Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments: Reading and Writing Beyond Gilead

Becka said that spelling was not reading: reading, she said, was when you could hear the words as if they were a song. (p. 297)

The Testaments, Margaret Atwood

“How did Gilead fall?” Margaret Atwood asks in the Acknowledgements, noting that The Testaments, set 15 years after the main action of The Handmaid’s Tale but drafted 30-plus years after that novel, “was written in response to this question” (p. 417).

Even a writer of Atwood’s talent and success probably could never have imagined that Handmaid has become the cultural and political touchstone that has occurred with the rise of Trump and the popular Hulu series.

Those who found Handmaid in the late 1980s to be powerful then and an extremely compelling work of fiction may be skeptical about Atwood’s very late return to this now modern classic. For both the newly converted and the long-time fans of Atwood, I want to assure you all that this much delayed sequel pays off quite wonderfully.

I came to Atwood as a teacher—specifically high school Advanced Placement Literature and Composition—and then as a scholar. I have also grounded a tremendous amount of my academic and public work in Atwood’s fiction and non-fiction.

With efforts here, then, to avoid as much as possible spoilers, I want to highlight a few of the ways in which Atwood maintains elements from Handmaid while also extending her writer’s urge to connect literacy with empowerment and attaining ones full humanity.

The Testaments offers the narratives of three women—notably including Aunt Lydia from Handmaid. In both novels, as is common with Atwood’s fiction, the narrations are both lending a voice to those often unheard or silenced and working as meta-narrations about the nature of truth when stories are told, retold, and examined (both novels end with Gilead being  the focus of academic scholarship).

Much of Atwood’s fiction is an exploration of what it means to tell and retell stories.

Names and renaming are also prominent in the sequel, dramatizing the power of names and (re)naming as those processes disproportionately impact women in the service of men and patriarchy.

Handmaid details the end of the U.S. and how Gilead comes into being, although much of that is limited to what Offred could have known as a handmaid. Then, many of the finer details are revealed in the Historical Notes, a scholarly examination of Gilead well after its fall.

Testaments broadens the perspectives by including one voice from an inner woman of power, a woman mostly trapped in the upper levels of the Gilead machine, and another view from outside (Canada) that is both somewhat naive and deeply cynical.

These testaments piece together a well established Gilead for the reader and also document the theocracy’s final days. Some of the most compelling elements here are the full development of Aunt Lydia and the careful examination of two characters being groomed to be Aunts (after narrowly avoiding being wed to Commanders).

Part XVII: Reading Room serves as an excellent example of where Atwood excels in combining many of the thematic and narratives elements of her dystopian speculative novel. Aunts are women designed within Gilead to control other women; Aunts are embodiments of a sort of paradoxical authority, including their legal access to reading and writing.

In their journey to becoming Aunts, Agnes and Becka—who have bonded over their fears of being married to a Commander—take on a mentee (Agnes)/mentor (Becka) relationship since Becka has learned to read and write well ahead of Agnes. The motif of reading and writing is emphasized near the end of the novel, and Gilead, I think, to highlight the power of language.

Agnes struggles:

My reading abilities progressed slowly and with many stumbles. Becka helped a lot. We used Bible verses to practise, from the approved selection that was available to Supplicants.. With my very own eyes I was able to read portions of Scripture that I had until then only heard. (p. 297)

These scenes reminded me of Atwood’s deft use in the original novel of Commanders reading scripture to the Wives and Handmaids, with the reader alerted to what Becka soon reveals to Agnes:

The day came when the locked wooden Bible box reserved for me would be brought out to the Reading Room and I would finally open this most forbidden of books. I was very excited about it, but that morning Becka said, “I need to warn you.”

“Warn me?” I said. “But it’s holy.”

“It doesn’t say what they say it says.” (p. 302)

This echoes in Handmaid when the Commander reads the Bible before the Ceremony with Offred:

The Commander pauses, looking down, scanning the page….We lean toward him a little, iron fillings to the magnet. He has something we don’t have, he has the word. How we squandered it once….

