May Day: Solidarity in Free Fall

Yesterday I went to two different May Day actions in my city. Both were organized by Cosecha, who has been trying to build momentum for a general strike shutting down the economy to demand permanent protection and dignity for all immigrants. I listened to many powerful speeches, and marched through the streets with the others who came.

I left despondent.

I left despondent because of who showed up, who didn’t, how we showed up, and why more of us didn’t show up in a more meaningful way. In April, I was watching archival footage of May Day parades from the 30s and 40s. Tenant associations, unions, religious groups, and neighborhood voluntary societies showed up in force as blocs and marched with banners prominently proclaiming themselves and the organization they came as a part of as a social unit throwing its full support behind the message of workers liberation. Yesterday, we had no blocs. The unions didn’t show up en masse or in force. Some people who happened to be union members were there. Some people who worked for unions were there. Some unions got really involved and even sent official representatives, some even sent ten people in matching union shirts! Disability Rights did not show up for immigrants, for labor, or for liberation yesterday. Again, there were people (like me) who work in disability rights, who were there. There were disabled people there. We didn’t even send representatives. The big LGBTQ organizations and Queer/Trans Liberation organizations were not out in force as blocs to show that the full force of our community is behind immigrant and labor liberation, though many many participants were LGBTQ and/or affiliated with those organizations. Radical and progressive Jewish organizations didn’t show up, though I know there were many radical and progressive Jews, myself again included, who participated. But there was no column behind a JVP banner marching uncomfortably next to columns behind If Not Now, Moishe Kavod, Temple Israel, and Workman’s Circle banners, all chanting for immigrant rights. This despite the fact that many local shuls have become sanctuary congregations, and many have been deliberately and directly partnering with Cosecha. We just had two separate rallies for environmental groups, one “for science” and one for “climate,” but it’s the same group. Environmental groups and “organized” science did not show up to throw their weight behind immigration justice yesterday, though I’m sure there were individuals there from those organizations… I could go on with this list, but I think the point’s been made.

The solidarity between different affected groups yesterday was nonexistent. Part of this, I think, stems from the administration moving against so many different issues at once. We’re overwhelmed. Labor has to throw all its weight against Right to Work and health care repeal. Disability Rights can barely manage the fight against ACA repeal, ADA gutting, and our state governor trying to take away accessible transportation. Environmental groups are looking at a boss match, Latinx groups have to deal with the deportations and the wall, Muslim groups have to deal with the deportations and the ban… all of our houses are on fire all at once, and we are each struggling to save our own house, to not burn. Meanwhile, the entire block is going to burn down. I know my own organization has taken the position that, unless it is a direct disability issue, we can’t take it up. If it’s something we support, we can sign on to a letter, we can send a representative to an action, but we can’t take it on ourselves, because we simply don’t have the capacity. I don’t have a solution to this, but I can’t believe it’s a legitimate excuse for the way we all failed to show up yesterday.

We have also let individualism get the better of our activism. We need to stop thinking about whether or not we are going to a protest, and start thinking about what organizations we belong to that should be at that protest. We need to show up as individual allies, yes. But it’s more powerful and more meaningful if we bring all our coworkers, our entire union chapter, our entire congregation, etc, and, as a group, proclaim to both those we are there to support and the public, that our workplace, our lab, our shul, our resource center, our community organization, our union chapter, stands with immigrants, stands against deportation, stands against bans and walls. That is what lets bigots know that they are not welcome in our spaces, that is what lets politicians know that to secure the voting blocs that are congregations, unions, ILCs, LGBTQ groups, etc (and yes, they do see us as voting blocs and, when we act, fear us accordingly), they must support full dignity and protection for ALL immigrants, and that is what lets vulnerable people know that this union, this church, this rights organization, this community center, is where they can go for support. Showing up as an individual does nothing to broadcast which places are safe. When our organization don’t show up as organizations or just send representatives, the message we send is that this is not a key issue for us, and that we, our union, our ILC, our collective, will not take major risks or lay out major resources to protect immigrants. We are sending the message that we won’t, when it comes to it, really fight.

