“Keep quiet for the cause”: on sexual abuse in progressive movements

I had a great time on KPFK last night. I like doing radio programs; there’s something thrilling about the adrenaline rush of being “live”, not having a script, and knowing that there’s nothing worse in the world than “dead air.” (The link to last night’s program is here; lots of pitching for Pacifica Radio but also some clips of Jackson Katz and me as we chat with the hosts of Feminist Magazine. I don’t come on until about 16 minutes into the one-hour show.)

The last question that both Jackson and I were asked revolved around what we saw as our biggest challenge as male feminist activists. I had a moment to think about it while Jackson gave his reply, and I flashed immediately to a meeting I’d had in my office yesterday morning. Dinah, one of my students, is a sexual assault survivor. A year ago, while working on a progressive political campaign in the Midwest, she was raped by a renowned male activist, a man in his thirties. Dinah was eighteen at the time. Dinah wants her anonymity protected, hence the pseudonym and no specifics about the group with which she and the perp were affiliated.

Dinah has been politically engaged since she was in junior high school, working on a host of left-wing causes. Articulate and brave, as soon as she turned eighteen she spent school breaks traveling around the country working on various campaigns. And on one such campaign, while traveling alone with this celebrated male activist through rural Wisconsin, she was raped by this man she looked up to and admired. The “culture” of this campaign was hostile to law enforcement, viewing the police through a class and race-conscious lens of suspicion. Instead of calling the cops, Dinah confided the truth about what had happened to some women in the movement, who insisted that she keep quiet. What had happened, she was told, was “regrettable” and “unfair”, but the harm was to her alone (or so these other activists claimed.) They suggested to Dinah that she consider the “good” her rapist was doing for the cause. “He’s helping so many”, she was told, “and he hurt you. Isn’t it better to just avoid him? We’ll warn him to shape up, but we can’t go further than that. He’s too valuable.”

Anyone who knows the history of sexual politics in liberation movements will recognize an old and familiar story. From digital history:

Women within (Sixties-era) organizations for social change often found themselves treated as “second-class citizens,” responsible for kitchen work, typing, and serving “as a sexual supply for their male comrades after hours.” “We were the movement secretaries and the shit-workers,” one woman recalled. “We were the earth mothers and the sex-objects for the movement’s men.” In 1964, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson presented an indignant assault on the treatment of women civil rights workers in a paper entitled “The Position of Women in SNCC,” to a SNCC staff meeting. Stokely Carmichael reputedly responded, “The only position for women in SNCC is prone.”

Forty years on, Stokely Carmichael’s view of female activists in the social justice movement remains astonishingly — infuriatingly — common. Dinah, who was born in 1991, isn’t the first young woman I’ve known to be raped or abused or harassed by a male compatriot in an ostensibly progressive organization. These assaults happen in ethnic organizations like MEChA, in animal liberation/welfarist groups like the ALF or PETA, in anti-war coalitions like ANSWER. That’s not a comprehensive list, mind you. But what all these groups have in common is an ideological conviction that women’s liberation needs to take a back seat to something “more important.” It doesn’t matter whether that “more important” thing is fighting for farm workers, or stopping the war in Afghanistan, or liberating lab animals. In each instance, young women activists are warned that reporting sexually abusive behavior by a male fellow activist jeopardizes the movement and does irreparable harm to the cause — a cause, that the young victimized woman is always reminded, is so much bigger than her. Continue reading

Repentant in the capital

I’ve been in Washington D.C. for the past few days, marking the Rosh Hashanah holiday with the Kabbalah Centre. We had planned to return to Los Angeles today, but our flights got cancelled and rearranged, and we’re now heading out to California tomorrow. I am very sorry about needing to miss another day of class, but will be back at PCC Tuesday morning.

