prison psych

“I can think of one thing that is worse than being sick and in the prison ward here at the hospital. Being well and at Riker’s.” – CPE supervisor

“The midnight shift here on the prison ward is way better than working during the day at the 23-hour lock-up on the island.” – NYC corrections officer

“I would rather try to kill myself than have to go back to Riker’s.” – prison ward psych patient

Working at the prison psych ward this summer has confirmed for me just how bad Riker’s Island is. And the prison psych ward at Bellevue Hospital, where I am interning this summer as a chaplain, is pretty damn bad.

Almost every day I go through airport-like security to reach the floor. Armed corrections officers abound. Often there are folks in the hideous orange jumpsuits, and in leg chains and handcuffs, and the lucky ones shuffle towards an elevator that will get them to their transportation to court, to Riker’s, upstate to Sing-Sing. The less fortunate are pushed in hospital beds. I wait for one mechanized gate, with its once-white, peeling paint, to slowly slide open. I enter a holding area and wait for it to close. At the end of the hallway, another officer unlocks a door. I enter and wait for her to lock it again. She walks to another white metal gate, with yet another officer sitting on the other side, and opens it. I am finally on one of two prison psych wards.

bellevue hospital gate; photo by salem pearce

bellevue hospital gate; photo by salem pearce

I walk past men — they are all men, and the vast majority men of color — in faded blue scrub tops and gray sweatpants. Milling around the hall. Walking deliberately around the hall, because some days that’s all the exercise they can get. Shouting in the hall. About using the telephone. About getting a clean shirt. About talking to a doctor. About . . . something unintelligible. Sleeping in their rooms. Using the bathrooms that abut the halls with huge picture windows.

There are tons of corrections officers here, too, as many as there are patients. During my first visit to the floor, the chief psychiatrist warns me, “They are not here for your protection.” They sit in chairs, as do staff who are assigned to the patients under “constant watch.” There is a lot of sitting. There is nowhere to go.

I check in at the nurse’s station: Is there any patient I need to avoid today? I walk around the hall — only the main hall; the second hall, ironically with absolutely no corrections officers, is too dangerous — and ask if anyone wants to talk to the chaplain. Sometimes I knock on doors, where there are two to three patients per room. I usually don’t have to walk long to get a taker.

We walk to an interview room. The patient enters first and sits on the opposite side of the table; I am closest to the door. If he is under constant watch, the staff member sits outside. And then the patient and I talk.

Some of them have committed the kinds of crimes that you read about in the Post: Man tries to kill girlfriend and then himself. Man takes [unusual weapon] to co-workers. Man assaults officers on the subway during rush hour. But some of them are simply folks with mental illness whose behavior has been criminalized. Man shouts in an unruly manner on street. Man violates probation. Man pandhandles. And yet others are the result of decompensation in isolation, or not, on Riker’s.

What I have been struck by most is the detail of care afforded patients by the system — and its simultaneous profound inhumaneness.

Several mornings a week I attend a meeting of the unit’s principle staff: psychiatrists, psychiatry interns, social workers, social work interns, nurses, and clerks. The meeting starts with a report from the head night watch clerk. He goes through what happened with each patient the night before in minute detail. Who got what medications, who refused medication, who slept when, who was awake when, who ate what, who was in what mood.

Then they go over new admissions. They discuss discharges (which always means back into some part of the criminal justice system). And then one of the doctors presents presents her patients in detail. She talks about medications, psychological state, progress. The social worker adds information about the criminal case, family, records at Riker’s or other institutions, contact with lawyer. (A different doctor will go the next day.) Then the daily lists are created collaboratively: Who is at what “level” (and therefore has more or fewer privileges); who can get a haircut; who is going to court; who can attend groups. The information is mostly in these professionals’ heads: They are very familiar with their charges. And everyone refers to each as “Mr. So-and-so.”

There are groups: art therapy, music therapy, spirituality, community meetings. I run what’s called a “Healing Circle” once a week. Almost every day there is recreation on the roof. General freedom of movement on the unit. Three meals a day, plus snacks. Several televisions.

And yet.

There are no personal possessions, which is helpful since the patients are (inexplicably, to me) moved almost every day. The lists created include who needs to be forced to shower. The walls echo with clinical phrases like, “irritable upon approach”; “responds to redirection”; “sexually preoccupied”; “displays suicidal ideation”; “exhibits disorganized thinking.” The view of the East River is almost completely obscured behind feet of thick wire screens. There is an almost uniform schedule for their movement through the criminal justice system (“Arraignment on Wednesday means a court date on Monday”). Most of the men can’t tell you why they were arrested, much less how they ended up on a prison psych ward. Very few of them will ever experience life outside of an institution.

Adding to the feeling that these men are utterly lost to us is the fact that they almost all have the most common American names. Johnson, Smith, Brown, Williams. John, Michael, Jeffrey, Kevin. Pick a combination, and they’re probably there.

And then the most crushingly heartbreaking of all: Occasionally there is a patient called simply “Unknown Male.”

We know so much and yet virtually nothing about them.

I don’t doubt the motivations of the staff of the unit. I’ve never heard anyone speak about the men under their care with anything but respect and sympathy (okay, sometimes tinged with frustration, but I think that’s reasonable). But the truth is that this care can only go so far. It inevitably runs up against the fundamental philosophy of a system of mass incarceration: that it is acceptable, even preferable, to put certain human beings in cages. The cages in prison psych encompass the entire unit, instead of individual cells, but that doesn’t make them any less inhumane. And all the pastoral care in the world isn’t going to change that.

forfeiting the right to worship gd

I originally gave a version of this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on January 18, 2015, on the Shabbat of MLK Weekend. It also appeared on jewschool.

“We forfeit the right to worship Gd as long as we continue to humiliate Negros.”

Using the language of his time, so said Abraham Joshua Heschel in a telegram to Pres. John F. Kennedy, just before their meeting. Heschel was talking about the structural racism of the 1960s: He had just met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King at a conference and was getting more involved in the civil rights movement. With this message, he signaled his desire to move the religious community to take action and make personal sacrifice in solidarity with the black community. “Churches and synagogues have failed. They must repent . . .The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spirituality audacity.”

Heschel was a poet as well as a rabbi and a scholar, and even though — or maybe because — his medium was a telegram, I know he chose his words carefully when he made this radical statement.

On the one hand, “forfeit” can have an active connotation of relinquishing, or letting go. In this sense, “forfeiting” means you surrender a claim: When you plead guilty to a crime, you forfeit trial by jury.

On the other hand, “forfeit” can have a more passive connotation, of something being taken. In this sense, you are deprived without your assent: When you are convicted of a crime, you forfeit your freedom.

I think Heschel wanted to say both. Moral action is a prerequisite to relationship with Gd. For Heschel, racism means that we are saying no to Gd. And it also means that Gd is saying no to us.