Overall, as a strike day, yesterday was, sadly, a failure. Those of us who had the privilege of taking off from work did. Everyone else went to work. This has been a consistent problem in the various “day without a ___” actions this year. In my opinion, it’s because the concept is fundamentally flawed. A strike, traditionally, has had a specific, concrete demand that, if achieved, would significantly materially improve the lives of the strikers or, if not achieved, would be a disaster to the lives of the strikers. The organization planning and leading the strike (usually a union) provides a measure of protection to the strikers in the form of a strike fund to help them pay their rent and pay for food while on strike. It’s high-risk, high-reward, but with some protection. In contrast, the “day without a ___” protests are extremely high-risk with no reward. They’re about making a statement which is usually fairly vague so that it can appeal to a broader base. The closest any of them have gotten to specific demands are “stop the deportations” and “full dignity and protection for all immigrants.” Both of those would be great things. However, there is not a specific provision that would bring those about for which the organizations are fighting. Whatever your opinion on our political process, pragmatically we’re more likely to get what we want if we can spoonfeed the politicians a solution. These pushes offer no protection to those participating. “Day Without a Woman” didn’t have any way to compensate participants for lost wages. As far as I know, neither did yesterday. What wage worker in a major urban area in this country can afford to lose an entire day’s pay to make a statement? On top of that, some jobs will just fire you if you don’t show up, and reactionaries have been assuming that any immigrant (or, really, any POC) who participated yesterday or in Day Without Immigrants must be undocumented and I wouldn’t put it past them to call in anonymous tips. Who can risk their employment or, G-D forbid, a visit from ICE, just to make a statement? In the cost benefit analysis, for the overwhelming majority of people, it’s just not worth it. These make-a-statement-days are easy to say you’ll support, easy to put a star next to on social media, easy to spread, but nearly impossible to commit to. We need, and I believe we are capable of, a better strategy.

Speaking of solidarity, May Day, and Jewish organizations showing up as Jewish organizations, a word about Antisemitism. The history of western Leftist movements are decidedly, undeniably, Jewish. The early history of the labor movement in this country is indubitably Jewish. Yet the only speaker who mentioned either Jewish contributions to this movement, Jewish connection to May Day, or Jewish oppression was a young man with Jewish ancestry who was not invited up to the podium as a Jew. We heard from anarchists and communists about the great “european” leftist martyrs. Many of the names they listed were certainly Jewish names, and I’d be shocked if none of them would have been insulted by being called european. A gentile union organizer even had the gall to claim that the main reason Nazism is dangerous is the threat it poses to organized labor. Meanwhile, many of the city’s Jewish organizations are working very closely with immigrant and refugee organizations on their goals. Erasure of Jews from the history of the left, and erasure of our current work on the left, is Antisemitism. Not only that, it allows antisemitic beliefs to run unchecked in leftist movements. It keeps us and our organizations out of the movement. In no way are American Jews doing enough to combat capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, ableism, or militarized nationalism. We can and should always do more, and we are lucky this time in that we are not the first name on the target list. But that is no excuse for those who march in a tradition created largely by us to pretend that we never existed.

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Power versus Behavior

There’s a problem in progressive/liberal/hippie, and even in centrist, circles that I’ve been struggling to see as a problem and to name for a while, and I think I’ve finally figured it out.

We’ve gone from critiquing behaviors attached to positions of power to critiquing behaviors. This creates false equivalencies, and results in the people these critiques were originally created to help being equated to their oppressors while said oppressors get to feel validated in their feelings of fragility.

(ok monstrousjoy, that was a lot of big academic jargon words in one sentence, but what the fuck does it actually mean?)

Here’s an example:

We have collectively realized in recent years that men talk a lot more in group settings, and get called on a lot more by facilitators, than women, and we’ve recognized this is a problem, and decided that gender parity in amount of words spoken is a good thing to strive for. However, we are, for some reason, uncomfortable saying, for example, “I’ve been hearing a lot from the men in this group, let’s hear what the women have to say.” What we say instead is “let’s hear from some people we haven’t heard from.” The problem being highlighted is no longer male entitlement and male dominance, but the fact that some people talk a lot.

First of all, why don’t we feel comfortable saying “So far this conversation has been dominated by men. How about just women speak for the next ten minutes?” or, for that matter, “the white people in this group have been taking up too much space. For the next ten minutes, I want all whites to listen to what people of color have to say instead of speaking?” Why are we so afraid to name power dynamics within our own groups? Perhaps it’s because to do so would be to admit that our own groups are not immune from the forces of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc that we claim to want to eradicate in larger society. Perhaps we have yet to shake the notion that naming power dynamics is somehow impolite (a notion that in itself serves to reinforce and protect such dynamics), or maybe we are afraid (sometimes rightfully so) that the people in the group with power will be offended, and we’ll be putting ourselves and the other marginalized people in the group in a dangerous or uncomfortable position by setting off the volatile combination of power+fragility.

We may also be clinging to a false liberal ideal of equality, where equality, in the case of the example, means that everyone gets the exact same percentage of airtime, and the real problem, the threat to equality, is that some people talk more than others, not that one class of people feels that their words are inherently more valuable because they belong to that class, have been conditioned to believe everything they say is worthwhile, and that they are entitled to space to speak and a rapt and deferential audience when they do. This erroneous conception of equality and the threats to it are what lead people to thinking that reverse sexism is real, or that a woman shouting profanity at man (who otherwise has all the same social positions as she does) in the street is part of the same societal problem as catcalling.

Now, many self-styled progressives understand that there is no such thing as reverse sexism, and that a woman shouting “asshole!” at a man for stealing her parking space is not the same as catcalling. Yet these are the same people who frame group problems as being about people talking too much (as opposed to men taking up too much space), or sitting with legs open on public transit (rather than men taking up one and a half seats, and refusing to budge even when someone sits next to them). This reinforces systems of oppression while making us all feel like we’re holding each other accountable. It’s bullshit.