For lunch it was the Beatitudes….They played it from a tape….The voice was a man’s….I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out, too, but there was no way of checking. (pp. 88-89)

In both novels, Atwood reveals that whoever controls the word maintains power. These novels should remind readers that throughout history, learning to read has been carefully controlled—who is allowed, who is not, and who remains so burdened with living that to read seems a luxury.

And so Agnes gains a sort of consciousness along with gaining literacy: “Being able to read and write did not provide the answers to all questions. It led to other questions, and then to others” (p. 299).

As Becka cautioned, Agnes confronts that “[t]he truth was not noble, it was horrible”:

This is what the Aunts meant, then, when they said women’s minds were too weak for reading. We would crumble, we would fall apart under the contradictions, we would not be able to hold firm.

Up until that time I had not seriously doubted the rightness and especially the truthfulness of Gilead’s theology. If I’d failed at perfection, I’d concluded that the fault was mine. But as I discovered what had been changed by Gilead, what had been added, and what had been omitted, I feared I might lose my faith. (p. 303)

This awakening in Agnes born of her learning to read and write leads to a larger theme for Atwood: “Once a story you’ve regarded as true has turned false, you begin suspecting all stories” (p. 307).

And in Testaments, “Beneath its outer show of virtue and purity, Gilead was rotting” (p. 308).

As compelling as Atwood’s motifs are in their deconstructing of history and the present, The Testaments if no mere “protest novel,” which James Baldwin rejected, explaining:

It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality….

The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in the insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended. (pp. 17-18)

Atwood doesn’t stoop to simple Continue reading

Things Fall Apart for Women (Again): Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks

My closest reading friend is a young woman in her 20s, an English major and high school English teacher. Recently, she asked me with a chilling earnestness, “What happens if we have to move because it becomes too hostile here for women?”

The question was prompted about my home state of South Carolina because I was telling her about finishing Red Clocks by Leni Zumas—simultaneously with hearing about the impending possibility of Tennessee passing essentially an abortion ban.

Like nearby Georgia and Alabama, Tennessee is poised to join a movement across the U.S. to overturn Roe v. Wade; South Carolina Governor McMaster has guaranteed to join that movement.

Zumas’s novel has drawn comparison’s to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale because of its powerful but disturbing near-future speculative fiction rendering of the U.S. post-Roe v. Wade.

Red Clocks tests readers’ comfort with near in her speculation about the life of women after a complete abortion ban in the U.S., including a Pink Wall that denies those women access to abortion in Canada.

Zumas has Atwood’s gift for incisive language—along with Pink Wall, the Personhood Amendment and the Every Child Needs Two law—and setting the novel in Oregon seems an allusion to Ursula K. Le Guin, who famously sparred with Atwood about labels such as “science fiction” (which Kurt Vonnegut wrestled with and against), “speculative fiction,” and “fantasy.”

Once I finished reading, I felt the most compelling aspect of the work is Zumas’s deft blending of allegory (the central characters and rotating limited narration through the Biographer, the Mender, the Daughter, and the Wife, reminding me of Jeff VanderMeer’s techniques in his Souther Reach Trilogy) with stark relevance to now.

Zumas includes as well a recurring fifth key, although tangential, woman to the narrative, “[t]he polar explorer Eivor Minervudottir”—both a sparsely detailed would-be subject of the Biographer and a representative of the lost women of science (her great work of research eventually published under a man’s name because Sir George Gabriel Stokes in a rejection letter explains it is “a paper which, it is patently clear, you did not write”).

Ultimately, as a reader, I wondered if this prescient work of fiction had presented too sharp a blade for exposing the historical and current burden of simply being a woman, a burden inextricably tied to being sexual and reproductive beings.

Had, I asked, Zumas failed James Baldwin’s litmus test about protest novels?