Parshat Vaera, which we just read, is dominated by the story of the many plagues on Egypt and the grand confrontation between Gd and Pharaoh. It’s easy to overlook that what sets the stage for the high drama is actually the Israelites. Gd promises to Moshe the people’s liberation and its inheritance of land, but when Moshe tells the Israelites of the promise, he is rebuffed (Exodus 6:9):

.וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

This is usually translated as something like: “And Moses said so to the children of Israel, and they did not listen to Moses, from anguish of spirit and from cruel oppression.”

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

Literally, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, translated above as “anguish of spirit”, means “shortness of breath.” It’s the only such occurrence of the phrase in Tanakh. Everett Fox renders it “shortness of spirit.” Ramban wants to suggest that that the Israelites were “impatient” for their salvation. It is no doubt hard to hear a promise of redemption while waiting for freedom. We can hardly look to the future while we’re focused on the present.

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה: What we learn is the Israelites were weary in soul and body. But it’s the spiritual bondage מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ that is forefronted. It is the principle problem.

Alternatively, we can understand רוּחַ – spirit, breath — as the divine, as in the primordial force of creation, the רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים/spirit of God that hovered over the chaotic universe (Genesis 1:2).

So the Torah then is making a very specific theological statement here: Gd is in short supply. Gd is as limited a resource as the straw that the Israelites no longer have to make the bricks that they are still expected to produce. That in fact the Israelites are cut off from Gd.

In the Exodus story, it’s a given that Pharaoh and the Egyptians aren’t in relationship with Gd. Indeed, Gd says on more than one occasion that what is happening is so that Egypt will know that Gd is Gd. But it turns out that the Israelites are in no better of a state.

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ: The Israelites are cut off from Gd. The Israelites have forfeited their relationship with Gd.

Both King and Heschel would appreciate the coincidence of this parshah and this holiday. They both saw the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt as powerful metaphor for the civil rights struggle. Sometimes we celebrate this holiday as if the work is done. We like to think that we abolished slavery in this country in 1863. But we didn’t. We just recreated it in new form, with Jim Crow laws that established systemic segregation in public resources. And we like to think that we struck down Jim Crow in this country in 1965. But we didn’t. We just recreated it in new form, with a criminal justice system that functions to enact racialized social control.

Since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, there has been a call in this country for recognition of the fact that black lives matter. The killings of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and the nearly 1,000 other black people since then have only intensified the call for an end to the state violence that seeks to control black bodies and souls.

This summer I worked at an organization that was part of several coalitions working to end the use of solitary confinement in New York jails and prisons. As if our penal institutions aren’t bad enough. We put human beings in cages. And then within those cages, we put those human beings into other, smaller cages.

I had the privilege this summer of working with two formerly incarcerated men who spent time in solitary confinement. They survived, and and they now spend their days trying to make sure no one else has to. The other, who was a teenager behind bars: “I felt isolated, sad, helpless. I remember crying a lot. When I was 16, I couldn’t identify these emotions a lot of times. My default emotion was anger, which led to aggressive behavior like lashing out, overcompensating, and violence. Prison itself, not just solitary confinement, is an attack on your soul.”

We, they, the free, the incarcerated, the criminals, the police, the oppressors, the oppressed, the Israelites, the Egyptians, everyone. We are all “cut off from Gd.” We have forfeited the right to worship Gd.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we hold in state control — behind bars, on probation, or on parole — seven million Americans, or one in every 31 adults today.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we disproportionately incarcerate black folks, when 13% of the population constitutes 40% of people behind bars.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we kill a black person every 28 hours.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we fail to hold accountable a man who kills a teenage boy walking home from the grocery store with Skittles and iced tea in his hoodie.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we sentence a black woman to 20 years for availing herself of the same Stand Your Ground laws that excused the killer of that teenage boy.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we leave a black man’s body in the street for 4.5 hours after we kill him.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we can offer black transgender women an average life expectancy of only 35 years.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we fatally shoot a 12-year-old black kid with a BB gun in a park seconds after spotting him.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we text a union representative after a police shooting instead of calling an ambulance.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we impose mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses that require a 24-year-old to spend life in prison for three marijuana sales, a decision that the sentencing judge calls “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.”

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we have been so derelict in indigent defense that our American Bar Association says, “The fundamental right to a lawyer that Americans assume applies to everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the United States.”

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we hide behind a slogan of “tough on crime” a system that can only be described as a tool to maintain white supremacy.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when, for selling loose cigarettes, we strangulate a black man on the street, his last words, “I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner was מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ.

When we can’t breathe, we forfeit the right to worship Gd.

Every year on this Shabbat, we talk about Heschel and King. We tell how Heschel marched with King in Selma. We show the picture of the wild haired, bearded rabbi linking arms with the cooly quaffed reverend, the whole group festooned with leis. And we reflect on Heschel’s words: “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

Heschel is our way into the work that King did. We can celebrate the extraordinary impact that King had on this country because we were part of it. Heschel’s commitment to King’s work is illustrative of the Jewish community’s solidarity with people of color.

We’ve got to stop telling that story. That was half a century ago. If after 50 years, we don’t have anything else, we’ve forfeited the right to tell that story.

I think we may have something else. I see it in the arrests of Jews on New York’s Upper West Side last month in response to a call to action by communities of color with whom Jewish racial justice organizations are in relationship. I see it in the active participation by young Jews last month in a meeting in Boston’s Jamaica Plain for white racial justice organizers, following black leadership. I see it in the Chanukah action organized last month by the Boston Jewish community, which many in my community attended. I see it in the fact that you are reading this now.

Today, I want us to begin a new story, a story of how we recognized this moment in history for what it is, and we could not be silent, and we could not be still; a story in which we bore witness to the degradation and violence that we sanction every day; a story in which we acknowledged that until we are right with each other, we cannot be right with Gd.

I want us to tell that story to our children.

prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive

I gave (a modified version of) this to my “Theology of Jewish Prayer” class. The assignment was to “present a prayer theology that differs from your own, making an effort to highlight its strong points; then present a prayer theology congenial with your personal views, highlighting a difficulty or challenge it poses.”

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This semester I am taking an online class called “Spirituality and Social Justice,” which focuses on the philosophies and theologies of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The two theologies of prayer that I want to present today both come from Rabbi Heschel: One I find difficult, and the other, I find compelling.

In The Insecurity of Freedom Heschel writes about prayer as a discipline. Alluding to Buber, Heschel argues,

To worship G-d means to forget the self, an extremely difficult, though possible, act. What takes place in a moment of prayer may be described as a shift at the center of living – from self-consciousness to self-surrender. This implies, I believe, an important indication of the nature of man. Prayer begins as an “it-He” relationship. . . . In prayer, the “I” becomes an “it.” This is the discovery: what is an “I” to me, first of all and essentially, and “it” to G-d. If it is G-d’s mercy that lends eternity to a speck of being which is usually described as a self, then prayer begins as a moment of living as an “it” in the presence of G-d. The closer to the presence of Him, the more obvious becomes the absurdity of the “I.”

