All this has happened before. All this will happen again.
—The Book of Pythia, Battlestar Galactica.
History does not repeat itself. It just rhymes a lot.
I’m generally disinclined to make Hitler comparisons. Even when apt, the rhetorical landscape around Hitler is abused, so hyperbolic that I shy away from him. (Not to mention each dictator is their own hellish special snowflake of tyranny so that Hitler comparisons often don’t do either he or the other strongman in power injustice.)
But as I’m watching the unfolding crisis in the Crimea, I’m struck by parallels to the late 30s. There are striking similarities between Nazi Germany and Russia, as well parallels in the wider world. To be clear, I’m not strictly predicting a repeat of WWII or really much of anything. But I think there are clear lessons for us at this juncture that can be gleaned by seeing the parallels. I think we have a real opportunity to avoid past mistakes by recognizing the similarities.
- Putin will continue to seize land. Like Hitler, Putin is unlikely to stop seizing neighboring territories. (Have we really forgotten Georgia so quickly?) Western powers can help avoid making push come to shove by allying with neighboring powers and posturing to respond to future land grabs. However, if Putin calls our bluff, we’ll have to go to war or lose credibility.
- We will fret about the legitimacy of Russia’s seizures. I have been seeing arguments that are weirdly reminiscent of the discussion about 1930s Germany. The Sudetenland was largely German speaking, politically aligned with Germany, and seized under dubious political circumstances. And Americans and Western Europeans had an extended conversation that took exactly the same contours we’re taking with respect to the Crimea.
- It probably will be that serious to be “undesirable” in Russia. If you find Holocaust comparisons trite, Russia has its own history of Pogroms and purges. LGBT folks and others who are scapegoats for the Russian state may very well find themselves in dire circumstances soon, in parallel to both previous Russian nationalist surges and the German one. Western powers would be well-served to offer asylum to Russia’s “undesirables”—closing our borders to Germany’s in the 30s was one of the greatest tragedies of the decade.
- Europe’s fragile economy will be a huge determiner. This depression (let’s call a spade a spade) has been in most ways shallower. A second crash like the one in 1936 would destabilize Europe’s political system tremendously. It’s incredibly difficult to guess what the New European Order might look like, but it’s hard to imagine the Russian Federation being a relative loser in the new state of affairs. One of the factors that contributed to Germany’s increased aggression was a weakening Europe.
- Isolationism won’t work. It never does. Our fate is bound up with the rest of the West. Taking the stance that we’re separate from Europe does not comport with economic and cultural realities. The flip side, of course, is that we’ve benefited enormously from waiting to get involved in European affairs in the past—a hands off, Europe leads approach is likely in our best interest.
- Going off that, this will set up a fairly clear face off in the American Presidential election. Yes, I know, 2016 chatter. Sue me. If Russia continues to be an aggressor, Clinton—largely a continuing of Obama’s foreign policy for obvious reasons—will probably face off against Rand Paul—an isolationist. One of the major issues in the 1940 election was Germany, and FDR took on Wilkie. (IU friends, yes, that Wilkie.)
There are major differences. Russia is not Germany. Russia is a nuclear power. The European political system is much more stable. East Asia is not at war. (Some are reading the situation over in that part of the world as significantly escalating, but I am not among them.) The United States has a much more noticeable effect upon and presence in European happenings.
Still, Putin is definitely following the part of the script of rising nationalist power grabbing land. Our experience with Hitler can give us firmer ground to draw cautious analogy when thinking about Russia.
Last night at a bar, a man asked me something that, surprisingly, I’ve never been asked before: Who do I think is the best example of a feminist character on television? I came up with my answer pretty quickly, and it still holds even under the harsh light of sobriety. So, without further ado, the winner is…
Kaylee Frye of Firefly!
Why Kaylee? She’s not the most intuitive choice, I grant you. There are many strong contenders I could have chosen from, like 90% of the cast of Gilmore Girls, or even half the rest of the cast of Firefly. She’s not nearly as badass as Zoey. She’s not even approaching River’s intelligence. Inara is the most mature, sophisticated person on board Serenity. So why Kaylee? Above all else, Kaylee is true to herself. She’s never shy about what she wants, or ashamed of who she is. Throughout the show, many characters say things that might shake a less secure person. Don’t get me wrong – Kaylee isn’t so perfectly assured of her awesomenesss as to never be hurt or embarrassed. But she does have a really admirable way of never letting other people get her down about who she is. On the only occasion that she didn’t give Simon what for when he put his foot in his mouth about Serenity, she was clearly hurt by what he’d said, but she managed to turn it back around on him in a way that pointed out to Simon and the audience that the problem lay with him and his elitism.