I’m a butch(ish) white Ashkenzi Jewish woman who had to navigate southern WASP spaces growing up. I have learning disabilities and I’m neuroatypical. I have had the way I speak, the amount I speak, the way my body occupies space, etc, critiqued as “too much” or “undesirable” since I could speak and position my body. White, straight, gender conforming, neurotypical cis men, on the other hand, are given the messages that what they have to say is valuable, how they say it is in keeping with their emotions, which are always acceptable and important, and that they deserve exactly as much space as they feel like taking up. When we frame the problem of who speaks more not as a problem of power but as a problem of personal behavior, those of us who have been conditioned to be hypercritical of our own behavior and always see ourselves as the problem/invalid/inappropriate/not valuable are enabled in our own self-silencing and self-devaluing habits, and those of us (the most privileged and powerful in the room) who have been conditioned to see themselves as inherently valuable and who feel victimized anytime their hegemony is eroded will also be enabled in their own problematic behaviors. “Everyone be aware of how much space you are taking up! Before you speak, ask yourself, ‘why am I talking :)!'” serves to encourage those used to being told to shut up to shut up, and those used to thinking they have every reason to dominate the conversation to dominate the conversation. The women in the group here “remember, nothing you have to say is valuable, so be quiet so the important and smart people can talk!” while the men hear “your points are valuable, and therefore you deserve to speak and shouldn’t feel like a bad feminist because of it.”

Critiquing behavior will always serve power because it serves it shield power from critique. Behaviors are all neutral, all contextual, all dependent on the who/how/when/where/why. To pretend otherwise is to be complicit in power’s double standards masquerading as true equality. We don’t want to believe this. It contradicts the simple ethics we were taught as children. Sharing is good, yelling is bad. But when a teacher demands that a child receiving free lunch “share” their fruit with the child whose parents pack them meals from Whole Foods because the rich child likes apple slices better, we should be able to recognize that sharing, in this case, is not a positive good. When the woman of color snaps in class and lets the rich white man have it, we should also recognize that yelling, in this case, is good. Behaviors become negative when they serve to reinforce oppressive systems, and when they do non-productive harm. What I mean by this is, sometimes a privileged person needs to have their feelings hurt in order to grow. Sometimes an abuser needs to be hit for their victim to escape. To label behaviors as always good or always bad limits the ways in which marginalized people can stand up against their own oppression, and rarely results in meaningful critiques leveled at people in positions of societal power.What makes speaking at length with conviction a problem is that straight white cis abled men use it as a tool to silence and invalidate others, and that they are given credence (and feel entitled to it) even when they have no evidence or knowledge to back up their assertions, not the fact that anyone could speak longer than anyone else, or that anyone’s conviction might make it difficult to form a worthy counter-argument in the moment. A woman, whether or not she is wearing a tie, and especially if she is Black, does not “exercise male privilege” by speaking at length with conviction on a topic on which she is an expert. In fact, she disrupts systems of sexism by doing so. A woman whose body occupies space differently because of disability and/or fate, especially if she is black, regardless of her hair-length, does not “exercise male privilege” by not having her legs primly crossed at all times. She defies enforcement of misogynistic body policing. Unless we go critiquing power, rather than politely critiquing behavior, we stand in very real danger of regressing in our beliefs around what is and is not appropriate for marginalized people.

A Lexicon of Inconsistencies (or: A Boston/Brasstown Dictionary)

A Run:

  1. Something that one goes on. A popular form of exercise. Can be performed anywhere, though areas featuring trees and/or water are preferred. Can require many accoutrements. Hazards include: damage to knees and an annoying moral superiority. Can also be a social activity.
  2. A way of tying up a dog without being cruel. A long rope is tied at five to six feet up between two trees, or between a tree and a house. This rope should be at least three yards or so long. A second rope is affixed to this so that it can move easily along the first, and hangs vertically down around eight to twelve feet in length. to this is affixed a leash, and to this the dog. This allows the dog to run around outside without running off or into the road or after any animals or people.

Barbeque:

  1. Any gathering involving the use of an outdoor grill. Usually involving Hamburgers and hotdogs.
  2. A sauce. Can be gotten in mass-produced form at supermarkets, or, for significantly more, in fancy small-batch form at farmers markets and pop-up shops. It comes in a variety of flavors.
  3. Really delicious Korean Chicken
  4. A style of meat preparation, usually done on Pork, though there is a style for chicken. Preparation takes sometimes days if done correctly. Frequently a family affair. Sometimes involves an entire pig. Something for which one “gets a hankering.”