For Heschel, then, prayer requires extreme humility and self-abnegation. Our complete submission to the divine is what allows us to even draw close to G-d, let alone worship G-d. This involves a recognition of our own finiteness, undeservedness, and absurdity; we denigrate ourselves “to become worthy to be remembered by G-d,” as Heschel writes a few paragraphs later. He continues, “Thus the purpose of prayer is to be brought to G-d’s attention: to be listened to, to be understood by Him. In other words, the task of man is not to know G-d but to be known to G-d.”

As I read this text, I had an immediate and strong reaction to this theology (not to mention the gendered language for G-d and for people). Over Shabbat lunch some weeks ago, I explained my objections to several classmates of mine, and one of them was quite surprised. After years of resistance and subsequent spiritual work, he explained, he had found connection to the divine in this surrender, in the recognition of his unworthiness. This philosophy has much to recommend it to someone who has been able to believe in the possibility of control over his life. I think it is significant that my interlocutor was a straight, cisgendered, able-bodied white man.

abraham joshua heschel

abraham joshua heschel

To me, Heschel’s writing here cries out for a feminist analysis. I agree with the assumption that Heschel seems to be making: that seeking communion with the divine should not feel quotidian. Being in the presence of G-d should absolutely feel different than other moments of our lives might. What “different” is, however, depends on who you are.

Heschel survived horrors as a Jew in Europe in the 1930s, and he lost much of his immediate family in the Holocaust. I don’t want to leave that unacknowledged. And, he also benefited from much privilege accorded him here in the United States, through his skin color, his gender, his sexual orientation, his education, his able-bodiedness. For those similar to him, daily experience might be able to be described as affirming. Safe. Comfortable. It is understandable why, then, it might be desirable for prayer, for immersion in the divine, to be an uncomfortable and challenging experience. A denial of the self that is otherwise universally affirmed. A submission to a force with which one otherwise feels in harmony.

I pray, in part, because I feel empowered and affirmed and worthy and safe when I am in the presence of the divine. G-d has already remembered me, brought me to G-d’s attention, is desirous of listening to me and of understanding me. I don’t have to work to make that happen; G-d meets me where I am. So doing means, for me, that G-d acknowledges the brokenness of my experience. The G-d of my prayer is one whom I, in the words of Tamara Cohen, “hold . . . responsible for failing me as a Jewish woman by giving me a world and a people and a text that continue to betray women, often making it difficult for us to uphold our side of the covenant.”

Heschel actually acknowledges something similar to this in his work on prophetic consciousness. Elsewhere he says that the job of the prophet is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” And if the prophet is the messenger of G-d, it stands to reason that his actions might be a reflection of G-d’s role. I wonder whether Heschel himself held contradictory theologies of prayer. I think he might: It’s hard for me to understand how he could connect with a theology that objectifies human beings.

Indeed, I find deeply moving a seemingly quite different part of his theology: his thought about the obligations that we have to each other as prerequisites for prayer. A journalist once asked him why he had come to a demonstration against the war in Vietnam. “I am here because I cannot pray,” he replied. “What do you mean, you can’t pray so you come to an anti-war demonstration?” Said Heschel: “Whenever I open the prayerbook, I see before me images of children burning from napalm.”

Heschel was an outspoken opponent both of the Vietnam War and of the racism he saw manifest in the segregationist laws of the American South in the 1950s and 1960s. In his June 16, 1963, telegram to President Kennedy in advance of a meeting of religious leaders at the White House, Heschel said, “We forfeit the right to worship G-d as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes.” In Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, he wrote, “To speak about G-d and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous.” For Heschel then, we cannot be in any relationship with G-d when we are not in right relationship with our fellow human beings. This latter relationship also involves G-d: “The image of G-d is either in every man or in no man . . . “ he wrote in The Insecurity of Freedom. If we’re not able to see G-d in others, how can we see our way to G-d?

In the great Talmudic tradition, Heschel’s statements are extreme. Just as one might rightly be mystified (as I am) by R. Eleazar’s claim that “One who prays behind his rebbe, and one who greets his rebbe, and one who returns a greeting to his rebbe, and one who divides his rebbe’s yeshiva, and one who says something which he has not heard from his rebbe causes the shekhinah (divine presence) to depart from Israel” (Berakhot 27b), so too might Heschel’s claim be perplexing. We’re never completely right with our community: I only called Sen. Warren’s office once to urge her to vote in favor of a bill that could close Guantanamo – and the phone just rang and rang. I decided I had too much homework to attend the Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony last Sunday. I provoked a fight with my husband. I used ableist language. As I said earlier, my prayer is comforting: I need connection to G-d precisely when I am feeling most un-human.

But Heschel’s commitment to the primacy of interpersonal relationships speaks to me and calls me to action. It puts moral obligations ahead of religious obligations, ha’olam ha’zeh before ha’olam ha’bah, the communal antecedent to the personal. I also love the global nature of Heschel’s community: besides the war in Vietnam – in which he was concerned primarily about native, civilian casualties – he also did much work on the issue of Soviet Jewry. Foreign, domestic, Jew, Gentile – Heschel tried to see the image of G-d in all. Again, The Insecurity of Freedom: “All of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person; when one person is offended, we are all hurt. What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.” This view also highlights the enormity of what is at stake: We human beings have always been in special relationship with G-d, as b’tzelem elohim. We cannot come before G-d with our prayers when we commit atrocities against the one image we have of the divine: human beings.

This theology also expands for me the definition of prayer. In so prioritizing our community, we see the world as G-d does, and we become partners with G-d in alleviating the agony of human beings. Upon the occasion of his marching with Dr. King in Selma, Ala., Heschel famously said that he “felt like his legs were praying.” Our work on behalf of others is sacred. G-d-like. And if activism is prayer, it can go the other way, too. Prayer is activism – as Heschel well noted when he said (in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity) that “prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive . . . Prayer is our greatest privilege. To pray is to stake our very existence, our right to live, on the truth and on the supreme importance of that which we pray for. Prayer, then, is radical commitment, a dangerous involvement in the life of G-d.” And, I think, in the lives of others, too.

the bully of britain

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England. It was briefly deleted from this site under threat of a lawsuit and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it, as well as to remove a comparison that upon further reflection was just distracting. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

The shit hit the fan last night, as it had to at some point in the formation of a new group.

