Monday, July 15, 2013

As others see us...and Skittles...

Flickr: Ellie Strikes Weird
If only we could see ourselves as others see us!

With the benefit of hindsight, after I returned from living in England for two years, I had appearance.

Living in a country without much of a summer or a winter most years had given me a kind of haunted, Gothic pallor and a perpetual shiver, since I had lost all tolerance for extreme cold. I was thinner than I am now, with zero muscle tone given that my only exercise came from running and walking (I couldn't afford a gym).  I never found a place that I trusted to cut my hair when I was in the UK, so I had long, cascading, frizzy, Mary Pickford-style curls.

Most of my clothes came from thrift stores (cheap) or Top Shop (sometimes cheaper). I unfortunately don't have a photograph, but one of my typical ensembles consisted of a pair of purple bell bottoms, bright red sneakers, a t-shirt with a plunging neckline with a picture of Felix the Cat on it, a fuzzy, multicolored belly-bearing sweater, a toggle coat, a ginormous brown scarf, mittens--all topped off with an argyle knit beanie.  I guess this isn't very politically correct, but since I don't have a photograph, I have to say that the beanie looked like a crazy homeless person's hat.

To be honest--I looked like the love child of Tom Baker as Dr. Who and Rainbow Brite.

Flickr: Sterin

I had spent most of my time around 'creative' types, so the way I dressed seemed perfectly normal to me, even conservative, since I had no facial piercings, tattoos, or areas of exposed skull.

I also had a slight British accent which, to New Jersey ears, sounded extreme.

I worked at several jobs upon my return to the States, one of which involved tutoring students door-to-door and helping them write their college essays.  I quickly learned that teenagers are completely incapable of giving directions to people other than their friends, and got lost every. single. time I went to a new house.

I particularly dreaded one area: it was full of new developments, long and winding streets, had no street signs and or street lamps.  The concept behind the layout spoke very clearly: outsiders not wanted here.  Unless you know exactly where you were going, you would get lost.

But I was poor and quite in demand, so I toughed it out.  I still remember one terrifying, cold night when I was so lost I didn't think I would be able to get home, much less find my destination.  The kid on the phone was no help (of course) so I pulled into a development (no strip malls or gas stations anywhere, either) and knocked on a door for assistance.

The door opened a crack, revealing a terrified, baggy eyelid.  I explained to the elderly eyeball that I was lost and did she know where x, y, and z was?  Suddenly, the door clicked shut.  I heard screaming as she apparently was calling for her husband and also saying something about the police.

I wasn't sure if I should stand there or leave, what would be worse. Eventually, she produced her elderly husband.  He scolded her for being overly paranoid.  "You can't be too careful," she kept saying as he gave me directions, sometimes sounding apologetic other times sounding as if I had provoked her.

Anyway, the man pointed me in the right way and I found my way to my job.  Fortunately, he was sensible.

Even without the dynamic of race, any one of us can seem a threat, if perceived under the wrong circumstances.  Too big, too male, too eccentric, too young, too punk, too northern, too much of an outsider.  Too much of simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Add race, and of course, the ability to judge another person realistically as a threat becomes even more difficult.

It's very easy to stumble into someone's fantasy or nightmare and to find yourself an unwitting pawn or player in their drama: suddenly you realize you are no longer 'you,' instead you are 'the thug' or the 'crazy girl on drugs' and the person you are speaking to sees herself, as in my case, as 'the terrorized homeowner' or 'the avenger.'

Sometimes when I go running early in the morning through a nice neighborhood I am acutely aware of the fact that my whiteness, my femaleness, my middle-ageness, and my dorky florescent shoes and running gear shield me and protect me from a call to the police--or something worse.  Because at least the police receive some training in how to separate their gut instincts from reality, when evaluating a threat.

When I was a pale teen in a black t-shirt and wandered to get food late at night and sat on the swings of a local playground to drink my Diet Coke and eat my Hostess cupcakes, sometimes people would stop and they'd ask if I was supposed to be there...not in a nice way...but it never went any further...

