Still a Girl: The Disney Princess I Needed

My father grew up poor in rural Kansas City, Kansas, in the 1940s. At the same time, my mother’s cousins were growing up middle class in a more central Kansas City suburb. One year in the 1990s, after Thanksgiving dinner at my great-aunt and -uncle’s house, my great-uncle C.B. set up the screen to show us some home movies from when my mom’s cousins were little. Later, my dad told us how surprised he was, upon seeing the cousins’ delight at opening the same toys he had coveted from the Sears catalog and never received, to feel a stab of envy as keen as though he were still that little boy.

I’m not the sort of person who regularly mentions my “inner child,” but how else can I explain how moved I was by Moana, Disney’s most recent “princess movie”?

“Which was your favorite Disney princess when you were a little girl?” my daughter asked me shortly after we watched Moana.

Pause. “Well, it was the seventies. Disney princesses weren’t really A Thing for girls in the seventies.” Humans make sense of our lives through stories and metaphors and heroes, and I had no stories to help me know what to do with my ambition—certainly no Disney princess who existed in the 1970s could have helped me with any idea beyond finding a prince. There were two narratives in my mind to contain future possibilities: Childless Career Woman and Selfless Mother. Mostly, as a teenager, I gravitated toward the CCW model, because, until I was eighteen and some sort of biological switch got flicked within me, I wasn’t that interested in having children.

But once I had decided that yes, I wanted to have children, ambition became a problem, and although I didn’t think of it at the time, this conflict likely had a lot to do with my renunciation of ambition a little over a year later. I was in one of the study carrels hidden in the stacks of the enormous library at the University of Kansas, writing a sort of journal entry on lined paper. I don’t remember my words, but the conclusion I reached that day was that everyone thinks they’re special, and therefore the fact that I thought I was special and could do great things was in fact proof of my utter and complete ordinariness. For the next fifteen years, despite the fact that I spent ten of those years diligently furthering my education, I gave no quarter in my mind to ambition. “I’m doing the work because I like the work,” was how I explained my pursuit of a PhD.

And I didn’t call the thing I was avoiding “ambition.” I called it “the yearning,” because it was bigger and wider and stronger than what I would have called “ambition” (a word “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil”). Sometimes music would trigger it, sometimes nature, sometimes art, often fiction. In the three years I was out of graduate school, renouncing academia forever, I thought, I avoided reading literary fiction, because I didn’t want to yearn to go back to grad school.

So when I took my daughter to see Moana, I recognized a story that the girl that I was needed then and didn’t have. Moana is daughter of the village chief on the island Motunui, and the ocean calls to her. She yearns to go beyond the reef and to sail on the open ocean, and she doesn’t understand why. All she knows is that it is forbidden for anyone to go beyond the reef and that her people need her. But the ocean keeps calling her—she wants to know what is beyond the horizon, she wants to experience the hugeness and endlessness of the ocean instead of the boundedness of her island life.

 

Simple stories are the best stories for guiding humans—I can’t think of another story that captures so well for me “the yearning.” She wants what she wants just because, and she can’t stop wanting it just because no one around her wants her to want that. In the end, of course, because it’s a Disney story for children, she gets what she wants, and it helps, not harms, her family.

I learned this past week that my promotion dossier has been approved at all levels, and so I will be promoted to full professor as of July 1. To be honest, though, it doesn’t even feel like an island rest place, because of the turmoil at my university. The split between Indiana University and Purdue University in Fort Wayne, which will make the part that I belong to fully a branch campus of Purdue, means a 100% change in our library access, which until now has been entirely through Indiana University. The uncertainty about everything this past academic year—Will we still be supported as researchers? Will we still have access to a research library’s materials? Will I quit academia altogether?—kept me from mentally committing to my book project on allegory.

But over the past month I have steeled myself to commit to the next book, to continue to work on my research even though really no one except me actually cares that much . . . and though it feels pretty dumb and childish to say it, Moana has been my heroine for the past month. In the song where she makes her final commitment to her vocation, her final decision not to give up but to keep trying, she sings, “the call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me.” I wish I had had this story when I was a little girl; it’s good that I have it now, because I still clearly need someone to tell me that “the yearning” itself isn’t foolish or ego-driven or worthless but is simply who I am.

Rachel E. Hile

The Slut-Shamer Within: Th1rteen R3asons Why and the Panopticon of Teen-Girls’ Sexuality

My daughter really-really-really-really wanted me to read Jay Asher’s Th1rteen R3asons Why. The library copy is due today, and I started last night, so if I’m going to fulfill her wish that “we can discuss it, like a book club!,” I have to read fast.

