October 22, 2020

The women are telling the truth: sexism and “The Princess Bride”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 6:30 pm by chavisory

I did not get to watch the Princess Bride virtual reunion recently; I was elbows deep in a copy editing situation on the night of the event, but I followed along a little bit on Twitter, and much like any number of sporting events I was not listening to but could pretty much tell what was happening from the enthusiastic noise of my neighbors, I could basically tell where in the script we were by the state of Twitter at any given moment throughout the evening. Like most people my age, I’ve seen that movie so many times I can more or less recite it from memory with very little prompting.

Though I have encountered assertions of the movie’s sexism before, I have tended not to entertain them seriously, and was a bit taken aback when one appeared in the course of the event.

And while I can entertain the possibility that like other works I loved in childhood whose faults were brought to my attention later, it’s possible to be so familiar and so in love with the Princess Bride as to have become oblivious to its deeper problems. On reflection, though, in this case, I don’t believe it’s the case here. While there are a lot of criticisms of his movie I think we can fairly make in this day and age, that it is sexist is, I thought, a one-dimensional or at least insufficient assessment.

People love this movie the way they love it for more than the exceptionally quippy dialogue, after all. And they didn’t turn out in the numbers they did to watch a table read, over Zoom, for a state-level Democratic Party fundraiser, 33 years after it came out, for a movie that’s just irredeemably sexist.

But I decided to examine the issue closely, at the end of which, not only did I not conclude that the Princess Bride is a sexist movie, but I wound up loving it even more deeply in ways I had never quite articulated to myself.

*

While I’ve never felt much commonality with Buttercup, I’ve never really felt, either, that she’s useless or just “silently beautiful,” and I think that’s because closer examination reveals it not to be true.

In fact, she does, more than once, try to effect her own escape. She doesn’t succeed, but she doesn’t simply wait for rescue, either, and I think what many people mistake for her passivity or inaction is actually her judiciousness in awaiting opportunities in which she even has a chance. She takes those when she has them, and when she doesn’t think they’ll only result in injury to someone else she cares about: when she first tries to jump off the stern of Vizzini’s boat and swim to freedom while his back is turned, and when she takes advantage of the Dread Pirate Roberts’s distraction with the approach of the Prince’s search party to just shove him down a hill.

Yes, Buttercup spends a lot of the movie being carried around by men. But then, on reflection, so does Westley.

Image is of Westley being propped up on a castle rampart by Inigo and Fezzik, too weak to support himself because he’s been mostly dead all day.

It is often noted that the few prominent female characters in this movie inhabit certain stereotypes about female characters: The beautiful but largely decorative princess in need of rescuing, the shrill and demanding wife, and the old hag.

Admittedly, this is not Buttercup’s action story. She is not an adventurer or a swordswoman or a particularly ambitious person. But that she is not those things doesn’t make the character or the movie sexist, and to understand what Buttercup is in this story, I think it actually helps to compare her to everyone else in the ensemble.

The Princess Bride looks like a fairy tale you think you know. It has all the familiar characters: Prince and princess, pirate, giant, scheming trickster, swordsman, magician. It goes through many of the same motions. But it is not telling the same story.

And the characters of the Princess Bride inhabit familiar tropes, but they do not accept helplessness within those tropes. All of them are resourceful, all of them make use of the knowledge, and the power, that they have access to.

In some cases, that is not a lot. These are not the people most valued or empowered within their society. Nineteenth-century Florin is a beautiful country, but it is not a progressive one.

A friend mentioned resenting Buttercup getting the Penelope treatment, and while on one hand I think that’s a very fair thing to be annoyed by, on the other, I also think it’s kind of implicit in what the movie is doing. The story of Odysseus and Penelope is one of the resonances being played with in this one. We’re supposed to resent it. Westley, for all his good-heartedness, doesn’t seem to grasp in certain ways that Buttercup doesn’t have a choice in the position she’s in. None of what’s happening is her fault, and we should be annoyed for her when Westley questions her faithfulness because he doesn’t 1000% understand how little power she really has in the situation, how vulnerable a woman of humble birth is in his own society. It is annoying, but I think it’s more a statement about sexism than it is an expression of it, even though it’s not explicitly called out in this moment.

Buttercup occupies a constrained social role within the world of Florin and Guilder, but that is no more the movie’s stance about her than it is about any of the male protagonists, as I think we’ll see.

What all of the protagonists say in some way is “This story does not have to go the way somebody else already decided it has to go for us.”

I saw Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure for the first time recently (I was slightly too young for it when it first came out), having heard a friend say (interestingly enough, in a discussion of the depth of influence of Richard Matheson on American storytelling), that given the ludicrousness of the premise, it works because the funniest possible choice was made at every single opportunity. And the Princess Bride is now such an immensely familiar movie that I think it’s possible we’ve all lost sight of it—but it is the movie it is because at every single opportunity, somebody makes the most unexpected possible choice, which all turn out to carry vastly more power than the choice they were expected to make in the fairy tale we assume we’re in, and sometimes that the characters themselves assume they’re in.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

“I didn’t have to miss.”

“We’ll never survive.
Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.”

What does Buttercup ever do that’s useful? Well, if she doesn’t stop Westley from dying for her right when she does, there’s no rest of this story. The first truly powerful thing Buttercup does isn’t an act of physical prowess, but it’s utterly in line with the actions of the male protagonists in this way. She fundamentally alters how we all assume a story like this is supposed to go. Including Humperdinck and Westley, to the extent that her interjection “Will you promise not to hurt him?” into their first confrontation prompts them both to exclaim “What was that?!”

There isn’t a daring, romantic, against-all-odds sword fight right in this moment because Buttercup decides “You don’t die here like this.”

These characters always undermine how the story supposedly has to go for people like them, either because it’s what’s expected of them or because it’s what somebody more powerful decrees.