Tim Winter, also known as Sheikh Abdul-Hakim Murad, spoke with us as part of my program’s “Saloon Conversations” — envisioned as informal sessions with speakers in the large room here at the castle that is known as “the Saloon.” At the beginning of the program last week, we were told that all of the speakers — and the formal lecturers as well — had been invited because of their peacemaking work and would be talking about that work in their religious contexts.

We sat down in the Saloon, the room’s comfy chairs and sofa arranged in several semicircles around the fireplace. The director of the program introduced Winter and later moderated the Q&A session.

A convert to Islam, Winter started by speaking about his work with the college that provides a one-year program for imams to give them the education, in his words, from which their religious institutions have shielded them. For instance, they learn pastoral skills and about other religions. Every year he takes the students to the Vatican, where they meet with Catholic priests, with whom they have very little in common and who are often quite frank about their hostility to Islam. It was in this context that Winter told the heartwarming story of an experience that served to bind them together: One night, they were all kept awake by Rome’s Gay Pride activities, the “sounds of secular hedonism” bothering everyone.

That was the first red flag. (Well, perhaps the second: I was struck immediately when I walked into the room by how sour and uninterested Winter seemed, which was off-putting. I think this part of his demeanor becomes important below.) I had a hard time listening after this snide and unnecessary comment. I did manage to tune back in for one of his final stories, about a young, non-Muslim woman in one of his classes (Winter teaches Islamic Studies at Cambridge University). “Immodestly dressed” (Winter indicated a sleeveless and perhaps midriff shirt), she was very moved by the Qur’an and wanted to talk with him about that experience. Expressing bewilderment, Winter said, “I wanted to help her. I figured she might have been having a problem with her boyfriend or something.”

At that point I nearly fell out of my chair, and the only reason I stayed in the room was to be able to find my friends afterwards to process what had happened so far. And then it got worse.

One of my fellow participants, a man who is married to a man, the same one who was asked about his wife at Shabbat dinner, and who had been wanting to talk more openly about his life, took the opportunity in the Q&A session to ask about Winter’s characterization of gay people in Rome. He opened by describing himself “as someone who will soon be part of the group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender clergy,” essentially — and bravely! — coming out to the group, and then asked about intersectionality. Winter first responded by stating that there was no place for gay people in the Muslim community. The different denominations of Islam, he said, agree on very little, but they are monolithic in condemning homosexuality. My classmate pushed back, and Winter conceded that he knew of one same-sex couple who were practicing celibacy, and this model was acceptable.

In response to another question, Winter went on to call a more progressive Muslim “naive” before taking and answering questions in Arabic from the native speakers. He only translated bits of those exchanges; I was later told that several questions were critical of Scriptural Reasoning (the program’s signature tool, involving close readings of sacred texts from the three traditions). The exclusion of non-Arabic speakers felt deliberate.

As the program mercifully came to an end, my friends and I began to gather and move to another room for processing, and one of the Muslim men on the text study team (academics experienced in the method) approached my classmate who had asked about queer folks and said he wanted to offer some insight into Winter’s answer. So a few us first went to talk with him.

He first explained that Tim Winter is a controversial figure. Mere months ago, there was a student-led campaign at Cambridge calling for his ouster when a 15-plus-year-old video was posted on YouTube of Winter calling homosexuality an “inherent aberration” and “inherently ugly,” among other things. Winter apologized, claiming that the video represented views he no longer held, and he kept his job. It was also shared that Winter is not an academic in the way that word is usually used — he does not have a Ph.D. — and the man providing this context also characterized Winter as more of a politician, or a community leader. (In 2010, Winter was named by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre as Britain’s most influential Muslim.) Though he considered Winter empirically correct in saying that the vast majority of Muslim leaders do consider homosexuality a sin, he felt that Winter’s answer didn’t express the nuances of the issue that is very present in many Muslim communities. Which is to say that there are of course queer Muslims, and many are accepted — if perhaps not fully — in their communities.

I have many issues with all that transpired. To start, this is now the third time during the first week of this program that I have heard homosexuality condemned: A previous “Saloon Conversation” speaker said so in passing, and then the priest at the Catholic church I visited used the week’s text (Luke 12:49-53) to inveigh against same-sex marriage. While this program certainly cannot control what is said in an independent institution, it is responsible for who it invites. And in this it must be held accountable.

During and after Winter’s presentation, I was trying to figure out who Winter was speaking to: His English was much too quick and sophisticated to reach most of the native-Arabic speakers. But he wasn’t talking to the native English speakers either: The homophobia and sexism were sure to turn off a group of Christians and Jews from more liberal traditions. So he either didn’t know who he was speaking to, which is not the case, as he’s been involved with the program for many years, or he didn’t care who he was speaking to, in which case his behavior was quite outrageous. Going back to the issue of his demeanor, I wonder whether he even wanted to be in the room.

There is of course a way to be faithful to your religious convictions and not marginalize queer folks or demean women. (He has a history of the latter as well, as the premise of his conversion story recalls the chauvinistic doctrine of original sin.) And if you can’t do that, then you ought not to be afforded a place in an interfaith setting in which we are invited into respectful dialogue with each other. One of the goals of our text study is to create a safe space for discussing differences and to learn how to disagree better — and neither of those ends are achieved by dismissiveness. And if the goal of this particular part of the program was to spark conversations about homosexuality in our traditions, which I agree need to happen, there are actually effective and non-traumatic ways of facilitating those. It shouldn’t happen at the expense of those for whom the conversations are not abstract: The other man who is married to a man (who happens to work for Berlin Pride) left the program early in disgust.

More, Winter’s views were given legitimacy by the fawning praise with which the director of the program introduced him, as well as the context into which he was invited to share them. The authority afforded a speaker in a “Saloon Conversation” results in a power imbalance in any ensuing “discussion.”

Finally, I question the choice of a white man to speak about peacemaking in the Muslim community. Putting aside the obvious reality that peacemaking is not Winter’s project, he is not representative of the British Muslim community, which is overwhelming not white. There are of course many non-white Muslim researchers and community leaders and professors who could have spoken to what Winter was brought in to share.

What happens next is not clear. I plan to share these thoughts with the program administrators and to continue having conversations with the people with whom I know it is safe to do so. I don’t know how much of my classmate’s coming out was understood by some of the native-Arabic speakers, so the fallout from that is hard to predict. Last night many expressed, simultaneously with horror at the incident, gratitude for the ensuing conversations. I’m not sure I agree; the price seems quite high for many in the room.

of hookers and crotch shots

This is the second post in this space about a current political issue in as many weeks, which is unusual for me. I was actually thinking about it last week — and then yesterday happened. And I am more pissed than ever about the attempted political comebacks of Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer.

As a reminder: In 2011 Weiner resigned from his congressional seat — he represented New York’s 9th district — after disclosing that he’d exchanged sexual messages and photographs online with six different women over the past three years. In 2008, Spitzer resigned from his post as governor of New York after it was revealed that he had patronized an escort agency for the past several years.