Cold Brew:

  1. A high-priced alternative to Dunkin’ Donuts Every Flavor Iced Coffee. It can be found in all the most pretentious coffee shops. Hipsters sip it smuggly, the bearded ones pushing their dubiously real glasses up their noses as they ask those sporting lipstick and rings if they’ve heard of cold brew before? An exciting new way to show off your coffee cred while you continue to delude yourself you are something better than a yuppie.
  2. Something I drank as a teenager at a small, incongrous coffee shop on a hill just outside of downtown Murphy, a curious placement. I would wait there for my dad to come pick me up after I got done with my shift at Lowes. The owner knew everyone’s name, and if she didn’t she became quite agitated. She would try out new drinks on her regulars. My standard order was the cold-brewed peaberry, to which I added soy-milk. It tasted like nothing else before or since: full, mellow, nutty. No hint of bitterness. Not like the proprietor. The customers would joke that she should sample less of her product. Maybe then we’d know fewer details about her divorce.

Cold Brew Tea:

  1. Even better for you than regular tea, way better than coffee. Soaked overnight in temperature-controlled cold water for eighteen hours, infused with local herbs and fruits, and just a little sweetener. You can get it at Whole Foods, or from a stall at the South Station Farmers Market, where it is sold by a pale, thin man in his thirties with a standard-issue not-your-average-beard, clad in a straw trilby (what is the point), a skinny tie, and a vest in 90 degree heat. Because of their special brewing process, it contains no acids and none of the bitterness, and retails for upwards of $4/cup.
  2. More commonly referred to as Sun Tea. Sometimes in summer it just gets too hot to even turn on the stove. Hot enough that you can actually fry an egg on the hood of a car parked in the sun. But you still gotta have tea. Take the biggest jar you can find (we always used an old bulk Helman’s jar. I never knew what anyone had ever needed that much mayonnaise for) and… oh about six or seven tea bags (Lipton works just fine, but use whatever you want.) and throw them in there. Fill it up with cold water (if the tap can even get cold on a day like this) and add some honey (we used the honey our neighbors’ bees made) and some mint from the bank if you feel like it. Then you just set it in a nice sunny spot for a few hours and let nature do the rest. Tastes like summer in a jar. No bitterness and crisp as can be. Tastes like summer in a jar. not to be confused with Sweet Tea.

Cornbread:

  1. A quick-bread made with cornmeal and sugar, as well as other ingredients. Makes more sense in muffin form. Could be a passable dessert with a lemon frosting.
  2. A savory bread served with lunch or supper. Contains no sugar. Used to sop up juices from messes of greens or beans, or gravy from meat dishes. Contributes to the heartiness of a meal.

Firewood:

  1. Something to buy as a novelty for the novelty of lighting a real fire in your real fire-place, or for your camping trip to Vermont.
  2. The primary method of heating in the winter. Usually placed in a Wood-Stove. Some people still cut their own. Some pawn class or engagement rings for a cord. If used correctly, can keep a house at around sixty-five degrees until spring comes.

Kale:

  1. A superfood. It’s sooooooooooo good for you. So much better than spinach. Put it in every salad and on every sandwich as a replacement for every other green. It doesn’t matter if the flavors or textures aren’t quite right together. A major component of both the macro and paleo diets. Never cook it, it must always be eaten raw for full slimming effect. Can be made into a smoothie for added health benefits, allowing kale to be the main component of all three daily meals. Can also be roasted and made into chips. This process removes the heartiness but allows one to feel like one is consuming potato chips, though in chip form kale does nothing to reduce one’s hunger, as potato chips would. Kale chips are marketed as a “guilt free” alternative to starch-based chips, though at upwards of $5/small bag this label is a bit baffling.
  2. Used to make a mess o’ greens if tragedy strikes and you can’t get your hands on any collards. Must be cooked until it surrenders, then about five minutes more for good measure. Makes great feed for pigs and cows, especially in winter, seein as it’ll survive a few good frosts. Dirt cheap, since you can’t pay it to stop growin and nobody really wants it because it smells so damn bad. Good way to tell if folks is poor is if they’re eatin it.

Mason Jar:

  1. A moderately expensive way to advertise how cool and quirky and DIY you are. Extra points if it has a handle, a stem, or a straw in the lid. Use them as conspicuously as possible: carry your kale and quinoa salad to work in it, use it to carry your cold-brew coffee, as your water-bottle… did you know they come in colors??!!? (For slightly more, of course) and even ceramics for hot beverages (you can’t fit a lid on it but it’s just so decorative, such a statement, you know?) See also: Chic.
  2. Primarily for canning. First you boil em (outside on the camp-stove, too hot inside) then you fill em with: jams (blackberry, blueberry, sour cherry, etc.) tomatoes, pickles (cucumber: dill, bread and butter, sweet, watermelon rind, eggs, pigs feet, chicken feet, beets, dilly beans, etc. you cin pickle jest bout anythin), beans, all that. Try not to burn yer fangers. Make sure there’s enough, it’s gotta last all year, store-bought stuff’s too expensive. As you empty the jars they become the cups you offer company to hide the fact that mostly you drink outta old yogurt and sour-cream containers because real glasses like Martha Stewart and your grandmother’ve got are too expensive. No sense wastin perfectly good cups, jest no need to show em. You’re alright bein poor but jest not that poor. When you move up north all your yankee friends make fun a ya fer drinkin outta jars til Martha herself starts to doin it. You wonder if maybe them goverment people hit her harder’n she’s lettin on.