My wife and I had lunch downtown today and went through some of the museums. When we hit the national mall, we were confronted by a small ocean of Tea Party activists, who’ve been holding yet another rally in the capital. I confess that the first words out of my mouth were less than charitable, tinged as much with classist contempt for the dress code among the tea people as ideological objection to their principles. After one particularly unfortunate remark crossed my lips (focusing on the inexplicable fondness for denim shorts among the overwhelmingly white crowd of rallyers) my wife shot me a look that suggested that I needed to remember the spirit of Rosh Hashanah and the rapidly approaching Yom Kippur. If there’s one aspect of my character I really dislike, it’s a smug elitism and pomposity that can show up in both my spoken and written words. I may in many ways be the walking embodiment of the comfortable urban liberal so despised by the political right, but I can do better than to play the part to the hilt by being snobby and unkind. I need to remember that when my brother and I came up with the OKOP/NOKOP expression more than twenty years ago, we were trying to poke fun at classism, not reinforce it. I do too little of the former and too much of the latter.

When the climate is charged and the stakes are high, it’s hard to be kind to those on the other side, at least those whom one does not know. I’ve written of how much I dislike the rhetoric of “the summer of hate.” I’m used to being called “unpatriotic”, “unAmerican”, and an “effete elitist left-winger” — and worse. The temptation to respond in kind, even if only with the common epithet “teabagger,” is overwhelming. But I remember the words of the man whose monument is my favorite spot in this city, upon the steps of which I run at dawn as often as I can: I want to let the better angels of my nature govern the words that tumble from my lips and pour forth from my fingertips. I can do better.

At the drugstore a little while ago, I stood in line and chatted with a few of the Tea Partiers. They were in from Pennsylvania, buying drinks and snacks before the long bus ride home. We didn’t talk politics, but chatted about the weather (thunderstorms this morning over the District) and the traffic. They smiled at the box of pantiliners in my hand. I smiled at their interesting headgear. None of the smiles were unkind. We were simply ordinary people, passing the time in a queue, with different visions of America and a shared vision — or at least what I cannot help but hope is a shared vision — of basic decency.

Eros and its strange enemies

Monday’s post and yesterday’s post both have had excellent comment threads, for which I’m very grateful. Both posts were written at least partly in response to the work of Factcheckme (FCM), as well as to the ideas of Andrea Dworkin.

FCM and Dworkin belong broadly to the tradition of radical feminism, and FCM’s community belongs to what is sometimes called women’s nationalism. Radical feminists and liberal feminists famously disagree about many things, and that disagreement tends to be most pointed around issues of sexuality and individual agency. Liberal feminism (the tradition to which I belong) shares common cause with radical feminism on a number of issues, but often breaks with the radical tendency on a host of issues ranging from pornography to transgender identity to the role of men in the feminist movement. Obviously, “liberals” and “radicals” aren’t monolithic; the terms are used differently in different instances, and many feminists feel understandably uncomfortable with being pigeon-holed into one particular tradition. These are useful categories, but need to be employed with caution.

Going back to the early 1980s, liberal feminists have pointed out that many of their radical sisters sometimes seem disturbingly close to the religious right in terms of their views on sexuality. The birth of that criticism may have come in 1981, when Reagan was newly president and the Moral Majority was in its ascendancy. The late Ellen Willis wrote a very influential review of Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women in which she made the case that social conservatives and radical feminists were becoming dangerous bedmates:

…in certain respects the arguments of the two groups are uncomfortably similar. If anti-porn feminists see pornography as a brutal exercise of predatory male sexuality, a form of violence against women (and an incitement to such violence), the right also associates pornography with violence and with rampant male lust broken loose from the saving constraints of God and Family. Nor have conservatives hesitated to borrow feminist rhetoric about the exploitation of women’s bodies.

This peculiar confluence raises the question of whether the current feminist preoccupation with pornography is really an attempt to extend the movement’s critique of sexism – or whether, on the contrary, it is evidence that feminists have been affected by the conservative climate and are unconsciously moving with the cultural tide.

Since at least 1981, that same argument has raged on between the heirs of Willis and Dworkin, and those of us in the liberal tradition have made the same point about the strange similarity between the far right and the radical feminist left. Even arch-conservative Maggie Gallagher (who has done more to fight to ensure a limited and narrow marriage franchise than anyone in America) wrote of her overlap with Dworkin in this touching tribute penned after the latter’s death in 2005:

I received a gift from Andrea, the kind of gift which, intellectually speaking, you can receive only from someone with whom you profoundly disagree. From the opposite ends of the political spectrum, we had each glimpsed a piece of the same truth. Against the backdrop of a pornographic Playboy culture that tried to teach us that sex is just a trivial appetite for pleasure, radical feminist Andrea Dworkin wrote that “sexual intercourse is not intrinsically banal.”