*

In truth, I felt a new respect and empathy for Buttercup when I rewatched the movie most recently. (Unbelievably, I think I hadn’t actually seen it for at least 16 years, since that’s how long it’s been since I last had access to a VCR at home.)

I never really knew how to identify with Buttercup. I wasn’t pretty growing up. I’m not now. Nobody was ever going to cross an ocean for my beauty, or even for my love.

Humperdinck, of course, doesn’t love Buttercup, but it turns out he doesn’t even desire her for her beauty. He’s holding her up as a symbol to Florin’s populace before he sacrifices her to his own political whims as leverage to go to war with Guilder.

And she as an individual has so little power in the face of Count Rugen and Humperdinck’s machinations, but it still matters that she makes use of what she has. She can’t free herself from Humperdinck, she can’t free Westley from Rugen, but that she refuses to let Westley die for her in the first place buys time until all the other threads of the story can come together. In that moment on the other side of the Fire Swamp, she personifies not destroying what you hate, but saving what you love. Westley will ultimately make the same choice. When he could kill Humperdinck, he instead leaves him impotently, comically, tied to a chair. (And in another interesting parallel, it’s Buttercup who forestalls an actual duel between Westley and Humperdinck near the beginning of the movie, and Westley who does it at the end–once again because he’s in a situation in which he cannot succeed with superior violence.)

We, like Buttercup, in this moment, are being abused by a regime of utter self-absorption and capriciousness for its own wealth and glory, which enjoys using the American people as a symbol and excuse for its abuses of power, but cares nothing, in actuality, for our lives or well-being. And there is so little that she, individually, can do about it, but she still does it, even when it’s only to call Humperdinck out for being exactly what he is—and even though she has no hope of succeeding on her own, it still matters that she does. It matters that her stalling helps buy time for Westley to get into the castle. Even when Humperdinck severely abridges the formalities of their wedding ceremony to attempt to effect their marriage without her consent, it matters in the end that she didn’t just go along and say the words—that she didn’t consent. It matters that the combined effects of her stalling and the friends’ assault on the castle force Humperdinck to dispense with even the appearance of legitimacy of their marriage.

“You didn’t say it, you didn’t do it,” Westley notes, somewhat redeeming himself from his earlier suspicion of Buttercup’s loyalty. She and Humperdinck aren’t married; she’s legally free to abscond with Westley if she can get out of the castle with him. She couldn’t free herself by herself but it mattered until the last minute that she would not provide her assent to what was happening.

“Many people outside the loop think that it’s too late to do anything, which, as premature despair always does, excuses us for doing nothing. Though there are diverse opinions quite a lot of insiders think that what we do now matters tremendously, because the difference between the best and worst case scenarios is vast, and the future is not yet written,” writes Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark about continuing to act against climate change even when it seems already too late to prevent or reverse it entirely, because the difference between the worst case scenario and a merely bad one can be vast, and the future is not known. That continued resistance in the face of probable failure increases the chances for success of an eleventh-hour effort, or at least mitigation of damage or destruction.

*

The villains in this movie are all fakers: Vizzini fancies himself the cleverest man alive; he is far from it, as it quickly turns out. Though we know he doesn’t really love her, even Humperdinck’s desire for Buttercup’s beauty isn’t real. While he convincingly portrays himself as an upstanding ruler, he’s actually planning to plunge his nation into war. Count Rugen, while genuinely probably the cruelest character, only turns out to be unflinching as long as he’s facing a child or an incapacitated man.

The heroes, on the other hand, all inhabit duality in that while all of them are extraordinary or even freakish in some way, they succeed, actually, when they make choices in line with their humanity, their conscience, their ordinariness. Westley/the Dread Pirate Roberts, with a reputation as one of the most feared and murderous pirates on the high seas, is also just fundamentally decent enough not to kill two henchmen who aren’t actually the people he has a gripe with in his pursuit of Vizzini and Buttercup, and they turn out to be his salvation.

The men in particular, Fezzik and Inigo, who would be the sidekicks in any other movie but to whom the bulk of action in this movie belongs, specifically undermine typical expectations of male heroes grounded in toxic masculinity. We love them for their vulnerabilities, their humor, kindness, sense of fairness, and open affection for each other much more than for their physical strength or skill with a sword or capacity for violence.

And what are the women in this scheme?

All of the prominent women in this story—Buttercup, Valerie, the old hag—are the truth-tellers. And moreover, they tell the truth about who the other characters are.

Buttercup doesn’t hesitate to name the Dread Pirate Roberts for who he is when she realizes, though he’s known as one of the most dangerous and deadly pirates of the seas. Once she realizes that Humperdinck has lied to her about looking for Westley, she calls him out unsparingly for the exactly the cowardly slimeball he is. She doesn’t even realize she’s probably saving her own life here; she has no real reason to think she’s in mortal personal danger from Humperdinck himself, as opposed to him just being a possessive, entitled coward (indeed, she’s very openly planning her suicide). For all she knows, it would be safer to remain beautifully quiet. She doesn’t.

Valerie gets Westley’s life saved by refusing to tolerate Max’s dissembling and avoidance of the situation at hand and by telling the truth about what Humperdink did to Max.

The old hag of Buttercup’s dream (or “the Ancient Booer,” as she’s credited) is a more difficult case. She isn’t real, for one. She doesn’t turn out to be a powerful fairy, evil queen, or trickster goddess as in other familiar incarnations of such a character in other tales. She’s Buttercup’s nightmare, and she isn’t actually right. She is what Buttercup fears about her true character and her motivations.

But what she does accurately is call out the ugliness and corruption underneath a seemingly beautiful public façade. She’s not right about Buttercup but she’s honest. And Buttercup does go to the Prince, tell the truth about her feelings for Westley, and try to call off the wedding, if not for which she never would’ve detected Humperdinck’s lie about having returned Westley to his ship, or having sent the four fastest ships in his armada to retrieve him.

