“We’ve Done It, Or We’re Doing It, Or We Could Start Doing It Tomorrow”

Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Trump rightwing women

(From upper-left to lower-right) Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen (credit), Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter (credit), Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (credit), and Kellyanne Conway (credit).

Some often muse whether life imitates art or if art imitates life.

For Margaret Atwood, the debate is more nuanced and about genre: “The Handmaid’s Tale…is set in the future,” Atwood explains in “Writing Utopia.” “This conned some people into believing it is science fiction, which, to my mind, it is not.”

What may seem like a trivial distinction—something merely academic—is incredibly important to Atwood, and to anyone reading this novel (or more recently, viewing the Hulu series):

But in The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing happens that the human race has not already done at some point in the past, or that it is not already doing now, perhaps in other countries, or for which it has not yet developed the technology. We’ve done it, or we’re doing it, or we could start doing it tomorrow. Nothing inconceivable takes place, and the projected trends on which my future society is based are already in motion. So I think of The Handmaid’s Tale not as science fiction but as speculative fiction; and, more particularly, as that negative form of Utopian fiction that has come to be known as the Dystopia….

Dystopias are often more like dire warnings than satires, dark shadows cast by the present into the future. They are what will happen to us if we don’t pull up our socks. (pp. 93, 94)

What might these dire warnings entail in 2018 Trumplandia? At least two come to mind: The manipulation of women to control women and the threat of theocracy to a democracy.

“Puritan New England was a theocracy, not a democracy;” Atwood explains, “and the future society proposed in The Handmaid’s Tale has the form of a theocracy, too, on the principle that no society ever strays completely far from its roots” (p. 97).

These words should be echoing in the background each time we hear or read “Make America Great Again” since Atwood warns, “But true dictatorships do not come in in good times. They come in in bad times, when people are ready to give up some of their freedoms to someone—anyone—who can take control and promise them better times” (p. 98).

Two aspects of Atwood’s speculative Republic of Gilead should give us pause in fact: “biblical justification” and:

Woman’s place, in the Republic of Gilead—so named for the mountain where Jacob promised to his father-in-law, Laban, that he would protect his two daughters—woman’s place is strictly in the home….How do you get women back in the home, now that they are running around outside the home, having jobs and generally flinging themselves around? Simple. You just close your eyes and take several giant steps back, into the not-so-very-distant past—the nineteenth century, to be exact—deprive them of the right to vote, own property, or hold jobs, and prohibit public prostitution in the bargain, to keep them from hanging out on the street corners, and presto, there they are, back in the home. (p. 99)

And, as Atwood’s dystopia dramatizes, create a hierarchy of women so that they become consumed with controlling and resisting each other—while failing to see the higher hands of men controlling the entire puppet show.

Dire warning?

Like the legitimate and illegitimate women of Gilead, enter the women of Trumplandia: Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Kellyanne Conway—quoting scripture, invoking the sacred nature of Law, and routinely lying with well-manicured hair and the sort of make up rendered illegal in Atwood’s dystopia.

“At the front of The Handmaid’s Tale there are two dedications,” Atwood notes, detailing:

[T]he American Puritans did not come to North America in search of religious toleration, or not what we mean by it. They wanted the freedom to practice their religion, but they were not particularly keen on anyone else practice his or hers. Among their noteworthy achievements were the banishing of so-called heretics, the hanging of Quakers, and the well-known witchcraft trials. I get to say these bad things about them because they are my ancestors—in a way, The Handmaid’s Tale is my book about my ancestors—and the second dedication, to Mary Webster, is indeed to one of these very same ancestors. (pp. 96, 97)

“Half-Hanged Mary” is Atwood’s poetic recreation of Webster’s monologue throughout her being hanged as a witch, an act that, remarkable, ended with her surviving: “Under the law of double jeopardy,” Atwood adds, “you couldn’t execute a person twice for the same crime, so she lived for another fourteen years” (p. 97).

