, the followers for each candidate are unlikely to be allow them to make too many concessions to the other. The splintering of the Democratic Party has well and truly begun (I think), and we have only ourselves to blame.

The worst thing about this is that people will excuse it all as just another aspect of the dark vortex of American politics. For me, however, that excuse just isn’t good enough. We’re Democrats, progressives, and radicals. We’re the Left, damn it, and I continue to insist that we are better than this. If we are truly invested in a better future for everyone, we can, we must, do better.

Weekly Rant: Charleston, SC and the Terror of History

Since news broke on Thursday that a young white man had killed nine black men and women in a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina, I have struggled to make sense of this tragedy.  I have pored over articles in my preferred news outlets, including Slate, Salon, and The Atlantic.  While those pieces were helpful in collecting and concretizing my thoughts and helping me to make sense of my tangled and raw emotions, I also found myself still struggling, as if something, some crucial bit of understanding, hovered just out of reach.

Part of this, I think, has to do with the overwhelming weight of history that this incident represents, centuries of exploitation and terrorism, in which the lives of people of color have been systematically devalued and rendered invisible.  How can one person contend with, let alone psychologically and emotionally process, such a mountain of misery?

While I do not, in any way, want to diminish the importance of the ongoing, if still stilted, discussion of mental illness in this country, I want to emphasize my firm and profound belief in the absolute necessity of contending with the terror of this country’s history.  I mean this in multiple (and interconnected senses):  the well-documented terror that white culture has inflicted on people of color, whether it be the Ku Klux Klan or The Birth of a Nation, police brutality and use of unnecessary force or the matter-of-fact slaughter of innocents in a place of worship.

Yet what troubles me the most about this whole incident in Charleston is precisely how unexceptional it is.  This is a state, after all, that has refused to take down the Confederate flag (which is, no matter how you spin it, a signifier of racial violence and oppression) from the grounds of its state house, as well as a region of the country that fought tooth and nail to keep people of colour from equal access to everything from education to elected government, and in many cases continues to do so (though largely through more obfuscated means).

Further, the American South is a region that continues to fetishize and enshrine the vestiges of its antebellum past, often either without acknowledging the ways in which the glories of that past were built on the back of ruthless exploitation or ensuring that that exploitation is rendered quaint or somehow excusable.  What remains understated, however, was the way that the romanticizing of that past was in large part responsible for the terrors that were unleashed after Reconstruction was abandoned.  Thus, while the South is the place where this all comes to a head, it is important to not commit the equally grievous sin of writing the North a blank check, for it was precisely those in the North who turned a blind eye to the horrors unfolding in their southern neighbors, with white northerners more interested in rapprochement with their racial counterparts than helping or aiding the afflicted people of color.

And yet, one might wonder:  why, in the face of so much violence, does mainstream, white American culture still find it difficult, if not impossible, to contend with that past?  Why is it so much easier to pretend that we live in an eternal present, where atrocities committed by people with racial hatred worn proudly on their sleeve can be explained by anti-religious animus or by mental illness rather than by an acknowledgment of the systems of power and the weight of history?  Well, it is precisely because really engaging with history is, indeed, terrifying.  To confront the terror of history face to face is to recognize so much else:  complicity in oppression, an acknowledgment that the American dream is a myth and a lie, that sometimes the acts of an individual are circumscribed and embedded within systems of power that are hard to comprehend in their totality.  It is far easier, then, to simply boil things down to the actions of a lone wolf, an entity that can be locked up with any deeper, more probing questions shunted aside.

This is one of the many reasons that I take my social justice-inflected pedagogy so seriously.  If I can allow at least one student to gain a more nuanced understanding of how race, gender, sexuality, class, disability, etc. have complicated and violent histories, then I can hopefully do my part to ensure that the horrible events that have  At the same time, however, I also recognize that many of my students, and my colleagues, will probably remain in the bastions of progressive thought and relative safety (the Northeast, the West Coast, and the larger cities in the South and Midwest).  However, it is precisely the not-safe spaces, the South, Appalachia, the rural reaches of the Midwest and the Northeast, that desperately need the presence of critical thinkers and educators.

Only by forcing an acknowledgment of the deep problems and terrors of history can we ever hope, however faintly, for a better, more just, more peaceful world.

Weekly Rant: Living in the Age of Irony

A couple of years ago, the always-inflammatory Salon ran a piece entitled “The 15 Most Hated Bands of the Last 30 Years.”  Included on the list were such hate-favourites as Nickelback (hatred of them has become so common as to be ubiquitous), but also many of the bands whose work came to define the sounds of the ’90s.  Think Goo Goo Dolls, Dave Matthews Band, and Hootie and the Blowfish.  Surprised to hear that they are the most hated band?  So was I.  But then again, in many ways I really wasn’t.  Though I was incredibly annoyed at rediscovering this list a little over a week ago, I saw it as just another sign that we are indeed still living in “The Age of Irony.”

At first, I couldn’t quite figure out why the list annoyed me so much.  Was it simply because they had listed the Goo Goo Dolls, one of my favourite bands, on the list?  Was it the commonsensical way it was written, as if of course we would all agree that those pseudo-authentic rock bands from the 1990s were really just plain awful and that anyone who thought they were actually good were delusional at best and philistines at worst?  Or was it the patronizing, ironic tone it adopted, so common among self-styled music critics and others in the click-bait universe who manage to garner views by adopting a hipsterish ironic pose to every item of popular culture they encounter?