The women are all telling the truth about who other characters are and about the corruption of a situation that no one else is willing to acknowledge or deal with. It is such a consistent pattern that while the spoken thesis statement of the movie is “Death cannot stop true love,” the unspoken one could virtually be “The women are telling the truth.”

And I am forced to think about Christine Blassey Ford, Stormy Daniels, Hillary Clinton, and Elizabeth Warren, whose testimony mattered when they told the truth about the character of a man, even when they couldn’t stop what was happening from happening anyway. Although in at least one case it did:

And if “The women are telling the goddamned truth” isn’t a sufficient message for a progressive movie in the 21st century, it seems to be one we could still stand to learn.

*

I also feel the need to return to an issue I noted before, in considering the alleged ableism of The Shape of Water: The character espousing the views often attributed in criticism to the movie is in fact the villain. Strickland, who devalues Elisa because of her disability, femaleness, lack of beauty, and poverty, who sees her and the Amphibian Man as monstrosities who don’t belong to this world—is the bad guy.

Prince Humperdinck, likewise, is the bad guy in this movie. His views are the ones that we are supposed to challenge, not accept. And he is he one who believes that Buttercup is nothing but a pretty but passive and empty-headed girl who won’t raise a finger in her own defense. We’re not supposed to.

Humperdinck also discounts the possibility that she’s important enough to anyone else that they might come after her and spoil his plans. After all, there’s not that much special about her aside from her beauty.

That’s part of the point. Again, all of these characters are coveted by someone else because of how they’re extraordinary. They become important to each other in the ways that they aren’t, and not merely as a means to an end.

And Westley loves Buttercup, and that’s enough that he would go to the ends of the earth to rescue her.

*

I didn’t realize initially just how appropriate and timely the choice of a reading of the Princess Bride specifically was to this present political situation, as opposed to just being fun, nostalgic, and also guaranteed to draw an outpouring of enthusiasm and support from people of a certain age who otherwise are not the most enthralled with the Democratic Party or Joe Biden as a candidate. But it’s the story of a very imperfect collection of faulted people coming together to defeat a cruel and petty despot because of their willingness to help each other reach an intertwined set of goals.

“It is what it is because you are who you are,” Joe Biden told Donald Trump in this past week’s first presidential debate, as is the sham and failure of Humperdinck’s rule because of who he is, and in a sublime and subversively beautiful way, the happy ending of the Princess Bride is what it is because its central characters are exactly who they are.

The stubborn and the stupid can work the weirdest miracles if we just don’t think too much.

And while in many ways it is not a particularly groundbreaking or innovative story as far as its portrayal of women, but neither does it consider them inferior or helpless, rather than central to the conscience and thesis of the film, and so, in my estimation, anyway, I have a hard time considering it fundamentally sexist.

And on that note, given the season, I’ll just leave you with this sentiment.

October 6, 2020

My letter to my Senators regarding the Worker Health Coverage Protection Act

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 3:53 pm by chavisory

I have a much more fun post in progress, but in the meantime–I don’t know how many of my readers are in the same boat or know what’s going on, but members of AEA found out this week that our health plan (which is actually provided through a separate organization, the Equity-League Benefit Funds) is being restructured in such a way as to make it even harder than it was to qualify for coverage, during a time in which very few of us have any access to employment with which to qualify at all. COBRA prices are prohibitively expensive, and without some kind of assistance, many more of us than have already lost our insurance are going to do so at the end of December this year. I’m writing my Senators to urge them again to work to pass the Worker Health Coverage Protection Act in light of these developments.

Feel free to use this letter as an example if this is an issue you’re contacting your own Senators about.

***

Dear Senator Schumer,

I’ve written to you before about the importance of the Worker Health Coverage Protection Act to provide 100% COBRA subsidies to workers displaced by the pandemic and my hope that you will fight for the passage of that bill in the Senate. I’m writing to you now about an emerging situation I don’t know if you’re aware of that I think highlights why the bill is still as important now as it ever was, particularly for New Yorkers.

As an off-Broadway stage manager, I’m a member of Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional stage actors and stage managers. This past week, AEA members who earn our health insurance through the Equity-League Health Fund by accruing work weeks, learned that our health plan is being restructured in such a way that not only will we be paying higher premiums for fewer benefits, which is somewhat to be expected as the Fund has virtually no employer contributions coming in right now, but it is about to become even more difficult than it was before the shutdown to qualify for coverage in the first place and to maintain consistent coverage–during a time when due to continued closures of indoor performance venues, the vast majority of us have little to no ability to earn work weeks.

Some of us, myself included, are currently on a stop-gap Cigna Silver plan that was initially offered in the hopes of bridging us through the shutdown, but we only have access to this option through December of this year.

As they are, COBRA premiums are simply unaffordable, costing hundreds of dollars more per month than my rent.

While I’m aware of my theoretical options under the ACA, I have never once succeeded in completing the application for a marketplace plan, even with the assistance of a navigator, because it is so badly set up to take my work situation into account.

I have been immensely fortunate to be able to maintain my insurance up to this point despite an almost total lack of work since mid-March, but without some kind of accommodation or assistance, I am extraordinarily unlikely to be able to maintain continuity of coverage, affordably or at all, beyond the end of this year. Many of New York’s arts workers are in similar or even more desperate situations than this, including those with disabilities, chronic illnesses, or autoimmune conditions that require regular medication they will not be able to afford out of pocket. The COBRA subsidy under the Worker Health Coverage Protection Act would provide a crucial protection, both economically and to our physical health, for workers like me in New York until we are free to seek full employment in our industry again.