In the poem, Webster narrates:

I was hanged for living alone,
for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin,
tattered skirts, few buttons,
a weedy farm in my own name,
and a sure-fire cure for warts;

Oh yes, and breasts,
and a sweet pear hidden in my body.
Whenever there’s talk of demons
these come in handy.

And then about her hanging:

The men of the town stalk homeward,
excited by their show of hate,
their own evil turning inside out like a glove,
and me wearing it.

The men shouting the authority of God attempt to execute Webster—a woman, and poor—while “The bonnets come to stare,/ the dark skirts also.”

Yet Webster implores:

Help me down? You don’t dare.
I might rub off on you,
like soot or gossip. Birds
of a feather burn together,
though as a rule ravens are singular.

In a gathering like this one
the safe place is the background,
pretending you can’t dance,
the safe stance pointing a finger.

Does life imitate art, or art, life? And as Atwood suggests, when art is drawn from life, why do we resist the dire warnings?

Biblical justification and the sacred rule of law by a people shouting “Make America Great Again” over the cries of children behind chain-linked fences after being pulled from their parents’ arms.

Dire warnings we either cannot see or will not see: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (William Butler Yeats).

See Also

There’s no reason to believe that women like Kirstjen Nielsen and Sarah Huckabee Sanders are more empathetic by virtue of being women, Jessie Daniels

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Please. Don’t. Stop.

My formative years included a literary heritage that may seem rather low-brow—collecting, reading, and drawing from Marvel comics as well as reading (consuming) every issue of National Lampoon.

Although the Internet has been surprisingly unhelpful for me to verify this, I recall very vividly a Foto Funnies in one issue in which a young woman is being physically propositioned by a young man: Images of him reaching for her, touching her, or forcefully kissing her in a sequence in which she rejects him with “Please!” and then “Don’t!” followed by “Stop!”

The final picture, however, is the couple in the throes of passion, I seem to recall him on top of her and her legs wildly raised, but the key is she is shouting enthusiastically: “Please don’t stop!”

In my adolescence, I found the word play brilliant—a key element of the humor I relished in the magazine each month. But this comic is also another lesson, one taught directly and indirectly to men and women: Men, just wear women down when it comes to sex because women really want it too but must put up the proper resistance at first to protect their reputation.

As I have witnessed the growing #MeToo movement—especially in the many brilliant and disturbing pieces written by women confronting how the male world is all too often misogynistic and rapacious—I have thought more and more about the dynamic captured in the National Lampoon comic and echoed in Richard Dreyfuss’s retort (one shared by many men confronted with their coercive behavior, such as Aziz Ansari) to charges against him: “Dreyfuss told the New York magazine blog Vulture he flirted with and even kissed Los Angeles writer Jessica Teich over several years but thought it was a ‘consensual seduction ritual.'”

Further, I have grown less comfortable with how we manage consent, a complicated concept that isn’t being investigated as fully or well as it deserves, notably in terms of the dynamic between Bill Clinton (resisting his #MeToo culpability) and Monica Lewinsky, who now has reconsidered if she was capable of consent in the relationship with Clinton.

Bill Clinton as one of many powerful men in the long procession that has brought the U.S. to Donald Trump as president and the most disturbing Teflon celebrity—this is a reckoning about much more than sexual harassment and rape culture.

It is reckoning about men as conditioned sexual predators and women as conditioned sexual prey.

Recreational sex—sex for physical pleasure without romantic intent—has profoundly different consequences for men and women; it is often positive social capital for men and nearly always negative social and personal capital for women.

Sex also remains strongly associated with physical and moral cleanliness—almost entirely as the expense of women who are either clean (sexless) or dirty (sexual).

Professional and personal taboos lend themselves to further eroding healthy relationships and interactions between men and women along the spectrum of platonic to intimate.

In many ways, the response by men—hyperbolic—that they do not know what they can say or do around women in the workplace is ridiculous and disingenuous, but there are real problems being unmasked by the #MeToo movement that these disingenuous responses cannot be allowed to derail.

