If I had a rocket launcher

22 05 2011

The invasion of Poland was almost unbearable.

I knew it was awful, but awful only in a general way; the opening didn’t linger on the atrocities, but the details—the killing of 55 Polish prisoners here, the burning of village after village there, the many smug justifications for murder—knit the details of death into the whole cloth of invasion and mass murder.

If I didn’t know how it all ended, I told a friend, I don’t think I could read it.

I’m on the last book of Richard Evans’s trilogy of the Third Reich, finally cracking it open after it sat on my desk for a few weeks.

I raced through The Coming of the Third Reich (useful for its doleful portrayal of the Weimar Republic) and read with fascination The Third Reich in Power, but The Third Reich at War, well, the premonitions of the first two books are borne out in the last. It will get worse, much worse, before it ends; it cannot be said to get better.

Reading about genocide and slaughter has never been fun, but I used to be able to do so without flinching. I remember reading in high school  Anne Nelson’s dispatches in Mother Jones about the Salvadoran death squads; I close my eyes, and I can still conjure up the accompanying photo of bloody heads on bench. College was apartheid and nuclear war, and grad school, human rights abuses generally.

The University of Minnesota maintained an archive of human rights material in its law school library. I’d trudge over there from my West Bank (yes, that’s what it was called) office and read reports of the massacre at the finca San Francisco, of soldiers smashing babies’ heads and slicing up their mothers. Reports of torture in Nicaragua and disappearances in Argentina and killing after killing after killing in Guatemala.

It was awful, but I could take it, and since I could take it, I felt a kind of duty to do so. There was nothing I could do, hunched over these documents in the back corner of the library, but to read them, to read as many of them as I could.

I no longer have the compulsion, or the arrogance, or frankly, even the stomach, any more to do so. I still think the reading matters, the knowledge matters, even if I can’t precisely say why, but it is so hard, almost too hard, to keep reading. To read is to conjure these lives, these men and women and children, and watch them murdered all over again.

It was like that with the footage of the airplanes hitting the World Trade Center, and of the two towers collapsing into themselves. It seemed important to watch, to see, to know what I could, but after that, it just seemed obscene, as if the replays were killing people all over again.

I know that’s not how it works—I am aware of at least a few laws of physics—but the necessity of witness is found precisely in the knowledge of what is witnessed, that is, in the knowledge of the killing of over 2500 people. I don’t want that knowledge dulled or forgotten.

Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult now to read of atrocity: the outrage has been so stretched and worn that in too many places the bare horror is all that remains. The outrage is still there—reading (again) of the T4 extermination program, I raged against the ideology of rassenhygiene and “lives not worth living”—but it no longer protects as it once did. Its use as a buffer is gone; the horror gets  close.

Still, the knowledge matters, so I read what I can when I can. It is the least, the very least, I can do.





I am woman—hear me roar

12 01 2010

I am so fucking tired of having to generate outrage at yet another horrendously stupid or awful comment on or policy regarding women.

It’s not that I’m no longer capable of outrage—note the existence of the ‘Rant’ category (or see this post)—but JesusMary&Joseph can I not simply walk away from idiocy on occasion?

Look, I’m old—an old feminist, and shit that used to rile me is now far more likely to lead me to roll my eyes. Some dickwad thinks women can’t think and menstruate at the time and I’m supposed to engage in a point-by-point rebuttal of this so-called argument?

Can’t I just laugh in his face and move on?

C. and I were discussing our respective positions vis-a-vis feminism the other night; while her views generally might be described as feminist, she declines the term. I’ll leave it to her to explain why—she’s working on a post on the topic—but she was clearly weary of the ‘rules’ of feminism. Do I have to invoke ‘The Patriarchy‘ every time some guy acts like a douche? Can’t I just say, This guy is a douche?

I think patriarchy is a key concept in understanding the development of male-female roles and relationships across societies; I also think such understanding requires a sense of critical distance from the term itself, as well as an ability to distinguish between overarching/underlying structural dynamics and the idiosyncracies of individual behavior.

Translation: Yes, sometimes a douche is just a douche.

But even if I think that scripts for individual behavior are shaped (not determined) by those structural dynamics, it doesn’t necessarily mean I have to go nuclear every time someone tosses a dart my way. Sometimes I can just toss it back—bent, if I so choose. Sometimes I can just duck.

This is called judgment, and one of the benefits of aging is accumulating enough experience on which to base this discretion.

This does not make a bad feminist or a sell-out or blinded by privilege. (Grrrr, now there’s a word that sets me off. . . .) As a long-ago grad school colleague responded to a newly-out woman’s hectoring her on not being a good enough lesbian: I’ve been out since I was fifteen, so I don’t need any lectures from some baby dyke.

Was P. invoking privilege in her put-down? Yeah—an earned one. And P., an exceptional mild person, didn’t go any further in criticizing this woman’s zeal; rather, she made the practical observation that the way one relates one’s sexuality to the world changes over time. Such change, needless to say, can indicate development in as opposed to repudiation of an aspect of one’s identity.

So how I’m a feminist has changed over the last thirty years—which strikes me as a good thing. I was twelve or thirteen when I first identified as a feminist, and took to it with a teenaged zeal. I ain’t knocking adolescent views—they’re entirely appropriate for adolescents—but, really, how sad would it be for an old broad like me to ignore the fact that I am no longer thirteen?

It is true that in those intervening decades I have come to question feminism and to shift where I locate myself within the spectrum of feminisms. It’s not that I’ve abandoned my previous commitment to equality, but in recent years I have focused more intently on issues of liberation and domination.

These are big topics, but here I want simply to make the practical point that domination affects all kinds of people in all kinds of ways. Some people might focus on race or ethnicity or class or sexual orientation or gender identity or disability or any number of other boxes in which we find ourselves, but it seems to me that we can share the general goal of liberation, as pursued in our particular ways.

So while I might have to start calling myself a ‘libber’ to reflect that larger project, my entry into this project was as a feminist. It has formed my thinking and guided my development regarding liberation, and I see no reason to discard it, now.

(There’s also the little matter of rank oppression of women world-wide and the necessity of recognizing that however general the goal of liberation, it is in fact experienced in the particular. Women’s rights may be human rights, but you can’t neglect the former and hope to achieve the latter.)

Still, I share C.’s wariness to some versions of feminism, those which traffic in conversation-stopping jargon and which allow for no nuance in how we actually inhabit this world. We discussed a couple of websites and their contributors, and the constant jackhammering in their posts.

C. was pissed off, but I (uncharacteristically) took more of P.’s mellow line. Look, I said, those websites are geared toward a particular audience—a younger, academically-oriented one. They’re pounding away on stuff that we might already have learned to deal with. In and of itself that’s not a bad thing, but for those of us outside of that target audience, it’s bound to produce its share of irritation.

Then C. asked a very good question: Where the hell are those websites for women our age?

Beyond the mommy blogs, I couldn’t think of any. Katha Pollitt keeps on keeping on, but where is the Gen-X version of Feministing or Jezebel or Pandagon? (Could we call it BabyBust? Or would that just be too cute?)

We need a site which takes account of our nicks and scars, defeats and victories, and which doesn’t expect us to get riled up every damned time someone says something stupid about women, somewhere. Righteous Broads? Crone? Or, to call on an earlier post, how about Mormo, a.k.a. She-monster?

Something which encourages us to laugh and dance and not be perfect, but human, instead. Politics, liberation—yes, but life, too. Life, always.