Sincerely, your constituent,
(My name)

June 16, 2020

Reminders of joy

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 2:02 pm by chavisory

I know I haven’t talked much about this in a while, but just as a reminder, I also run a small side blog, Reckoning of Joy, which I started shortly after the 2016 election and pledged to keep running for the duration of the Trump presidency (and maybe longer, who knows), the purpose of which is to keep track of the progressive and civil rights victories achieved in spite of the current administration. For keeping our collective spirits up, but also for educating each other about how and why these things are and can be achieved, even now. And we’ve seen victories happen thanks to activism and advocacy on every scale from local school board resolutions Supreme Court decisions.

Particularly as the repercussions of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery continue to snowball, I would love to hear about it if your cities or states have instituted reforms that maybe haven’t made national news yet. The blog itself has a submit button, or you can e-mail me at the address for this blog in the About section.

I hope everyone is keeping as safe and well as possible!

March 6, 2020

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 1:16 pm by chavisory

There’s been a dynamic this primary season, and this is adapted from a Facebook post that I made yesterday minutes before Elizabeth Warren had officially announced the end of her campaign, but it’s something I feel the need to say something about.

And I don’t have numbers or statistics to throw out here, this is my personal, anecdotal experience; however, it has been …rather notable to me.

Throughout this long primary campaign, and especially in the last couple of days, I have heard, repeatedly, from various people and from only slightly different groups of people, that Elizabeth Warren supporters needed to drop our vote for her and support Bernie if we wanted a real progressive candidate, or to drop our vote for her and vote Biden if we really wanted to win in the general election, but either way, to “stop splitting the vote.”

I have never, not once, not one single time, heard a Warren supporter or campaign volunteer arguing that supporters of any other candidate had any kind of an obligation to drop support for their candidate and get behind ours instead for whatever reason we said.

And that’s not why I decided to support her in the first place, but God, did I appreciate it.

I think that there is something that people making these arguments about our obligation to fall in line for a candidate do not maybe understand, which is just how much girls like me hear stuff like this, and just how tired we are of it.

Like, however many times growing up you think I got told that my duty was to just go along with what somebody else wanted of me, that I needed to stop being inconvenient and make things easier on other people, that I just needed to understand that other people didn’t think like me, that I needed to be “realistic” and not fight for what I really wanted… multiply it by about ten.

No, really. However often you think it was, it was more.

(And, incidentally, if you were or are a person doing this? You have never been the only one. Other people were, and are, doing it, too. I was getting this everywhere. If you thought you were the first person ever to tell a stubborn little girl some hard “truths” about how the world worked, that it would never change for people like me? Guess what. You weren’t. You’re not. You’re just one more. In all likelihood, you are not some brave truth-teller in that girl’s life. You’re just a bully.

I want you to know that.)

I am completely immune to it, in terms of my decision-making. I have been hearing it for so long, you don’t even understand.

But it hasn’t stopped making me so. angry. And it will not make me view your candidate in a more favorable light.

Elizabeth Warren suspended her campaign this week. I am sad. I am disappointed. But I was never not ready for this news, I was never not thinking about how I would vote and who I’d support if she didn’t win the nomination. “Loving Elizabeth Warren means planning for America to break your heart,” as Monica Hesse put it in the Washington Post. Because, again, there is almost nothing I’m more used to than the fact that what is obvious to me is not what’s obvious to most people. That’s the water I’ve been breathing since the day I was born.

There is nothing I need to be told again less than “You have to understand that most people aren’t like you, Emily.”

I know. Trust me, I know.

And I can handle that, I can handle losing honestly, if that’s what happened. If it was just that too many people disagreed with me about who the strongest and most prepared candidate was, and not that they fell victim to some sneering, defeatist, self-fulfilling prophecy about how she could never win anyway, so why bother trying?

If that’s what it was, I’m not sure I can handle it.

Bernie Sanders is most likely my second choice. I never even took my Birdie sticker off of my laptop after the 2016 primaries, because I was not embarrassed of having supported Bernie or the reasons why I did. I am not going to have be sold very hard on voting for him again. But I am going to do so on the strength of his long Senate service, of his being right about the Iraq war when a lot of other basically decent people were wrong, on the trust that constituents from his home state testify to having in his integrity, and what I hear is a really, really good disability policy.

It will not be because of anyone who told me I needed to give up and fall in line because they said so.

February 12, 2020

Grief in the face of prosperity

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 12:32 am by chavisory

The first thing I thought of when I finished reading Alyssa Ahlgren’s essay after it came across my Facebook news feed was this article from the New Yorker this past fall, about the experience of publicly mourning the death of a glacier, about how to collectively  acknowledge grief for losses on a scale that we as humans are just not psychologically prepared to cope with at all, and our own responsibility in the face of them.

And I know that ecological concerns were not really the main thrust of Ms. Ahlgren’s observations, but still, it’s the first thing, somehow, that I thought of, that I wished she would read. It was the first thing I read that articulated heartbreakingly concisely something I’ve been struggling with how to acknowledge.

“This is one of the most distressing things about being alive today: we are witnessing geologic time collapse on a human scale.”

It’s February and I haven’t had to wear a coat more than five or six times total this year. Our blue herons haven’t bothered to leave for the winter. There are daffodils coming up in the park this morning. That would be normal for February if this were Georgia.

But I’m in New York.

I’m not being brainwashed into this. I’m seeing this with my own eyes.

And I’m a little over a decade older than Ms. Ahlgren, so admittedly my frame of reference is somewhat different. I’ve seen things change more. I also know that we didn’t used to have fireflies into mid-September. Perhaps things look fine from her perspective because in her adult memory, this is more or less the way they’ve always been.

But they haven’t.

*

Ms. Ahlgren’s reliance on the apparent ready availability of consumer electronics to prove that we’re all simply ungrateful, that we’ve been tricked or brainwashed into thinking we’ve never seen prosperity is…interesting.

