Monthly Archives: August 2017

Tikkun Olam: A Jewish Response to Charlottesville

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Jews have a concept called “Tikkun Olam,” which means “healing the world.” As a little Jewish kid, I was taught that if Jews have been “chosen” for anything, it’s that– the moral imperative that we work towards social justice. Tikkun Olam has resulted in a lot of liberal Jews, unsurprisingly, but there are still right wing Jews. There is nothing further from Tikkun Olam than racism, yet the acceptance of Ashkenazi Jews as “white” by most people in the US has resulted in some of us falling prey to the racist narratives of the right. For a Jew to believe that immigrants are a cancer and that anti-racist movements are “anti-white” requires a level of cognitive dissonance that boggles the mind, given that Nazis fueled their rise in Germany with claims that Jews were an “immigrant cancer” and that Jews were conspiring to take over the world and displace white people. The current white supremacist right believes that now.
The events this weekend in Charlottesville came as no surprise to me, as I have been following the antics of the racist right all my life, and the new(ish) “alt right” movement since proto-Gamergate. While the “alt right” are essentially just box standard far right white supremacists, their techniques and strategies through their online presence is what’s new, and what makes them, for lack of a better term, “alt” as compared to, for example, the KKK. The “alt right” will often claim they’re not racist, just fighting for “white rights” or “western values,” or fighting against “political correctness,” which of course means, in practice, the preservation of white (male) supremacy. Charlottesville is in many ways their coming out party, as all protestations that they’re not about white supremacy have clearly been left by the wayside like a discarded bathrobe at an orgy. We all knew it was coming off. It was just a matter of when.

With the rise of the internet, white supremacists are no longer isolated geographically, and are emboldened by finding each other scattered across the country, emboldened by the ability to organize and make successful inroads into cultural enclaves that have previously rejected them, emboldened by their ability to recruit, emboldened, after 8 years of a Black president, by a white supremacist White House.

Steve Bannon, one of Donald Trump’s chief advisors, was co-founder (with Andrew Breitbart) and (after Breitbart’s death) editor-in-chief of the extremist “news” site, Breitbart. (I will not link to it.) Bannon went on “temporary leave” from the site to join Trump in August 2016, and remains one of Trump’s most powerful advisors. Bannon has called Breitbart “the platform for the alt right,” and created an entire tab labeled “Black Crime” on the site to “prove” that Black people are more criminal than white people, which was taken down after Bannon left to join Trump and brought greater scrutiny to the site. Breitbart‘s extremism cost it the bulk of its ad revenue, as evidenced by stories like “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” and “Why Equality And Diversity Departments Should Only Hire Rich, Straight White Men.” (I will not link to those either.) An open white supremacist sits as one of the president’s chief advisors, and we wonder why Trump has to be goaded by national outcry to denounce white supremacy? Bannon’s not even the only open white supremacist in the White House. Trump can read out 100 statements Ivanka wrote for him, but his white supremacist advisors remain firmly in place, and policies that support white supremacy pour out of this White House like warm mayonnaise.

White supremacist violence is endemic as white supremacists sit in the White House and white people sit on their hands, deny anything is happening, blame “many sides,” pretend we’re “post-racial” or tacitly agree with the white supremacist lie that white people are somehow the true oppressed although white people control almost all the political, economic, and cultural power in the nation.
Over the past few years, the “alt right” has increasingly utilized Nazi symbols, salutes, and terminology (“lugenpresse,” “blood and soil“). They were everywhere in Charlottesville. We’ve all seen what the right is up to. We all know that Bannon is in the White House advising Trump. We all know the alt right-influenced White House has worked overtime to use Nazi techniques such as discrediting the press, demonizing immigrants, demonizing non-Christians for their supposed impending “takeover” (SHARIA LAW ZOMG!11!!1), and characterizing the people in power as the true victims. Other people might fall for this, but Jews– we know better. We know what this all means. Most of it isn’t pointing at us, and most of us benefit from white supremacy. But we are Jews and we know.
We know what this all means. And we are, no matter how secular you are, bound by Tikkun Olam. At its heart, Tikkun Olam isn’t about a responsibility to God; it’s about a responsibility to each other. To all people.
Whoever you are, you can do something to fight white supremacy. Protests, marches, and in-person actions are critical, but so are many other actions, and you can– YOU CAN– make a difference. Donate to social justice causes like Black Lives Matter and SPLC. Engage with racism wherever you see it. Yes, even at family dinners. Teach your kids and your students how to avoid alt right nonsense online, just as you would teach them to avoid any online predator. Educate them about white supremacist lies by giving them the truth. Call your Senators and Representative and ask them to support the removal of Bannon, Miller, and Gorka, the most open white supremacists in the White House. (Sessions, you’re next.) Read writers of color regularly. Educate yourself– there’s so much more.
Tikkun Olam. If not now, when?
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“Why Do You Have to Make Everything Political?”