Speaking of Simon and Kaylee, let’s take a moment to think about that crush she had. From the get-go, Kaylee is pretty unsubtle about her feelings. But, more than that, she is never shy about wanting to get laid. This is what first set my spidy-senses a-tingling. After all, my version of feminism comes with a healthy does of sex positivity. So often, when a female character is shown to want sex (without being married or in a committed relationship), it’s wrapped up in all sorts of fucked up cultural narratives about female sexuality. She’s got to be either a young, virginal woman in love or she’s a predatory slut-monster. Kaylee is neither. She wants sex, mostly with Simon, but she doesn’t shy away from the attentions of other men when they’re offered. The relationship between Kaylee and sex is probably unique in television. ”Probably” because, despite my best efforts, I have not seen every tv show. Kaylee only got her place on Serenity because Mal walked in on her banging the original ship’s mechanic. And even though she was, literally seconds before, screwing this guy, the scene is still one of her sweetest, most adorable moments because of her wonder and delight in being on board a real space ship. This scene is the one that gif up there is taken from. She’s also not afraid to show off her mechanical prowess in front of the less-adept man she’s having sex with.
In Serenity, she exclaims in front of the entire crew that she “hasn’t had anything twixt [her] nethers weren’t run on batteries.” That’s right guys: a WOMAN talked about masturbation as a means to relieve sexual frustration. An attractive woman at that! In a world where the prevailing attitude is still that only ugly women have trouble finding sexual partners (and even then…), and that only sad, lonely young men masturbate to relieve frustration, it’s really refreshing. Later in the movie, the promise of sex if she and Simon survive gives her new resolve to fight the oncoming horde of Reevers. And yet, despite all this wanton sex-wanting and sexual frustration, Kaylee is still very much the crew sweetheart.
Another reason that Kaylee is my choice is that she’s in a non-traditional role for a female character. True, she’s hardly the only one on the show, but let’s face it: at this point, female warrior characters (a la Zoey and arguably River) are reasonably common. Kaylee, however, is a woman with an almost supernatural talent with machines. We have a depressingly small number of female engineers and mechanics in the real world, let alone on television.
Now, there was one big, glaring, problematic problem I thought of with Kaylee: she does need to be rescued a lot. The very first episode puts her in mortal danger; she gets pinned down by a Russian mobster’s goons; she’s briefly held hostage by Mal and Zoey’s ex-soldier friend; her tendency to need rescuing is lampshaded in “Shindig” when she’s held hostage by Badger and Co. and all she can say is a rather blase “hi.” The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that this actually contributes to Kaylee’s strength as a feminist character. She’s not weak, but she doesn’t have to fall into the SFC cliche to prove it. If she were to show a violent warrior side, it would feel like a lame attempt to check off all the items on the list of “Non-Weak Female Character Traits.” It also helps that Kaylee is as likely to be saved by Zoey or River as she is to be saved by Mal or Jayne. Kaylee isn’t a fighter, not because she’s a woman, but because she’s an individual who isn’t a fighter. The fact that Wash is also not a fighter, even if he is more inclined toward action, helps a lot.
So, there’s my pick. Who’s yours? Why?
Hey! Look who showed up to the party!
The Human Rights Campaign just sent me an infuriating email. My favorite lines?
Late yesterday evening [Jan 27], in a surprise move the Indiana House of Representatives approved an amendment to HJR-3 that removes the second sentence which would ban all protections for gay & lesbian families. We’re now one HUGE step closer to keeping HJR-3 off the ballot this November. But we can’t stop now.
This wasn’t a surprise move, thank you.
First of all, amending the resolution has been part of the strategy set since pretty much as long as the Constitutional Amendments have been put in play. Amending it on the second year presumably has the effect of delaying it. Indiana Constitutional Amendments are devilishly hard to pass. You have to pass identical bills out of two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly. The following fall, it gets put to a popular vote and must get a simple majority. Amending the bill would violate the identical requirement. Trust me, we’ve had this up our sleeve for years.
Pretty much as soon as it passed out of the Senate last year, we started laying the groundwork to amend it this year. HJR-6 (the old designation of the bill) was a perfect candidate for an amendment because the second sentence was a legal catastrophe waiting to happen. Last year, quite a few homophobes came out against the wording of HJR-6. By last week, it felt like rats from a sinking ship.