I was not alone! Andrea saw it, too. As I wrote in “Enemies of Eros”: “In sex, persons become male and female, archetypically, exaggeratedly, painfully so. And to us, corseted in modern sexual views, femininity appears incompatible with the personhood of women. … What Dworkin observes is essentially true. Sex is not an act which takes place merely between bodies. Sex is an act which defines, alters, imposes on the personhood of those who engage in it. We wander through the ordinary course of days as persons, desexed, androgynous, and it is in the sexual act in which we receive reassurance that we are not persons, after all, but men and women.”

And as I later learned, to a lesser degree, Andrea Dworkin received the same gift from me. Standing in the local bookstore in Park Slope in Brooklyn (where we both then lived), she thumbed through my first book. “At last, someone who understands my writing!” she shrieked excitedly.

Then she, the infamous feminist, invited me, the unknown young conservative, to tea. I found her soft-spoken, pale, intellectual, anxious, motherly.

Motherly, perhaps, in more ways than one.

Gallagher suggests that she and Dworkin shared a revulsion at the “Playboy culture” that trivializes sexuality. The problem is, of course, is that both Gallagher and Dworkin assumed that a feminism that was sex-positive, that did see sexual liberation as genuinely freeing for women as well as men, wasn’t really distinguishable from the Hugh Hefner philosophy. Dworkin and Gallagher both assumed that a pleasure-centered ethos ultimately meant pleasure for men and misery for women. Both assumed that sex-positive feminists (what FCM calls “fun fems”) are ignorant, deluded, and naive. They both deny women’s agency. They aren’t alone; commenter MsCitrus, who blogs in the radical feminist tradition, wrote yesterday in the thread: “free will,” aka agency, is a load of western individualistic special-snowflake crap. (She’s challenged on that in comments by Lynn and Glendenb.)

In the end, I am much more optimistic than the Gallaghers and the Dworkins about the capacity of individuals to extricate themselves from their acculturation, their programming, their biology itself. I am optimistic (an optimism rooted in experience as much as ideology) about men’s potential to transform, to overcome the “myth of male weakness”; I am equally optimistic about women’s capacity to unlearn the misogynistic toxicity that at times seems to be in the very air we breathe. This doesn’t mean I’m some sort of Ayn Rand disciple who imagines that individuals must do all this work on their own. We do this work in community, with support, with reflection and with a mix of resolve and doubt. But do it we do, and change we do. And we reclaim our sexualities, and we reclaim our relationships, and we remake our world.

Stunned by the summer of hate: accepting the reality of the culture war

A few years ago, one of my favorite British ’80s bands, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, released a comeback album. The killer single was called “I Loved the Summer of Hate”, and it was as exuberant and singable a bit of pop punk as you ever did hear. I listen to it quite often on my iPod.

But I can’t say I share the sentiments of the song title. Though my family and I have had a wonderful summer (working on a book, trips to France and Israel, seeing friends and family), I’ve been increasingly worried and depressed by the tone of American political discourse. In the arguments over the health care plan, gay marriage, “birthright citizenship”, and above all, the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”, the rancor has hit a level of ugliness I haven’t seen in my life. My political memory goes back about thirty years or so, and I’m enough of an historian not to substitute my recollections for the entire American experience, but still — I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve deleted Facebook friends whose anti-Obama, anti-Islam rants became too incendiary to bear; I’ve had more political arguments since Memorial Day than I had in the previous three or four years. It has felt to me very much like a “summer of hate”, and I’ve found it all deeply disheartening. Continue reading

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Of reformed and unreformed bad boys, Hall and Oates, grace and the end of the Gore marriage

The media frenzy (okay, it’s a mild frenzy) over the end of the Gore marriage reminds of something that occurred to me (it may have occurred to others as well) a decade ago, during the 2000 presidential campaign.