Intimate relationships must begin at some point, being initiated in some way between people who have to risk asking about what the relationship is, where it may go, and how both people feel. When the context of that risk includes extenuating circumstances—think about the imbalance of power and age between Clinton and Lewinsky, for example—then the margins for those risks, how people interact, become narrower, more precarious, especially for the person with less power (often the woman).

Here, I am most concerned about not just consent, and all the problems with consent such as time and power, but what behaviors and characteristics of men that we reject as well as give a pass.

To many people, I think, Clinton and Ansari are qualitatively different than Harvey Weinstein (charges against whom include violent sexual assault and aggression); Clinton also viewed not as crass as Trump.

Where these distinctions fail, I fear, is not recognizing the ethical failure of men as dishonest sexual predators—the real-world manifestation of the National Lampoon cartoon.

Men who prey on women for sexual pleasure, not seeking romance or relationship, while cloaking their behavior otherwise—here is the behavior needing greater inspection: There is a misogyny and objectification in men who are sexual predators that is just as repulsive as men who commit the more immediate rape or sexual assault.

To extrapolate an analogy from Kurt Vonnegut who wrote that smoking was a socially acceptable form of suicide, sexual predators who wear women down to garner consent are socially acceptable rapists.

And that is why the National Lampoon cartoon haunts me; these are lessons taught to men and women about how we should conduct our sexual lives, our intimacies.

I have been listening very hard to women, coming almost daily to recognize the inordinate weight of being a woman constantly aware of her fragility in a man’s world that seems mostly not to acknowledge any woman’s full humanity.

The existential burden of gender for women parallels the existential burden of being black in the U.S.; these conditions are about existing always in a state of awareness and threat.

Talking with a young woman last night, we were standing on a side walk up the street from a bar. Three young men stumbled by, one guy was big and muscular; they were loud, drunk, and motioning toward us for high-fives.

We quietly stepped aside, and at least one of the guys paused and motioned as if he was offended we were ignoring them. The situation was relatively brief, and we didn’t say anything, but we both knew the event was terrifying for the young woman in a way it could never be for me.

They crossed the street to the hotel; I walked her to her car while watching the three drunk men. We needed them to move on, disappear.

This moment will now rest in a topic we have discussed often: The dilemma women face when guys approach them at bars, offering to buy drinks. For women, even when they genuinely are not out looking for any sort of socializing with these men, refusing the free drinks can be more dangerous than just playing along and trying to extricate themselves later.

We have created a culture in which men physically approaching women must be viewed as predatory, intimidating. We have created a culture in which women are responsible for managing that the world is threatening.

We still haven’t begun to fully hold men responsible for changing that culture, even as we are not demanding that some men take culpability for being sexual predators—such as Clinton.

#MeToo, I think, cannot be about turning our gaze even more intently on the victims and cannot be about rape culture only as a way not to investigate the normalized acceptance of men as sexual predators and demonizing of women who are sexual (consider the standard posing of Stormy Daniels as “porn star” versus Trump still never being held accountable).

In her excellent reflection on John Hughes, Molly Ringwald also turns to National Lampoon, where she confronts the contradictions she feels about Hughes:

It’s hard for me to understand how John was able to write with so much sensitivity, and also have such a glaring blind spot. Looking for insight into that darkness, I decided to read some of his early writing for National Lampoon. I bought an old issue of the magazine on eBay, and found the other stories, all from the late seventies and early eighties, online. They contain many of the same themes he explored in his films, but with none of the humanity. Yes, it was a different time, as people say. Still, I was taken aback by the scope of the ugliness.

Ringwald’s looking back and unpacking a “different time” speaks to our own need to admit that very little is different in terms of the dynamics that matter between men as sexual predators and misogynists and women as prey, dehumanized.

I think in most ways I survived the horrible lessons about men, women, and consent—such as the cartoon I once found funny and now find deeply uncomfortable. I was also able to cast off eventually the racism I was taught growing up.

A different world will mean that we all refuse these lessons, of course, but an even better different world will be when we no longer allow the lessons to begin with.