Weiner is now running for mayor of New York City; Spitzer, city comptroller.

And yesterday Weiner held a press conference to address further leaked messages and photos from liaisons that happened AFTER he resigned.

To be honest, I am less annoyed at Spitzer. I don’t think prostitution should be illegal, so in theory, I am philosophically not troubled by Spitzer’s behavior. To the extent that he didn’t tell his wife of his extra-marital sexual relationships and therefore put her at risk — and it seems quite likely that he didn’t, given that they separated shortly after his disclosure and are reportedly still so — his behavior was thoughtless and selfish. More troubling is the fact that Spitzer served as the state’s Attorney General before he was governor, thus directing state law enforcement — an hypocritical role while breaking the law himself, especially since he prosecuted several prostitution rings during his career. Indeed, as Spitzer said when he resigned, “Over the course of my public life, I have insisted — I believe correctly — that people take responsibility for their conduct. I can and will ask no less of myself. For this reason, I am resigning from the office of governor.” But while I am fairly sure that Spitzer’s actions represented a betrayal of his marriage, I can see the argument that they did not represent a betrayal of the public trust — at least as far as I don’t agree with current laws around sex work. (Martha Nussbaum made this argument shortly after Spitzer’s resignation.) I’ll elaborate further on my issues with Spitzer below.

Similarly, I don’t think that Weiner’s actions in and of themselves proved him unfit for public office. He certainly didn’t break any laws. And I don’t necessarily think that “sexting” (or however we’re classifying his behavior) is somehow perverted or sexually deviant, as many have charged. (Amanda Hess makes the case that Weiner’s predilections are downright boring.) And even if it were, it still wouldn’t render Weiner unable to serve his constituents.

As with Spitzer, to the extent that Weiner was not forthright with his wife — and it seems quite likely that he wasn’t, as she shared in a New York Times Magazine article about his journey back to politics — his behavior was thoughtless and selfish. What angered me about Weiner’s actions was his dishonesty after a picture purportedly of his underwear-clad erection was tweeted to a female follower of his account: Weiner initially claimed that he had been hacked and because of his lie let his Democratic House colleagues — and even his friend Jon Stewart — come to his defense. To my way of thinking, lying to your constituents and your colleagues does constitute a betrayal of the public trust. And it is definitely disturbing that at least one instance of his sexting was done without the consent of the recipient.

Many have pointed out that, in the spectrum of politician’s lies, Weiner’s is a mere peccadillo. And I agree. I would rather see politicians held accountable for their votes to send troops into battle; to cut off social safety net funding; to authorize covert operations; to restrict abortion; etc. And I’d especially like to see politicians voted out of office for the lies they tell and perpetuate in service of those votes. Unfortunately, politicians almost never admit these lies, so we’re left to condemn the ones that do confess — which almost always are classified as “sex scandals” (a most unfortunate phrase that is often used inappropriately, as in the Jerry Sandusky case, and that often serves to trivialize what occurred, as in case of the epidemic of military sexual assaults). Plus, Weiner said, when he resigned, that he was doing so because of his behavior and his lie about that behavior — which we found out yesterday that he continued to do after resignation! To say that he is untrustworthy is an understatement.

Principally, my problem with Weiner’s and Spitzer’s attempts at political rehabilitation is that they represent straight white male privilege — and the arrogance that comes with that unexamined privilege. These runs for office are not about a desire to serve the public: They are all about the men themselves, and their desire for power and prestige and second (and third?) chances. I don’t think that they should be doomed to unemployment for the rest of their lives; and indeed, both have found quite lucrative post-resignation jobs. They should stay where they are.

Can you imagine that we would even consider voting again for a gay man who resigned after being found to have engaged in sexting or prostitution? Or a person of color? Or a woman? Homophobia, racism, and sexism would kick in, and their actions would be ascribed to their being gay, or black, or female (or more accurately in some cases, not meeting the puritanical standards which are demanded of these folks). Weiner and Spitzer are given passes because their behavior — even while ill-considered — is thought to be within the bounds of “normal” for straight white men. White America can countenance the sexuality of straight white men in a way that it can’t that of queer folks, people of color, and women, who are expected to be practically asexual — or only sexual within the bounds of monogamous marriage.

Moreover, who are the candidates whose chances and future careers are being jeopardized by Weiner’s and Spitzer’s entering these respective races? I cannot believe that there is such a dearth that these two clowns represent the best options for these positions. Even if there are candidates who are only just as qualified as the two of them, shouldn’t we be supporting those who haven’t already torpedoed careers?

Update: In the September 10 primary, Weiner came in fifth in a five-way race, with less than 5% of the vote. Spitzer suffered a less humiliating loss with 48% of the vote in a two-way race. Let’s hope that these two will now fade quickly away.

“yesterday we learned that it’s okay to kill a black kid”

Last night after dinner my husband and I walked to J.P. Licks — the local ice cream shop, about a mile away — and we were able to return from that outing to our home unaccosted. This is one of the many privileges we enjoy as white people.

I had just settled into a chair in the living room to read when my phone buzzed with an alert from The New York Times: “George Zimmerman acquitted in killing of Trayvon Martin.” I yelped. I read the alert to my husband, who sighed and said, “I’m not surprised.” I abandoned my book for the night and begin to watch reaction to the verdict unfold on social media. (I don’t have TV, so I wasn’t able to watch anything live.)

I wasn’t alone in being upset. I know there are plenty of people who exulted in last night’s verdict, but thanks to the wonder of feed curation, I don’t have to know anything about them (except when someone, say, makes the unfortunate decision to retweet Ann Coulter).

The eternal optimist in me was surprised at the verdict. And then just as quickly, the realist in me was not. Other people who have followed the case more closely than I have written — and will write — better analyses of the trial: Andrew Cohen, for one, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, for another. As far as I can tell, the verdict was proof that our criminal justice system works exactly as it is designed to do: Maintain white privilege, power, and control. Mission accomplished. (And if you’re not convinced that is what it is supposed to do, I beg you to read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.)

And from my limited perspective — and by the way, unless you were one of the six women on the jury, your perspective on this will always be limited — the verdict was probably basically right. Zimmerman was probably “not guilty” (in the strict legal sense) according to the law as written in Florida. And everything about that sucks.

Following are a few notes, in highly unparallel form, mostly directed at my fellow white people, based on the social media activity that I observed..

1. Yesterday was not “the day we all learned that it’s okay to kill a black kid” (or some variation on this melodramatic statement). Maybe yesterday was the day *you* learned that. But lots of folks, particularly people of color, already knew that. Have always known that. Because their lives have depended on their knowing that.

2. You are not Trayvon Martin. If you think that “we are all Trayvon Martin” — and you’re including white folks in that “we” — then you’re missing the point entirely. This situation does not happen to white kids.