I’m halfway through, and I hate it. I get what Asher is trying to do: convince his YA audience that bullying is bad, slut-shaming is bad, lies and rumors are bad, and suicide is bad (duh). But for all that Asher does to make Hannah Baker into someone who “never claimed to be a Goody Two-Shoes”—she has a beer at a party, she breaks her parents’ rules by going on a date with a boy while they’re out of town—instead of grappling with the difficult task of being a male writer trying to get adolescent female sexuality right, he dodges. It’s easier to make the reader feel something for a female victim who is “pure,” I suppose, and so Hannah is essentially sexless: Asher makes her keen yearning for her first kiss romantic, not sexual, and the boy Hannah saucily breaks the rules to go out with walks her to the door and then leaves. Apparently not even a handshake or a chaste hug, let alone a kiss good-night.

I’m sure plenty of others have written about what the novel (and now Netflix series) gets wrong about depression and suicide—the mere premise sounded wildly implausible to me from the beginning, more “Huck and Tom at their own funeral” than anything that rang true from my experience as a depressed teenager. But I want to write about sex, because can someone please write a book for our teenage girls about a mildly sex-obsessed teenage girl who is also interested in other things and doesn’t die at the end?! So far, we’ve got Tina Belcher, from the animated TV show Bob’s Burgers, who likes to gaze at boys’ butts and spends a lot of time thinking about kissing—is there another one I don’t know about? In the 1980s, I was a mildly sex-obsessed teenage girl who was also interested in other things, but full of self-loathing in part because I thought I was “slutty,” and in danger of dying before the end. And no Tina Belcher.

Tina.Belcher.Butt

Can we do better for today’s teen-girls?

The buzz about the book is that it’s anti-bullying, but while pointing the finger at bullying, it doesn’t (so far) interrogate the culture around female sexuality that animates the whole plot. It’s so unfair what’s happening to Hannah because she’s not really a slut!

But what if she were? We are probably still generations away from having a teenage pop-culture version of Samantha Jones, the sex-obsessed woman from Sex and the City who is also interested in other things and doesn’t die at the end. Even she, though, endured some social punishment for her slutty ways, as I recall—I have a memory of a single scene, where Samantha is with a group of women who are behaving very coldly to her. All I remember of the scene is her sudden realization of why they are snubbing her followed by an effort to keep her dignity, even though her feelings are hurt. Other than this one scene, Samantha lives as a sexual adventurer in a world that no actual woman really inhabits—in other words, she is a caricature. But still, for the year or two after my divorce, when everyone in my world was judging me, hard, for not having good enough reasons to leave my marriage (I left because I wanted to), the unreal freedom that the character enjoyed inspired me . . . as fictional characters who live in unreal worlds sometimes do (Princess Leia, I’m lookin’ at *you*).

Samantha.Jones

Can we please, please, please stop treating teenage girls’ sexuality as either non-existent or as A Problem? Can we stop measuring their shorts and requiring them to get advance permission to wear prom dresses? Can we stop promising them princes if they promise purity to their fathers? Can we stop teaching them (and the boys, too!) lies in sex ed class, stop trying to scare them out of their desires? And can someone please serve up a fictional teen-girl character whose sexuality is a non-problematic but vital part of an awesome life with some other fictional problem to move the plot?

Rachel E. Hile

Catching in the Rye

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.” – J. D. Salinger

How bruised my spirit is. Not depressed, just . . .bruised.

I wrote a while ago about losing faith in political institutions and how I was thinking and reading about anarchism with more interest than I had ever had before. I have always been enough of an idealist that my response to deeply flawed institutions tends to be quitting: quitting the Catholic Church (and then returning and quitting again), quitting academia (and then returning and then quitting and then returning again), as just two examples. The institution I work at now is deeply flawed, and I did my level best this academic year to find another job so that I could quit my current institution . . . and failed. The local Democratic Party, mirroring the national party, seems still to be animated by the divisions that can be expressed in short form as “Clinton/Sanders.” Another flawed institution that, especially at the national level, is clearly ill equipped to save us from our woes.

The anarchists focus on individual action, not relying on institutions as saviors.  And that makes a lot of sense to me, but—and this is probably because I am middle aged and therefore deeply pragmatic—I don’t want to quit these flawed institutions. It would be so easy to quit participating in the local Democratic Party—I only became involved in November . . . disappearing would be easy. It would be harder in many ways to quit academia again, but I was certainly seriously considering it throughout the second half of 2016.