There is nothing funny about a man coercing a woman into consent. There was never anything funny about that.

Reader: False Equivalency, Offensive Language, Racism

False equivalency “simultaneously condemns and excuses both sides in a dispute by claiming that both sides are (equally) guilty of inappropriate behavior or bad reasoning. While the argument appears to be treating both sides equally, it is generally used to condemn an opponent or to excuse ones own position.”

After Roseanne Barr’s sit-com was canceled due to her racist Tweet, some have tried to equate Barr’s racism with, for example, Samantha Bee’s use of “cunt.” A similar dynamic occurred after Michelle Wolf’s routine at the White House correspondent’s dinner.

Another example of false equivalency has been to suggest Barr’s racism and the actions of ABC are about free speech and equivalent to the NFL banning players from protesting racism. These events are not about free speech, but being racist and protesting racism are simply not the same.

All of this can be couched in the false equivalency of most debates and discussions about race and racism that are punctuated by whites who derail the topic with “reverse racism” and “blacks are racists too.”

Here, I list resources for understanding better these debates in order to refute false equivalency:

The Reappropriation of Stigmatizing Labels: Implications for Social Identity, Adam D. Galinsky, Kurt Hugenberg, Carla Groom and Galen Bodenhausen

The semantics of slurs: A refutation of pure expressivism, Adam M. Croom

Appropriating a Slur: Semantic Looping in the African-American Usage of Nigga, Andrew T. Jacobs

‘Cunt’ Should Not Be a Bad Word, Katie J.M. Baker

Laurie Penny: In defence of the “C” word

Reclaiming “Cunt,” “Bitch,” “Slut,” and more

The feminist mistake, Zoe Williams

The Secret History Of The Word ‘Cracker’

Understanding Racism as Systemic and about Power

11-Step Guide to Understanding Race, Racism, and White Privilege

Black people cannot be racist, and here’s why

Response to “Black people cannot be racist, and here’s why”

Reverse Racism, Explained

Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism

8 Things White People Really Need to Understand About Race

Complicating “White Privilege”: Race, Poverty, and the Nature of the Knapsack, Paul Gorski

White Privilege and Anti-Racism, Paul Gorski

Language of Closet Racism, Paul Gorski

Does Your Academic Institution Value Diversity, Equity? (Probably Not)

Several years ago, my university was forced to acknowledge it has a gender problem. As a selective liberal arts university, the institution had already begun addressing its race and diversity problems among students admitted and faculty hired.

Two gender concerns could not be ignored: Women were paid less than men at the same ranks, and faculty attrition was overwhelmingly among women professors, who constitute only about 30% of the faculty.

A gender equity study was commissioned, but when the report was issued, a group of male faculty circulated an open letter challenging the methodology of the report, raising concerns about a lack of empirical data and expressing the need for quantitative versus qualitative methods.

This response certainly had an image problem—white male faculty calling into question a gender equity study—and the concerned faculty did eventually withdraw the letter in deference to the good of the university community.

However, this study and the response illustrate a serious problem in academia, the pervasive power of traditional structures (expectations about what data matter, what types of research matter, and a lingering argument that objectivity can be achieved) to serve as a veneer for entrenched, and thus rendered invisible, sexism, racism, and classism.

A parallel example is when my university seeks to increase the diversity of the faculty, that effort is always contested with “Let’s just hire the best candidate,” again often voiced by white male faculty [1].

“Best,” of course, like quantitative methods and empirical data is a veneer for the embedded biases that have been normalized (and thus seemingly invisible to the power structure itself and those who benefit from the bias).

White and male privilege, then, are institutionalized in higher education (see here and here for ways those privileges exist, again, invisibly to white men). Despite the popular claim that higher education is some liberal indoctrination factory, higher education is incredibly traditional and conservative at its core; only the edges appear liberal.

But, I can feel many wanting to interject, how can calling for high-quality research to address gender equity on campus and expecting candidates for open faculty positions to be the best constitute flawed practices in academia?