Mobile Home:

  1. A new, exciting way to live simply. You can experience the freeing benefits of the Small Home at the same time as the freeing benefits of travel and the new nomadic lifestyle (made up almost entirely of descendents of those who persecuted nomadic peoples nearly out of existence). Eschew materialism by getting a custom-built small mobile home designed specifically for your comfort and for maximum efficiency. A great way to make a statement about how your generation rejects the conventional white-picket-fence priorities of the (white, suburban, middle-class) boomers for a lower-impact, less self-centered existence. Not to be confused with:
  2. That super trashy (and super funny) thing those super trashy (and super funny) rednecks live in. If someone is ignorant, poor, and rural, a good way to mock them is to suggest they live in one of these. Bonus points if they have a southern accent. Shameful. Something to scoff at. See also: Trailer, Trailer Trash.
  3. What several close friends, many old folks, and lots of other people in my town lived in. Affordable housing, great if you didn’t need much space. Some people also used them for business offices. Many of the double-wide trailers I’ve visited were kept immaculately clean, and housed very kind, thoughtful, family and community oriented people. A better, more spacious layout than most Boston apartments of comparable price.
  4. What the “park” made by unscrupulous developers down by Brasstown creek contains. They sell the double-wides in the flood zone to people who can’t afford anything else, or even flood insurance. Back before people knew about this place and developers drove up the price of land til people couldn’t afford to even live on their own, nobody lived down there for good reason. There’s a reason we say “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.” But it does rise, and when it does, it takes all them little trailers with it. If they’re real lucky, nobody gets killed. Within six months those developers have got the debris from the flood cleaned up, new trailers, and a “for sale” sign out, waiting to fleece their next group of victims.

Ramps:

  1. The newest craze in upscale cuisine, especially at restaurants with menus featuring buzzwords like “seasonal,” and “local.” An unexpected flavor for the sophisticated palette.
  2. According to the Hayesville High School Code of Conduct, it is a suspendable offense to knowingly and willfully consume Ramps in quantity before attending class. As everyone knows, ramps produce THE. VILEST. FARTS. A Ramp Hunt is a fine, disgusting tradition in which boys will go out into the woods at night, dig up as many ramps as they can find, and make a big ole breakfast of em before goin to school to stink out a test they didn’t study fer. Now when I say stink out, I mean it. Get serval boys in a room with ramp-farts, people’s eyes are waterin, people are gaggin, it’s awful and you understand exactly why it’s banned. Ramps have ended marriages. Ramp-banning has been featured in pre-nups. It’d be funny that rich citified yankees were tryin to make em fancy if it weren’t like to cause an ecological problem. See, our creeks used to be full of ginseng, then city folks realized it was good for you and paid top-dollar for it. Now it don’t grow here no more. Looks like ramps are next.

Watermelon:

  1. It’s a superfood! At least I think it is? It’s so good in agua fresca! Just add it and some basil to your water or your gin (in a Mason Jar of course) for a great, refreshing summer flavor. If you eat nothing but watermelon for a week it will flush all the toxins out of your body. Your skin will never look better. See also: Cleanse.
  2. The cheapest store-bought fruit in the summer. Bring home three or four at a time. Eat a quarter at each meal-time. That’ll keep you goin… well, that and popsicles, for about two weeks. Hopefully by then this heat will break. Right now it’s just too hot to eat and we can’t justify the expense of putting in a A/C.

6%

The general humidity level in Brasstown, North Carolina this fall was 6%. We didn’t even know what 6% felt like. This was a rain forest. Books would become water damaged sitting on the kitchen table in the summer. Mold would grow on the leather boots sitting in the closet in June. It rained every day in July and August. My father kept a dehumidified closet in the basement for his instruments. He never managed to get the humidity down to 6%

6%

6% means that the remnants of a charcoal grill chucked out back cause a 200 acre brush-fire the night before Thanksgiving. 6% means families don’t know where they’ll spend Thanksgiving, or if they’ll have a home anymore tomorrow. 6% means boys playing with matches up on the mountain burns half a city and kills at least 9.

6%

When they finally realized it was boys playing with matches on Chimney Top, the comments section of the news articles mock the “stupid inbred hillbillies” for doing this to themselves. We used to burn our land. Every autumn, once the harvest had been gathered in, people would wait until the fall weather brought a rare week with no rain, and would light the fields up. It was God’s fertilizer. Often getting the land to burn at all was a struggle, it was still so wet. Putting it out was never an issue. Finding wood that was dry enough to burn always was. As a child I emptied the charcoal grill out back most days in the summer. We never worried. We never had to.