I don’t have the faith in these institutions that I once had, and I feel more strongly than ever the sense of personal obligation (Simon Critchley calls the anarchist ethos of personal obligation to meet the needs of others Infinitely Demanding), but it makes more sense to me to act on this sense of obligation within the flawed institutions. Somehow this year I have gravitated at work to roles where I can try to be the catcher in the rye, the one who saves the children before they go over the cliff. I’ve been working this year as my department’s lead advisor, trying to help with untangling the snarls that can lead to confusion or delays in students’ progress. I joined a committee that provides emergency grants for students in immediate financial trouble, another committee that hears financial aid appeals for students in danger of losing their aid, and today I went to an all-day training session to learn how to do equity investigations in cases of harassment or Title IX discrimination. After several years of trying to gain institutional power, with the idea that more power would equal more ability to do good, I have given up on power, but not on doing good. But being a catcher in the rye, in my institution or, probably, any, could provide full-time, endless hours of work. I won’t catch them all, but my chances of catching some are better if I’m part of the group effort of the institution.

This all makes sense, marks a clear trajectory, in my work life: from service to an attempt to gain power and back to service again. What can I apply to my very beginning participation in the Democratic Party, so that I don’t have to learn these lessons all over again in a new institutional context? I have entirely too many strikes against me to ever run for office—I’m an atheist intellectual bisexual in a polyamorous marriage. This would never, ever fly in Indiana, so I can cross “attempt to gain (political) power” off my list. But what about service? I need to have patience there and follow others. I am with regard to politics where I was with regard to academic governance structures ten years ago, when I served on committees where I spent most of each meeting listening, because I had no idea how things got done—the nitty-gritty of committee work, policy documents, faculty governance—and could learn only by showing up and paying attention. So I continue to show up and pay attention to the Democratic Party meetings.

Rachel E. Hile

the_catcher_in_the_rye_by_deseoutshy-d3j1ltx

Illustrations by William Marchant and deseoutshy

Trump’s “Shock and Awe” Campaign against Liberals

Remember “Shock and Awe”?

iraq-shock-and-awe

The phrase became common parlance during the Second Gulf War, when, along with “Mission Accomplished,” it became one of the two phrases associated with George W. Bush and the Gulf War. But he didn’t coin the phrase. In 1996, Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade Jr. published Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance (National Defense University Institute for National Strategic Studies), in which they describe a post–Cold War military strategy that “draws on the strategic uses of force as envisaged by Sun Tzu and [Carl von] Clausewitz to overpower or affect the will, perception, and understanding of the adversary for strategic aims and military objectives” (92). They note that Clausewitz characterized war as including “substantial elements of ‘fog, friction, and fear’” (19), and for them, manipulating and enhancing the fog, friction, and fear that are natural concomitants of war becomes the strategy: “Our focus is on the Clausewitzian principle of affecting the adversary’s will to resist as the first order of business, quickly if not nearly instantaneously” (8).

To achieve rapid dominance, aka “shock and awe,” Ullman and Wade suggest that military strategists plan actions characterized by:

  • Complete knowledge of self, adversary, and the environment;
  • Rapidity;
  • Brilliance of execution; and
  • Control of the environment. (67; elaboration on these bullet points 67–87)

I’m not the first to notice that Donald Trump postures more aggressively against domestic than international enemies.  More than any other stereotype, the schoolyard bully seems a natural fit with his personality. It makes sense, then, that launching a shock and awe campaign against the hated liberals for the first week of his presidency would appeal to Donald deeply.

And how is he doing? Judging from Facebook and Twitter, pretty well.

Complete knowledge of self, adversary, and the environment? I would never give him credit for self-knowledge, but he and his minions have a pretty good handle on the things that we snowflakes care about, and he is systematically and symbolically hammering at all of them. Defund every organization that furthers the arts and humanities. Threaten to send federal troops into Chicago. Continue alienation of Mexico about the wall. Create policies that de facto discriminate against Muslims. Muzzle government agencies from communicating about science and facts. Perhaps most appallingly, flip-flop again on torture, saying “Torture works.” This on top of Republican president standbys such as reinstating the global abortion gag rule and rattling his saber at Planned Parenthood.

Rapidity? Check. While he was too bored to attend briefings and and went to shore up the crumbling edges of his fragile ego with adoring crowds at his “thank you” rallies, some folks were actually doing the work to enable him to hit us hard in the gut every day of the first week of his presidency.

Brilliance of execution? Maybe. Certainly organized and deriving from competent strategic thought.

