Relearning The Value of Patience in Assembling a Book of Poems

It’s the middle of August, which means summer is almost over and I have to start preparing in earnest to go back into the classroom. This is the first summer in many years–at least fifteen, I think–that I’ve been off since the spring semester ended in May. I certainly could’ve used the extra money I would’ve earned teaching my usual two summer classes, which didn’t fill because of low enrollment, but I’m also not complaining. I was able to make very productive use the extra time. I finished a first draft of my next book of poems! It’s more a framework for a draft, actually, nowhere near ready to share with the world, and so many of the poems are still in flux—even some that have been published in journals (here and here, if you’re interested)—that I am relearning a lesson each of the previous two manuscripts I have published taught me: patience.

CavanKerry Press, for example, rejected two or three different and substantial revisions of the manuscript that became my second book, Words for What Those Men Have Done, for reasons that boiled down to my not being able to get out of my own way within my own poems. (I was, to put it differently, trying too hard and too self-consciously to make the poems do what I wanted them to do, turning them more into poeticized editorials than works of art.) It wasn’t till I realized that I had fallen too much in love with the formal concept I had for the book as a whole, which was connected to ideas about chamber music and string quartets—ideas that would take too long to explain here—that I was able to hunker down with the language and take the time necessary to transform the manuscript into something worth publishing.

One reason I had such a hard time seeing this problem in the first place was that Words For What Those Men Have Done is so deeply personal. It deals far more explicitly than The Silence of Men with my experience as a survivor of childhood sexual violence, and it was, therefore, correspondingly more difficult and painful to write. The formal scheme I’d come up with for organizing the book–four or five long poems divided into four or five movements each–had been my way of making that pain and difficulty manageable, establishing the boundaries that would give it structure and meaning. I hadn’t understood that this structure’s purpose was, in reality, to enable me to generate the poetic material I needed. To turn that material into successful poems, enough of them to fill a book, I needed to allow the structures that would hold those poems to emerge organically–and that required patience.

Now that I have completed a first draft of this new manuscript—the working title is This Sentence Is A Metaphor For Bridge—I realize that I have been through more or less the same process. I just didn’t need to have the manuscript rejected three times for me to figure it out. After I finished Words for What Those Men Have Done, I was, quite frankly, tired of talking about myself. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to go back yet again to the violence of my childhood, or the intimate questions about manhood and masculinity that my poems sometimes explore, or the issues of my Jewish identity, or my marriage. I just didn’t think I had anything new to say, at least not in poetry. I wanted to write something that would take me out of myself, that would force me to focus more on the poem as a self-consciously constructed linguistic object, and so I set myself what I thought at first would be a purely formal exercise, sort of like playing scales on the piano. I decided to write sonnets, a form I have always loved, that would not only follow as strictly as possible the rules of the form, but that would also adhere to a set of guidelines meant to take me–my autobiographical self–out of the the poems as much as possible. These are all the rules I created:

  • I would write in strict iambic pentameter
  • All rhymes would be full rhymes (a rule I ended up having to break only once)
  • While I would not hold myself strictly to the Shakespearean or Petrarchan rhetorical structures, the rhyme schemes would adhere absolutely to one or the other of those forms (a rule I broke a couple of times)
  • I would not use the first person singular pronoun, I, unless it was spoken in direct speech by a character in the poem
  • As much as possible, rather than relying on narrative or logical momentum to move the poem forward, I would rely on the music of the language

I rarely set aside “writing time”” to work on these poems. Rather, I composed them piecemeal, usually on my phone, while I was riding the train or standing in line at the supermarket–pretty much anywhere but at my desk. If I got stuck or interrupted mid-line, as I often did, I just put the poem aside until I could pick it up again. When I did, though, instead of reading through all the lines I’d written previously, I looked only at the line that had been interrupted, and maybe the line before it, finding a way to continue based on the music—the rhythm, the sound patterning—of that bit of language. I didn’t give these sonnets titles, only numbers, and once a sonnet was done, I did not look at it again. I just moved on to the next one. Continue reading