You don’t have to take my word on it! The Indy Star published the official stances of all the members of the House on the unamended wording of HJR-3. I realize that publishing something in the Indy Star is not terribly different from a secret communique, so forgive me for expecting the Human Rights Campaign to keep up on same-sex marriage news.
While the HRC is involved in supporting the effort on the ground, this simply has not been a priority for them. It wasn’t until the “surprising” result that a bunch of legislators did exactly what they’ve been saying they’ll do for months that the HRC even bothered to send me an email about my own legislature amending the Indiana Constitution.
Now that there’s good news, the HRC wants a piece of the credit.
This attitude that “flyover” states aren’t worth public acknowledgment is only “surprising” if it’s news to you that the people calling the shots at the HRC in DC have a prejudiced view of middle-America. About half of Hoosiers can’t bring themselves to support HJR3, a fact any literate strategist could have learned. I’m not sure if it was an assumption we weren’t worth the Google search, or a fear of not being affiliated with a success since it was always going to be close that has lead to the HRC hanging back.
And I don’t care. Solidarity isn’t hanging back until their is good news to take credit for. It’s making sure there is good news. It’s loudly declaring allegiance when things are going badly in hopes that other people see it’s the right thing to do. It’s mobilizing early so you can capitalize on “surprising” successes to help those in need.
Taking the HRC to task for this kind of thing is always satisfying. But now that they’re in the game, they are right about something:
Time is running out and the full resolution could come up for a vote in the House at any time now. Your representative needs to hear from you today before that happens.
I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but—
CALL! CALL! CALL!
I grew up watching Disney, like just about every other kid of my generation. Trust me when I say that I love them all dearly, and yes, I know all the words. But the fact is that Disney has a pretty rotten reputation as far as writing empowered female characters goes, and it’s not exactly undeserved. Well into the nineties, Disney Princesses rarely had much ambition outside of falling in love and getting married. Even when that wasn’t their stated goal from the outset, it was pretty much a forgone conclusion in every Princess film that they’d fall in love with a prince and get married at the end, and they often unintentionally espoused some pretty scary messages along the way (the man who imprisons you and threatens you with starvation is really just misunderstood; it’s okay to abandon your family, home, and culture to pursue a cute boy you saw once; a man is the only thing that can save you from your shitty, abusive step-family, etc). And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it wasn’t until 1992 that the first non-white/European princess existed, in a movie that had its own issues with racial sensitivity.
None of this should blow your mind, or anything – this is not new, original critique of Disney. But it does make what’s happening lately really interesting. It seems like Disney is finally making strides in the right direction with its female characters. It’s of course debatable when this started, but I’m going to pin Mulan (1998) down as the beginning of the change. It’s not just that Mulan is Disney’s first Asian protagonist, or that she’s a warrior, although those are both pretty cool. It’s that her story is one of self-discovery and courage, not romance. She falls in love, sure, but it’s not the grand, sweeping, all-consuming romance of previous Disney Princess films. The love story arc concludes with her asking Shang to stay for dinner, not marriage. She’s also rather emphatically not a princess. Yes, she’s undoubtedly a heroine, but she’s an average girl who becomes heroic on her own merit. Hell, she becomes a high-powered woman in government! Who expected that from Disney?
There were a few other noteworthy female characters after Mulan (Kida of Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) comes to mind) but for me, the next big step forward for Disney came in 2007′s Enchanted. It’s a loving takedown of all the old Disney tropes – the handsome, boring prince charming, marriage-at-first-sight, even the very concept of Disney-esque love. This is a movie where we don’t see the princess, Giselle, get married at the end. Her arc resolves by becoming more like a real person. Instead of showing up to the ball in the giant poufy dress we expect from Disney Princesses, she shows up in a slinky sheath number. She starts a business designing little girls’ fashion. She learns to experience a whole range of human emotion, including anger and lust. She demands to go on a date with her husband-to-be, and then realizes they are incompatible. She apparently moves in with a man and his daughter, and they may or may not be married. It’s all pretty revolutionary for Disney, even if it feels like they’re playing catch up with the rest of the field.
Brave (2012) was a huge step forward for Disney’s ability to write about women (although I can’t shake the feeling that I need to defend it). Not only is it the first Pixar film to have a female character as its primary focus, it’s the first Disney Princess movie ever that does not feature any romance at all. The central relationship in the story is one between two women, Merida and her mother, Elinor, who are both sympathetic, complex characters. When you consider the number of Disney films that have a mysteriously absent mother, the central relationship of Brave becomes all that much newer for Disney. And, lest we forget, movies that pass the Bechdel test are still the minority, and this movie easily passes even with the Sarkeesian addendum. Again, most movies have trouble showing meaningful relationships with women, so to see such a thing coming from Disney, with it’s awful reputation, is pretty impressive.