Along with supporting the politics of the narrative and the work’s relatively overt nudges toward activism, I found the novel a rich and excellent work of speculative fiction because the more I read, the more I was drawn to keep reading. That compulsion was firmly grounded in the characters, flawed often but always sympathetic in a wide range of ways linked to both their unique personal qualities and how they share as well as highlight the many ways the world (and U.S.) remains hostile to their simply being women.

When I stumbled in my reading of this novel, it was the limited third-person narrative that drifts into a sort of stream of consciousness and (like in Atwood’s work) a thin whiteness to the focus that makes me nervous the work can too easily be discounted as the sort of work some white women do that is hyper-feminist to the exclusion of admitting that race and racism cannot be separated from the fight for gender equality.

Zumas and her novel, I think, easily rise above these concerns, again because the politics and prescience are incisive and the narrative and characters are expertly wrought. Above all else, I wanted to remain with these characters because I genuinely cared for their lives and their dilemmas, often intertwined directly but always shared by their womanhood.

[spoiler alert]

The Wife, for example, pulls together many of the feminist thematic elements  in the novel. She frets about her labia, her empty marriage, the possibility of suicide, and her personal ennui grounded in forgoing her law career to be a mother—all while she positions herself to have an affair with a colleague of her husband.

While the affair never materializes (at the pivotal moment when she thinks it will happen, she has to confront, “He does not want her”), the Wife does finally initiate leaving her husband and her marriage, a scene that ends ominously:

The wife kneels on the path.

…She reaches for the black earth.

Her body yearns, inexplicably, to taste it.

Brings a handful to her lips. The minerals sizzle on her tongue, rich with the gists of flower and bone.

…Bright minerals. Powdered feathers. Ancient shells.

And then there is the guilt of being her own Self as well as a member of the tribe of women, the allegiances to both in conflict. While attending the trial of the Mender, represented by a former friend of the Wife from her law school days, she confronts that guilt:

Has the wife become a person who believes all accounts?

Sort of, yes, she has.

She has been too tired to care.

The Personhood Amendment, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the calls for abortion providers to face the death penalty—the person she planned to be would care about this mess, would bother to be furious.

Too tired to be furious.

This Brave New World closing in on the Mender, the Daughter, and the Biographer in direct and terrifying ways has, to the Wife, mostly not been about her directly, a wife and mother of two living rent-free in a family home.

Navigating the Wife in this novel was parallel to the bitter pill of a majority of white women voters choosing Trump—sacrificing the good of women for the perceived personal comfort they have in their own lives.

However, the Wife’s fear of change is only nearly paralyzing since she ultimately, it seems, takes the initiative toward a new life, one less secure and more directly jeopardized by the erasure of women’s rights.

The story circles back from the opening focus on the Biographer and her subject to the closing chapter that concludes the novel with the word “possible,” reminding me of Adrienne Rich’s work and Atwood’s framing of speculative fiction:

“I’m an optimist,” the decorated Canadian author explained by phone to Wired.com during a tour for her most recent book, The Year of the Flood, published in September. “Anyone who writes this kind of stuff probably is. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t waste your time writing the books.”

I am afraid, none the less, and haunted by my reading friend’s question: “What happens if we have to move because it becomes too hostile here for women?”

What will any of us do? What are any of us doing now?

Make America Great, Finally?: The Archeology of White People (Redux)

America has never been great. Including now.

The problem with such a claim is that a blanket statement  leaves too much room to discredit the argument, and of course, we must all agree on the definition of “great.”

Large-scale evidence that America has never been great is obvious: slavery, lynching, the Japanese internment, the Trail of Tears, the Tulsa massacre, and the bloody litany of mass and school shootings that characterize America in a way distinct from all other democracies.

At any moment in the history of the US, what can be called “great” for any group of people, when unpacked, can be exposed as the consequence of some other people’s suffering. It has always benefitted the winners in the US to keep everyone’s eyes on the winning so that we can conveniently ignore the necessary losing.