Control of the environment? He has an eager army of Republican legislators without consciences who are happy to use the fact of a Republican in the White House to further their own ends. He has legions of happy followers who live in echo chambers devoted to his voice and ideas. The first are happy to repeat and the second to believe the new “alternative facts.” The only thing standing between him and complete control of the environment is us and the journalists.

I’m a professor of English Renaissance literature, and one of the things that comes up often in the works I teach is the distinction between a king and a tyrant. From Xenophon to John Milton, the tyrant is a ruler who wars against his [sic] own subjects. So if we have a new president who wants to spend the first week of his term waging psychological warfare against his political opponents to demoralize us through fog, friction, and fear . . . well, mission accomplished, as they say. But it tells us who we are dealing with: a tyrant, not a king.

And centuries of political theory make it clear: to a tyrant, you don’t owe deference. To a tyrant, there is no need to “respect the office.” It is just to obstruct the will of a tyrant: citizens marching on the Mall in Washington four times a year, journalists speaking the truth in print, politicians and vocal citizens blocking his policies and nominations, and everyone’s acts of civil disobedience both quiet and loud.

Rachel E. Hile

W(h)ither Party Politics? Part 1

 

In an early blog post, I mentioned Robert Putnam’s discussion in Bowling Alone of declining participation in political parties. My thought then was that the best way forward was for me and millions of others to become more engaged in the Democratic Party. Since then, I’ve been to meetings of the Allen Country Democratic Party and of the Allen Country Democratic Party Women’s Club, and somehow it feels . . . like the past. This is not going to be a post with a clear thesis, because I’m reaching for something here, trying to understand why these meetings feel like the past to me, whether it matters, and what would feel more contemporary to me.

My life was very different in 2000, when Bowling Alone came out. At around the same time, I also read some other sociological research demonstrating how much happier people were when they were affiliated with multiple groups, and I remember rather smugly counting up how many groups I was a part of: my church, a women’s prayer group, the attachment parenting group, two book groups, La Leche League. The specific groups might have changed when I left religion and as my children grew older, but what happened instead was that after I went back to work full-time in 2005, the number of groups dropped to zero and then one, the community orchestra I’ve played in since moving to Indiana in 2006.

My (limited) efforts to connect with other groups in Fort Wayne haven’t been all that successful. Several years ago, I took my kids to an “interfaith prayer service” for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Afterward, there were cookies and coffee in the church basement, and I noticed how the apparent unity in the chapel turned into groups from various churches sitting at tables together. We knew no one there, because, as I joked to my children, we were the only actual INTERfaith people there, as in “between faiths” the way one might be “between jobs.” Some time later, I queried a religion-based homeless shelter about volunteering and mentioned my lack of church affiliation. I never heard back. In some ways, then, my lack of religious affiliation likely diminishes my ability to connect with groups in this very religious small city.

And that is undoubtedly at least part of why attending Democratic Party meetings doesn’t feel like a good fit for me. Not just because the Democratic Party members seem, by and large, to be more religious than I am, but also because it feels like the past, like meetings and church dinners at the United Methodist Church I went to as a child.

I’ve tried and tried to understand what I mean by saying “it feels like the past,” and I think Robert Putnam’s book may be the best way of explaining it. In his book, Putnam is describing (and also valorizing, perhaps undeservedly) civic and group membership for the sake of connectedness, and maybe we could lump together all of those activities that he studies—party membership, church membership, Elks’ Lodge, bowling leagues, and so on—as having meetings where the purpose is in large part strengthening the group.

The problem with Putnam’s vision of good-old-the-way-things-used-to-be is that the benefits are concentrated, not dispersed. If I am a member of six or seven groups, and I get cancer, I will have many people bringing me casseroles. If I am not a member of six or seven groups—perhaps because I am single parent of two children with a full-time job, as I personally was for many years after my divorce, or if it’s because I am working two jobs, or am mentally ill, or have English as my second or third language, or feel unwelcome in a group I try to join because of my race or ethnicity, or any of a thousand other reasons why I might not be able to participate in many groups—no one is going to bring me a casserole when I’m sick.

The civic, social, and religious connectedness of the 1950s and 1960s worked for the in group, for in-group people in groups. Can’t we do better now? Robert Putnam can’t undo what the Internet and other technologies have done to make it possible for individuals to curate their social experience—we can seek out like-minded people, online discussion groups for niche interests—but the present social landscape becomes every bit as insular as a 1950s lodge meeting when we work to create a virtual echo chamber to shelter us from difference.