I’m not sure if she knows this, but my generation is actually the first in decades to be projected to have a shorter life expectancy than that of our parents.

Many of us, even if we have professional careers, will never be able to own a home.

I live in an apartment without a dishwasher or washer/dryer or microwave or television. (I haven’t actually owned a television in so long that whenever I encounter one I barely know how to operate it.)

That’s actually okay with me. I don’t really need those things, and I’m used to getting along without them. (I’m also an old Millennial, or a “Xennial,” or a member of the Oregon Trail generation; I do know what it’s like to live without the internet or smart phones.) But it is very much a mistake to assume that standards of living and access to technology are equally high for everyone in this country. Or even that they’re uniformly better here than elsewhere in the world—they’re not. There are still parts of this country where indoor plumbing and access to safe drinking water can’t be taken for granted.

Access to gadgets isn’t quality of life. It isn’t safe and stable housing. It isn’t job security. It isn’t reliable access to healthcare.

It’s not that we’re ungrateful. But we’re anxious and afraid, for our own futures and our world.

We don’t know right this minute if our votes matter anymore, whether if our sitting president invites foreign interference into our elections again, that there is anything that anyone will do about it.

We keep seeing our country refuse to honor the ideals or even the Constitutional protections were taught to believe it stood for. It’s starting to look a whole lot like our laws don’t matter, that rules are considered to apply to Democrats and not Republicans, that members of one faction of our political class can do literally anything it wants, to anyone, no matter how explicitly illegal, without consequences.

We see how our fellow humans are being treated at our borders, our fellow citizens poisoned by their drinking water, and we don’t feel we have the right to say “It doesn’t affect me, it doesn’t matter to my life.”

I was on jury duty this past week, and the sheer number of people I saw being excused, after having to explain to a judge, that we simply could not afford to serve on a trial of significant length because that’s not how the way in which we’re employed works, was a little astonishing, even to me. That’s a problem of justice for defendants who literally cannot have a jury of their peers, because such large swaths of our society cannot afford to participate in the justice system.

I’m 37 years old and it still feels strange and wrong every time I buy a book or a movie ticket, because I couldn’t do that for so long.

*

I’m sitting here in a sunny coffee shop, too, and I am grateful.

I’m grateful to have control over my own life to the degree that I do. I’m grateful to be employed in a career I enjoy, even if it will never give me a luxurious standard of living, because around 85% of people with my disability are unemployed or under-employed (or employed under schemes in which employers don’t even have to pay us minimum wage).

I’m grateful for my union, because of which I have workplace protections and health insurance and a pension plan which I’m relatively confident will survive even if Social Security doesn’t. And I don’t normally buy into Social Security alarmism because I know that it is actually one of our more stable and traditionally politically untouchable government programs, that it’s survived many threats from deficit scapegoating more or less unscathed over the years, but this administration seems unusually hell-bent on setting fire to the stability of our social safety net from the bottom up.

I’m grateful for the work of everyone who’s helped secure those basic worker protections for people in my profession.

I’m grateful to have gotten a high-quality college education without going into student debt, because a lot of my generation did not, and no, not just because they made bad or lazy choices, but because even state college tuitions have risen completely out of proportion to wages in the past two decades. It used to be possible for an average student to pay their way through state college with a summer job. It’s simply not now. And I support the policies of people like Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Elizabeth Warren regarding student debt forgiveness because even though my family had the good fortune in many ways to be able to do what many regard to have been the right thing and just didn’t incur any, there are now so many people my age so burdened by debt that they can’t take part in economic life in any normal way and it’s affecting the health of the economy for everyone, including me.

When I walk through my neighborhood, and see the number of shuttered, empty storefronts—of bars, restaurants, stationery stores—where small businesses (and sometimes even corporate chains) couldn’t keep up with astronomical rents… I am not being brainwashed into seeing that.

We aren’t making this up.

I run another, very small blog, where with the help of other readers, I tally up every progressive, environmental, or civil rights victory, big or small, that we have secured in this time despite the depredations of our current administration, and I am grateful for every single one of those events and for everyone whose work and commitment made them happen.

I am grateful. I like my iPhone and my laptop and our easy access to information and media and living in a lively, diverse city with incredible access to music and theater and cultural resources.

And in a lot of ways, living here long term is not good for me. My health and well-being would be better served, honestly, by living in a quieter, smaller place. But I fear the economic and personal consequences of trying to move somewhere and start over, of giving up the theater community and faith community and network of known and trusted employers I have here, of winding up lonelier and poorer and more isolated. I just feel like I’m being pulled apart at the seams sometimes. But there’s nothing really to do except to just keep working until there’s a more viable obvious choice.

I don’t think we’ve been brainwashed into thinking we’ve never seen prosperity, rather than that we have seen prosperity, but many of us have not gained access to its benefits in terms of true freedom of movement or security about the future, for ourselves or for the world we’re leaving our children.

I’ll survive, because it’s just what I do, but more and more I don’t know what kind of a world I’ll survive to live in, and I know I’m far from unique in that, and that the consequences I’ll face, given where I live, are nowhere near as severe as those that people elsewhere in the world will, but it’s still sad and it’s hard, and if Ms. Ahlgren can’t appreciate that..?

After the 2016 elections, those of us who were scared and upset got told a lot that we lived in a cultural “bubble” and had no understanding of the anxieties and fears that would lead so many of our fellow citizens to vote the way they did—

And now to be told, in response to our genuine fears and our responses to them at the ballot box, “You just don’t understand how good you really have it…”

Well, which is it? And also, how dare you?

You can reasonably conclude that I am wrong in my assessment of the facts. As I was saying to a friend not long ago, both the beauty and the horror of the human mind is its ability to assemble narrative out of data in a basically infinite number of ways. It’s a fallacy to think that someone who has access to all the same information as we do will necessarily agree with us about what it means, that if only people knew what we knew, they’d agree about its significance or what to do about it.