Finally, there’s Frozen (2013). There’s already been a fair amount of discussion of Frozen‘s feminist chops, both for and against, but I don’t mind rehashing some of it here. This is a story that focuses on two women, like Brave, but also features a romance plot that is sublimated to the sisterly relationship. It deconstructs the love-at-first-sight trope, but in a far more devastating, chilling way than Enchanted. The breakaway hit song, “Let It Go” is a theme of self-empowerment and acceptance that only becomes more nuanced with each listen. Most impressively, Anna (Kristen Bell) is given the chance to take an active role in her own salvation. This is a movie that is neither condescendingly proud of the fact that its leads are female, nor does it try to downplay their femininity, which is I think where a lot of critics felt Brave fell short. I don’t want to give too much away for anyone who hasn’t seen it, so I’ll stop there, but suffice to say that I think it’s worth watching if you’re into this kind of thing. It’s also worth noting that this is the first Disney movie to have the main love interest voiced by an openly gay actor.
Disney, you’ve still got a way to go. But at this rate, I have hope that by the time I have kids, I’ll be proud to introduce them to your films.
OR a Small Example of Everyday Feminism
Okay, hate’s a strong word, but I’ve decided to do a semi-regular bit on this blog about memes that get a strong reaction and this qualifies.
You’ve probably heard Justin Bieber was arrested for a myriad of charges that, frankly, this isn’t the kind of publication to rehash. His mugshot was pretty much bound to go viral:
At some point some clever soul realized who he looked like. Another Hollywood problem-child—Miley Cyrus:
And it’s all gotten a little problematic.
Mind you, in the bigger scheme of things, this isn’t a pressing issue. It’s a visual joke about Justin Bieber. And one that can be understood as a good-old-fashioned look-alike joke. It’s a good opportunity to point out some of the complexities of the feminist lens—precisely because the low stakes give us a chance to look at this calmly. To see this as a feminist:
- You have to see this as possibly misogynistic. Is the basis of the humor the look-alike or that it’s somehow bad to be like a woman? It’s far too common for it to be the latter.
- You have to see this as possibly homophobic. Somewhere along the lines people got the idea that being gay was just like being a woman. (???) The basis of the humor for a good deal of people is that Justin Bieber is gay—laugh out loud funny! Because apparently being gay is funny?
- You have to see this as possibly transphobic. There’s also the fact that anytime you joke about men becoming women or men being effeminate, you’re tapping into the not even the least bit funny “jokes” about trans women being secret men.
This isn’t to say you’re the WORST PERSON EVER if you shared this. I chuckled when I saw it because, guys, Hollywood’s biggest problem stars are morphing into each other through the power of gif. Pop culture for the past three years has been leading up to this moment.
But feminism is about recognizing that discourse is about more than just our immediate intent. This joke taps into harmful narratives about women and LGBT folks. Even if you’re like me and that’s not the basis of humor for it. These systems are prevalent, powerful, and subtle; knowledge of participation is not necessary to be perpetuating them.
Everyday feminism is trying to see these systems in places it may not immediately occur to you. Seeing these systems when the stakes are low makes us better prepared to take them on when the stakes are high and make better choices about what we share.
I was looking up polling data on HJR-3, the constitutional ban on everything but man-on-woman marriage*, when I came across a summary page on Wikipedia.
This isn’t in any way a randomized set, so drawing very strong conclusions from it is not possible. Nonetheless, it does give us a very different portrait than what you probably assume about the Hoosier state. I decided to plot them with their confidence intervals to try and get a sense of where Indiana is at.
One thing I can’t stress enough is that strictly speaking, you can’t compare these polls. They did not use consistent methodology and questions. Putting them on the same axes is a bit misleading. Trying to think of this in terms of a temporal progression or coherent dataset in any way is wrong.
That said, I think seeing them all lined up gives a sense of what we’re up against:
Of the polls listed on Wikipedia with a confidence interval, 2 would defeat HJR-3, 2 are a tie, and only 1 would pass it. (Again, this is playing more than a little fast-and-loose with the data.) Put another way, this is a very contested issue in Indiana.
The negative thoughts about Indiana being doomed to amend the Constitution are unwarranted. I’m not saying be optimistic for the sake of optimism—I’m saying that optimism comports with the data.