That is part of the message in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

That is what I confronted in the last stanza of my poem “the archeology of white people“:

Ignore the body in the road
we whisper in their tiny innocent ears
Isn’t that golden car spectacular?

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, America is great for Tom and Daisy, but if we refuse to look the other way, that comes at the expense of Myrtle, ripped apart and dead in the road; of George, dead at his own hand; and of Gatsby, perversely shot in his opulent pool.

This is America: “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth” (“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich).

Or as Langston Hughes’s speaker challenges: “(America never was America to me.)”—the too often ignored voice of those who live the fact of America not being great.

To rally around “Make America Great Again” is a perversion of hope; it is delusion.

Delusion is not the result of a lack of knowledge, but a refusal to listen, to see because you are driven deaf and blind by a fear of acknowledging the truths that refute your beliefs.

The delusion of clinging to guns, instruments of death, as a symbol for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

On social media, I witness this daily—those for whom proof and evidence mean nothing, those who shout the loudest, know the least, and listen not at all.

While there is no credible greatness to recapture in America, I do not deny yet the possibility of greatness. In fact, I can rally myself around “Make America Great, Finally.”

Greatness is certainly a worthy aspiration, although that too requires that we agree on exactly what “great” is.

Let me pose two examples we may want to follow.

Teachers in West Virginia, a right-to-work (non-union) state, have demonstrated a quest for greatness by recognizing and then acting on the power of striking. If citizens would more commonly recognize and then act on the power of mobilized groups with common interests, unresponsive government and political leadership could be eradicated in the name of the greatness we claim to seek.

Students across the US, prompted by Parkland, Florida students, have also demonstrated the potential for the powerless to organize and assert power with the nation-wide walk outs demanding action on gun control. Even before the walk out, student activism had prompted large corporations to change gun sale policies without any policy changes from political leaders.

WV teachers without the legal right to strike along with children and teens with almost no direct political power have demonstrated that power exists where it appears absent and that greatness springs from community and not individual zeal, not necessarily reduced to a zero-sum gain.

The choice in the US does not have to be between Daisy and Myrtle, in fact.

That American dream is only a dream for some because it is a nightmare for many.

There is nothing great about wealth or the wealthy; there is nothing great about coaxing most Americans to develop the grit to overcome adversity.

Great is the absence of poverty, not the presence of wealth.

Great is the absence of adversity, not the presence of grit.

Teachers in WV and students all across the nation have played great first hands.

Your turn.

 

Men, Power Must Change

Along the arc of horrors, where we place the abuses of men and power seems a trivial enterprise, as if horrors can be quantified, compared by degrees.

In her 1992 novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy, Alice Walker fictionalized one of those horrors, female genital mutilation; this ritual may seem barbaric, foreign, and somehow not of us to many in the U.S.

However, the expanding spotlight on powerful men who are sexual abusers and predators—Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly—belongs on that same arc of horrors—even if we choose to categorized George H.W. Bush’s behaviors are “harmless” or continue to qualify accusations about Woody Allen and Louis CK because, you know, art.

Reviewing Walker’s novel, Janette Turner Hospital explains:

“Possessing the Secret of Joy” is about the “telling” of suffering and the breaking of taboos. And when taboos are broken, new forms and modes of discourse must evolve to contain that which has previously been unspeakable. Predictable outrage — moral, political, cultural and esthetic — ensues, and the breakers of taboos are both vilified and deified. Alice Walker tackles all these developments head-on in a work that is part myth, part polemic, part drama. It is a work that sits uneasily within the category of “the novel,” though the breakers of taboos must always redefine the terms and the rules of the game. Indeed, Ms. Walker’s book is a literary enterprise whose ancestry runs closer to the Greek chorus and the medieval miracle play than to the modern novel. Its subject matter is ritual clitoridectomy and the genital mutilation of young women.

As James Baldwin witnessed, “the time is always now.” Even though Cosby seems to have survived, and the U.S. elected Donald Trump despite boasting about his own life as a sexual predator, there appears a possibility that we are seeing a crack in the damn behind which men and men with power have ensconced themselves forever.