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Quote from the artist Ai Weiwei (source: @aiweiwei_art)

“Why do you have to make everything political?” This is a common question my fellow white people like to ask when someone offers a cultural critique of a popular musical, film, video game, or TV show. “It’s not political! It’s just a cute story about a boy and his dog (or whatever)!”

All theatre is political theatre. All films are political films. All games are political games. All TV shows are political TV shows. Let’s break this down.

What does it mean for something to be “political?” Let’s start with the obvious: the dictionary definition is useless for navigating complex social issues. Dictionaries are written by people, not by Lexica, Infallible Goddess of Language, and are updated all the time as usage changes. Dictionaries are vital and have important uses, none of which include wielding a dictionary definition as a sword to demarcate the limits of a complex social issue. I love you, dictionaries, but for this, I need to set you aside and dig deeper. I need to look at context.

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Lexica has better things to do than write your dictionaries, mortals (photo: ela-e-ele.com)

When people say “Why do you have to make everything political?’ they’re using “political” to refer to the social messaging that’s inherent in any work about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, size, class, religious minorities, etc. Let’s cut to the chase: They mean, “I do not wish to examine the ways in which this work depicts and/or impacts marginalized people in our culture.”

All plays, films, games, and TV shows are political because they are about people in relationship to each other and to their social context, and because they are created within a social context, not in a vacuum where symbols and metaphors are wiped clean of all meaning. All works contain messages about privilege, about marginalized people, about who is important and who is not, about who we should take seriously and who we should laugh at, about which issues facing our culture are serious and which are easily dismissable or even comical. Social messaging is inescapable in the narrative-based work of theatre, film, video games, and television, whether you choose to examine it or ignore it.

In order to ignore the social messaging in a work, you have to be able to ignore it and willing to ignore it.

A film that people consider “universal” and “apolitical” is a film that neatly and seamlessly reinforces dominant culture and privilege. People with privilege see depictions of that privilege as “normal,” “wholesome,” and “apolitical” in ways that it’s impossible for people without that privilege to do. There is no “apolitical” work; there is only work that reflects the world view of cultural privilege back to those with cultural privilege, who see that as “normal” and unmarked by any particular political point of view. Those without that privilege hear the political messaging loud and clear.

Is the Harry Potter series “apolitical”? Why was the character Lavender Brown cast with a Black actor in every film, then recast with a white actor when the character became Ron Weasley’s girlfriend? People make all sorts of excuses for that (“They had to recast when the part had lines and they just happened to cast a white actor”), but I have 20+ years experience in casting, and I know that excuse is nonsense. More importantly, the casting of a tiny character might seem like a minor detail for white people, but you aren’t the young Black girl in the audience picking out the few Black faces in a film series that you love, only to see her replaced by a white girl when she finally becomes part of the main story.

Why do people claim that Disney films have recently “become political,” decrying the supposed “liberal messaging” in films like Zootopia, Frozen, and Mulan, but are just fine with the sexist messaging of older princess films (“Your happy ending is to marry some dude; no other plans or ambitions you have matter enough to mention”). Little Mermaid is considered “apolitical” but contains an uber-sexist narrative where a young woman must remain silent in order to “win her man,” and the “happy ending” is leaving her home, family, culture, and entire lower half of her body behind to be some douchebag’s wife. That is obvious political messaging, but messaging that supports the male cultural privilege we consider “normal,” so we don’t read it as such.

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Daisy Ridley and Carrie Fisher at Star Wars Celebration in 2015. (Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

Was Star Wars truly apolitical before The Force Awakens‘ Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) and Rogue One‘s Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) sparked male outrage about “feminism taking over Star Wars“? Because I seem to recall mainstream filmmaking’s first self-rescuing princess (played by the late great glorious giver of no fucks, Carrie Fisher) grabbing the blaster out of Luke’s hand, flatly stating “Somebody has to save our skins,” and ordering Han Solo “into the garbage chute, flyboy,” then killing Jabba her damn self with the chain he used to enslave her as a bikini-wearing sex doll. Yet the original trilogy centered around a straight white male, Luke, so the films still read as “normal” and “apolitical” to white men, despite many young women reading that message loud and clear. But it was the 70s and early 80s, so, despite the obvious feminism baked into the character of Leia, her strength could be read as just another part of her allure to men as she was detoured into a romance with Han Solo and stuffed into an objectifying gold bikini. (“Keep fighting against that slave outfit,” Carrie Fisher told Daisy Ridley.) Rey and Jyn are standing on the ground that Leia broke. Neither one is detoured into a romance or forced into a bikini (so far, at least), so there’s no way to silo them into the archetype “Hero’s Girl,” making the internet’s various fuckboys very angry while most men were, evidently, thrilled by both films.

“Why do you have to make everything political?” comes in various specific flavors, one of the more popular being “Why do you have to make everything about race?” The same principles hold; race is an aspect of every social encounter and every work of art is created within a specific cultural context– films are created by specific people, not found on the forest floor during JJ Abrams’ morning constitutional.