Back then, Bill Clinton was still president, and the scars, such as they were, of the Monica Lewinsky impeachment proceedings were still fresh in the public memory. During his campaign, George W. Bush put his faith — and his own conversion story — front and center. Stories trickled out about his drinking and drug use and hell-raising, all before he had his 1986 heart-to-heart with Billy Graham and found Jesus. Even his harshest critics agreed that in the years since his transformation, W. had been faithful to Laura and had stayed away from alcohol. Al Gore, meanwhile, had this image as a “goody two-shoes”, an almost impossibly earnest and clean-cut sort of fellow, the kind who really had only been with one woman in his entire life, the high school sweetheart whom he had married.

I remember thinking that Clinton, Bush, and Gore represented three different (but familiar) kinds of men. Clinton was the womanizing bad boy who had never really grown up; a man of unmatched political skill, intelligence, and charm, he had impulses he simply could not or would not control. George W. Bush, on the other hand, was the “reformed bad boy”, the man who had struggled with youthful recklessness but through spirituality and hard work transformed his life and become faithful and responsible. But Gore struck me — and of course, I didn’t know the man and was basing this on the media image — as the sort of fellow who had never known any real temptation, never tasted what it was like to fall, to sin, to betray. I wondered if Al Gore had ever known the guilt and shame I was confident both Clinton and Bush had tasted.

I thought to myself, politics aside, that I’d rather be led by the reformed bad boys of the world than men from the other two categories. The “Clinton type” was dazzling but heartbreaking; we progressives can only weep at the opportunities squandered because of the 42nd president’s inability to control himself sexually. (However loathsome his persecutors were, no one can deny that Clinton gave them the opportunity to come after him and to derail his agenda.) The “Gore type”, meanwhile, was impossible to identify with. There was a sense I had with men like Gore that they couldn’t possibly know what I had struggled with, had endured. I was certain of Gore’s decency, but not of his capacity to empathize with human weakness. And while I loathed W’s politics, I liked his life narrative, naturally because it was so similar to my own. I could identify with the “reformed bad boy” because that’s what I was trying so hard to be. (The reformed part, silly. I’d been the bad boy/black sheep for years.) And perhaps narcissistically,I suspected that a great many Americans felt the same way: repulsed by Clinton, befuddled by Gore, inspired by Bush’s story (if not his wooden rhetoric or his conventionally right-wing views). On a purely archetypal level, W. had an appeal that the other two didn’t.

For the record, I voted for Ralph Nader.

A decade on, I can only imagine how different our world would be if Al Gore had prevailed in that disputed Florida recount. And a decade on, we learned this week of Al’s separation from Tipper, his wife of 40 years. At Feministing, Miriam asks a sensible question about the media response to the news:

…why does it have to be framed as a failure when a marriage ends? The questions about what went wrong display this narrative perfectly. I hate how we shape relationships around the premise that if two people don’t go to the grave together, it was a failure. How can forty years of loving companionship be a failure? Or even two years of it?

I touched on this subject in a May 2008 post: Three Divorces, Four Successful Marriages.

A marriage is a failure if it inhibits the growth of either party; it is a success if it becomes the catalyst for individual and mutual transformation. Though all three of my divorces were painful, all three of my former marriages were, to my mind, ultimately successful in accomplishing the goal of facilitating the personal growth of the two parties involved. None were failures. I was not and am not a failure, and neither were my ex-wives.

There must be more to the definition of success than the mere capacity to endure. As Hall and Oates sang, “the strong give up and move on / while the weak, the weak give up and stay”. Marriage isn’t a marathon where you get medals merely for gritting your teeth and finishing. Marriage is a living, breathing, constantly-subject-to-renegotiation arrangement. As I wrote in another post: Quitting at the first sign of trouble is the sin of weakness, no doubt — but continuing to remain in what is loveless and lifeless is the sin of pride and stubbornness.

I don’t think that Al and Tipper are loveless and lifeless. They are clearly still friends; they have children and grandchildren in common. They have built something marvelous and enduring together. They have shaped and sharpened each other as husband and wife for forty years, and they will carry the marks of that work with them for the rest of their lives. And now, having finished the work that could be finished together, they are separating. In their grace and their generosity towards each other, they are an example to be celebrated, not pitied.

