Thursday, August 30, 2018

Understanding Female Genital Mutilation On Reading Mona Eltahawy’s Headscarves And Hymens

I’m reading Headscarves and Hymens, Mona Eltahawy’s book on Muslim misogyny.

She has a long part on female genital mutilation, fgm, which is of course a poisonous, vicious, unspeakable practice rooted in the hatred of women in the name of putative Islamic law on it. 

What she particularizes is horrible and has no real relation to male circumcision. 

But in a kind of spontaneous personal thought test I started wondering why I felt so strongly about any son or grandson getting circumcised, why I would have been so aghast if they hadn’t been. My grandsons were. So it was never a real issue. But I would have been tremendously put out if they hadn’t been. I wondered why, given my deracinated Judaism.

My conclusion is it’s (at least in big part) a combination of tribalism and the intimate power of our genitals in our individual self and tribal self definition. A Jewish friend of mine from when I was in university wasn’t circumcised. I said nothing to him about  it but it seemed grotesque to me.

All of that leads me to think I get a bit of understanding of the drive towards and insistence on fgm by those who demand and impose it.

That bit of understanding— a kind of perverse empathy, feeling in oneself another’s emotion—doesn’t by a micrometer mitigate my sense of the horror of fgm nor my unshakeable and absolutist view that it should be wiped off the face of the earth. But it does layer in the beginning of a certain dimension of further understanding of what lies behind it. 

Monday, August 20, 2018

“Mr. Ilyich, He dead!” Briefly, My Problem With Tolstoy’s The Death Of Ivan Ilyich

I just reread this after a long, long ago first reading.

It strikes me as thematically and homiletically simple minded. All social convention is artifice and fakery; sophistication is  but a veneer and a distraction, an illusion, a delusion. Truth only lies in simplicity and compassion. The novella is so abstract in a way as to be more like an Aesop’s fable or an allegory. Sure, the descriptions of the superficialities of conventionality are strong (but overdone in their absoluteness) and affectingly strong it is in our being immersed in the slow sickening unto death of Ilyich. But the wholesale condemnation of all social life and its contrast with the simple purity of Gerasim is simplistic and sentimental and the final epiphany is unsatisfying as it aims to resolve a contrast that is false, that is overstated to the point of foolishness. But maybe I’m missing depths, maybe ironic depths. 

Friday, August 10, 2018

Joan To Teddy: “Go Fuck Yourself”: A Note On Chappaquiddick

I just belatedly watched Chappaquiddick. (“C”)

I think I remember some saying the movie has moral ambiguity and complexity at its core or maybe it was that it shows a rounded (complex?) portrayal of Edward Kennedy. (“Kennedy”) We see him from all sides. But then again maybe memory misserves me. 

If I’m remembering some of the commentary correctly, then I violently disagree with it, on either version of what I dimly recollect. 

The movie is single minded in its evisceration of Kennedy, showing him as superficially charismatic, oratorically talented, attractive, authoritative and self assured. But these very first impressions quickly prove gossamer fragile and thin. They get blown away by the quickly emerging clear picture of him as shallow, self pitying, spoiled, weak, self absorbed, cowardly, immature, a liar, a sniveling cry baby, calculating but only stupidly, without an ounce of shrewdness, selfish, morally defective and of mediocre intelligence. I could go on. 

On that last one, it becomes patent when he impotently tries to stand up to the JFK advisors assembled by his father, shown as a villainous grotesque, to “handle” matters. He says that he’ll handle them: they’re his problem, his career. The Robert McNamara character shreds that assertion in all its bathetic bravado. He immediately shows that Kennedy has no understanding the hole he has created for himself and that he’s still digging it deeper but is under the delusion that he’s digging himself out of it. 

McNamara with an alacrity and analytical prowess simply beyond Kennedy sketches the dimensions of the hole and what has to be done, broadly speaking, to get control over each one. Then others in this brain trust, a cynical, amoral dream team to be sure when measured by power, smarts and connections, get into the problem solving act and reduce Kennedy to little more than an errand boy, a virtual gofer, in making calls and the like to implement the approach they hatch to cover up, spin and castrate the danger. 

Kennedy’s mediocrity of mind is punctuated at movie’s end when he repudiates his impulse to resign in telling his cousin “Joey” Gargan, who he asked to write him a resignation speech, that he’s flawed the way “we’re all flawed,” like St. Peter and Moses were flawed. “But,” Joey says, paraphrase, “Moses didn’t walk away and  leave a woman dead in the Red Sea.” In fact, Kennedy here is so obtuse in assimilating himself to St. Peter and Moses, that we’re led to wonder whether this sequence is a true account or is embellished, given that the movie is said to be a faithful rendering of the actual events. 

Kennedy’s mediocrity gets illumination in that resignation exchange with Joe Gargan, nicely played by Ed Helms. Gargan actually grows over the course of C. At first he’s a handmaiden to Kennedy’s power. As such, he allows himself, as do most others, to get corrupted by it. He conspires with Kennedy in Kennedy’s original plan to squirm out of his mess by going along with a concocted narrative including that Kopechne drove; and he agrees to go along with the more sophisticated, cynical spin-plans devised by the brain trust. But Gargan is always conflicted over his role in the cover up. He’s shown as liking Kopechne, inviting her down to Boston for a date, even as she’s obviously drawn to Kennedy over him. 