If Walker’s novel was an attempt to break taboos and prompt change, then now is a moment in the wake of that clarion call about the horrors awaiting all women and girls simply because men are men, and because men are too often too powerful.

Simply stated: How men fundamentally interact with the world must change; how power manifests itself in the world must change. Incremental change is not enough. No longer can men be centered just for being men, and all power must be dispersed, no longer concentrated.

Immediately men must stop placing themselves on the arc of horrors in ways that frame them as somehow not a monster, and therefore, not complicit.

All men are to blame, and all power is corrupt.

We can no longer discount the inherent flaws of men and power as somehow not all men, not all power; and we cannot allow the horrors to be mere celebrity and entertainment—as Joe Berkowitz confronts in a review of Louis CK’s new film (a thinly veiled examination of Woody Allen) despite his own refusal to address years of rumors about his offensive behavior toward women:

In making a case for not believing certain rumors, Louis CK is making a case for not believing women. Bill Cosby is a free man because people didn’t believe women. Donald Trump is the president because people didn’t believe women. Nobody might have believed the case against Harvey Weinstein if not for audio proof of him being disgusting to women. A policy of disregarding these kinds of rumors only protects the powerful men who stand accused. The real Woody Allen is surely aware of how dangerous it is for him if people start believing women. While prominent actors and directors publicly flagellate themselves for not speaking out about Weinstein sooner, even though they knew about his crimes, this man is worried that the avalanche of Weinstein accusers will lead to “a witch hunt.”

William_Powell_Frith_The_Witch_Trial

The Witch Trial by William Powell Frith (1848)

Not believing women as victims is the abuse that compounds the abuse—as Adrienne Rich captures in “Rape”: “You have to confess/to him, you are guilty of the crime/of having been forced.”

After Trump’s election, at the very least a “boot in the face” of all women and human decency, Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” resonated with many. Two lines—”The world is at least/fifty percent terrible”—now resonate well beyond her likely intended meaning, or even why the poem spoke to may then.

Men, the “fifty percent terrible,” stand now exposed, hands raised against the widening spotlight as the crack in the dam expands.

Exceptional?: “the right to criticize [America] perpetually”

The U.S. is exceptional.

Exceptionally hypocritical.

Exceptionally delusional.

In a country where patriots are apt to wave fervently the nation’s flag, we are witnessing (mostly passively) in 2017 a professional athlete who took a knee in nonviolent and silent protest become a professional and public pariah.

Yet we in the U.S. routinely express pride for having been birthed out of protest, the Boston Tea Party, and revolution.

It is 2017, and the home of that seminal protest, Boston, remains the most racist fan base in the U.S. and city for a professional football team with owner, coach, and quarterback all supporting Donald Trump—but without any negative consequences for their overt politics.

Free speech in the U.S. is increasingly circumscribed by nationalism as a proxy for race—”Make America Great Again” as code for preserving whiteness.

Adrienne Akins grounds her examination of national and racial identity in the following:

In Notes of a Native Son (1955), James Baldwin poignantly captured the nature of his intense feelings for his nation of birth in stating: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually” (9).

Baldwin, like Muhammad Ali, represents the living ghost haunting Kaepernick’s nightmare—a contemporary resurrection of praise that was contradicted while Baldwin (and Ali) was most prominent and confrontational.

Only in his waning years and after his death did the U.S. begin to concede Ali was the greatest. (Associated Press).

The country that pushed Baldwin into exile issued a stamp with his image only well after his death. See Adrienne Rich’s moving essay on Baldwin and the stamp.

Richard Nixon was elected, many seem to ignore, in the wake of 1960s social unrest, anchored in the Civil Rights movement as well as the counter culture often stereotyped as Hippies.

Nixon’s law-and-order race/class baiting spoke to those most afraid of losing their privileges to the “others”—white America.