2b. A corollary: Don’t wear a hoodie. Find another way to express solidarity. Start by calling people out on their racism. And when when you say something racist (and yes, you have and you will), own up to it without defensiveness, apologize for it, and work to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

3. This is not the time (and I actually think it’s never the time) to try to convince folks that not all white people are racist. That makes the conversation about you. It’s called derailing, and it is unhelpful. Destructive, even.

4. You don’t understand exactly what people of color are going through just because you’re Jewish, or disabled, or gay, or [insert minority to which you belong]. Nobody wins Oppression Olympics.

5. Banning Florida, and Texas, and North Carolina, and [state that has passed or upheld a law you find repugnant] is not the solution. You are sorely mistaken if you think that state-sanctioned racism doesn’t happen in blue states.

6. Vote in every election, advocate to change laws (and to prevent laws like Florida’s from being passed in your own state), and DON’T TRY TO GET OUT OF JURY DUTY.

As I went to bed last night — and slept fitfully — I wondered how Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton could bear this. But I quickly realized that I’m not able to go there, not least because I’m not a parent. Whatever children I might have won’t be at risk of being shot as they walk through whatever neighborhood we might live in.

As the brilliant Audre Lorde wrote in Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference (h/t Blue Milk):

Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you; we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs on the reasons they are dying.

race and the abortion fight in texas

On Tuesday, the last day of a special session of the Texas Legislature, Texas state Senator Wendy Davis made good on her promise to filibuster Senate Bill 5 (SB5) — which would essentially eliminate clinical access to abortion in the state; Davis stood and spoke for more than 13 hours, and she and her 400-plus supporters inside the state capitol kept the Republican-controlled body (pun intended) from voting on the measure before midnight, the end of the special session. Davis became a superstar in that half-day as thousands watched a live stream of her Herculean effort; social media sites exploded with their own blow-by-blow accounts of the action.

burnt orange in solidarity with protests at texas capitol; photo by salem pearce via instagram

burnt orange in solidarity with protests at texas capitol; photo by salem pearce via instagram

Today, as a result of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s convening of a second special session, the legislature is poised to vote again. Specifically, the bill would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, regulate first-trimester abortion clinics as ambulatory surgical centers, and restrict access to medication abortions. Make no mistake: This is not about the safety of Texas women. This is about controlling their choices and their access to reproductive care.

I wore my burnt orange today. If I were still in Austin, I would do everything I could to be at the opening of the special session, set for 2:00 p.m. CST. (I am super impressed by everyone who is making the effort to be there, especially since many of y’all were probably there last week — and both times probably had to take time off from your livelihood to do so.) In captioning my photo, I used the hashtag #standwithwendy, created last week and apparently still going strong.

I did this despite my skepticism about clicktivism (though I suppose I could make the argument that this act went one step further, since I took my “raising awareness” into the real world). I also later, after I took this photograph, added my DC Abortion Fund necklace, a silver coat hanger, which generally elicits lots of questions.

I wholeheartedly support the fine people of Texas who will turn out today at the Capitol. And I have grown distinctly uncomfortable with this project.

#standwithTX women

#standwithTX women

To the right is the graphic advertising today’s actions. Six pretty white ladies. (Included among them a pretty Jewish lady!)

Not only are these women not representative of the Texas women who will be disproportionately affected by SB5 — rich white women are much more likely have access to the resources to get an abortion out-of-state if this bill is passed — but this represents an unconscionable exclusion of the women of color who are fighting this fight, too. And have been. And will keep on doing. Because they have to. Because their communities will be devastated by lack of access to clinical abortions in a way that wealthy white communities will not.

This is not call for tokenism: The leaders of this rally should not have a woman of color featured just to feature a woman of color. There already exist in Texas women of color leading their communities in this fight. They’re not being sought out and worked with. In the modified words of a woman working on advancing female leadership  in the Jewish communal professional world (which is dominated by men): If you come up with a list of leaders that is all-white, something is wrong with your criteria. The dearth is not in availability but in the scope. (The black youth project has a great post on this topic, using the example of Texas state Senator Leticia Van de Putte.)

And this issue couldn’t be more important right now, coming as it does on the heels of the Supreme Court decisions last week. While white gay and allied America jubilantly celebrated the end of DOMA and the resumption of equality marriage in California, many others were dismayed at the repeal of the key provision of the Voting Rights Act that ensured that communities of color have equal access to voting rights as do white communities. (Over at Black Girl Dangerous, Mia McKenzie elucidates this disconnect more eloquently that I could.) If you’re queer you can get married, but if you’re a queer person of color, you might not get to vote.

It is incumbent upon me as a white woman to say no to all-white leadership in social justice movements. Because intersectionality is a thing. Because none of us is free until we are all free, and we white people cannot make everyone free (no matter how well-intentioned we are).

If we’re going to #standwithtxwomen, as we ought, we should #standwithALLtxwomen, and that includes seeking out the female leadership in communities of color, and not being okay with a sea of white faces representing Texas.*

*And this is true at the very least because of the changing demographics of Texas, which NPR is chronicling in its special series, Texas 2020.

dayeinu

At seder on Monday and Tuesday nights, we sang “Dayeinu,” the Passover song that thanks G-d for the many, many things that G-d has done for us. It’s a review of everything that happened to get us out of slavery in Egypt and into Israel where the temple was built. (Good for G-d, the song ends before those pesky temple destructions.) Dayeinu means, approximately, “it would have sufficed!” The verses take the form of, “If G-d had just done X and not Y, dayeinu!”

So we sing, “If G-d had split the sea for us and not led us through on dry land, dayeinu!” “If G-d had led us to Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah, dayeinu!”

But these are absurd things to say. It would have been enough for G-d to create an escape route from the Egyptians but not actually vouchsafed it to us? It would have been enough for G-d point the way to a random mountain in the desert . . . for no reason at all? Many have offered feasible explanations for each of these statements. On Tuesday, for instance, my seder host shared what she had heard from a rabbi: The arrival of the Israelites at Mount Sinai marks the first time “Israel” is referred to the singular, as a collective. So Sinai represents the beginning of peoplehood, even without the Torah. But I’m not so sure we’re supposed to take the song so literally. It seems to me that we might be simply expressing awe for each of the things G-d did for us, in a series of things that ultimately led to our freedom. But each one is actually not enough.

On Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the Prop. 8 case, the referendum that Californians passed in 2008 that outlawed marriage for same-sex couples. On Wednesday, the Court heard arguments in the challenge to DOMA, the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which restricts federal marriage benefits from same-sex couples (insurance benefits for government employees, Social Security survivors’ benefits, immigration, the filing of joint tax returns, etc.), and requires interstate marriage recognition only for opposite-sex marriages.

marriage equalityOn Tuesday my Facebook feed turned red. Most of my friends changed their profile pictures to the Human Rights Campaign’s logo, colors changed for this historic occasion. Then the variations started: Yoda, Bert and Ernie, and an angry cat were added. The equal signs became penises, mustaches, animals, band-aids, matzah. I was over it even before the inevitable appearance of bacon. (The internet abhors a meme without bacon.)