His anger mounts as increasingly Kennedy tries out for the role of victim, martyr and hero in virtue of the accident—due only of course to his drunken negligence—and his made up attempts to rescue Kopechne, when in fact he just leaves her to drown and die. Gargan’s frustration and anger boil over when Kennedy for sympathetic effect puts on a neck brace to attend her funeral. Gargan fights with him and yanks it off. But Kennedy puts it on regardless. The brain trust tells him it looks fake and terrible. But he wears it anyway, sort of gets away with it, but acknowledges it was a mistake. 

In their climatic last scene together, when Kennedy still has a chance to do the right thing and resign and reclaim Gargan back to his favor, he doesn’t resign and goes with Sorensen’s speech writing bullshit rather than Gargan’s truth. Gargan thereafter leaves Hyannis Port and C’s endnote on him has it that he simply went into private life and became estranged from the Kennedys. 

The point being, as noted, Gargan grows, changes and brings himself to at least some moral reckoning, while Kennedy both stays the same flawed defective and then gets worse by politically trading on what happened, with the awful irony that his initially shredded patina of charisma, authority and self assured oratory rises again with the mess cleaned up—sufficient to win him a massive reelection—again gilding the reality of what he really is and what he criminally did. 

We have as well the leitmotif of comparison between JFK and his lacking youngest brother. While a man walks on the moon that subsequent weekend thanks to the space program JFK initiated, the JFK brain trust is struggling to extricate fraudulently Kennedy from his mire. And while JFK’s WW II heroic rescue is a “profile in courage,” could there be a a more vivid contrast than between it and Kennedy’s self absorbed cowardice in leaving Kopechne to drown and reacting to her in the submerged car only a problem *for him,* mindless of her plight and that there might be a chance to save her? 

So to come back to where I began, I disagree vehemently with any memory of C’s moral ambiguity and Kennedy’s roundedness and complexity. Rather the moral issues are straight forward, black and white, as C has them, just as they should be. There is a clear bright line in it between what’s right and what’s wrong, between what’s good and what’s bad. And that is absolutely as it should be. 

Joan Kennedy says it best for all of us when she says to Kennedy on the way to Kopechne’s funeral , “Go fuck yourself.” 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Anders Carlson Wee’s Lousy Poem “How To...”

....If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,
say you’re pregnant—nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick. People
passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee
funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely
to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop. If you’re young say younger.
Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hardly even there.

Here’s what I wrote someone:

....Flaccid: …soft, loose, unpleasant…

What “It’s about,”say the last two lines, is the virtual invisibility of the homeless to the non-homeless, to anyone with a roof over their head that they pay for. To the non-homeless, says the poem, the homeless function as virtual ciphers, signposts to the self identity of the non-homeless, signposts to who they are simply by contrast. Save for that prompt to identity, the homeless are as nothing to the passers-by-quickly who might drop a nickel or two down to them. The distinction’s flaccidity, how anemic it is, lies in the grossness of the generalization that doesn’t even begin to contemplate the possibility of diverse responses amongst “they.” Lack of even the beginning of nuance and, so, complexity, the lumping of everyone else as the castigated “they,” make this drivel facile. 

And the generalization is more than that: it includes a shallow rendering of the complexity of emotions aroused by the homeless in those who pay them little heed and little money for their begging. I can immediately imagine a range of emotions in that heedlessness, even as it might be disgust. Disgust is aroused by what is perceived as violently foul, an assault on the senses. Heedlessness can be a way of accommodating disgust, forcing it into the clothes of uncaring. But that’s the opposite of near invisibility. Regardless, none of the massive number of other modes of response are even hinted at in the generalization. Not that Wee owes anyone a textbook of response, but to bury all that potential complexity, not to get to just even a hint of it, in the banality of “It’s about who they believe they is” is thin, lame and soft headed. It’s a platitude and, worse, it likes to think of itself as the key insight the drivel leads up to. So, another ground for flaccidity. 

And then, there’s sheer incoherence: why all the advice as to exaggeration? By the last two lines, the exaggeration won’t matter. For the passers by, the homeless in all their iterations are mere signposts by contrast to “they’s” identity. And, if you take a minute to think about it, there is the incoherent implication that among the homeless, no one has aids, is pregnant, has legs splayed, is crippled and so on as the litany in the drivel proceeds. If the actuality of all those conditions doesn’t make the homeless more visible than they are in all of their own complex, deeply troubled humanity, how will the exaggerated pretense of those conditions? This thematic incoherence makes the advice, meant as shock and awe rejoinder to basic heedlessness, useless, a mere futile gesture, which is just about what this drivel adds up to. Which is an irony indeed, but an unintended one. So, really, the gratuitous mimicking of black vernacular aside, this drivel is totally politically correct in driving a banal distinction between the homeless and “they,” in deflating all nuance and complexity, in denying that there’s anything more to be said for the passers by-quickly and in wanting to shock them out of their self obsessive indifference. Irony lies in the flaccidity that undermines it all.

As for the mimicked black vernacular, there is no point to it: it’s a gratuitous effect. And if there is a point, what could it conceivably be? Could it be that in the black street sensibility, whatever that might be, manifest in black street idiom, there is a superior apprehension of these matters, an insight that whites can’t even pretend to? Were the answer to lie along that line, then the outraged would be doubly wrong in citing cultural appropriation to protest this drivel. For surely cultural appropriation is acceptable if it mocks the appropriator, specifically privileged and powerful white appropriators. In any event there are countless flaws if the answer does lie along this line. If it doesn’t, then I’m hard put to see its reason for being, which is to say, it’s but a gratuitous effect. 

So to be clear I’m with Mac Donald in being 100% anti the outrage and in thinking Wee’s apology pathetic. But this flaccid drivel parading as a poem is lousy....