Let me often another example, one that calls into question the grounding of those arguments themselves, the claims of fidelity to high standards.

Another traditional practice in higher education is the use of Student Evaluations of Teaching (SET), feedback gathered from students and then used in various ways to evaluate faculty for tenure and promotion.

Notably, a significant body of research [2] has revealed that SET lack validity and negatively impact women, faculty of color, and international faculty (in the U.S.).

Concurrently, the use of SET positively impact the existing and skewed white male faculty at most universities, who disproportionately dominate higher ranks and salaries.

Guess what happens when concerns are raised about SET based on high-quality empirical data and quantitative studies? The same faculty crying foul over gender equity reports and hiring practices toss up their hands and say, “O, well, we have to have something.”

As Colleen Flaherty explains:

While some institutions have acknowledged the biases inherent in SETs, many cling to them as a primary teaching evaluation tool because they’re easy — almost irresistibly so. That is, it takes a few minutes to look at professors’ student ratings on, say, a 1-5 scale, and label them strong or weak teachers. It takes hours to visit their classrooms and read over their syllabi to get a more nuanced, and ultimately more accurate, picture.

For example, my university’s self-evaluation form and the connected chair evaluation directly instructs in the teaching evaluation section: “Give particular emphasis to evidence of teaching quality, which could include numerical results from student opinion survey forms, written comments from student opinion survey forms, and comments from faculty or other consultants visiting your classes.”

“Evidence” is bolded and then the first example is “numerical results from student opinion survey forms.” There are clear biases here that privilege an instrument invalidated by a body of high-quality research—exactly what some faculty deemed missing in our gender equity study.

Junior faculty explain, often in private, that they are aware numerical data from the SET are the most important element of their case for tenure and promotion. As well, our Faculty Status Committee has provided workshops directly detailing which data from those forms are most influential, providing, as the committee claims, ways to distinguish faculty from each other.

Virtually every college and university has a diversity and equity statement and a perpetual formation and reformation of diversity and equity committees.

No statement or committee can make existing institutional sexism, racism, and classism disappear—especially if those words and that work are forced to work within existing biased structures.

“Research is reviewed in a rigorous manner, by expert peers,” writes Flaherty. “Yet teaching is often reviewed only or mostly by pedagogical non-experts: students. There’s also mounting evidence of bias in student evaluations of teaching, or SETs — against female and minority instructors in particular. And teacher ratings aren’t necessarily correlated with learning outcomes.

As long as calls for “high-quality” and “best” to guide policies and practices remain selective—and clearly in the service of the existing inequities and lack of diversity—we must admit the real commitment is not to”high-quality” or “best,” but to the status quo.

While not the only litmus test, a powerful way to determine if your academic institution values diversity and equity is if it continues to implement SET. Almost all do, so the answer remains, probably not.

See Also

Is Your University Racist? Bedelia Nicola Richards


[1] See how “merit” can work in the service of privilege in this reconsideration on Jordan Peterson:

I met Jordan Peterson when he came to the University of Toronto to be interviewed for an assistant professorship in the department of psychology. His CV was impeccable, with terrific references and a pedigree that included a PhD from McGill and a five-year stint at Harvard as an assistant professor.

We did not share research interests but it was clear that his work was solid. My colleagues on the search committee were skeptical — they felt he was too eccentric — but somehow I prevailed. (Several committee members now remind me that they agreed to hire him because they were “tired of hearing me shout over them.”) I pushed for him because he was a divergent thinker, self-educated in the humanities, intellectually flamboyant, bold, energetic and confident, bordering on arrogant. I thought he would bring a new excitement, along with new ideas, to our department.

[2] See:

Blue Scholars

Throughout the early 2000s, a conservative student group at my university was very aggressive—attacking faculty through online forums (using anonymous screen names), creating lists of faculty conservative students should avoid, and sponsoring an inordinate number of Cultural Life Programs (CLP). This group had significant outside (also anonymous) funding as well.