6%

Asthma rates were always appalling in the valley. To us it was normal. Asthma was something everyone had when they were young, like chicken pox, and that most “grew out of.” I suspect the reality is that most simply stopped running. 6% means the valley spent months choked with smoke. Students passed out sitting in class the air quality was so bad. The students having to be taken to the emergency room because the fires made the air in their classrooms toxic didn’t make the national news. Neither has the asthma epidemic. But as soon as a few sunsets in Atlanta were ruined, suddenly the New York Times was interested. How many babies will be born with damaged lungs in 2017? How many children will never breath right again? How many of them will wind up interviewed by the national media for an expose on the linkage of climate change and health crises in southern Appalachia? How many will be scoffed at by wealthy, educated, northern, suburban liberals as being just a bunch of lazy, fat, inbred, ignorant hillbillies?

6%

Water was everywhere. We’d joke about needing gills in the summer. Sometimes it would rain just because the air got too heavy. The soil was always moist, black, crawling, alive. The leaves dripped. There were lichens growing on the moss. Water ran in seasonal creeks in the ditches, turned our sports fields into marshes, formed vernal pools in almost every depression in the ground. The mountains were named from the thick fogs and mists constantly wreathing them. There were spirits in the hollers, and fairies in the river bottoms. 6% doesn’t believe in fairies. The number of rivlets, springs, and creeks would have been impossible to number. How many are gone forever? Like any rainforest, we abounded in micro ecosystems and biodiversity. 6% means many of those species have been wiped from the planet. This fall I marched in solidarity with hundreds for Standing Rock and wept as I chanted “Water is life with them.” 6% is death.

6%

The big corporations come in, steal land from the people living on it, employ them at criminal “wages” in criminal working conditions, strip them of their traditional land use… 6% started with blasting. 6% started with the strip mining. 6% came with the mountain top removal. They break our bodies to brutalize our mountains, dump their carcasses in the rivers to poison us, poison their sisters, haul their innards up to other poor, forgotten communities, and burn them to power your Lincoln Center and your Las Vegas and your MIT labs and your “city that never sleeps,” and the gas from the plants is carried back to the mountains. Our mountains return home to their sisters in death, as ash, as smoke, as poison. They return as ghosts of their final rage in the flames of a plant in Ohio, of their longing as they are carted on trucks to be burned, as their pain at being wrenched and blasted apart. They return to punish indiscriminately those who inflicted this. But those who caused it, who left us with no choice, never have to face 6%. But they sure love singing along to “Paradise.”

6%

6% means when the rains finally come, they will be deadly. As in any rain forest, the soil was thin. The trees held it in place, created the conditions that allowed everything to thrive. And 6% means they’re gone and there’s nothing to hold the soil. And when the humidity is no longer 6%, when the skies open, when everyone’s hair frizzes up and the air smells like rain, they will all run outside to welcome life from the heavens. Some will be singing hymns, or letting bible verses tumble from their lips, praising God. Some will just be laughing. Undoubtedly some in the tourist economy will still have the foolishness to curse the loss of a “beautiful day.” But 6% means that the rains won’t bring life. The charred, cracked earth will sigh, stretch, and then… slip. 6% will make catastrophic mudslides that can take out an entire trailer park in a night the new normal. How many of us will die, in the coming years, for these crimes? Will anyone care? Or will they go on singing “Paradise” next fall when once again the humidity plummets to

6%

We Are Commanded to Fast

Tomorrow, when I go to shul for Yom Kippur services, I will carry in my jacket pocket a power bar, a small handful of dates, and a few salted peanuts.

There are many interpretations surrounding our fasting on Yom Kippur. One of those is that it is a reminder that yes, we can abstain from things like food and drink; that yes, we can endure hardship and inconvenience; that it be a reminder for us on all other days when we make the excuse “I can’t,” or worse “I can’t help it.”

I grew up with a disability, one that I and my parents were fully ready to admit. However, nobody, not my parents, not my peers, not my teachers, and certainly not myself, was ready to admit that it limited me. Most parents of children with disabilities want desperately for their children to succeed, as any parent should. Unfortunately, their good intentions and society’s insistence on seeing people with disabilities as inspirations and not as real people combines to create a veritable cult of “yes you can.” There is a very strong anxiety that children (and adults really) with disabilities will be held back by their disability, or worse, will use their disability as an excuse to get out of doing things. Children with disabilities learn quickly that the good child never says “I can’t.”

The reality of the situation, of course, is sometimes we really can’t. For me, declarations of “I can’t” were met with a stern, wrathful insistence that yes I could, accusations of laziness, exhortations to believe in myself and try harder, and the punishment of not being able to do anything else until I had completed the task I’d just said wasn’t possible. Any stumble or failure to perform was met with a lecture that if I’d just tried harder, I would have done better, or an admonishment to see this a proof of why hard work was important. The fact that I hadn’t measured up to abled standards was on its own proof that hard work and I were not on speaking terms. I had the dubious honor of being labeled “gifted” in addition to having a learning disability. This meant that there were some things I was quick at, that I had a good working memory, and that I was good at making connections. With these talents came the assumption that I should therefore be quick in other areas as well.