And that’s the thing, the reason I think there is something I like about the Allen County Democratic Party—it is the most diverse group I have ever been part of (however tenuously and tangentially I am a part at the moment). But I want to go to meetings and not have them feel like the past. How? What do I mean? What do I want party politics to look like? I’m still trying to figure this out.

Rachel E. Hile

The Moments Still Matter

 

I read Barack Obama’s final tweet as president . . .

obama-final-tweet

. . . and felt a moment’s hopelessness. The Republicans have been busy since January 3 to undo everything that President Obama accomplished in the past eight years, and with Donald Trump now president, the pace will only intensify. We will lose things we haven’t even thought of yet. With the new news that Trump wants to eliminate entirely the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities and to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the combined budgets of which amount to less than 0.02% of the federal budget, we learn exactly how powerful anti-intellectualism will be in Trump’s decision making, in addition to what we already knew about how his narcissism, fascism, xenophobia, racism, misogyny, ableism, and just general assholery contribute to his actions.

My historian friends warn of the dangers of triumphalism, of the idea that history is, for the “good people,” an overall march to victory, despite apparent setbacks along the way. A lot of what I have read since the election aimed at decreasing the despair of progressives boils down to triumphalism: “It will be OK, because we are still marching to our future, ultimate victory.” On this sad day, triumphalist thinking cannot help me. If what Obama accomplished was “one step forward,” then at the end of four years or—please no! —eight years, Trump and his Republican enablers will have taken us at least two steps backward. At least.

But the triumphalist view depends upon the chronos view of time: clockwork time, linear time, measurable time.  Such a view would make no sense from the perspective of kairos time: time as a moment, the right moment. If each moment counts, if each moment has its own dignity, its own capacity for right action, then the terrible moments of the next four years, when real people will suffer and die because of leadership and policy decisions, cannot cancel out the valuable moments of the past eight years, because life is more than the summing of parts.

When Barack Obama was president, some people were spared from the terror that an uninsured person feels when an accident or emergency room visit puts their entire future at risk. We will never know the details, but while he was president, someone was not tortured who would have been tortured under another president. Many couples are now and will continue to be happily married and to have the legal protections of marriage to defend their families. And so on.

Going forward, the Trump presidency will ruin lives, but he can’t reach backward in time and make those moments not matter. Thank you for your service, President Obama. O Captain! My Captain! I hope that you surpass even Jimmy Carter to become the greatest ex-president our nation has ever known.

Rachel E. Hile

 

This Fucking Blog

I think about this fucking blog every goddamn day. Every day I think about this blog. I don’t want to write. I want to keep my thoughts in my head. Thoughts in my head don’t need to be organized or eloquent, and they don’t need to have a point. Thoughts in my head are also not subject to praise or criticism: no one else has any opinions about what’s on my mind at any moment, and I like it that way.

And yet I made a commitment to write, so I think about the blog every day.

My daughter is off school today, so I took the morning off work and took her out for donuts and then a trip to Barnes and Noble to spend a gift card she had received. I think one reason I get books from libraries instead of bookstores is because I can’t enter a bookstore without thinking about the business of books. When I see these bright commodities, many of them so perfectly marketed to interpellate me and fill me with desire to touch and hold and read, it disgusts me a little. For one thing, there are so many, and more every day, that it’s clear that the world doesn’t need another . . . and yet there will be another, and another, and another, because there is a market for it, and what exists in America exists because there is a market for it.

There is a binary—things that sell for money are important, and things that don’t are not. By this binary, the book I actually did write, a work of literary scholarship, is not important, because it will sell a small number of copies primarily to university libraries. But there is a competing binary—things that don’t sell for money are important, and things that do are not. According to this binary, I could preen over the fact that only the few would ever want to read my book in the first place: exclusivity replaces popularity, esotericism replaces accessibility.

Binaries are such lazy lies, though.

I’m reading Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Are You My Mother? It’s a very different book than Fun Home, her first memoir—obsessive about interiority, dreams, psychoanalysis, and how all of that connects with relationships, especially her relationship with her mother, but also relationships with therapists and with lovers, and she weaves all of this together using the recurring plot device of her own writer’s block. Importantly, she wasn’t able to successfully write memoir as a young woman—eventually, the process of memoir-writing, therapy, and obsessive reading of psychoanalytic theories together transform her sufficiently to make it possible to write about her life with genuineness. She includes the rejection letter she received in her early 20s from none other than Adrienne Rich, when she sent a short memoir-based piece to a prominent literary journal. Rich wrote that her work had dealt with the material “at a rather superficial level. Even for yourself, I think it would be useful to go back and ask yourself some real questions as to the meaning of each incident, and its context. I hope this is helpful. Don’t be put off, or discouraged. Writing is a very long, demanding training, more hard work than luck. Strength to you. In sisterhood, Adrienne Rich.” It’s not just developing a voice, developing skill, Bechdel implies—it’s also learning to be the True Self instead of the False Self (in Donald Winnicott’s terms), and that is a painful process that takes years.