Once, the conservative antagonist Ann Coulter was a sponsored speaker on campus by this group. I mentioned this in a class, noting her lack of credibility, and a student responded with, “But her books have footnotes.”

I think about this exchange often because the student was recognizing the conventions of scholarly work, conventions that are apt to supersede in a superficial way the credibility of the scholarship or the scholar; footnotes denoted for the student credibility—without the student considering whether or not the sources were credible, whether or not the conclusions and claims made by Coulter were credible.

In this era of Trumplandia, the tired but resilient claim that universities are liberal and that conservative scholars are nearly absent or at least ostracized is once again gaining momentum. As well, the resurgence of the oppressed white male has gained momentum.

Those contexts are also driven by calls for free speech, allowing all sides a voice, and mostly superficial arguments about the tension between academic freedom and politically correct speech and concepts such as safe spaces.

Here, the post title, “Blue Scholars,” is not yet another addition to the “quit lit” genre, but an investigation of the race and gender implications of respectability politics in the work of scholars.

Consider the issues raised in these two following Tweets:

The expectations around social scientist Crystal Marie Fleming—the chastising of respectability politics, not what she claims but her prfanity—are quite distinct when compared to calls for civil discourse as a response to Jordan Peterson, a public scholar who has been thoroughly discredited while also being quite popular outside of academia.

Fleming is facing the academic and public stigma about working blue—the use of profanity superseding the content of her discourse. Peterson, a misogynist cloaked in academic garb and discourse, benefits from calls for civil discourse, a subset of respectability politics, because his language and the language of his detractors allow reprehensible ideas a stage more prominent than they deserve.

Fleming’s experience as a scholar parallels Colin Kaepernick’s confronting arguments that his message was not the problem, but how (and when) he was conducting his protests.

Beneath calls for respectability politics and civil discourse, then, are the interests of white and male privilege; the existing power structure always benefits from a demand for resect by default and for civility, the antithesis of protest.

Language and content, as I have examined in terms of stand-up comedy, are always about race, gender, and social class. The how of language, invariably, becomes the focus as soon as any marginalized group becomes confrontational, critical, empowered.

“Don’t speak or write that way” and “Don’t act that way” are always about the status of power—not about right or wrong, credible or baseless.

The criticism leveled at Fleming and the calls for civil discourse to allow Peterson’s vile arguments are windows into the failure of academia, an Ivory Tower trapped still in Medieval paradigms of authority, rhetoric, and deference.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, the titular character of the novel, Eliot Rosewater, implores:

“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:

“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” (p. 129)

A moral imperative wrapped in blasphemous language.

I prefer the moral imperative, and I prefer the critical scholar working blue while rejecting the false calls for civility that foster scholars pandering to the worst among us.

If there are words that should give us pause, they are “respect” and “civil discourse”—not the seven words you can’t say on television.

Flawed Men Artists and Their Crumbling Art

Have you ever told a lover insecure about their attractiveness, “You are beautiful,” or “You are sexy”? And then have them reply, “Yes, but you love me.”

I guess we are left with something like beauty is in the eye of the beholder—or at least we are aware that our love and our crushes can allow us to see all the wonderful while conveniently ignoring the troubling.

I have massive literary and artistic crushes, and as a result, I often have to come to terms with my rose-colored glasses. I was warned by a college professor (a wonderful, kind, and smart woman who introduced me to a feminist perspective) that I would someday think less of Ernest Hemingway, and of course, Hemingway gives me fits.

Actress famous for her teen roles, Molly Ringwald shares a really compelling and personal experience with confronting in the same way John Hughes:

I made three movies with John Hughes; when they were released, they made enough of a cultural impact to land me on the cover of Time magazine and to get Hughes hailed as a genius. His critical reputation has only grown since he died, in 2009, at the age of fifty-nine. Hughes’s films play constantly on television and are even taught in schools. There is still so much that I love in them, but lately I have felt the need to examine the role that these movies have played in our cultural life: where they came from, and what they might mean now.