The UK ought to stay left

One note on the UK general election. Though the Conservatives have finished as the largest party, it’s worth noting that well over half of the UK electorate voted left-of-center. Add the vote totals for the Liberal Democrats, Labour, and the Greens and you’ve got nearly 55% of the national vote. Throw in the left-leaning Celtic nationalist parties like Plaid Cymru (Wales), the Social Democratic and Labour Party (Northern Ireland), and the Scottish National Party, and the number creeps closer to 60%. Put together a coalition of Liberals and Labour plus the single Green MP and the Ulster/Wales/Scotland left-leaning nationalists, and you’ve got a working majority in the Parliament.

From that perspective, on what basis could the centre-right Tories claim a mandate to govern? The right — defined by the Conservatives, the xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party, and the loathsome racists in the British National Party — are together at about 40% of the vote, while nearly six in ten voters in the UK want a left-of-center government.

They ought to have one.

And for what it’s worth, I do appreciate that Conservative leader David Cameron — who believes in cap-and-trade, who believes in legalizing same-sex unions, who believes in supporting the single-payer National Health Service — is in some respects to the left of Barack Obama.

Here endeth the politics.

Quixotic yes; obtuse, no: on marathons, health care, and re-registering as a Democrat

I ran, if that’s the word for it, the Los Angeles Marathon again yesterday. I’m not trained the way I was in the past, so some friends and I jogged the course together, snapping photos and (at least in my case) providing live Facebook and Twitter updates as we moseyed from Dodger Stadium to the Santa Monica Pier. Slower than molasses, but lots of fun — and nice not to feel sore the next day, as I would have if I had actually put the proverbial pedal to the metal.

Last night, my wife was out and Heloise went down early. With my daughter asleep next to me, I sat on the couch and watched CNN and C-Span as the health care drama in the House of Representatives unfolded. During the race earlier in the day, I’d been keeping up to date on House negotiations via the iPhone, and knew about Bart Stupak’s decision to back reform before I finished the marathon. And I watched, fingers crossed and at times breath held, as the bill passed. When the number “216” flashed on the screen, I pumped my fist and mouthed “Yes!”, carefully avoiding disturbing the slumbering little one at my side.

I don’t blog a great deal about politics and health care, but do want to make it clear that I strongly support health care reform. Indeed, count me in the army of those who would like to see a single-payer system in place! I’ve lived abroad, and have personally known excellent care with the NHS — as have many members of my family. I bristle at the misrepresentations of European-style socialized medicine by those who haven’t ever experienced it. Totalitarianism it most certainly isn’t.

Since I’d spent the day connected on Facebook and Twitter, I kept at it during the health care vote. I have lots of friends on the former who represent the political spectrum from pole to pole, and I follow a fair number of folks on Twitter. My conservative acquaintances were as aghast as my liberal friends were ebullient; reading their posts and tweets there were very few reactions anywhere between the extremes of jubilation and despair. Either America had fulfilled a long lost dream or abandoned it; either the country was headed for increased prosperity or desperation and malaise. The rigidly dichotomized reactions were perhaps emblematic of our polarized political climate, and perhaps they were also warranted, given that for once, the hype about the significance of a piece of legislation wasn’t oversold. This did matter, and both sides knew it.

Several years ago, I re-registered as a Republican. I posted about my quixotic hope to participate in a revival of progressive influence within the GOP. But I’ve watched as the few Republican moderates (with the loss of Lincoln Chaffee in Rhode Island, we have no GOP liberals in elected office left in the USA) were either demonized or forced to toe the party line. There’s idealistic — and then there’s silly. And I think that staying a Republican in the hopes that the few dollars I threw at Republicans for Environmental Protection or the Republican Majority for Choice would make a difference is absurd. Last night’s debate, in which the GOP seemed monolithic not merely in its opposition to sensible reform but also hate-filled in its rhetoric, demonstrated to me that it’s time to give up the silliness. I’m re-registering as a Democrat this week.