But the voice, the being willing to speak, is also important. I often tell my students, most recently my Milton students this past Tuesday, about how I didn’t talk in class as an undergraduate, but I forced myself to start talking in class in my first year of graduate school. It’s an anecdote, mostly, a way of saying “I understand how you might feel about my desire that you speak in class.” But the details are instructive. In that first year of graduate school, in the first semester, I continued my instinctual loathing of my classmates who were confident enough to speak up all the time in class. I felt similarly toward my vocal classmates as I feel now toward the authors of the books in the bookstore: They’re speaking, so I don’t have to. They’re speaking, and that’s because they think they’re so smart. They’re speaking because they want attention. They’re speaking, and so whatever I have to say is unnecessary and superfluous.

When I forced myself to become one of the students who spoke up every day, it was agony. My heart would pound, my breathing becoming shallower and faster—classic anxiety symptoms for someone shy enough to have once tried, at the age of four or so, to hide underneath my mother’s skirt when she wanted to introduce me to a roomful of strangers. It was a discipline, and I succeeded sufficiently that eventually, I was on the other side of the same binary. There was a beautiful, smart woman in one of my classes, and she hardly ever spoke up. When she did, though, it was top-notch, insightful stuff. Nothing she ever said was less than brilliant . . . but I hated her a little bit for how infrequently she shared her lapidary brilliance with us. Here the rest of us are, hustling to keep the conversational ball moving about this really damned difficult literary theory, and You. Are. Not. Pulling. Your. Weight. I imagined that she was looking down on me, because although my numerator of brilliance in the course may have rivaled her output, my denominator was much, much larger, diminishing my Brilliance Quotient.

are-you-my-mother

Of course it was all about me. Isn’t everything?

But the fact of it was that I made the decision to speak up in class for myself, not for anyone else, and that was a good decision. I got over my shyness, and my life has been very different than it would have been if I hadn’t managed that feat.

I think that now, with this blog, I am in the same place that I was twenty years ago with speaking. No one else needs to read my opinions. There are enough opinions out there, enough brilliant writing—truly, no one needs me to try. But my life changed for the better when I learned to speak in a group. I don’t know what will happen if I go the next step and write down what’s in my mind.

Rachel E. Hile

rich-quotation

Shit! So Am I an Anarchist Now?

I last posted here a week ago. Since then, I’ve begun three blog posts, but the task of describing the troubling thing that was happening to me was too much, and one by one, I gave up on them. Over the past few weeks, as Donald Trump has flouted expectations based in reason and common sense, opinion writers have warned that his actions would lead citizens to decreased faith in our system. I recognized this as a definite danger . . . for others. I know a thing or two about loss of faith, but my conviction of the basic goodness of the US Constitution and American democracy in general was strong enough to seem unshakable.

And then came a little tremor. It wasn’t even caused by Trump himself. It was the Republicans who refuse to say what is true about Trump, because not speaking the truth maintains their power. It was the Republicans in North Carolina who rewrote the entire system of statewide governance in order to diminish the power of the newly elected Democratic governor. It was the Republicans who are demolishing public education in the state I work in, because they don’t believe it should exist. I felt last Friday how naive I had been to believe that Republicans and Democrats can be likened to two teams playing at the same sport by the same rules.

And yet . . . and yet . . . a few weeks ago I had a conversation with a friend who lives in Chicago, and she described the Democratic Party there in ways that reminded me that power corrupts, and that Democrats, whom I have tended to idealize as believing in compassion, are not immune.

The tremor subsided, but then came the earthquake. Of the three terrible things that happened Monday—the Electoral College giving a win to Donald Trump, the truck bomb in Berlin, and the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey—the third was the one that shook me the most, because it laid bare for me, at an intellectually vulnerable moment, how state power works.

On Monday, in Ankara, a former police officer, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, shot and killed Russian Ambassador Andrey Karlov at the opening of an art exhibition displaying photographs of Russia by Turkish artists. He shot only Karlov and then shouted to the crowd about his motivations, including the statement “Halep’te çocukları öldürdünüz bunun intikamını alacağız”: “You killed the children in Aleppo, and we will get their revenge.” His actions were those of an assassin, not a terrorist, and his motive was revenge for something specific: the slaughter of innocents in Aleppo.