Trumplandia is the logical extension of that history—where American exceptionalism, our hypocrisy and delusion, has moved beyond empty political rhetoric (“by gorry/
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum”) to crass nationalism fueled by rhetoric-as-truth (regardless of the evidence otherwise).

The tribalism of crass nationalism denies, as Judith Butler explains, “We are worldless without one another”:

What worries me is that many of us form our sense of obligation toward another on the basis of feelings of identification. If someone else is like us, and that likeness is readily recognizable, then we are more inclined to respond in the way that we would have others respond to us. The harder task is to maintain an obligation to those by whom we feel ourselves to have been injured, to those we fear, or to those whose difference from us seems to be quite severe. This is why I do not think that global obligations can rest on identification, even expanded or expanding identifications; they have to claim us quite regardless of whether or not we feel love or sympathy, for the simple reason that the world is given to us in common and that without each other the world is not given. If the self is the basis of sympathy, our sympathy will be restricted to those who are like us. The real challenge occurs when that extrapolation of the self is thwarted by alterity.

Butler’s insistence for cohabitation feels akin to Baldwin’s refrain about love, a powerful element of his work too often glossed over. Butler argues: “I suppose it is first important to honor the obligation to affirm the life of another even if I am overwhelmed with hostility. This is the basic precept of an ethics of nonviolence, in my view.”

And this bring us full circle to Kaepernick, nonviolent and protesting for equity, ostracized as Baldwin and Ali were in their lifetimes—reduced to “unAmerican” in order to cast him among the Others and to render invalid his refusal to separate his personal and professional ethics (or better yet, his recognition that no one can separate them).

Maybe my opening claims are ill-founded, however. Not that the U.S. is hypocritical and delusional, but that these qualities are somehow exceptional.

Maybe beneath the glitz of consumerism, Americans are merely victims of the worse aspects of being human.

Democracy hasn’t failed, but quite possibly humans are incapable of reaching the high ideals of democracy, equity, and justice.

We have created words for ideas that are just too far beyond our reach as living creatures.

When does one move from “This isn’t working” to “This cannot work”?

Toxic Masculinity, Predatory Men, and Male Paralysis

How can anybody know
How they got to be this way?

“Daughters of the Soho Riots,” The National

This is my sixth decade as a human, as a white, straight male.

Here I want to attempt confession, possibly seeking greater understanding, but fully aware of the huge complexities of making these claims, raising these personal struggles in the context of my many privileges.

I am treading lightly but committed to rise above the problematic satire of Ben Folds’ “Rockin’ the Suburbs”—which both speaks to me and makes me cringe:

Let me tell y’all what it’s like
Being male, middle-class, and white
It’s a bitch, if you don’t believe
Listen up to my new CD

My formative years over the 1960s and 1970s were spent in the redneck South. Just as I was reared to be a racist, I was taught very clearly to objectify women, even as that was tempered in my immediate family by direct and indirect messages about respecting and loving women/girls.

Growing up, I was a Mama’s boy, I was very close to my sister (my only sibling), and I had strong and warm relationships with aunts and my maternal grandmother.

As a so-called pre-sexual boy, then, I genuinely learned to feel deep and healthy affection for women/girls—to whom I have always been drawn more strongly than any male bonds.

As a teen, however, I was significantly enculturated into objectifying women, sowing the seeds for potentially behaving in ways that fed into and participated in predatory masculinity and even the various degrees of rape culture.

My classroom was, at first, superhero comic books and then soft-core pornography (such as Playboy and Penthouse)—but the wider popular culture was always reinforcing the worst possible models for how men treat women.

But as all this colored my attempts to be a sexual person, seeking out romantic relationships throughout high school and college, I was also being shaped in how I interacted with the world aesthetically, notably in that I was actively teaching myself visual art by drawing from both comic books and nude photography in the euphemistically named men’s magazines.

