Mama-ing


In my neighborhood, the new year comes in with a bang – literally. It is as though my neighbors set out to fulfill every stereotype around about gun-wielding Americans. Amidst the volleys of semi-automatic weapons fire, fireworks mortars exploded close enough to our house that we could hear the fzzs that followed. Of course, from a half mile over you wouldn’t know the mortars were fireworks, and a friend-of-a-friend wondered on Facebook just what kind of explosions they were.

It all posed a… let’s say, particular… background for my new year’s reflections. In many ways, recent months have been increasingly tense, as though we all are on the verge of some dramatic event that will shape the coming era. Maybe I’m just noticing the changing millennium, or am picking up on my partner’s over-developed fears of the end of the Mayan calendar – and zombies. (Side note:  the Mayan calendar marked out a complete cycle – set to *renew* this December, as the Maya understood time cyclically. It makes learning the grammar awesome, too. I’ll reserve the rant about the “mystical Maya” for another day, though.) Living in a country where Evangelical Christianity inserts apocalyptic glee into every level of politics, especially the Republican presidential primary, only adds to the sense of impending doom. But at its core are key economic realities.

For some time now, students of history, economy, and politics have incorporated, to varying degrees, a Marxist-based understanding that capitalist society has followed a particular evolutionary path that incorporates specific social tensions and progressions. That understanding incorporates the idea that money – or the production of goods in industry – are the drivers of social structures. Hence, democracy and capitalism are linked, yet capitalism trumps democracy – which enabled US policy makers to promote one of the most perplexing paradoxes of US affairs by supporting the removal of democratically elected leaders around the world, even as the US trumpeted the benefits of democracy, because democracy hinged on capitalism – according to a Marxist-influenced paradigm that those same officials formally eschewed. Capitalism reigned victorious when the Soviet Union collapsed in the last decade of the 20th century. Much like the mysterious Mayan calendar, no one knew what, if any, cycle would follow – Marx never got past capitalism v. communism. Francis Fukuyama phrased the moment concisely in the title of his essay-come-book: The End of History? There was perhaps some vague hope for an golden era of capitalism-induced peace. But capitalist societies have not exactly shone in recent years, either. Neoliberalism perpetuates the skewed power structures of previous market relationships, while promotions of the free market in fact maintain restrictions in the form of subsidies and tax brakes that sustain big business and mega-corporations to the detriment of new or local enterprises.

The housing bust brings to question the value of allowing market actors to determine national economic realities. “Market actors” are the investment professionals who make their living investing (others’) money, and it is notable that they make more money on risky investments that they do on safe, predictable investments. Their motivation is thus contrary to, well, safety. Yet those same market actors are in charge of the great national banks. Capitalist economy depends on their investment to fuel industry, especially in the US where the Federal Reserve replaces a more typical central bank.

In other ways, the banking crisis reflects a deeper conflict in the US between proponents of centralized versus decentralized authority. It is easy to forget that only recently has the US moved towards a centralized federal government, and that we maintain a strong sense of the original, decentralized, federation-style government. While conservatives in the US are promoting family values and social values, in Europe conservatives promote austerity measures. The Euro Zone demands austerity measures that governments may be willing to enforce, but that people may not be willing to accept – raising questions about the democratic process of economic mandates from a centralized institution like the European Central Bank (that is, if you didn’t already have those questions because of World Bank/IMF policies over the last three decades). A New York Times article about debt incurred in Spain’s autonomous zones ends with a quote from a 17-year-old high school student: “…There are all kinds of cuts. This didn’t even happen under Franco.” That’s Franco, the Fascist dictator; the student compares the current austerity measures to policies under the one European Fascist dictator to outlast WWII, and suggests that current austerity measures are worse. Developing nations, meanwhile, have barely made headlines, but there are some indications that the rising BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – are rising ever faster, even as the economic core wavers. It is also notable that the BRICS nations do not universally represent rising democracies, in yet another challenge to the presumption that the liberal, democratic nation-state will predominate in the future.

The problems of big banks, global development and democracy seem distant, if not looming. When contemplating the effects of these problems on my personal life, my initial impulse is to minimalize them. After all, we are not wealthy, and therefore would seem to have little to lose. Yet, I have recently begun to realize that we are, on the one hand, less poor than I imagine – my partner has full time work in a middle class job after all, even though I do not. At the same time, that status does less for us than I once would have imagined. Much of our current financial success, I think, comes from the fact that neither of us realized we were beginning to succeed – which we have only done with the assistance and good graces of my mother-in-law (and we are not yet able to declare total financial independence, either, much to what I can only assume to be her chagrin). In another time, it is possible that we would have been completely reasonable to expect financial stability or even mobility from one income, even with a house and two kids – in fact, I think that would have been standard. So perhaps times really are changing for those of my generation. Maybe I just assumed that student debt and financial pitfalls were nothing new, even while I thought my own struggles were the exception to an otherwise simple enough rule – make good decisions, and succeed (whereas I made some notably unsound decisions).