I discarded the hat and the coat into a charity bin soon after that night and as much as I hate to bend to the whims of society, I try to at least look somewhat professional, respectable, and 'New Jersey' nowadays.   But even if Trayvon Martin had lived, he could never feel 100 percent safe going out to get Skittles and ice tea late at night, even if he threw away his hoodie in the garbage and never looked back.  He'd always have to be watching his back.

Friday, July 12, 2013

More thoughts on the human-animal relationship...and PETA

Flickr: Jan & Peggy
A few months ago, I read an article about an animal 'shelter' run by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) that was so horrific I felt I couldn't even blog about it without labeling it 'not safe to eat before lunch.'  However, after the New York Times featured a similar (although less graphic) piece on PETA quite recently, I felt a need to speak out on it.

The photos are so bad, btw, I am just going to post a really cute picture of a bunny (bunny pictures make everyone feel better) because you will need it if you read either article or my rant which follows. 

Basically, the gist of both pieces is that PETA--a self-admittedly radical vegan organization that tries to make people feel bad if they eat honey or cheese made from free-roaming cows (and has engaged in such er, quirky self-promotional campaigns such as suggesting human breast milk as an alternative to cow's milk ice cream and has used hatred against fat people to market its dietary agenda)-- euthanizes up to 89 percent of the animals at the shelter it runs.

While PETA claims that most of these animals are 'hard up' cases that are considered unadoptable, given that it has euthanized puppies and kittens (which tend to be the easiest critters to find homes for) as well as does not seem to have a viable spay/neuter/vaccinate/release program for feral cats, this seems pretty disingenuous.

When I posted on Facebook that it was hypocritical that PETA would say, get all bent out of shape about using service animals and then do this, a number of my friends pointed out that technically speaking, it wasn't all that hypocritical, given PETA's official position that pets are bad: According to PETA:

"But as the surplus of cats and dogs (artificially engineered by centuries of forced breeding) declined, eventually companion animals would be phased out, and we would return to a more symbiotic relationship — enjoyment at a distance."

Okay, the grammarian in me is riled up, too--isn't the antithesis of a 'symbiotic' relationship usually being 'at a distance' from something?

 In a weird way, I see PETA as yet another reflection of the various 'anti-science movements' that have cropped up in modern culture, along with creationism, the anti-vaccine movement, the 'fluoride in the water is killing us' PETA's view, humanity and technology is a blight on the planet and everything we do in conjunction with animals harms them.  It's like Bambi, a la Disney--before human beings, all creatures live in a happy, mysterious vegan technicolor harmony eating soy burgers together, until big, bad MAN comes along with a flamethrower and a gun.

Don't get me wrong--human beings and the modern lifestyle have done many bad things to the planet. But one of the main problems I have with very radical movements like PETA and to some extent, radical environmentalism like Deep Ecology as well, is this self-flagellating attitude towards human existence.

First of all, it is hard to deny that 'self-preservation' is a pretty natural instinct, and a movement which is based upon the idea that human welfare should be a low priority is honestly never going to gain much traction with the public.  Yes, PETA, some crazy celebrities might pose naked in your advertisements about how they would rather go naked than wear fur, but then they will go on to wear leather if their latest film contract demands it.

I guess I feel so strongly about this was when I was twelve or so, I wrote (snail mail style!) for PETA's literature and accepted it uncritically. And much of what that early literature said was right--factory farming is horrible, for human health and animals.

But there is much, much more to PETA than advocating for better conditions for animals--the talk of animal rights is window-dressing. PETA has a self-hating attitude against HUMANS (meat eating, environment-destroying humans) and anything associated with humans, including pets, ergo, is EVIL in PETA-land.

Once again, I recognize that human beings have done really bad things to the planet.  But I don't accept PETA's pre-human Disney-esque fantasy of natural life.

Nature is amoral, with or without humans.