One can see a theme in my adolescent artwork:

Storm

Storm from the X-Men

Vargas

I shifted from comic books to men’s magazines and copying the objectifying artwork of Alberto Vargas, popularized in Playboy.

As a teen and young man, I was certainly trapped in very unhealthy but subtle patterns that could only be overcome by gaining critical awareness over my mid-20s into and my mid-30s (when I completed my doctoral program).

Some of that critical awareness was powerfully acquired through my commitment to learning from and teaching important literature such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Margate Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as well as poetry units I taught on Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath.

Ultimately, writing an educational biography grounded in feminist theory stands in hindsight as the crowning experience as I approached 40 for a healthy awakening into fully appreciating toxic masculinity, predatory men, objectifying women, the male gaze, and rape culture.

Just as I would explain about my racial awareness, my sexual and gender awareness remains a journey, and as such, I find myself often paralyzed because, as a man, I represent still the potential for abuse through my status, the threat men pose for women in a society that continues to objectify and marginalize females—especially in terms of failing to listen to women who risk telling of their experiences with predatory men and rape culture.

My adult life has been spent as a partner, friend, parent, grandparent, teacher, and coach—all requiring me to monitor my status of power granted by being male and by my professional and familial positions in relationship with females.

As a coach and teacher, I have been (and continue) to be prone to call young women “darling” in casual moments—rightfully prompting some of my closest friends and colleagues who are women to call me on the language, the positioning.

I remain aesthetically drawn to photography and artwork of women nudes—entirely unsure if I can disentangle my toxic past from what I consider non-objectifying appreciation of art.

And so, as I noted above, I stumble toward 60, a man with good intentions who understands that is never enough; I am often reduced to paralysis in how to navigate the world in ways that are equitable and healthy for everyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or class.

I am genuinely terrified of ever making any woman/girl feel discomfort because of my masculine presence, my inadvertent gaze, my language, or the implicit threat of my status in relationship to her.

Often these days, I must confront these tensions as I snuggle with my granddaughter who I dearly want to grow up with healthy views of gender and sexuality, who I want to avoid any sort of predatory world.

My daughter was raised without corporal punishment, and now her children have been gifted that same dignity.

I work hard to practice what I preach and feel I make contributions small and even large to a kinder and more compassionate world—a world in which women and children need not ever fear men.

But even the best men walk in the wake of the worst men have given this world—the worst men continue to give to this world, and the women and children who must suffer for that.

Each man must moment by moment examine how he is culpable, where and how he stands in this world in relationship to women and children.

The dilemma of navigating the world as a man is couched in the unearned privilege, the potential for an abuse of unearned power that shouts out “First, do no harm.”

For a man committed to that, however, how does he live a full life without being paralyzed by the worst of being a man, behaviors that often go unpunished and even masked to protect some men from consequences.

How does any man avoid paralysis reading about the Stanford rape case or the stories of women as victims of predatory men?

This remains a rhetorical question for any man with an ethical imperative for his life—not a question for any woman or any child to offer their compassion.

For any man, for each man, this is ours to confront, to answer, and to act.

As long as men hold most of the power that shapes the world, it is ours to build a consensual environment in which human dignity supersedes the brute force of power.

Between acquiescing to the basest of male behaviors and paralysis is the true way, about which Franz Kafka wrote: “The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked upon.”

Pause. Listen. Look carefully before taking any step.


For Further Reading

Experts in the FieldBonnie Nadzam

Roxane Gay, Aimee Bender, and More on Assault and Harassment

The Predatory Men of Academic Creative Writing, John Warner

“He knows, or thinks he knows”: It’s Still a Man’s (Hostile) World

True Detective: It’s Still a Man’s (Hostile) World, pt. 2

Doubling Down (Again) on the White Man’s World

“Gravity”: The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Woman

In the U.S., Where the Female Nipple Is More Dangerous Than a Gun

Comments Shared with my Colleagues on the Responsibility of the Intellectual

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Adrienne Rich, Arts of the Possible

Since this is a voluntary gathering of concerned faculty, I am going to risk assuming we are here mostly in solidarity.