Of course, it was all of those things.  In the Age of Irony, everything is just a surface to be mocked and ridiculed.  Indeed, the source of the pleasure isn’t even in the cultural object, but instead in finding something amusing about it, placing oneself above it so that one is, allegedly, no longer under the thrall of the omniscient, omnivorous, omnipresent culture industry.  At a deeper level, however, these types of ironic clickbait posts also suggest something deeper about our cultural zeitgeist.  We might just as well say that we are living in an Age of Alienation, when it becomes much easier (and allegedly more satisfying) to use the texts that surround us ironically, rather than seeking out any sense of emotional authenticity they might contain (because how could anything produced by the mass culture industry be authentic, anyway?)

Now, I’m not saying that irony doesn’t have its purposes, or that it can’t be an effective political tool for the disenfranchised to strike back at the dominant world that swamps them with its ideologies.  No one who has ever studied gay camp and its deconstruction of traditional gender norms and performances would be able to say that.  However, I fear that this particular type of irony, a key part of the world of postmodernism, only ends up reinscribing the very power structures that should be critiqued.  You can be ironic and laugh at how foolish the masses are, but only if you’re educated enough, only if you’ve managed to procure the types of reading skills that allow you to reach the Olympian heights of today’s finest ironists.  Otherwise, you’re just another one of the foolish plebians, shut out of the party.

You may call me old-fashioned, and perhaps I am blinded by my own love of many aspects of 1990s culture (I was born in 1984, so I am too young to have the millennial sense of distance from the ’90s).  But, on the other hand, can you blame me for wanting to obtain a little bit of authentic feeling from the music that defined my youth?  Truly, I think that some of these “most hated bands” do allow us to gain some sort of feeling, a measure of the zeitgeist of the last decade of the 20th Century (and, I might point out, the second millennium).  Simply dismissing them as “most hated” as if that is a piece of commonsense wisdom ultimately says more about the ways in which the contemporary decade looks at its 20th Century forbear than it does about the music itself, or about those who like said music.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go turn on my Goo Goo Dolls, settle in, and re-experience that heady, moody time known as the ’90s.

Weekly Rant: Russell Tovey, Misogynists, and Small College Closings

I’ve decided to implement a weekly place where I get to rant about all the things in the news that upset me in a given week.  Hopefully, this will serve as an impetus for me to get back into regular blogging, but even if it doesn’t, I’m still going to log on here to complain about all of the things that bug me in a week’s news.  Given that this has been an incredibly stressful news week, it seemed like an appropriate time to set out and spread the angry word (and, since Twitter limits me to 140 characters, my good ol’ blog will allow me to go on at length).

To start with…Russell Tovey.  What can I even say?  To hear one of the stars of a fairly well-respected, if somewhat pedestrian, gay drama so blatantly disavow, nay disparage, effeminacy–and, by extension, gay men who dare to act effeminate–is, to put it mildly, disheartening.  To say what I really feel, however, I think it is utterly, unequivocally disgraceful and harmful, perpetuating exactly the kind of gendered policing that we as a community (whether imagined or not) should be rigorously, consistently, and vociferously fighting against.  I’m sure that Mr. Tovey would be gratified to know that it was exactly the effeminate men that he so eagerly and flippantly dismisses who made it possible for him and his fellow “straight acting/masc” lads to live their lives outside the shadow of homophobia, both through their flaming activism and, to be quite honest, because they are the ones that have to take the most flack from society at large for their unwillingness to adopt “gender appropriate behavior.”  The alleged appeal he has, rather than being based in his self-touted “flexibility” as an actor, is in fact based in gay men’s continued destructive fetishizizing of masculine rough trade at the expense of any other type of gay experience.  To add insult to injury, his “sorry/not sorry” tweet, full of smarmy self-congratulation, was enough to make me throw up in my mouth.

Of course, Tovey isn’t the only nodal point of latent misogyny percolating in the commentary-sphere this week.  Nico Lang’s fantastic article about male privilege and the touching of women’s bodies, published at Salon, invited the typical comments-section drivel spouted out by thinly-disguised MRAs touting their own objectification.  Comment after comment went on and on about how the commenter, as a man, was subject to the unwarranted of women.  Two comments are in order here.  One:  GUESS WHAT MEN, IT’S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT YOU.  Two:  Women and men occupy VASTLY DIFFERENT power positions in society, meaning that who has access to who’s body means very different things depending on the gender of the people involved.  I’m not saying that makes it okay for women to have unfettered access to men’s bodies; I’m just saying that we don’t have to always make it about men.  We can, instead, say, “You know what?  Why don’t WE ALL become more conscious about personal space and integrity?”  Of course not, because that’s obviously too fucking much to ask.

And, lest we forget that the realm of higher education is a shark tank ready to devour the “weak” and the “unprofitable,” the private, women’s only, liberal-arts oriented Sweet Briar College announced that it will be closing its doors.  This is disheartening for so many reasons:  the fact that a bastion of liberal arts education can’t remain sustainable is sad enough, but it’s compounded by the rhetoric of entitlement that surrounds it.  Students are upset because of their lack of access to a Starbucks (apparently the nearest one is~wait for it~30 MINUTES AWAY).  Gods forbid that students learn in a rural environment, or anything outside of a major urban center.  Or worse still that they be seen to enroll in a school emphasizing the skills inculcated in a liberal arts curriculum.  This is, I fear, just the first of many such closings, as the relentless machine of capitalism grinds up these smaller institutions into so much grist for the MOOC, STEM, and trade school machines that universities and colleges everywhere are fast becoming.  So much for diversity in the field of higher education, eh?

So, there you have it, my rants for the week.  Agree?  Disagree?  Both?  Sound off in the comments below.  I’d love to hear what you think.