The responses of the affected state powers, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, linguistically recategorized the actions that occurred. Both men called the attack a “provocation” (Putin video available here and Erdogan’s comments here, and both vowed to step up their battle against “terror.”

There is a difference between “provocation” and “revenge,” and calling Altıntaş’s murder of Karlov a “provocation” aims to erase the originating event, which is Russia and Syria bombing the shit out of Aleppo, targeting hospitals and civilians, destroying a whole city and thousands of people in it. But according to the ideology of state and nation, the one that I learned from childhood and never questioned, it’s OK for nations to kill people. States set themselves a low moral bar to clear when it comes to violence, and categorizing a revenge assassination as a terrorist provocation gives Russia and Turkey ample justification for piling on more violence, because people believe that “the War on Terror” should use any tactics a state deems necessary or beneficial.

I’ve been watching power carefully recently, watching it up close at the university I work at, in my nation, and in the world, and I don’t like what I see. All my wish in earlier days was to have better people in positions of power, but today I don’t believe that is possible—the people in power will not allow into the power system others who are motivated to change that system. What am I left with but the grass roots? Tonight I went to a vigil for those suffering in Aleppo—a fitting way to commemorate the longest night of the year—and left the building with more awareness of how non-governmental organizations are helping on the ground, and how I could help them to help, and perhaps with a smidgen more hope than I have felt for the past week.

Rachel E. Hile

2016-12-20-aleppo-vigil

Photo by Ahmed Abdelmageed

 

Not “Charity” but Hospitality: Welcoming Syrian Refugees

On the way back to Indiana after Thanksgiving, my sixteen-year-old son was driving us across Missouri on I-70, and as much as I wanted to keep my eyes on the road as a surrogate-driving-intelligence-master, seeing all that wide open space in rural Missouri inspired me to do a few Google searches.

The population density of the United States (people per square mile) is 86 (for comparison, the population density of Syria is 259). The density in Missouri is slightly above that, at 89, well above the least densely populated states: Alaska (1.3), Wyoming (6.0), and Montana (7.1). So in addition to their advantage every four years in the Electoral College . . .

electoral-college-math-the-population-of-california-is-38-800-000-the-6760883

. . . these states with low population density also have something that humans have desired for millennia: space. For humans, as for other animals, increased population density leads to increased intraspecific competition, also known, in our case, as war.

Why do we deserve so much space? Why do Americans deserve such a moderate population density? We know how we came to have it: by taking it from the Native Americans. But why do we deserve it? Many Americans believe that we deserve it because we are good and because the god Yahweh favors us, but this is certainly a self-interested interpretation.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time feeling personally guilty over atrocities committed by white Europeans in taking over this enormous mass of land, but could we perhaps agree to consider being born in America, a huge land mass with an enviable population density and lots and lots of natural resources, to be an unearned advantage?

If we adopt an attitude of humility toward benefits we have as a result of chance rather than merit, it will orient us differently when we consider the refugees and immigrants who want to live here. The Internet has repeatedly scolded me in the past month, reminding me that there are poor people in rural America for whom being American doesn’t mean economic security and that those people shouldn’t be judged or shamed for voting for a hate-mongering, narcissistic, fascistic charlatan. But there are people in the world who would love to come live in peace in our underpopulated states, places where economic instability is the least of people’s fears. In Aleppo today, for example, there are thousands of civilians who don’t know if they will be alive tonight, people who have watched loved ones die in front of them, people who walk past dead bodies in the street when they dare to go into the street.

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The discourse against accepting Syrian refugees focuses on fear of terrorism, but the underlying ideas are about deserving: we deserve the good things we have, and therefore if we share them, it is a voluntary act of charity.

We should not think this way. We should think instead of the virtue of hospitality, enjoined in the Bible to which so many Americans claim to adhere, as summarized in this Patheos blog:

‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers’ (Hebrews 13:2),  ‘Show hospitality to one another without grumbling’ (1 Peter 4:9), ‘You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:34) and ‘hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined’ (Titus 1:8, all quotations ESV). Clearly, God wants us to be hospitable not in the sense of entertaining, but in a much deeper sense, and it’s not an optional extra. It is fundamental to our work for God.

So, we are to welcome people, even strangers from other lands. We are to love them as we love ourselves, in other words, to consider their needs not at the expense of our own, but as equal with them. We should seek to care for others just as willingly as we care for ourselves. Hospitality is about perceiving the needs of others and doing our best to meet them and it’s also about service (1 Timothy 5:10).