There were only two ways to earn the honor of having tried hard enough. I could stay up all night working on something, but if there was an error in it, I shouldn’t have been so lazy. I could devote every bit of time I wasn’t in class or in the bathroom to my work, and a transposition in the final product would let everyone, and myself, know that I could have tried harder to get it right. I could run my body into the ground by not eating, not sleeping, not showering, and still, half delirious, wanting so badly to call it a night, it wouldn’t feel like enough. One way to earn the coveted “dayeinu” was to complete the task to perfection. The other was to run myself so ragged that a doctor proclaimed me truly unable to do any more.

For many people who grew up with disabilities, the threshold for what is good enough has often been what will literally make you ill, put you in the hospital or in bed for days. Working and pushing myself to the point where medical intervention became necessary was highly praised. It was proof of my dedication, my work ethic, and my determination. A good child never said “I can’t.” But when a doctor said it, then the child was extraordinarily good.

Last year on Yom Kippur, I came within a hair of passing out. The woman who looked after me and made sure I ate and drank until I wasn’t shaking and dizzy and could see properly and stand up again had no praise for me. She scolded me for not listening to my body, for pushing myself too far, and for breaking with the meaning of the day. I’d been raised to see doing exactly that as a mitzvah, and now I was learning that it was the opposite of one.

It’s mind-blowing when you actually realize what it means that everyone around you doesn’t have the same standard. Everyone else is not actually just better at hiding being in pain or disoriented or horrifyingly overwhelmed. Everyone else is not just better at dealing with it, tougher, better at time management. When other people are tired and have pushed themselves too far, they rest. I am still struggling to be able even to recognize when I don’t really need to just try a little harder, push a little farther, when I actually need to rest.

I also grew up poor. I learned quickly that a bad child is one who cries to be taken to the doctor when they aren’t in real danger. A bad child costs the family groceries, and heat, and work clothes without holes and patches, and working appliances by being whiny. A good child forgoes all but the most necessary medical attention, and the best child must be persuaded and tricked by their parents into going to the doctor instead of school when very ill.

On Yom Kippur we are commanded to fast, and we do so for a variety of reasons, and one of those reasons is to challenge us to say “yes, actually I can.” For me, it is also a test. It is a test of my ability to listen to my body, to know when it needs food and rest before I hit “too far,” to believe that taking care of the body and limits HaShem has given me is a much much greater mitzvah than neglecting them and punishing them for the purpose of pride and self-hate. So tomorrow, I will have a power bar, some dates, and some salted peanuts in my pocket, and I will make sure the restroom isn’t far.

Review: Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man, by Thomas Foster

Rating: 4.3/5

Thomas Foster’s Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America has the great advantage of being pretty much exactly what it tells you it’s going to be: an analysis of the sexual culture of masculinity in eighteenth century Massachusetts. (It also has pretty fantastic cover art. Shout-out to Patricia Duque Campos for that.) This book is a wonderful introduction not just to cultural norms of sex in eighteenth-century Massachusetts, but also of broader cultural norms of masculinity, both in that colony and across the English-speaking world, and categories of normative and deviant. All in all, a comprehensive analysis of exactly what it says on the cover, and then some. And you don’t just have to take my word for it. The likes of Alfred Young and Mary Beth Norton also think you should read this!

Foster starts out by examining and establishing what the cultural norm of masculine sexuality was, first within the context of the household. He uses examples of patriarchs not conforming to this cultural norm both to help enforce for the reader what the cultural norm was, and as a way to examine how and why normative models broke down, and how the larger society handled them when they did. He then goes on to expand his analysis of normative masculine behavior in a larger communal context, again, specifically looking both at individual cases that fit the mold, and individual cases that break with it.

Sex and the Eighteenth Century Man will do a great deal to shatter preconceived ideas of Puritan sexual mores. Foster shows that, in Massachusetts, the ideal man was both virile and self-controlled, and that he and his wife (whom he ideally married before his late twenties, and after careful consideration of their long-term compatibility) used their sexual energy to both produce children and strengthen their affections for each other through mutual enjoyment. The parts of the book that deal with the culture surrounding rape and sexual assault will sadly look a little familiar to a modern reader. However, that makes it crucial for anyone looking into the history of rape culture.

There is a fantastic analysis of the connection between a man’s sexual reputation and his public professional reputation, and how one effected the other. This part is border-line required reading for anyone wishing to understand the politics of both colonial America, and the early republic. If you just want to understand why John Adams had such a low opinion of Franklin, Hamilton, and even Washington and Jefferson, this part will be immensely informative.