(Although I do have to wonder whether Ms. Ahlgren knows that within the lifetimes of some of her peers, America has virtually always been at war. No, this isn’t World War II or Vietnam, but that does not mean that we aren’t witnessing historically consequential events or that we don’t get to respond or have feelings about them.

“The oldest Icelandic texts are a thousand years old,” Magnason said—around the same age as the ice in the country’s oldest glaciers. “In all that time, the Earth has been quite stable, but the Earth will have changed more in the next two hundred years than in the last thousand years.”)

 

But if you cannot look around at what is happening in this country right now, at what is being done to our environment, if you can turn on the news and not at least understand why someone of your generation might be legitimately angry at our government and scared for our future, might not simply be comfortable with what we have—

Then I am not the one who lives in a bubble.

*

There’s a line in the song “Bright Horses,” on Nick Cave’s new album, that goes “We’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are.” Trust me, most of us wish we weren’t witnessing our democracy and our rule of law, along with our natural world, crumbling under our feet. Almost everyone I know is exhausted from heartache, but we can’t pretend not to be seeing what we are in fact seeing, what we are experiencing. And you can disagree with our electoral responses to it, but please do not tell us we’re imagining it; we are not.

No, I can’t look around me and see what I see, and in good conscience decide to just sit here and be happy with my coffee and my iPhone.

I can’t. I won’t.

January 5, 2020

Conscientious objector resources & alternatives to military service

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 3:09 pm by chavisory

I did not hope for this to be my first post of the new year, but as the situation in Iran and Iraq has quickly become more volatile and concerning, this is courtesy of a friend of mine who wanted to put this information out there without being credited by name.

If you are currently in the military and concerned about deployment or considering claiming conscientious objector status (which I did not know, but apparently you can pursue even after you have enlisted), or you are not currently enlisted and seeking alternatives to military service, below is some information that might help.

With hope for a more peaceful new decade for us all…

***

“If someone you know is in the military and wants to make sure they’re not hauled off to kill or die to boost Trump’s approval ratings, here’s some basic info and a hotline # for pursuing a conscientious objector discharge:
https://girightshotline.org/…/conscientious-objection-disch…

“If you know someone who hasn’t enlisted yet but is considering it as a way to get healthcare, free college, job training, etc, the Quakers have help finding other ways to get those needs met. We need Medicare for All and free college, but in the meantime, scroll down for free downloads and regional guides on what’s out there now: https://www.afsc.org/resource/alternatives-military

“And if it comes to it, while the maximum penalties on the books for going AWOL are brutal, but they haven’t been used since 1945. In practice the Pentagon only charges 5% of soldiers who quit, and only 1% receive any sentence. Compared to being asked to kill innocent people or get killed in pointless war, getting out is both the right and the smart thing to do. http://nymag.com/…/…/what-happens-to-most-awol-soldiers.html

January 11, 2019

Lessons learned watching The Neverending Story alone in a bar on a night in October

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 11:06 pm by chavisory

Not long ago, I watched the Neverending Story alone in a bar.

A friend and I had planned to meet up for a drink after we both got out of rehearsal, but she wound up having to attend to a work-related emergency at the last minute, and so I had some time to sit and write over a cocktail until she got back. An amount of time which turned out to be the length of the Neverending Story, which the bartender had turned on the television above the bar.

Though still fairly early in the evening, it was already noisy enough that the closed captions were on.

I had loved the movie as a kid. We had a bootlegged VHS copy a babysitter had left behind, to which a prior owner with a deaf child had somehow added homemade captions using label tape. But I think I hadn’t actually seen it since college, when the Tate Student Center movie theater at UGA had one night held a $2.00 midnight showing.

A couple of friends and I went. I didn’t expect the showing to be sold out—I don’t think I’d ever really known the movie was a cult classic and not just some obscure curiosity due to my only experience of it having been a glitchy secondhand VHS and not having had much in common with the pop culture tastes of kids my age when I was growing up—but there wasn’t an empty seat in the theater.

And then they couldn’t get the projector to work.

An hour went by while they tried.

No one left. No one.

Probably they were hoping that we would eventually give up and go home and they’d get the projector serviced later and reschedule the date. But no one moved. We were there to see the Neverending Story, damn it, and we were going to see it.

Two hours went by. Up on screen, we occasionally saw flashes of hope in the form of the computer desktop, screensavers, and glimpses of the SETI search program that evidently the booth’s computer had running in the background, but no movie. Eventually people started acting out scenes down in front of the screen, Rocky Horror style. This was 2002 or so, so it wasn’t even like people had smart phones to amuse ourselves. Everyone. just. waited. It was probably the most astonishing demonstration of group solidarity I had ever seen at that point in my life.

The projector was finally induced to work. It was around 2:00 in the morning. I actually don’t remember clearly, but I’m sure cheers went up.

What I do remember with almost painful clarity was the dawning realization of how different the movie was from my childhood memory of it. I know I’m by far not the only person who has this experience; I’ve had this conversation with multiple age-peers since then, but it was truly shocking. The writing was awkward and goofy. The low-budget special effects were awful; the story trajectory didn’t really hang together. The whole thing came off as laughably, vaguely amateur. It was jarring.

A younger friend who saw it recently for the first time said “I feel like I hallucinated that whole thing,” and I said that was probably the correct thing to feel.

Fast forward to one night this past October. I’m writing alone, waiting for a friend, having a Jack and Coke by candlelight, when the Neverending Story comes on the bar television. It’s now been a longer time since I last saw it in college than it had been then since I’d seen it as a kid.

And maybe it was that I was very exhausted and a little bit drunk by then. It had been a long couple weeks of rehearsal and maybe I was just hungry for some fluffy escapist fantasy. Maybe this bar is actually slightly imbued with magical qualities, a position I don’t become less convinced of with time.