All of this brings up an additional question: what of my children’s generation? Can they succeed in an urban, public school? What kind of jobs will they have access to? Will they live in a free and open society? These reflections and pondering are ultimately questions about what the future will bring. The new year forebodes a new era, and what it will bring remains unclear.

As a general rule, I am not a subscriber to any of various the -isms and -ists. I identify with some of the more radical ideologies, but I often find the -isms and -ists to be more rigid than I prefer. Anarchism appeals to me for its espousal of equality and social justice; I think it is implicit that for society to be able to self-govern, its members must stand on equal footing. To accomplish that, anarchists would break down the structures of inequality. But variations of anarchism become much more specific. Anarcho-syndicalism promotes the worker and industry, while anarcho-primitivism concerns the environment, and anarcha-feminism emphasizes patriarchy as the enforcer of social hierarchy. (To be clear, these descriptions are both bare-bones glosses and a reduction to basic elements that don’t allow for combinations or complexities of thought.) As with other -isms, when presented generally, some seem very appealing, but when broken into specific sub-isms, they become more stringent. Anarcho-primitivism conflicts with the industrial elements of anarcho-syndicalism, and strains of anarcho-primitivsm conflict with each other – I’ve known people who espouse the destruction of the human race as a virus on the earth, whereas others promote coexistence among humans, animals, and the environment. After several years, a lot of workshops, and countless conversations, I gave up on specifics and deferred to an attempt to make positive choices for myself and my family. I’ve sometimes thought of it as lifestyle activism, but then I’m probably not fulfilling all the requirements of that particular -ism, either. Sometimes I’ve thought of it as being old, tired, a parent who can’t go to jail in demos, and other variations on those themes. Yet I continue to try to identify ways that I can work in my own small-scale way to undermine the established structures of social inequality.

I am reminded of that because I lost my morning to feminism. I encountered a brilliant blog, Blue Milk, thanks to our midwife.  The blog is great for really looking at the underlying social issues; the author is able to unpack connections between everyday concerns to clearly identify their meaning or importance – a rare enough talent. Many of her posts link to other blogs, and today’s post links to a critique of reddit comments at Skepchick.

The article at Skepchic, on the Reddit boards and the treatment of a 15-year-old girl there, caught my interest by reminding me that even such seemingly-meaningless drivel should be identified for what it is; casually speaking of abhorrent acts makes it easier for society to tolerate them in practice, which should never be acceptable.

I was surprised, however, to read the author admonish “those of you” who would dismiss the comments as to be expected: “You? You are awful, too.” She offers no room for redemption, no possibility of change, only criticism that doesn’t answer the charge she predicts. If she is not content with that dismissal, then we must assume that she thinks/hopes that even the internet can be a place of change, even Reddit can apply standards of not extolling the rape of 15-year-olds, but that it will only happen if rational people demand they do so. Unfortunately, the sarcasm and rhetorical disdain evident in the comments condemn even those who proclaim their sympathies to be with the author’s argument. Rather than opening discussion, the comments promoted an insular reading of the situation that abjectly precluded any other opinion. One reader suggested that while the situation was sad, the girl might avoid such conflict in the future by creating a new, anonymous account that would hide her gender and age. Rather than disagree with his suggestion because no women should have to hide her gender, they attacked the commenter himself.   The author stated that she only “approved this comment so that you’d be able to reread it and think about it and maybe realize how awful and point-missing it is.”  That statement is shaming and implies there is no reason to even discuss such a comment. From there, the other commenters take over with incredulity and sarcasm, lamenting how anyone could be such an asshole as to make such a suggestion. When someone steps in to agree with the suggestion, they are admonished to NEVER. POST. EVER. AGAIN. 

As a passing reader unfamiliar with the author or site, the whole thread left a sour taste in my mouth. The person who made the suggestion was clearly sympathetic to the girl and opposed to the Reddit comments. Rather than encourage him to consider a new perspective, the other readers shut him down. I did browse the rest of the site a bit, and the trend of the articles seems to be that they are relevant, but not universally insightful – if I am going to read criticism, I’m looking for an explanation and hopefully recourse, not just condemnation.