As a high school English teacher, in fact, I was one of those who taught annually Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; it struck me as unusually smart about high school as well as a powerful example of craft (and I can say the same about the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona, which I also showed every year).

Ringwald eventually concludes:

If I sound overly critical, it’s only with hindsight. Back then, I was only vaguely aware of how inappropriate much of John’s writing was, given my limited experience and what was considered normal at the time. I was well into my thirties before I stopped considering verbally abusive men more interesting than the nice ones. I’m a little embarrassed to say that it took even longer for me to fully comprehend the scene late in “Sixteen Candles”…

It’s hard for me to understand how John was able to write with so much sensitivity, and also have such a glaring blind spot. Looking for insight into that darkness, I decided to read some of his early writing for National Lampoon. I bought an old issue of the magazine on eBay, and found the other stories, all from the late seventies and early eighties, online. They contain many of the same themes he explored in his films, but with none of the humanity. Yes, it was a different time, as people say. Still, I was taken aback by the scope of the ugliness.

I just completed a scholarly chapter on Marvel superhero Daredevil, including several sections on the influence of writer/artist Frank Miller. This is an excellent example of the essential problem confronted by Ringwald: How do we navigate the flawed artist and (often) his crumbling art?

Miller is a highly celebrated comic book creator who revolutionized Batman and Daredevil directly and thus superhero comics more broadly. Yet, Miller’s ideology and tendencies are quite disturbing at times.

As Sam Riedel unpacks in a review of the reissue of Hard Boiled, “Miller is working within the same misogynist trope that’s plagued genre fiction for decades: that women are all deceivers who use sex to manipulate men into doing what they want.”

Miller, like Hughes, benefits for the powerful shield of being white and male, which allows them to revel in the role of artist; its all about craft and not about substance (a deformed modernist argument).

Haruki Murakami: A Case Study in the Artist/Art Dilemma

A former student and early-career teacher is rereading Kafka on the Shore as a possible new text in her works in translation unit for International Baccalaureate (IB).

Murakami represents one of my more recent literary crushes, and I nudged her to his work while I was co-editing a volume on the world-famous Japanese writer.

We share a strong affection for Kafka on the Shore, among a couple others as the best of Murakami, but her rereading has both reinforced that affection and given her pause about, especially, Murakami’s flurries of sexism, a problem I touch on in a brief review of his short story collection, Men Without Women.

As I considered her concerns, I then had a near out-of-body experience as I listened to myself wrestle with a reply.

Murakami, I explained, is of a generation and a culture that could help explain (but not excuse) that his works often portray women and attitudes toward women that are accurate for that time and place. I then noted Murakami presents a layered problem since his literary background seems to rest on problematic men writers, many of whom personify a macho literary tradition: J.D. Salinger, Raymond Carver, John Irving, F. Scott Fitzgerald (Murakami often identifies).

Further:

After the Second World War, novels like “The Old Man and the Sea,” “The Call of the Wild,” and “Moby-Dick” entranced Japanese readers yearning for a future of heroism, naturalism, and reason in the wake of the chaotic militarism and destruction they’d endured. Instruction was still a part of the appeal, but heroism and identity moved to the forefront. The transformation to a more purely literary engagement with American fiction, with readers appreciating and actually enjoying American prose over what it could teach them, occurred in 1975. That’s when Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan were translated into Japanese and introduced a sense of humor, absurdity, and social criticism voiced in vernacular prose.

Murakami, the case can be made, embodies a sort of literary tradition found in Albert Camus’s The Stranger, a work written intentionally to mimic Hemingway’s style but also includes some of the same gender and sexism problems found in Hemingway’s work.

Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World seems to nod pretty hard toward these stylistic (hard-boiled) influences, but that sort of excuse wears thin, I think.

Several degrees further away, I have also been wrestling, like Ringwald, with Blade Runner and the many decades later sequel Blade Runner 2049; just as I tried to explain about Murakami, these films may be describing elements of sexism and misogyny without endorsing them.