For a long time, nature--with its struggles of dominance of the stronger versus the weaker, its blood and sex and freedom--was seen as horrific and distasteful.  The flip side of this is to see nature as supremely moral and inherently better than anything humans have constructed (except when animals eat other animals, I guess).  I even heard a vegan criticizing the immorality of meat-eating because 'we' eat the gentle, non-predatory animals.  I hate to say this lady, but um, the predator-prey dichotomy in nature would exist even without human beings at all.  But then again, I am invoking sixth grade science class, and science is scary...

It is much harder to accept the ambiguous idea human society has created some wonderful things (art, music, literature, philosophy, cheese, the ability to travel long distances quickly, sneakers) and also some horrible things (ethnic cleansing, factory farming, Velveeta) and there is no easy moral equation to say how all of this balances out.

And that nature contains startling beauty and evidence of animal compassion and also startling cruelty.

Or that morality as we humans think about it really has nothing to do with how nature operates at all...nature simply exists.  Industrial pollution makes the earth warmer, and that sucks, and we need to figure out how much we have to give up to reduce its risks. Some animals have evolved or been bred in a certain way that makes it difficult for them to live as anything but companion animals, some animals eat other animals, and even if you don't like these facts, you have to deal with them.

I think both extreme views of the environment and animal rights are similarly unbalanced--the idea the planet is like a giant box of Kleenex that we can dispose of as we chose and of better living through chemistry certainly hasn't served us well, but there is no 'going back' to some pure, pre-industrial Eden, since our vision of what that entailed will inevitable be romanticized.

And even in hunter-gatherer societies, we were, as a species still fighting and struggling to stay alive and, however imperfectly, remain in some state of homeostasis with the planet. From what I've read about native life, there was  sense of gratefulness to the earth for supporting human life, not a sense of guilt and shame for being alive next to animals.

It is so tempting to impose moralistic views upon our relationships with nature and animals--I remember once taking a class in graduate school on religion and animals, and I was very much persuaded by the professor's contention that one reason we have such difficulties in understanding other animals is that we either a. sentimentalize and anthropomorphize them (and then get upset when they are not like us) or b. objectify them and treat them as property.  Neither view is correct or particularly useful to humans or animals.

The idea that something can be alive and have free will and is 'not us' can be challenging even when dealing with another human being, let alone an animal. But the solution isn't to ignore animals and withdraw from them like PETA suggests.

I think that the human-animal bond and the human-nature body is not only beautiful, but also a very necessary part of leading a healthy life.

Being around an animal can help us escape some of the worst aspects of our species, including its over-thinking, anxiety, and solipsism.  That doesn't mean that we as humans have a 'right' to do whatever we want with animals.  Instead, we need to ask--given the conditions in the here and now-- how can we benefit one another?

There is a mutually beneficial sense of obligation that must be created, I think, between human beings and their relationship with all species and with nature itself.

And it makes me sad that because of the harms that have been done to the environment by humans....PETA has turned against pets, of all creatures, to vent its inchoate rage  and I know some people will continue to support and to donate to PETA because the bumper stickers look good on their cars, not because they have done any research about the organization.

Monday, July 1, 2013

"Oh Food Network I don't know nuthin' 'bout sexual and racial harrassment"

I've kinda held back about the whole Paula Deen debacle because many other eloquent blogging voices have done so already, pointing out the silliness of viewing her as the embodiment of Southern cuisine, when it could be argued that the most authentic Southern cooking is African-American cooking (similar to the claim that jazz is the only truly American music).

But there are a few points that have been bugging me and I MUST clarify....

1. The issue isn't that Deen used 'the n-word' once, thirty years ago, or even that she used it once three years ago.  All of these allegations came out in a legal deposition pertaining to harassment charges against her.  One of the legal definitions of harassment is that the employer created a hostile working environment for the discriminated-against person, such as consistently using offensive racial and/or sexual slurs.

2. It does seem clear that Deen did mention she wanted a 'Southern, plantation-style wedding' with an all-black staff.  And that indicates more than a simple 'recent slip of the tongue.' And that there are allegations of systematic and consistent racist language on a daily basis at her restaurant and other businesses, not just a smattering of accidental bad language.