I did find a reference in the comments of another post about women in the secular community that suggested that while some women find it hard to attend secular groups, they also find radical feminism to be off-putting, and turn instead to womanist or chicana groups. That sparked my interest, and eventually I ended up here.  And then, I found this. If you don’t want to click through or read through all of it, Margie clearly states that a transgendered person who was born with male genitalia can never, due to poor medical technology, be *truly* female (lacking a uterus and the ability to bear children. By claiming to be so, they are imposing a gender-normative, patriarchal privilege on women, along with a binary gender paradigm. I assume that she refers to their claim to be female, as opposed to something between or claiming belonging to a special “intersex” category (her word, not mine).  Beyond being transphobic, she is setting up a framework for “female” that obscures a complicated reality of gender and sexuality by using technical and obtuse language, or more specifically, with her reification of “female”. She is subverting the intent of such language – to be clear and specific, and avoid derogatory stereotypes – employing it instead as a rationale for exclusion: trans women aren’t “female,” therefore they do not belong in her group of “feminists.”

I have often noted the absence of feminism in revolutions. I think the first critique I read was in a fictional account of the Irish Rebellion. Right now, today, women in Egypt are fighting to remain a vocal part of the revolution there. I never really considered though that the exclusion may work both ways, with feminists deliberately keeping themselves separate from other isms and ists. Perhaps I was fortunate to come of age in post-left anarchism (I learned that word today, trying to remember the word “syndicalism,” which I was mixing up with solidarite) which at least incorporates feminism as a basic principle, even if without absolute success. I was never really privy to the feminist waves, either, which always seemed a part of an earlier brand of activism. I’ve realized more and more lately that my own generation of activists in no longer current, as Occupy Wall Street has made me aware. Unfortunately, while OWS seems to have taken a lot of notes from my generation (like consensus and the general assembly-style meetings) the emphasis on corporate greed and class seems to have overtaken other concerns – like feminism.

Synchronistically, the Diane Rehm Show came on as I was writing this post with an interview with Peggy Orenstein, author of the book Cinderella Ate my Daughter. As the mother of a 6-year-old girl, I am all ears when people start discussing media and corporate portrayals of princesses and, as such, femininity. At about 3 years old, my daughter came home from preschool utterly convinced that pink and purple were the best things of all time. She later learned that boys have short hair, while girls have long hair. Most recently she came home describing how gentlemen open doors for women (rather than the lesson that respectful children don’t push each other, as the situation warranted). And yes, she very definitely wants to be a princess. She knows that I dislike the concept, and I’ve prattled on at length about serfs, privilege, and the repugnant roles that princesses typically play. But she stills thinks it would be cool to be a princess. She found The Backyardigans on Netflix, and while usually pretty unobjectionable, the show did manage to get in an episode about an Egyptian princess who has to learn how to share and say thank you to her servants… Then, we finally found that disc we lost months ago and returned it to Netflix, and (forgetting to cancel the DVD portion in time) Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind showed up in the mailbox. Now we have a princess we can both get behind (even if she does cry an awful lot), and we had a great conversation about empathy and compassion, which my daughter can really relate to as well.

I haven’t posted in a bit, mostly because we’ve been running around trying to get ready for Christmas while taking turns being sick. My partner won the being sick contest; he spent all last week in bed with flu-turned-pneumonia. Despite the illnesses, Christmas is coming at full speed, and in my home baking takes a center role in the seasonal preparations. I’ve been adventurous this year, with mixed results.

I had a bit of nostalgia after the St. Nikolaus celebration at the Athaneum. St. Nikolaus day was one of my favorites as a child, because it seemed like something special for our family, like a secret. We put our shoes out on Dec. 5, and woke to find them filled with German chocolate and chocolate eggs with tiny toys hidden within. St. Nikolaus would visit the Deutsche Schulen, along with Ruprecht. In our variation, Ruprecht is allowed a reprieve from hell (or purgatory?) once a year to serve St. Nikolaus. He wore a tattered cloak, crossed with bells and chains that he would shake at the children. He carried a switch, and eagerly brandished it at the children who might have been naughty enough to earn a beating. He also carried the bag of gifts for St. Nikolaus, with oranges, nuts in-the-shell, and chocolate coins. St. Nikolaus was kindly but stern, and inquired into our behavior, grades, and German-language skills. Now, the celebration is held at the Athanaeum, and includes gingerbread house-making, a puppet show, and a traditional tree lighting ceremony that includes the Indianapolis Maennerchor.

Of course, after the St. Nikolaus celebration, in my moment of nostalgia and baking for my daughter’s ICC Christmas party, I decided to bake apple kuchen. Suffice it to say, I suspect the kuchen would have been better if the dough had risen and I had used sufficient butter in the topping. The oatmeal-cranberry-chocolate chip cookies turned out much better. (I only used one kind of chocolate chip and added a teaspoon of orange zest to the batter.)