I support marriage equality. And I didn’t change my profile pic. I put little stock in so-called clicktivism. One of my friends did post about how much it would mean to her if all her friends, especially straight ones, changed their profile pics as a sign of allyship: That partially melted my cold heart. And I did see a few people asking about its significance in comments on Facebook’s notification of changed profile pics. Which I imagine might be construed as “raising awareness,” quite possibly my least favorite phrase in the English language.

But my concern about this issue is deeper than my fear that people are substituting social media for real action. Many, many of my D.C. friends actually did actually go to the Supreme Court rallies to show support for marriage equality.

I worry that these cases, in the words of a good friend of mine, are “a gamble and a huge risk.” Marriage is a civil right — if perhaps not a strategy to achieve structural change — and there’s a chance it won’t be affirmed by the Court.

I came out in, and lived through, the post-Bowers v. Hardwick world, and it was an ugly time. The people who brought that case thought their odds were good too, but the result of their good intentions was a long period of time [Bowers was overturned in 2003 with the ruling in Lawrence v. Texas] when employers, governments, and courts (among others) could consider gay people de facto criminals in many states with the blessing of the Supreme Court. If we lose, and the high court decides that there is no fundamental right for gay people to marry our partners, I fear it could set back the fight for marriage equality in a huge way.

I worry that the online activism around these cases give rise to arguments that are not good for anybody’s liberation. I’m thinking in particular about the Louis CK quote [NSFW, natch] on marriage equality, which begins with “It doesn’t have any effect on your life.” Is this really how we want to garner support for this cause? So you are free to oppose issues if they inconvenience you? I’m also thinking of the argument that gay people are just like straight people. Just gay. Again, is this really how we want to garner support for this cause? So minorities should have rights as long as they are just aspiring to imitate the majority? Equal protection goes to the non-threatening? I am also thinking of the implication that marriage is a panacea for ensuring rights. Shouldn’t everyone, regardless of marital status, be entitled to the benefits denied because of DOMA? So you’re just out of luck if for some reason marriage isn’t in your plans?

I worry that, as I’ve written about before, marriage equality is the priority of only a small, privileged group of queer folks, mostly well-off white people (just look at the plaintiffs in both cases, or the sea of white that was the supporting faction in the rallies). On a current events program on my local NPR affiliate this week, the host marveled at how quickly marriage equality has gained support (contrasting it with, say, the relative torpidity of the civil rights movement). As far as I can see, the difference is that the former has had a lot of money and power behind it.

I worry that money and power thus directed limits the same towards issues that feel a lot more pressing and a lot more damaging, particularly for poor people of color. (I recognize that it is easy for me — a straight, white, married woman — to say this with the privilege of marriage already in hand.) On Thursday I visited the inmate that I am mentoring — a queer woman of color — as she finishes her college degree as part of Boston University’s College Behind Bars program. I use the word “mentoring” because that is the formal term for our relationship, as defined by the program we participate in, but she hardly needs help with her studies. I’m basically a cheerleader, a listener, and a contact from the outside world.

She’s taking a class on race and incarceration, so we’re reading a lot of the same books. As we talked about the drug war and hyperincarceration and the dehumanizing prison system, I couldn’t help but wish for the day when all of my white friends would support drug policy and prison reforms and would proudly make those known and would go to rallies in support of court cases before the Supreme Court. As useless as I find social media “activism,” a sea of profile pics demanding an end to the racist institution of the death penalty, or protesting the “virtual ‘drug exception’ [that] now exists to the Bill of Rights” (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow), or decrying the dehumanizing for-profit prison industry would at least mean that the issues had gained mainstream currency.

This was a hard post to write. Tuesday’s Facebook activity ultimately left me very sad and unable to organize my thoughts. (It didn’t help that I was getting sick and mourning the death of a friend.) And changing one’s profile pic is not a wrong thing to do. And one of my best friends works for a prominent gay rights organization in this fight. And many of my gay friends consider marriage equality very important.

Our collective liberation today depends on many, many steps — as did our march to freedom through the desert. And even when we think we’ve gotten there and the song ends, the temple can be destroyed. Twice.

Marriage equality is something to regard with awe. And it is in no way enough.

feminist fishbowl

On Wednesday I spoke on a panel — or more properly, a fishbowl — about feminism at my school’s community time (held once a week for an hour-and-a-half) in advance of our winter seminar the week before school starts again in January, which will be on the topic of feminist theology and practice. Also on the panel were a faculty member (a man) and two fourth-year students (a man and a woman).

We each had four minutes (!), and I was super nervous, in part because I still don’t know the community very well, and I am just not sure where people are on feminism (yes, I know). In the end, I felt that it went really well. It was such an important experience for me personally, since, as I’ve been sharing, I’ve been having a hard time with the very painful misogyny in many of the texts that we’re studying. It felt great to have my say, to share my worldview. Which is, of course, the essence of feminism.

These are the questions that I was asked to respond to, and following that is what I said (slighted edited from notes into a more readable format, and including a few sentences I had to cut on the spot in the interests of time).

1. What does feminism mean to you?
-What is your working definition of feminism/feminist practice?
-How did you arrive at this conception of feminism?
-How is feminism lived out in your life? Your relationships? Your work? Your Jewish practice?

2. Why is it important for Hebrew College, as a community, to be talking about feminism?

____________________________________________________
My feminist practice works towards the liberation of all marginalized people, not just women. I have unerring commitment to intersectionality: The patriarchy perpetuates not just sexism but lots of other -isms/privilege: racism, ableism, cisgenderism, heteronormativism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, etc. The identity of an oppressed person is not just shaped by gender.

Essentially, our world is perfectly suited to educated, wealthy, straight, white, able-bodied, cisgendered men, and there are way more people who are not that. This means that a very small group of people have power and privilege. I’d like to create a world that is suited to all people.

patriarchyI can’t walk away from misogyny, so I can’t walk away from feminism. And I won’t walk away from feminism, because it is the only defense I have in world that is hostile to me –  not the other way around.

I’ve never taken a women’s studies or feminist theory class. In fact, I spent my college years doing just about the opposite, studying classics (ancient Greek and Latin texts). The definition above was forged in the fires of the rape crisis center where I worked as a hotline counselor and hospital advocate for seven years; I received extensive training before I started and ongoing training as I continued to volunteer. I answered crisis calls on a 24-hour hotline, and I went to the hospital when patient identified as a sexual assault survivor. (For simplicity, I will be talking about survivors as women, but I want to acknowledge that women are not at all the only people who are raped.)