A long way from the summit: some thoughts on feminism, women in politics, and the new Leslie Sanchez book

It’s been a year since the most exciting election in my memory (and, according to my septuagenerian mother, a certified political junkie, of hers as well.) The books and documentaries about the 2008 presidential campaign have arrived full force in the market place. One focuses on the trio of women who helped define this extraordinary moment in very recent history: You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe by Leslie Sanchez, a Republican activist and CNN contributor. Sanchez looks at the way the media and the nation itself responded to Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Obama — and what those responses say about the state of feminism at the tail end of the first decade of the 21st century.

(Other feminist bloggers have already reviewed YCALWM, including Clarissa, Amelia at Equal Writes, and Stacyx.)

As a registered Republican and liberal feminist who longs to see a return to progressive values within the GOP (the party of Millicent Fenwick, a political hero of mine), I’ve admired Leslie Sanchez as a sensible voice for inclusion and moderation within a party that has far too few such voices. Hers is a welcome perspective, and the fairness with which she treats both Clinton and Palin is perhaps the book’s strongest suit.

Sanchez, no supporter of Hillary, explores the pivotal question of why so many younger women saw a vote for Barack Obama as a far more revolutionary act than a vote for the first of their sex to have a serious shot at winning the presidency. She suggests that Clinton tied herself too closely to older white feminists, commonly identified with the Second Wave, and lost a generational connection with younger voters. Sanchez is right about this, I think; there’s no question that the gap between Second and Third Wavers (represented by women over and under 45) about Clinton was a significant one, much covered in the press and lamented in the feminist blogosphere. But Sanchez, whose feminist credentials are slight at best, is too dismissive when she talks about the “brashness and tired agendas of the women’s rights advocates (backing Clinton”. It wasn’t the agenda that was wrong — it was the generational disconnect that doomed the junior senator from New York. Continue reading

“I adore you; you confound me”: of old friends, Facebook, and ideological differences

When I first went on Facebook a few years ago, most of my friends were my students and “youth group kids”; I was the oldest person I knew on the site. Today, a third of my 1700-odd friends and contacts on FB are my age or older, and I’ve found it a particularly useful tool for connecting with old acquaintances from my childhood and adolescence. I suspect my 25th high school reunion, coming up next year, will be planned using Facebook.

On Facebook, I often post links to news stories and opinion pieces which reflect my views on gender, sexuality, faith, animal rights and so forth. My friends are able to comment on the stories. Since my friends — and I use that noun in its traditional sense — run the gamut politically, sexually, and religiously, the debates are quite heated. And things have gotten particularly intense since “Leigh” started commenting. Leigh is a conservative Republican through and through, and not afraid to “mix it up” with my many liberal buddies on Facebook. Some folks have written to me in wonder, expressing disbelief that someone like Leigh and I could be friends.

I’m well aware that the capacity to be friends with folks who hold radically divergent views is a virtue made possible by privilege. For example, I have friends who are strongly opposed to marriage equality for gays and lesbians; they fight against a cause I champion. But because I’m a man married to a woman, their views (while exasperating and troubling) don’t represent a direct threat to my happiness. If I were a man who longed to marry another man but couldn’t, I might be less cheerful about opening my Facebook page, my heart, and my home to folks whose views I consider a real threat to my happiness. My extended family has been one that has been fortunate enough to embrace civility, even cordiality, towards one’s ideological opponents as a virtue. White folks in the middle and upper-middle classes have the luxury of seeing political disagreements as fascinating topics for a rousing argument rather than life and death. That cheerful willingness not only to overlook, but even celebrate those disagreements was something I was raised to believe was a sign of wisdom, of a capacity to put friendship and family over partisanship or faith. I still believe that, but acknowledge that that capacity has as much to do with race and class as it does with virtue.

In any event, while I do moderate fairly heavily here on the blog, where folks I don’t know can and do comment, a more free-wheeling atmosphere prevails on my Facebook page, where Leigh has crossed verbal swords with more than one of my other friends.

Leigh (not her real name) and I went to high school together. We were particularly close our junior year, when we were lab partners in Richard Fletcher’s legendary Wildlfe and Ecology course. Leigh and I talked about everything together at 16, and did our best to stay in touch in the years that followed. Our lives, as it turned out, followed somewhat similar trajectories: we were both divorced multiple times, we both struggled early and often with addiction to alcohol and drugs. And we both were fortunate enough to get sober relatively young; Leigh and I each have “clean time” measured in double-digit years. In sobriety, we both became marathon runners and endurance athletes; unbeknownst to the other, we each ran our personal best times the same year and at more or less the same pace. And in our journey towards sobriety, we both became Christians, born again as adults.