Maybe it’s that in the intervening years I’ve become much more able to see and hear with an uncritical heart again (and that’s another, longer, story).

But somehow it was every bit the most beautiful movie in the world that I remembered. I kept waiting for its faults to show themselves, and watched with astonishment equal to that I felt sitting in the UGA student center theater 16 years ago as they didn’t. It looked entirely and luminously like the movie it was meant to be.

I also thought I remembered the movie’s thesis. I didn’t. Or at least, I remembered the one that’s made explicit throughout the movie, that children’s imagination and creativity are necessary to the sustenance of the world.

But I realized it had another one, implied but never articulated, like a secret flip-side to that one, undiscoverable without being on the other side of a certain amount of life experience.

On this night, in the week after Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, an outcome which we’d thought we were powerless to prevent and then for weeks came to believe that maybe we could, that maybe the revelations of one person ultimately could, only to find that they would not. After weeks and weeks and months and months of ongoing horrors emanating from the White House, which in so many ways we hoped we could alter but could not, not because we didn’t care or try but because really, they were out of our hands, I felt for Atreyu like I never had before, who actually looked like the child he was to me for the first time. Who tried so hard and yet did not prevent the collapse of Fantasia under the power of the Nothing. How he blamed himself for failing, when really, he alone could never have defeated it.

The reason why it happened wasn’t because he failed, and it wasn’t his fault for trying and failing.

And that even in failure, his effort and loss weren’t wasted; the fact of his being willing to try wasn’t pointless.

For he actually brought Bastian all the way to the Empress, without even knowing.

We won’t always be able to win everything we imagine. A significant percentage of the time, in fact, we probably won’t.

We still have to be willing to try.

September 6, 2018

Religious defiance and historical denial

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 3:51 pm by chavisory

religious meme[Image is a peaceful scene of stones forming a path across a waterway, flanked by bamboo and hanging lanterns. Text reads “A religious person will do what he is told…no matter what is right…whereas a spiritual person will do what is right…no matter what he is told…”]

Y’all know by now I basically live to rip facile nonsense like this to shreds, right?

This post is derived from a debate I had a little bit ago with a Facebook friend on the subject of this meme. I have, ad nauseam, pointed out the categorical falsehoods being committed by witticisms like this and the basic bigotries that they represent. It’s virtually a reflex. There are things I would so much rather be doing with my time, but I have a really hard time letting misrepresentations like this stand without comment.

Believe it or not, I am actually starting to feel like me doing that has, possibly, reached the limit of its utility.

But something else strikes me about this meme, which is its erasure of the role that religious communities have historically played in supporting and participating in civil disobedience, most memorably as far as American history goes in the Civil Rights Movement, but also in the abolitionist movement and in the Resistance to the Nazis in WWII in Europe. MLK, Jr. was a pastor. A Lutheran pastor in Germany led an assassination attempt on Hitler. A whole plethora of religiously-based organizations have been active in the fight for marriage equality, including pastors defying the rules of their own churches to perform marriages they could be defrocked for.

And, it being the case that we are currently reckoning with a situation in which Russian troll farms turn out to have massively infiltrated and manipulated internet leftist/social justice/activist networks with some devilishly clever misinformation campaigns…I do not take it for granted that that erasure is either coincidental or accidental.

When a basically source-less piece of internet jetsam seems to serve the purpose of alienating progressive communities from each other, even to the point of denying each other’s existence and of decades/centuries of calculated disobedience on the part of religious people…I would really question where it’s coming from, and who wants you to believe it and why.

Something we learned in biology classes, over and over again, was “form follows function.”

What’s the possible function of something like this? To reassure a certain number of people of their pre-existing convictions and prejudices, sure, but also to obscure the undeniable existence of religious disobedience to people who might not have knowledge of that history, for whatever reason.

A few months ago, there was, briefly, an occupation of an ICE facility here in Manhattan. And I wasn’t close to the planning or the groups leading the action, but I followed along on Twitter from the moment I heard of the occupation–about three days after it had apparently started–and went down to drop off snacks at one point and found a scant two dozen people there. Granted, it was a Sunday afternoon and the building was closed for the weekend so it wasn’t a time of high likelihood of clashes with ICE personnel, police, or vehicles. Attendance looked to be higher at other times, judging from social media, but never even remotely reached the proportions of the Portland occupation, though NYC is a far larger city with no lack of activist-minded populace who turned out en masse for the airport protests in the wake of the first attempted travel ban and revelations that separated immigrant kids were being flown into LGA in the dead of night.

And I was confused to find there seemed to have been virtually no involvement of local progressive religious groups, which was incredibly odd in light of the fact that immigration justice is among the signature issues of several of them.

Why wouldn’t they have reached out to local religious communities who prominently work on this issue for signal boosting and support? Did they simply not know that those groups are involved in that work? Or that they even exist? Are they operating too much in an ideological cul-de-sac in other regards so that the possibility was rejected or never came up at all?

I don’t know; I’m speculating somewhat. Regardless, I don’t think it’s a mistake the Resistance can afford to keep making. It is possibly more crucial now than it has ever been in some of our remembered lifetimes that we use all of the moral solidarity and strength in numbers that we have available.

Here’s another example: A Tumblr blog, now known to have been an IRA-linked propaganda blog, commented on a tweet about three female medical students from India, Japan, and Syria, who completed their training as doctors in Philadelphia in 1885, to the effect that because they were women of color, we know nothing about them.

But we do. To the extent that these ladies were the subjects of the doctoral dissertation of someone who I actually know. The knowledge of their lives and accomplishments was actually being hidden from us by a purported leftist activist blog.