I understand the phenomenon of sexual assault in a feminist context: that is, rape is about power and control, and not desire or libido. It is perhaps the most violent manifestation of patriarchy, and it is a direct result of the “rape culture” in which we live.

Rape culture is set of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women; it views sexual violence as a fact of life, when in fact what we think of as immutable is an expression of values and views that can change. In addition to its the part it plays in the lives of women, rape culture also narrowly circumscribes men’s roles.

A few examples: rape culture is 1 in 33 men and 1 in 6 women being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes; rape culture is encouraging women to take self-defense as though that is the only solution required to prevent rape; rape culture is the claim that sex workers can’t be raped; rape culture is the threat of being raped in prison being an acceptable deterrent to committing crime; rape culture is tasking women with the burden of not getting raped and failing to admonish men not to rape; rape culture is refusing to acknowledge that the only thing a person can do to avoid being raped is never to be in the same room as a rapist.

My feminist practice is based on the principle that the personal is political. Just to give two examples: I listen. I know precisely my experience of sexism, but that does not mean that I know what it’s like to be queer, or a person of color, or disabled, or any number of things. It behooves me to check my privilege and to listen and to accept as true others’ telling of their experiences

And on the flip side: I tell my story. As an excellent web resource says, “Because women’s stories aren’t told, it’s incumbent upon female feminists to tell their own stories, to fill that void, to be unrepentant and loquacious raconteurs every chance we get, to talk about our bodies, our struggles, our triumphs, our needs, our lives in every aspect. It’s our obligation to create a cacophony with our personal narratives, until there is a constant din that translates into equality, into balance.”

Finally, why is it important for Hebrew College, as a community, to be talking about feminism? Because we’re still asking that question.

voting

A few of my Facebook friends from Texas began posting this week about early voting, and I wondered whether that is an option here in Massachusetts. But then I remembered that I still don’t know who I’m going to vote for next month. And the choice is not between the president and Gov. Romney, which anyone who knows me might suspect. I am considering voting for a third-party candidate.

inauguration watermelon, just part of the Oba-mania in D.C. in early 2009; photo by salem pearce

I voted for Obama last time, and I was proud to do so — to be a part of history, and as a symbol of my hope for a new era after the horror of Bush years. I didn’t think Obama was going to forever change U.S. politics, as so many of my friends seemed to (a Hillary supporter originally, I was slow to warm up to the eventual candidate), but it was a thrill to vote for the first black president of the United States in that country’s capital, an historically black district. I happily waited in a long line that beautiful morning in November 2008 outside my voting location, the Metropolitan A.M.E Church. And I was proud to cast my vote that day even though Obama was projected to win the district — and of course did with almost 93% of the vote (more about that below).

But Obama as president has disappointed — and on more than one occasion, infuriated — me, as I know he has many progressives. He ran liberal as a candidate and then as president ran straight to the center (although I don’t think he is as bad as President Clinton in that way). To name a few issues:

The president signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes the “indefinite definition” clause, a provision that allows for military imprisonment of U.S. citizens. (This law also makes the closing of Guantanamo — a campaign promise — more difficult.)

The president has deported an unprecedented number of undocumented immigrants during his term, despite a campaign promise of comprehensive immigration reform.

The president has ramped up federal raids on state-legal medical marijuana dispensaries, despite a campaign promise to end them.

And this Nobel Peace Prize-winning president has quadrupled (unofficially unacknowledged) drone attacks in Pakistan against terrorist suspects.

This is to say nothing of my devastation at the president’s refusal to speak out, as a black man with black daughters, about issues affecting black folks. And as I noted at the time, I was not impressed with his declaration of support for marriage quality.

I recognize that these are not everyone’s issues. And there are also things that the president has done which I’ve loved, such as health care reform and repealing the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. However, I think that at this point my concern outweighs my estimation.

To be clear, I do not consider Gov. Romney any kind of alternative (not the least because he doesn’t differ from the president on the above issues), and I am fairly confident that the president is going to win re-election. More importantly for the decision at hand, the president is sure to win my state of Massachusetts. If I lived in a swing state, the president would have my vote in an instant, and this thought exercise would not exist.

The other choices in Massachusetts are the Libertarian ticket, featuring former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, and the Green-Rainbow ticket, featuring Dr. Jill Stein (a former Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate), both of whom have positions that I find appealing — and who disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy on the four issues I mentioned above. According to this highly scientific website, I agree with Stein on 94% of issues and with Johnson on 82% (and Obama isn’t actually all that far behind with 72%).

But of course neither of them will draw anything more than 1% of the vote in Massachusetts. And I don’t know that I want either of them to actually be president: Stein in particular, by her dearth of political experience, is in no way qualified, and neither has been scrutinized and vetted on a national scale as I would expect to be the candidates for the most powerful job in the nation. Plus, I don’t agree with many parts of the Libertarian platform.

So I know who will carry Massachusetts; a vote for any other candidate won’t affect the fact that the electoral college votes will go to the president. Before I can answer the question of who I should vote for, I need to answer the question of why I vote.

Tritely, I believe that voting is my civic duty, part of living in a democratic society. The possibility of voting engages me with my elected officials and the issues that affect me, and the act of voting is a symbol of my investment in that society. I vote because so many others (particularly legions of felony drug-offenders, whose punishment does not end with serving time and who the vast majority of states strip of the right to vote) can’t.

taxation without representation; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I lived for years in the District of Columbia without Congressional representation (despite paying federal taxes as all other U.S. citizens). On principle, that’s enough to propel me to the voting booth as often as I can, if for no other reason than to elect members of Congress who will give D.C. residents representation. Which reminds me of another way in which the president has madden me: He has done nothing to advance D.C. Congressional representation in Congress — and didn’t do so even when he had a super-majority in Congress. He wouldn’t even show symbolic support for the issue — which results in disproportional disenfranchisement of black folks — by putting the “Taxation Without Representation” license plates on the presidential limousine.

As it turns out, voting is not rational, as this 2005 New York Times article articulates nicely. It’s inefficient and ineffectual. There is almost no chance that my individual vote will affect the outcome. If I believe that it is nevertheless important — and many things in this life are both irrational and important (the Libertarian Party probably doesn’t even want my vote now!) — what are the considerations for who gets my vote?

Do I vote for a candidate about whom I have serious reservations but who is going to win, because that projection is based on people like me voting for him, and if everyone behaved otherwise, he wouldn’t win?

Do I vote for a candidate with whom I have more agreement but who has no chance of winning — and who I actually don’t want to see win anyway? Is there value — for myself, for society — in a symbolic vote?

I just don’t know, and I continue to struggle with these questions, which feel very important to me. There’s a chance that I don’t decide until I actually get to my voting place on November 6.

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