It certainly isn't true that 'all white women of Deen's generation are racists from the South.'  That seems pretty offensive to Southern women who ARE NOT and also belies the fact that there are plenty of equally racist Northern women today who just happen to be racist about different types of groups they see as the servant class (don't even get me started on what I have overheard some people say about the women they hire to clean their houses and the men who mow their laws).  No one gets a 'free pass' as far as I am concerned for deep and systematic discrimination: being from the South doesn't make you racist but nor does it free you from the standards of common humanity and decency.

Credit: NPR
I'm probably not the best person to weigh in on this, though, because I have never understood the romanticism of the Old South.

Like most precocious junior high girls, I breezed through Gone With the Wind, picking it up because I heard it was a dirty book and then staying with it because of the opening chapter's description of Scarlett O'Hara as a heroine with no imagination who was cruel and callous, dark-haired and a survivor.

Most of my books featured very imaginative intelligent girls like Harriet the Spy and Ramona Quimby or bookish romantic heroines with inner beauty like Jane Eyre. Cathy from Wuthering Heights was as close as you could get to a heroine who was Byronic and 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know' but she dies halfway through the book and Heathcliff is the real hero.

In contrast, Scarlett is a total bitch and the center of her own universe, the type of girl who would never talk to me in real life.  She made mistakes, but she'd be far better off in today's world than I am. So she fascinated me, even as the obvious racism of the book was repellent.

It made me feel better years later to realize that as simple as the book is there is so much more complicated racial ideology behind the surface that Margaret Mitchell probably didn't intend but unconsciously slipped the fact that despite being technically white, Scarlett and Rhett Butler embody so many 'black' stereotypes, such as Rhett's swarthy complexion, sexuality, and dismissive view of the Southern cause and gentility....and if the annoying cinematic stereotype so many African-American actresses are forced to embody is that of a 'sassy black woman,' I would argue that is EXACTLY what Scarlett O'Hara is...sassy, mouthy, uncomplicated and earthy.

In contrast the truly 'lily white' characters in the book are Ashley and Melanie and significantly they are weak, passive, and ultimately death-driven and non-generative, in contrast to the sturdy Scarlett and her ability to give birth easily and without pain and kick ass while surviving the burning of Atlanta.

Perhaps that is why some African-American woman like the book, despite themselves.  I love this quote from an essay published on NPR: "Scarlett O'Hara, founding mother of the Me Generation. Frankly, my dear, I found her unabashed self-interest delicious. My own mother, though, was mystified. Why would her child, who would eventually sport a two-foot wide Afro, be so interested in a plantation belle?" Through literary slight-of-hand Scarlett allows the reader to have the strength of an African-American woman, in other words, with white Southern privilege.

Still, despite the positive characteristics of Scarlett, we as a society still seem very blind to how much racism bubbles beneath the surface of the idealization of the antebellum South, and despite Barack Obama's election, I still sometimes see 'stars and bars' on bumper stickers in my area and shudder.  Hell, the Dukes of Hazard was a popular TV show when I was a kid in the 1970s, if I remember correctly.

No matter how much I coveted the apple green dress wrapped around Scarlett's 17-inch waist, I knew what all of that cotton was made from: pain.

But in some sense, I guess we are hypocritical as a society to react with horror to Deen: the race issues bubbling beneath her manufactured persona were always there, we just didn't want to admit to much of our battles about things like food have a racial subtext and Paula's pride in deep-frying everything that moves, putting an extra half-stick of butter in everything, and using processed food galore to create her 'cuisine' smacked of a hatred of Northern elitism, kale, and judgement of her region for its past.

Yes, all of us have said things we might regret on a personal level and we are all reflections of our very imperfect history.

But ultimately, racial and sexual harassment within an organization, just like history and a great Civil War, doesn't happen by accident--it takes callousness and a considerable effort of will to maintain and the individual responsible for that organization can't shrug it off.

Frankly, my dear, from what I have heard about working in restaurant kitchens, pretty much all of them involve some form of chest-thumping and ass-grabbing, but at minimum this should not be condoned by management. They say a fish rots from the head down...and in this case the 'head' of the fish was batter-fried in butter and yes, I do give a damn if what was said, was said.