Blind optimism won’t be all that prevents this from passing. Write and call your legislator. Email is the least effective way, a hand-written letter the most. Do what you can do, but keep that in mind. If you are a person of faith and believe your faith means doing right by your gay neighbors, tell them. If you are straight and believe that your gay friends deserve to get married, tell them. If you believe that homophobia is okay but a law that outlaws straight domestic partnerships is bad, tell them.
But do not Assume HJR-3 is a done deal. The evidence does not support that claim.
*No same-sex marriage. No domestic partnerships. No civil unions. Even for straight couples. It’s a bad law, even if you like discriminating against the gays.
Martin Luther King, Jr. did not want to be remembered for the I Have a Dream Speech. It was a political compromise, a narrowing of goals meant to appease white liberals. And more, he became more radical after 1963, moving even farther from that statement he never really felt.
And yet, we work every year to erase what he actually stood for. We ignore his faith and his work on poverty. We gloss over his opposition to war and defang his non-violence. And we pretend King’s is the only name worth mentioning.
I urge you to rethink that this MLK Day.
Erasure of his Faith
First one is easy. King’s faith informed his work profoundly. Reverend King. It’s all over his work (and the links below). While much of King’s work can be defended on secular grounds, and further King reached out to all people who shared his goals for America’s secular government, he was first and foremost a religious leader.
Erasure of his Work on Poverty
When King was assassinated, he was working on a program to expand and reinvigorate the War on Poverty. I don’t recall reading a particularly good statement by King—his last speech is remarkable only for timing—so I’m giving you the Wikipedia page on the Poor People’s Campaign.
It would be incorrect to interpret this as some kind of movement away from race. Rather, it was a deepening of King’s address of racial discrimination. The poor were still disproportionately racial minorities, and King was fighting economic discrimination. This was greeted with the shrill accusations of class warfare we hear today. Despite his Christian objections to actual communism and Marxism, he was accused of being both. His socialism is often glossed over; King was not a moderate consensus builder.
Erasure of his Opposition of War
Another things people gloss over was his unflinching opposition to the Vietnam War. And while opposition to that particular war has become more popular in hindsight, his articulation of his reasons generalize to any of our wars of choice of late. King’s teachings on war remain deeply divisive in this country.
For many years, listening to Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence has been my MLK tradition. It, not one of his speeches explicitly about race, was probably the most relevant to the Bush Era. It weighed heavily on my mind as we discussed Syria.
Erasure of Violence
This was the essential point of my senior thesis—if you want to know more I can talk for hours about it. Basically, non-violence is popularly conceived as avoiding violence. This is wrong in at least two dimensions.
First, non-violence can only exist in contexts of violence. While King’s conception of violence exceeded these terms, physical violence characterized the most pressing violence facing black persons in 1960s America. Violence against black Americans was a foregone conclusion. Kings work was to draw attention to that fact, not avert it.
Second, King’s protests often drew out more violence than would have passed if he had not done the work. The March on Selma is a particularly dramatic example, but this was the desired effect. King explicitly wanted white oppressors to show this uglier side and intentionally incited it. Non-violence referred to the peaceful methods of incitement and endurance of the violence that followed. Mind you, this was an effective tactic for showing the disproportional response to peaceful gatherings.
For a better sense of the shape of non-violence (above the Selma video I linked in the paragraph above), I recommend the Letter from Birmingham Jail. It lays out King’s reasons and approach to non-violence, which is richer and more thoughtful than most people realize.
Erasure of the Wider Movement
There were a number of groups—far too many to list—who contributed to the civil rights struggle. I like Wiki, so you’re getting those pages.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) deserves more than an honorable mention in these discussions. Student organization was unmeasurably important, and King occasionally had to defer to SNCC when they disagreed. Later, SNCC reoriented towards Black Power and broke with SCLC who helped found them.
I have a personal disappointment in the erasure of two men. First, Bayard Rustin. He was the organizer of the March on Washington and did a good deal behind the scenes to keep SCLC running day to day. Second, James Baldwin. The intellectual class of black men who changed liberal minds through their writing is often forgotten. Baldwin’s essay arguing that black men and women had every right to be angry was credited by policy makers as the reason they came around on the issue of race. But personally, I hate seeing these two men erased because they were openly gay Civil Rights leaders in a movement run by Baptist Churches.
More than a Dream
The erasure of uncomfortable parts of King’s legacy as well as the people who helped him build is simply inexcusable. Co-opting the life and work of a man of principle is icky at best. King was a man of flaws and foibles, a man who took views which remain divisive.
We do him and the people he worked with a disservice to forget that.