And I think there’s a real danger, too, in assuming that anyone who is simply wrong on the internet, or with whom we disagree about strategy, is a Russian bot. I don’t assume that this particular meme was the product of a Russian troll farm rather than just a regular internet denizen rebranding their own self-satisfied ignorance as enlightenment. Quite possibly the author of this little piece of misinformation meant nothing but to take a swipe at what they perceive as the purposeless dutifulness of religious folk. But when the primary function of a piece of rhetoric seems to be fracturing or inhibiting the formation of coalitions of progressive communities…

To deny the very existence of acts of defiance by religious people and the presence of religious people in movements of civil disobedience…

To deny the provenance of some of the most effective tactics of civil disobedience ever known…

To deny younger idealistic people the knowledge of who many of those who took part in those actions were, where to find them, and how to talk to them…

To specifically deny the agency of religious communities of color in moral decision-making in resisting oppression…

Then I also no longer assume innocent wrongheadedness over its being designed to do so.

[Updated to add: This is a great article about how personal faith informs even secular social justice organizing that I ran across after originally publishing this post.]

August 17, 2017

Letter to my representative on H.R. 2796

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 1:16 am by chavisory

This is my letter, going in the mail tomorrow, to my congressional representative regarding H.R. 2796, the Civil Rights Uniformity Act of 2017, which you can view here.

Dear Representative Espaillat,

I’m writing to ask you to vote against, and take any action possible against, H.R. 2796, deceptively titled the Civil Rights Uniformity Act of 2017.

From what I understand, this bill was written specifically with the intent of excluding transgender people from protection under existing civil rights law.

While I am not transgender, this represents quite literally a matter of life and liberty for trans people I know and love–a matter of access to employment, housing, and public life.

Furthermore, in this bill’s reliance on a poor understanding of the science of sex and gender–biological sex is extremely complex, and most individuals do not know or have any documentation of their “genetic sex”–it represents a potential invasion of privacy and serious access barrier to anyone at all who fails to conform to simplistic and repressive ideals of what a man or a woman should look like.

I thank you for your time and thoughtfulness on this issue.

August 12, 2017

Equality doesn’t feel like oppression.

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 7:31 pm by chavisory

There’s an expression that has become hugely accepted in lefty activist communities that goes

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

I wish we would retire it.  It’s always given me the heebie-jeebies and I had trouble verbalizing why for a long time. I’ve had parts of this post half-written for a while, but a cornerstone of my problem with it fell into place, unfortunately, this morning.

 

In the first place, I have never ever seen a good explanation of why it should be true.

I don’t feel safer or more secure at seeing fellow Americans abused and reasonlessly killed by police, or without safe water, or systematically denied educational opportunities, or having their voting rights suppressed, or disabled students of color funneled into prison.

Why should I?

Why should I feel oppressed at seeing fellow citizens treated fairly and equitably? Why? Why should I? Why should I feel oppressed at seeing people with different backgrounds than me well-represented in media? Or having a truly fair shot in the job market or decent housing or not having their children lead-poisoned by their drinking water?

There’s a presumption that achieving that would require taking anything from me that I consider worth having. And I don’t accept that as true.

Maybe you mistake what I value.

Nothing made me more furious when I was a kid than seeing other people treated unfairly and not being able to do anything about it. Nothing. I hated being treated that way and I hated seeing other people treated that way.

I don’t understand why I would look at it now and go “That’s fine.”

What’s true is that the sheer scale and pervasiveness of it has often been invisible to me for much of my own life.

Learning to see it doesn’t make me more okay with it. It makes me sad and rageful and overwhelmed at my own helplessness to just make it stop.

 

Furthermore, I do not trust people who tell me that they know better than me what I think, how I will feel, or how I should feel.

People who are sure that they know better than I do what is going on in my head or in my experience of myself, that they have greater authority than me to tell me what that is, who won’t take no for an answer about it, have not been safe or trustworthy people.

I have very few actual triggers, and that is one of them. It has almost always been a prelude to escalating manipulation or a ploy to gain my compliance or an attempt to undermine my trust in my own intuition or agency.

It makes me suspect that what you’re actually setting up is a justification for making me feel oppressed or mistreated as an objective in itself, telling yourself that what you’re doing is necessary and okay, and that whatever anger or unpleasantness I feel will just be a natural consequence of “loss of privilege,” and not a reaction to anything you do.

When I see other people being mistreated and then get told “well this is a system that benefits you so you must agree with it,” I recognize that tactic, itself, as abusive and manipulative.

No, no I don’t have to agree with it.

 

This morning, as I was reading the coverage of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last night, I encountered this brilliant Twitter thread about how these straight, white, so-called Christian dudes brandishing tiki torches have not the slightest conception of what oppression really means.

And someone contributed that quote to the comments.

And it hit me.

It’s so coddling. I want them held more responsible than that, than just to say “oh this is just what it feels like to recognize your own loss of privilege.” You know what? People have more ability to question their own reflexive reactions than that. These are not toddlers with no ability to take perspective or adjust their sense of proportion.

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

No, it doesn’t.

No, these Nazi dingbats have no idea what oppression is like.

They have no idea what they are talking about. I will not validate their cluelessness and their false history and their rage at not being the only people who matter in the world like this.

I don’t think we should make their behavior understandable in this way. Plenty of other privileged white guys figure out how to come to terms with their loss of automatic dominance in the world without throwing Nazi rallies. I don’t think we should entrench the notion that this as just what it feels like when you see people who aren’t like you making marginal advances towards true equality.

Especially when these people have been explicitly encouraged with particular rhetoric to fear and resent and even take up arms against certain other groups of people, I think we should really hesitate to call their response just the natural emotional reaction to loss of privilege. I don’t want to give any cover to the idea that this is just what happens when people have to reexamine their place in the social order a little bit.

They made choices here.

It’s not just inevitable.

Unless the freedom to bully and oppress others was the only freedom you held dear in the first place.

Next page