The sources consulted for this book are both exhaustive and creative. Rather than limiting himself to published sermons and pamphlets, Foster consults journals, letters, broadsides, cartoons, plays, and newspapers, novels, and medical books. He makes particular not of which articles from abroad Massachusetts newspapers chose to reprint and why, as well as which books touching on masculine sexuality were most popular in the Bay colony and why. Foster exercises a judicious hand with regards to modern versus historical understandings of sexual acts, specifically rape and same-sex sexuality. As he notes, rape and incest in the eighteenth century were gendered crimes (only men could commit them, only women could be victims), and a conviction (both in the courts and in the eyes of society) required that the victim prove that they had resisted sufficiently, and resisted with force. In his analysis, he recognizes that not all violent sexual acts committed in eighteenth century Massachusetts would have fit into such a narrow category, and that, while we may not have hard evidence of sexual coercion, rape committed by women, or rape and assault of men and boys, we cannot conclude that it was therefore not happening, nor does it mean that the victims of these acts felt any less psychological pain than those whose stories appear in court records.

One of the most fascinating parts of Foster’s book is his examination of deviant sexual types, because the reader can see how differently eighteenth century culture categorized deviance from of we categorize deviance or non-normativity. Foster chronicles the bachelor, the rake, the fop, the masturbator, the sodomite, and the rapist as the main deviant forms of eighteenth century male sexuality. What’s fascinating about this part, to me, is the lack of correlation of “normative” and “woman-attracted.” For example, the rake and the rapist are usually portrayed as being attracted solely to women, though their sexualities have become sinister and perverted. The fop and the masturbator are ambiguous, but usually portrayed as attracted to women, but unwilling or unable to seal the deal. The bachelor inexplicably and to his own detriment seems indifferent to women, and is commonly suspected of being potentially either a masturbator or a sodomite. Bachelor status is viewed as inherently curable, and much ink was spilled trying to persuade bachelors to marry, including the tongue-in-cheek proposal of a tax on men who remained unmarried after a certain age. What’s most interesting about this to me is how many of these deviant types are considered normative today, if distasteful or pathetic. Meanwhile, an eighteenth century man who formed a strong romantic (and even physical, either within limits or with great secrecy) attachment to another man, provided they both fit all other physical, lifecycle, and character qualifications of manliness, would have been considered normative. Today, we would consider someone like that (Michael Sam comes to mind) non-normative. The idea that certain orientations are in fact transhistorical, and that it is rather the ways in which we position them vis-a-vis the normative is what changes is very important for the future study and understanding of minority sexualities and gender expressions/identities.

While analyses of Black, Native American, and same-sex oriented masculinities are explored, Foster here struggles with the constant hurdle of sub-altern history: there aren’t enough sources, and those that exist are inevitably written or edited by the majority. Because of this, instead of a decent portrait of how Black men, Native American men, and men who loved men saw and understood themselves as men and as sexually active (or inactive) men, we get a comprehensive portrait of how the dominant class (in this case White Christian women-attracted sexually virile men) stereotypes these groups, what social function those stereotypes performed, and how they helped maintain existing power structures. This, sadly, is not what Foster claims to be offering. The desire to present the stories of subaltern groups is noble. We must however be careful that in our zeal we are not presenting dominant cultural stereotypes of those groups as their real stories because we lack good sources from members of those groups.

One case where Foster does manage to get away from the dominant cultural narrative and dig a little into what something meant for the man experiencing it is same-sex attraction. Foster, through spectacular research and analysis, combats the idea that, back in the day, there was no such thing as a sexual “identity,” rather it was all about behavior and individual acts. He argues that this line of thinking was pushed largely by churches and courts for purposes of social control, but that culturally, by the end of the century it was generally acknowledged that some men had a distinct preference for their own gender. This was a departure from the earlier Puritan belief that, as everyone was more or less equally capable of sin, and sodomy was a sin, everyone was bound to have to fight these urges in some form, and you have popular Puritan poets and scholars grappling in verse with their lust for other members of their own gender. Still, what we get is largely a the external images placed on same-sex attracted men by society at large, not how these men understood themselves. As any same-sex attracted person today will tell you, how society sees us is worlds away from how we see ourselves. Likely this was true back then as well. Even with internalized homophobia, it’s doubtful that all men interested in men saw themselves as unnatural, oversexed, and effeminate. Foster goes on to show that, while technically sodomy was a capital offense, it was only prosecuted in cases of (what we would call) rape, and even then convictions were very rare. This shows that society was generally unwilling to execute people for consensual same-sex sex, and generally it was left to the churches and the community.

As far as style goes, the book is engaging, very readable, and give the reader a lovely peek into the intimate lives and thoughts of every-day people in eighteenth century Massachusetts. It can get a little repetitive, but mostly manages to avoid that. Passages describing things that are offensive to modern sensibilities can be hard to read, like the newspapers mocking rape victims, going into nasty detail about the “black rapist,” or ridiculing same-sex attracted men, but overall Foster handles these very well. You can definitely tell which chapter started out as a separate article, which is a common misstep for historians, but the chapter is so well written and so in-depth that I didn’t really mind. Foster gives a comprehensive portrait of mainstream white ideals of masculinity in Massachusetts in this time period, making it an essential read for anyone interested in studying or understanding the men who helped create the United States.

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