Leigh now lives in the mountains, in a small and isolated — albeit very beautiful — community. She’s a first-rate outdoorswoman, single, still an athlete despite battles against rheumatoid arthritis. And she’s also become, in no small part as a result of her experiences as well as her upbringing, very right-wing. When we write to each other, as we do fairly regularly on Facebook, we enjoy our shared reminiscences immensely. It’s so good to have friends who’ve known you for so long, longer than spouses and colleagues and the like. Without the entangled intimacy of family, but with the perspective of decades, old acquaintances remind us of how far we’ve traveled, of obstacles overcome , and of our own impetuous, often foolish, but still loveable youthful selves. But Leigh and I also have spoken of faith, sobriety, running — and, at least since last year’s election, a great deal about politics. When it comes to the former things, we are of one mind; on the latter, we could not disagree more. Continue reading

Empty reservoirs, empty coffers, more men on campus

Since I came to Pasadena City College in 1993, I’ve never seen such a bleak start to a new academic year as I’ve witnessed this week. This lovely foothill city remains shrouded in smoke, as the Station Fire continues to smolder, threatening the gorgeous canyons, cliffs and fauna of the nearby San Gabriels. On campus, it’s difficult to breathe and the stench of burnt material wafts through air conditioning vents and offices. After getting into the low 100s Monday and Tuesday, we might only see mid-90s today. The toxicity of the atmosphere matches the frustration and anxiety here at school.

Public community colleges, dependent on plunging state revenues, cut their course offerings and delay hiring new faculty in a recession. At precisely the same time, as unemployment rises, demand for classes grows as more and folks seek retraining. In a booming economy, our enrollment always drops (this actually became a bit of a problem around 1999-2000); in a slowing economy, the opposite effect happens. It’s not just unemployed folks, either. Many high school graduates who might have chosen to enter a healthy job market have decided to focus on their education for the time being, with plans to drop out or take a break as soon as hiring prospects improve. This means that invariably, increased demand coincides with falling resources. (Much, I suppose, like food banks.)

We don’t have the updated demographics from our admissions office, but here’s something many of my colleagues and I have noticed: we have far more men in our classes than usual. PCC is majority female, and my survey classes average about a 60-40 woman-to-man ratio in a normal year; my gender studies classes tend to have a much lower percentage of lads than that. But looking at my rosters, all four sections of my Western Civ survey courses have more male than female students — something that hasn’t happened before in all the years I’ve been here. The percentage of guys in the hallways seems higher as well, and the colleagues I’ve chatted with say they’ve noticed a similar shift.

Most evidence suggests that more men than women have lost jobs in the current economic slowdown. While this doesn’t mean that we’ve come close to achieving the vital feminist goal of pay equity, it does mean that layoffis in traditionally female-dominated fields (like health care and education) have been less draconian than in male-dominated fields such as manufacturing, construction, and sales. This may well-explain why after years of a slow but steady rise in the ratio of women to men, the situation may well be reversing itself. One wonders if that’s true at more selective institutions.

In any case, I have never had to say “no” to as many students who wish to add my classes; my wait lists, which usually average 10-20 aspirants, now average twice that number. Everyone seems to have a real, desperation-tinged tale to tell about why they need the class; I’m familiar with the appeals, but sense a different level of urgency — and in some, a heartbreaking sense of despair — that I’ve never seen before.

Five generations of my family have graduated from California public colleges and universities. Three generations have taught at one level or another in the post-secondary education system. But not in living memory has the situation been this dire, not in living memory have the barriers to achievement been this high. The rungs are being sawed off the ladder into the middle class. It’s heartbreaking.

But I’ll teach with my customary over-caffeinated energy, crowding as many students as I safely can into the rooms, and to the best of my most imperfect ability, offer inspiration and encouragment.

My prayers this week have a hydrological theme; rain for our mountains and hillsides and depleted reservoirs, and mighty streams of revenue for our depleted state coffers.