In the midst of all this holiday baking, we are still dealing with my daughter’s seeming sugar intolerance, and the oh-so-wonderful behavior that comes with it. So last night when I finally got around to making muffins for her school lunch, I sought out some information about soaking grains. We tried a recipe that soaks flour and rolled oats overnight in milk and apple cider vinegar, and it was meh, but I think that it just needed more seasoning and blueberries or something. I don’t tend to prefer things like apple cinnamon, but things that are a bit ‘brighter’ so to speak – like cranberry and orange. I also put out our steel cut oats and buckwheat in buttermilk (1 tsp cultured buttermilk/cup water) – we’ll see how that works in the morning.

My daughter has two days of school after today, and I still have to make their Christmas pajamas. The expense of buying fabric to make our own versus the cost of buying pajamas from Walmart or Target was pretty frustrating, and might just become a new post, together with an article about Walmart, labor, and unions I read recently. In the meantime, I’ll rejoice over this article as though it were written as a holiday present just for me – at least until I can open my new tea infuser and copies of Tolstoy and Chekov.

Happy Holidays!

Thanksgiving has been… well… it’s over. It was nice, but once again, the break flew past without pausing long enough for us to really appreciate it. I wanted to take time to talk to my 1st grader about what Thanksgiving is – and what it isn’t. Instead, she opted to watch Big Cat Diary on Netflix, and ultimately I’m just happy that she took the time to read a book or two.

Friday the 18th was her last day before the break. I picked her up and asked how her day was. She was really excited, because they got to watch a movie in class – Pocahontas. Disney. At least it was thematically appropriate, but I am still cringing that her big takeaway about Thanksgiving ended up being Disney’s take on Pocahontas. I’m sure they talked about other things – her spelling words were Thanksgiving related – but she didn’t mention any of that. Just… Pocahontas.

This is a big thing for me. My interest in Latin America started with Free Trade and the Zapatistas, but even before that was my burgeoning understanding that history and myth often tell us different stories. This is true in Latin America, and it informs my studies of the region. It is also true in the US, and Thanksgiving always reminds me of how disparate our myth of the founding of this nation can be from the history.

We all know (I hope?) that the European arrival to the New World brought about cultural tensions, displacement of people, wars, and dramatic changes in the way of life for all groups. We celebrate the positive aspects of that encounter during Thanksgiving, when the best of our nature is represented by our ability to come together and share the fruits of our labors. We gain much from emphasizing those positive tendencies, but we undermine ourselves when we ignore or hide the negative aspects. History proceeds by the accumulation of events, and our interpretation of those events, as we incorporate them into our personal and social narratives. We don’t unmake events by ignoring them when the consequences reverberate through society. Prevailing attitudes and biases do not shift unless and until they are brought into the open and investigated through all levels of society.

Generally, the idea of social or national memory is a bit fuzzy; how can we remember something we didn’t experience? But it is clear that we tell our children stories about our society, and the story of Thanksgiving is both integral and primary in our roster of national stories. We know, perhaps vaguely, that Washington chopped down a cherry tree, that “Honest Abe” didn’t lie, and so forth. But Thanksgiving remains a story of people who came together to sit down to a feast. I learned as a child that the American Indians helped the Pilgrims to have the food they needed, not only to celebrate the harvest, but to survive the coming winter – it was through this generosity that the Plymouth colony succeeded. This story feeds our perception that we are a “melting pot,” a nation in which disparate peoples come together and flourish, a nation that welcomes immigrants and the poor who would improve their lives through honest labor. We build on that narrative with Manifest Destiny, as the US pushed into the west with god-granted favor (all the while quietly continuing slavery and genocide).

Now that her school has opened the narrative with Pocahontas, what story do I tell my daughter? My first step was to caution her that Disney doesn’t teach history, or truth, but rather stories and tales. But what to replace it with, now that seed is planted? So much detail informs the story of the Americas, where does one begin? Even taking Thanksgiving as  a starting point: is this a story of religious persecution versus religious freedom (bearing in mind that my Quaker ancestors might have a unique perspective of the religious freedom in colonial New England); a story of the generosity and bounty that would shape an economic powerhouse; a story of American Indians who paid dearly over generations for their generosity; or perhaps a tie to ancient heritages celebrating the harvest? Knowing my daughter’s predilections, perhaps the story really does begin with Pocahontas – what we do know about the woman who came to be known as Pocahontas, how she became a part of our national identity, and how even that became a simple love story when Disney got a hold of it.