None the less, I recognize I am offering at least two controversial points and asking that you afford them your immense breadth and depth of knowledge as well as your patience.

First, while it is now popular in this time of Trump for pundits and the media to wring their collective hands about post-truth and fake news, my opening controversial claim is that despite that attention, neither of these is something manufactured by Trump, and fake news is not the primary problem.

Please consider this Twitter exchange between me and Juana Summers, a well-respected journalist at NPR in 2014, the time of the exchange., and now with CNN:

Summers represents here a tradition that journalists and educators, including professors, assume a neutral pose, honoring a call that they remain apolitical.

In that context, let me ask you next to consider an article published in the New York Times  just a week before Trump’s inauguration: In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda.

The headline and the article itself are mainstream media, not fake news; yet, what that distinction reveals is that our day-to-day public discourse is often indistinguishable from the click bait and false content we are lamenting in fake news.

O’Connors article cites a study from the USDA, which along with this being in the NYT, appears to be credible and compelling.

However, Joe Soss, writing in Jacobin and professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, has exposed that O’Connor’s article badly misrepresents the USDA study and expresses instead ugly stereotypes about people in poverty, what many in the public believe about people depending on food stamps.

So my first controversial claim, which leads into the second, is that public discourse has crossed the Bigfoot line. While there is a spectrum from fake news (entirely false and created to generate clicks online and thus revenue) to mainstream journalism, virtually all of that fails policy and the public because of traditional and misguided commitments to neutrality, objectivity.

There was a time when the National Enquirer depended on a facile commitment to report without unpacking the credibility of the person making a claim; thus, “Hiker has close encounter with Bigfoot!”

Might we imagine that journalist deflecting: “I’m not sure it’s my place to say whether the hiker is credible”?

In that era, mainstream media mostly refused to cross that Bigfoot line. But today, major media outlets are debating if journalists should report “Trump makes claim X” or “Trump makes false claim X”—or even more astounding “Trump lies.”

So I want to end with my second controversial claim.

If you google “fake news,” you are likely to read about a Davidson College graduate, and for us, this may trigger our own Yik-Yak founders.

I think this is not a trivial connection as we gather in our concern as university faculty, intellectuals, serving the liberal arts and our disciplines.

Across our campus, across our disciplines, the liberal arts is an argument that each of our fields is one way of coming to know the human condition. From biology to religion, from economics to philosophy, from psychology to education, and everything in between, we are carefully considering not only what knowledge exists, but what knowledge matters.

Our collective knowledge, or collective pursuit of knowledge, is more likely to serve us well than any one alone.

And then, there is the whole world beyond our beautiful fountains.

Therefore, when Donald Trump says torture works, or when his final TV ad in SC blatantly falsified data on the employment and crime rates, I think about fake news, hot new smartphone Apps, and the failures of mainstream media—each of which fails us if we resist looking at this world informed, if we pretend we can be apolitical, if we close our eyes to larger questions of ethics and morality.

The responsibility of the intellectual—and that includes us—is not about taking a neutral pose, but about speaking beyond those fountains, about modeling what it means to be well informed, to honor the truth, as difficult as at that is to attain, and to model for everyone what it looks like to work in the service of humanity, and not simply to say what you are paid to say, not simply to advocate for your own self-interest.

The responsibility of the intellectual is inescapably political, even as we pledge rightfully to be non-partisan.

Now, I end by appealing as an old English teacher, a writer, must—through metaphor.

Activist historian Howard Zinn’s memoir argues that the human condition is a moving train, and any of us who choose to sit quietly are in effect endorsing where that train is heading.

And thus, as Zinn believed and practiced, ours is always a political act—whether in our passivity or our action.

The responsibility of the intellectual?

For me, it is acknowledging that you cannot be neutral on a moving train, and I must add, you must not be neutral on a disaster-bound train—so I urge that we express our concern as action, informed and ethical.