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Figuring Out Why A Poem Doesn’t Work For Me

A book I’ve been making my way through this summer is Calling A Wolf A Wolf, Iranian-American poet Kaveh Akbar’s first full length collection. I say “making my way through” because, while there have been lines, phrases, stanzas, and occasionally entire poems that have made me catch my breath, no matter how hard I’ve tried, I just cannot muster the enthusiasm for the book, for the experience of reading it, that the hype surrounding it suggests I ought to feel. In part, this may be due to the fact that no work of art ever lives up to the hype surrounding it, but I’ve been reading and writing poetry for long enough to recognize the difference between a clearly not successful, or just plain bad, book that I’ve picked up because of the hype and a book that I really want to like as much as the hype says I should, because I can truly see from the work itself where the hype is coming from, but can’t. Calling A Wolf A Wolf is in the latter category.

Why two different people might have very different responses to whether a poem (or book of poems) is successful is a really interesting question, so I decided to go back through as much of the book as I’ve read, about 50 pages, to see if I could figure out what keeps getting in my way. This is what I discovered: In many of the poems—I did not count because I’m not interested in what that kind of quantification would signify, but in enough of them that a pattern of my reading experience presented itself to me—there were lines, phrases, sometimes whole sections, that took me out of the poem, or, to be more precise, out of what I will call the music of emotion that the poem had drawn me into. (I’m not exactly sure what I mean by “music of emotion,” but I wanted an expression that would include both the music of language, without which there is no poetry, and the flow of emotion—including the emotions connected with intellection—without which there is no point.)

When I looked more closely at these disruptive moments, I found that they almost always involved instances where the speaker starts explaining things, telling me what I am supposed to understand—saying, in essence, what the poem already says, but in plain and straightforward terms that ultimately undermine, for me, whatever power the poem had. By way of example, I want to talk about Akbar’s poem called “Prayer,” which is on page 40 of the book. (Please forgive errors in spacing.)

again i am thinking of self-love     filled with self-love     the stomach
of the girl who ate only hair was filled with hair     they cut
it out when she died     it formed a mold of her stomach     reducing
a life to its most grotesque artifact     my gurgling internal devotion
to myself     a jaw half-formed     there are words
I will not say     the muscle of my face smeared
with clay     I am more than the worry I make     I choose
my words carefully     we now know some angels are more terrifying
than others     our enemies are replaceable     the stones behind their teeth
glow in moonlight     compared to even a small star
the moon is tiny     it is not God but the flower behind God I treasure

I want to start with the poem’s last sentence–“it is not God but the flower behind God I treasure”–because this is one of those lines that made me sit back and take notice, not only for its meaning, about which more in a moment, but also for its economy of language and the way it is crafted. Two examples:

  • Leaving out before “I treasure” the relative pronoun that, the grammatical referent for which would have been flower. Had the phrase read “the flower behind God that I treasure,” in other words, the language would have directed the reader’s attention back to the flower as the object of the speaker’s adoration and away from where Akbar clearly wants it, on the speaker as the subject of the verb treasure, which calls back in an interesting way to the idea of self-love and self-involvement that the poem explores in its beginning lines.
  • The two spondees (two consecutive stressed syllables)–“not God” and “behind God”–are like stakes driven into the ground of the line, around which the rhythm of the rest of the line organizes itself. They also serve to emphasize the line’s negation or denial of, or at least the speaker’s desire to set aside the traditional notion of God in favor of the actual flower you find if you can see past that tradition. There is, in other words, a tension in the line between being a self that desires to get “behind God,” whatever that means, and the fact that, as long as this self remains a self, as long as it remains a consciousness that can treasure what is behind God, that is conscious of God, then God will always remain in the way.