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“Holy shit, dude! Is that Episode 8?!” (source: nonabrooklyn.com)

If you are white in the US, chances are watching an all-white film does not register to you as “political,” but people of color will notice they have been completely left out. White people react with anger upon the release of a single Black-centric superhero film yet see no problem with the dozens of superhero films that leave out people of color or relegate them to minor roles. Those nearly all-white films did not register as anything but a realistic depiction of the “normal” world to those white people, yet the Black world of Black Panther– the fictional African nation of Wakanda– is “too Black” and therefore “too militant.” The trailer is typical superhero film fare, just with Black actors as the heroes. See for yourself:

It’s impossible to imagine what is “militant” about that trailer unless you believe every other superhero film is “militant.” It’s impossible to say that a film with Black leads is “too Black” unless you see the world as normally white, unless you see heroes as normally and naturally white.

“Why do you have to make everything about race?” Because WE make everything about race by creating, spreading, and aggressively protecting the racist idea that “white” is the world’s normal, default setting, and that anything else is special, distinctive, and added to a white world by white benevolence. When a box standard superhero film that runs on the same kind of ass-kicking imagery every other action film runs on is scary and “militant” because the good guys are Black, you are making it about race. People of color think about race all the time because of the shitty, racist ways we treat them, not because they had some secret meeting one day in 1953 and decided to invent identity politics to vex us.

I’m not here to snottily insist that “your fave is problematic.” I am right there with you. My faves are problematic. But instead of getting defensive, we need to be realistic about the ways in which media carries narrative and shapes our culture. No one is proposing detonating every existing copy of the original Ghostbusters or melting every copy of GTA into a gigantic plastic statue of The Spirit of Feminism. What I am proposing is that we be realistic about the impact that the works we consume and create have on marginalized people, that we listen to marginalized people when they talk about this rather than get defensive and argue, that we commit to getting better at this the way all artists are already committed to getting better at our art in every other way.

Tl;dr: “Why do you have to make everything political?” “Why do you have to make everything about race?” It already is. We’re just pointing it out. Don’t blame the person pointing at the pothole for the pothole’s existence. Instead, let’s work together on building better roads.

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Today is Lammas

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Today is Lammas (also known as “Lughnasadh”), the first of three traditional harvest festivals, what my mother’s people were doing this time of year in Britain while my father’s people were still in the Middle East working on the monotheism that would eventually give rise to a modified polytheism in the form of a male Trinity (triple deities until then having mostly been female) that would overrun the entirety of Europe, detaching this day from its traditional mooring. “Lughnasadh,” named after the Celtic God Lugh, is likely the older name; “Lammas,” from “loaf-mass,” is likely later, when people would bring their first loaves of bread from the harvest to church to be blessed, then break it into four pieces and bury it at the four corners of their fields to bless their fields. Burying offerings in fields is as old as agriculture, maybe older. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture women in hunter/gatherer groups making these offerings to stands of wild grain or fruit trees. Thank you, and please stay healthy. Have a fish. Before anyone understood the science of compost, generations of women were burying offerings in fields.
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Lammas is a good time to think about the old adage: You reap what you sow. What have you sown this year? Where have you put your heart, your mind, your energy, your time?
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Source: diversitytoday.co.uk

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I woke up suddenly at 5AM this morning and ended up going outside to watch the dawn and listen to the birds. It’s a rare treat these days, one of the many things I miss from mothering a wee one. By the time she was 5, she would entertain herself until we woke up, and her pre-dawn need for me was over, just like that. Nothing marks the passage of time quite so mercilessly as living with a child. You reap what you sow: In some cases, you can sow and sow and never reap, or reap a bitter crop. I have been very lucky in my family. I have been very lucky in my children. I know many people who have not been so lucky, despite having done everything I did and more. The gratitude I have for this family, for these children, is immense.
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Eat some grain today and thank the fields, the sun, the farmers, the earth, the Gods, your children, all children, our ancestors, our trancestors, the rain, the unimaginable luck that we have to live in a culture with such abundance; consider the unimaginable cruelty that we deny even small bits of that abundance to others because we selfishly believe we have the right to determine who deserves plenty and who does not, sad little kings of sad little hills that we are at times. Instead of burying a blessed loaf in your field, donate some money to a local food bank. There’s more than one way to give back, to make a Lammas offering to ensure the food safety of your community.
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Harvesting grain in ancient Egypt

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I baked my Lammas loaves last night and then sliced my finger open with the bread knife. Welcome, harvest. Please stay healthy. Have some bread and a few drops of unplanned blood. You reap what you sow: If you slice bread with a very sharp knife while looking at your husband, you will sow a cut finger. My husband is worth looking at, but perhaps not at that exact moment. Welcome, Lammas. Welcome, first glimmerings of fall, my favorite season.
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“Ceres, Goddess of Agriculture” by Emily Balivet. See more of her work and purchase prints here.

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