But how do we know, and what do we do?

I imagine there is a line, maybe not black and white but fairly wide and gray. Some artists and their art are rightfully at last beyond excuse; those we dismiss, maybe with due fanfare.

Some are allowed a new life, one that is about tempering the praise, balancing it against the flaws.

But always, I think, we must keep this powerful observation from Lindsay Lynch on Salinger: “It turns out sad women don’t get to be asshole geniuses.”

Flawed men artists and their crumbling art remind us that we have excused and still do excuse men (often mediocre) almost anything while simultaneously discounting women and people of color for any transgression.

Maybe there is an unintended lesson to these flawed men and their flawed works that can lead us to a better way that allows them some limited space as we make room for those too long ignored and even silenced.

Capitalism Creates Cover for Open Secret in #MeToo Era

Novelist Barbara Kingsolver asserts without hedging:

Let’s be clear: no woman asks to live in a rape culture: we all want it over, yesterday. Mixed signals about female autonomy won’t help bring it down, and neither will asking nicely. Nothing changes until truly powerful offenders start to fall.

The #MeToo movement, Kingsolver argues, must not be muted by backlash, especially one that focuses on tone. This commentary coincides with what appears to be a never-ending unmasking of open secrets, recently including Sherman Alexie and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket).

While the backlash and perverse charges of “witch hunt” are valid elements to investigate and reject, just as discussions of race and racism are often derailed by arguments that our problems are really about social class, the #MeToo confrontation of the open secret about sexual harassment and assault tends to skirt the larger culture that allows the secret to fester—capitalism.

Consider David Perry’s Sherman Alexie and Daniel Handler that includes a very important point that can be linked to Kingsolver’s “truly powerful offenders”:

In my Daniel Handler story, I referenced a series of anonymous comments accusing Alexie. I received a little pushback on that, but felt confident in the appropriateness of citing it. I brought it up because of this twitter thread from Allie Jane Bruce, one of the women who talked about Handler….

Bruce writes, “What you will hear, if you listen, is two cis men who speak the language of liberalism, progressivism, and feminism *perfectly* and are capitalizing on it. Using it to promote themselves and their books.” [1]

The #MeToo movement has been a powerful force for exposing toxic masculinity and rape culture, but we must also come to understand that toxic masculinity and rape culture flourish within an even larger culture targeted by Bruce, capitalizing.

The open secret phenomenon is fueled by, made possible because enough people are somehow profiting from the monsters perpetrating sexual harassment and assault.

This helps more fully explain nearly all of these high-profile predatory men from Trump to the newest revelations about Alexie and Handler.

Gender, race, and social class imbalances of power are created and perpetuated by capitalism (a twisted lottery effect that coerces people to tolerate and hide monstrous behavior because they may profit—even when those chances are slim to none), and as a consequence, open secrets persist because sexual harassment and assault are underreported; for example, as Alexie’s non-apology statement confirms, women sexually harassed and assaulted often remain silent, and silenced:

The majority of sexual assaults, an estimated 63 percent, are never reported to the police (Rennison, 2002). The prevalence of false reporting cases of sexual violence is low (Lisak, Gardinier, Nicksa, & Cote, 2010), yet when survivors come forward, many face scrutiny or encounter barriers. For example, when an assault is reported, survivors may feel that their victimization has been redefined and even distorted by those who investigate, process, and categorize cases. (Research on false reporting)

As Kingsolver implores, #MeToo voices need to press forward, women supported by men as allies. The unmasking by #MeToo can unravel toxic masculinity and rape culture, but even as that important work builds momentum, I think we must not be distracted from the equally toxic influence of capitalism, the allure of profit, that also provides cover for the monsters walking among us.

The powerful preying on the powerless is a terrible curse on humanity; supporting and listening to the voices of victims can serve to restore some of that humanity lost as we must once again admit that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”


[1] See How to talk about sex, according to ‘grey-haired’ dads


See Also

In the Shadows of Slavery’s Capitalism