This tension and the quest to resolve it—and I am guessing, since Akbar is Iranian-American, that this is no accident—in some ways defines Sufism, a way of practicing Islam that plays a central role in Iran’s history. Sufism is also central to the work of some of Iran’s, and the world’s, greatest poets, the most famous being Rumi, but there’s also Attar, Hafez, and Saadi.1 Indeed, Akbar’s reference to the flower behind God, alludes, whether he intended it or not, to a passage from what is generally cited as Saadi’s most important work, his Gulistan, or Rose Garden. The passage I am thinking about–this is my rendition of it–is this:

A man of God immersed himself in meditation. When he emerged from the vision that was granted him, a smiling companion welcomed him back, “What beautiful gift have you brought us from the garden in which you were walking?”

The holy man replied, “I walked until I reached the rosebush, where I gathered up the skirts of my robe to hold the roses so I could present them to my friends, but the scent of the petals so intoxicated me that I let everything fall from my hands.”

The “flower behind God,” in other words, can only be experienced directly, wordlessly, not shared, and not “treasured” as an object that you can possess.

Certainly, you don’t need to know about Sufism or Saadi’s Gulistan in order to appreciate the artistry in the line from “Prayer” that I’m talking about. I’ve laid all this out here, and tried to indicate some of its complexity, to underscore the fact that, whether Akbar consciously intended it or not, the line did not turn out the way it did by accident—if by “accident” we mean a completely random happenstance. On the other hand, if by “accident” we mean—and I am badly paraphrasing here something I read a long time ago in an essay I cannot now find by Hayden Carruth—the kind of thing that starts to happen “naturally,” without conscious forethought, after serious study, rigorous practice, and a deep immersion in craft and subject matter, then you start to see why I think this line (along with much else in Calling A Wolf A Wolf) is evidence of Akbar’s skill as a poet.

This skill is also evident in the two primary images Akbar crafts to set up the resonance that leads to the final line: “the stomach/of the girl who ate only hair was filled with hair” and “the stones behind [our enemies’] teeth/glow in moonlight.” In each of these images, an objectification of the self—the stomach filled with hair, the stones behind the enemies’ teeth—also represents, or symbolizes, how loving the self as an object ultimately destroys the self that is so loved. There is a progression in those two images as well, from an object that represents complete self-absorption, the hair, to one that starts to resemble “the flower behind God,” the stones behind the enemies’ teeth. This is how Akbar sets up the tension in the last line that I wrote about above, between the desire for direct experience of the flower behind God and the speaker’s inability to give up the desiring self. Continue reading

  1. A note to those who might be interested in looking up the work of some of these poets: While Coleman Barks and Daniel Ladinsky have produced the most popular versions of Rumi and Hafez, respectively, in the United States, if not in English in general, I would not recommend those versions as entrees into understanding the place those two poets occupy in either Persian or world literature. I wrote a blog post about Barks and Rumi—and I would also recommend reading the article by Rozina Ali that I reference there—and Aria Fani wrote a post on the Ajam Media Collective’s blog about translating Hafez that contains a good critique of people who work like Ladinsky. Murat Nemet-Nejat also wrote a critique of Ladinsky that’s worth reading. Dick Davis’ translation of Attar’s The Conference of the Birds is the best known translation of Attar’s work into English, but there is also a new translation by Sholeh Wolpe, which I haven’t read yet. If you’re interested in getting a taste of something else that Attar wrote, I co-translated parts of Elahi Nameh, or The Book of God, one of which—along with an introductory essay—I published in Modern Language Studies. You can get a copy here. As for Saadi, while I refer above to my own version of passages from Gulistan, it’s worth knowing that there is a recent translation of the complete text—the first one in more than a century—by W. M. Thackston. As far as I know, though, my Selections from Saadi’s Bustan is the only recent, non-religious and literary translation of that text that is easily available, since you can get it directly from me. []
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Cartoon: Picking Their Battles


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TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON

This cartoon has four panels, all of which show two men chatting as they walk. One man is Black with short springy hair, stubble, and round glasses; he is looking at a large smartphone as he walks. The other man is white; he is bald with a van dyke beard.