Theologian Henri Nouwen writes of hospitality as a way of being open to other people’s humanity and individuality:

Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. . . . Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.

Opening our land in hospitality, sharing our space and safety with refugees, would look a lot like what we have done my whole life—I remember the Vietnamese refugees who came to live in my Kansas City neighborhood when I was a child, and my current city, Fort Wayne, Indiana, has been one of the principal destinations for Burmese refugees. It would not be economically feasible to place refugees in the truly underpopulated rural areas of the United States; instead, they should go, as has been the practice, to mid-sized cities in lower-population-density states, where they can be supported in the slow process of becoming part of a new country. This 2015 article discusses how the Burmese refugees in Fort Wayne were doing twenty-three years after the first refugees arrived. Parent-children conflicts—exacerbated by the cultural conflicts between first- and second-generation immigrants—are the major concern mentioned, but the majority of the story’s details focus on increasing levels of economic and cultural success, with the majority “hav[ing] gone from depending on the government to becoming taxpaying citizens of the United States.”

We are fortunate beyond our deserving to live in a land so large and rich. How morally impoverished, though, if we allow Donald Trump to demonize people fleeing for their lives as a “Trojan horse” who will ruin our country if we share with them our benefits.

 

Dangerous Ideas and Where to Find Them

 

From the age of thirteen I considered myself to be bisexual, and, although I spent my senior year of high school pissed off at all the boys and thought I was therefore a lesbian, “bisexual” (“pansexual” wasn’t a thing then) was really the best fit. But then when I converted to Catholicism at the age of twenty-four, I had to come up with a new narrative, and the story I made myself believe was that I had “chosen” to “indulge” feelings that I should have instead worked to contain. The pseudo-progressive Christian line was that the feelings weren’t sinful, just ever-ever-ever acting on them. OK, fine, so that was my story for the first several years of my Catholic phase.

One day, in maybe 2002 or 2003, I was wandering the stacks of my university library, and this book caught my eye:

wedded-wife-lesbian-life

Standing in the stacks, it took me a while to decide to check out the book and read it. To be a good Catholic, I had put boxes around so many ideas in my mind. The ideas were in the boxes, and the edges didn’t touch, and I didn’t allow other thoughts to get in there and argue with the boxed-up ideas. I knew that if I read this book, it was going to mess up the boxes. Standing there, I recognized that the cost of continued obedience involved closing my mind to ideas that would challenge the Catholic dogma I had adopted. The twenty-four years of freethinking I had enjoyed before putting my mind into those boxes reared up, and I knew I would be ashamed to become a person afraid of other ideas. I checked out the book. I chose freedom of thought. I left the Catholic Church in 2004.

I see this struggle in my students. The students whose relationships became more complicated because of the ideas they encountered in the women’s studies course I taught about work-life balance. The advisee who was worried about taking a history course named “Witchcraft and Witch Hunts,” because she wondered if what she might learn in that class would conflict with what her religion teaches her. The students whose course evaluations criticized my courses on Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser for mentioning sexual and scatological themes demonstrably present in their work.

Even more so than the classroom, though, art is the home of dangerous ideas . . . and what is even more threatening is how art frames those ideas in ways that foster empathy and imaginative identification.

But people have to make the choice to receive the ideas. Yesterday, I drove to Detroit with my daughter to see Fun Home, the musical based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel. I couldn’t get tickets when I was in New York City in June 2015, and I will be teaching the book in the Spring 2017 semester, so I had to make a special pilgrimage to see it.

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Who knows when this award-winning play, the first Broadway play to feature a lesbian protagonist, will make it to Fort Wayne, Indiana? There is a market here for touring companies of Broadway shows, but the shows that might challenge the area’s conservative morals either don’t come or arrive years and years later. Both Fun Home and Hedwig and the Angry Inch began national tours this fall, and neither will stop in Fort Wayne. One could argue that the city just isn’t big enough to be included in the first year of touring, and that is undoubtedly true, but still . . . the slightly edgy Avenue Q came to Fort Wayne seven years after it opened on Broadway and three years after it began touring. The Book of Mormon began touring  in 2012 and still hasn’t made it to Fort Wayne. It’s smart business in Fort Wayne, I’m sure, not to bring troubling ideas to town about sexuality, gender, and religion.

But I will stand behind the insight I had that day in the library many years ago: ideologies that can be sustained only by adherents’ studiously avoiding competing ideas are brittle, weak, doomed. The artists and teachers of the world keep threatening the status quo—here and in other states where the majority want to either stop time or else turn back the clock to the 1950s—with their dangerous, dangerous ideas.