PANEL 1
The two men, not facing each other, are walking on a sidewalk single file; there are a couple of houses and a tree behind them. GLASSES is reading off his smartphone, while BEARD is holding out his hands in a mild “oh, come on!” gesture.
GLASSES: Someone called 911 on a Black pedestrian for walking on a sidewalk!
BEARD: They might have called for a white pedestrian too.

PANEL 2
They’re still on the sidewalk, but Glasses has come to a stop, pointing at something particularly outrageous on his phone. Behind him, Beard has is arms folded and has a condescending expression, although he’s speaking calmly.
GLASSES: Republicans have purged tens of thousands of legitimate Black voters from the voter rolls!
BEARD: They could vote if they tried harder.

PANEL 3
Glasses is flat-out yelling now, as the two of them walk single file down a hillside in some sort of hilly park. Beard looks up into the sky a bit, his hands shoved into his pants pockets, and responds calmly.
GLASSES: Another unarmed Black man has been shot by the cops!
BEARD: Two sides to every story…

PANEL 4
Glasses has stopped and turned back, and is reading from his phone with an amused expression. Beard is freaking out, yelling, one hand to his face and the other hand over his heart, eyes super big.
GLASSES: Heh – someone on twitter wrote “white people are trash” four years ago.
BEARD: SUCH RACISM! OH THE HUMANITY!

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Race, racism and related issues | 83 Comments  

My Life in Cats: Masque

This is Masque who belongs to friends of ours in Portland. We actually raised Masque from kittenhood at about three weeks when we found her and her brothers in our backyard. We bottlefed her, and weaned her onto solids, and wiggled the cat toys very gently on the ground so she could attack.

Masque lived with us for several years, but there was a lot of strife in the household by the end. After we got Masque fixed, she decided that she liked humans but she was no longer into the idea of other cats. Her brothers, with whom she had previously been very close, were very confused, and kept trying to play with and cuddle her. She was having none of it, so there were a lot of howling cats dashing around.

Since Masque moved up to Portland from California where we raised her, she’s become a floof. The winter has inspired her coat to become lush.

She runs away from me sometimes when we go to the friends’ house. I tell her that she’s ungrateful. “I raised you from a three-week-old kitten,” I say, and, “I bottle-fed you.”

If I stay long enough, she eventually comes to flop down next to me.

So, she’s like, half-grateful.

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Cartoon: I Have Been Silenced!


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Transcript

This cartoon has four panels, plus a small “kicker” panel beneath the bottom of the cartoon.

PANEL 1
An older man wearing glasses, sitting behind a desk, is talking to an intense man with a large black beard and wearing a suit jacket but no tie. We’ll call him “Blackbeard.”
GLASSES: We’re dropping your column. Many readers think you’re just too extreme.
BLACKBEARD: I have been silenced!

PANEL 2
Blackbeard is standing on stage behind a lectern, holding a hand high in the air as he declames. There’s a huge audience listening to him.
BLACKBEARD: I have been silenced!

PANEL 3
A newspaper lies on a table, near a coffee mug and a spoon. The newspaper is The Washington Post. A front page story shows a photo of Blackbeard talking, and a headline that says “I Have Been Silenced!”

PANEL 4
We are looking at a flatscreen TV. The TV shows Blackbeard appearing on Fox News. Blackbeard is yelling. An off-camera interviewer speaks.
INTERVIEWER: …here with his new book, “I have been silenced.”
BLACKBEARD: I have been silenced!

KICKER PANEL BELOW BOTTOM OF STRIP
Barry the cartoonist is talking to Blackbeard.
BARRY: It seems–
BLACKBEARD: STOP SILENCING ME!

Posted in Cartooning & comics | 3 Comments  

In Which I Have More To Say About The Politics Of Being A Man Who Has Survived Sexual Violence (and also about Junot Díaz)

In my previous post about Junot Díaz, I alluded to an essay I was in the middle of trying to write when I read the Boston Globe article in which he categorically denied the accusations of misogyny and sexual misconduct that have been lodged against him. That denial rendered mostly moot the tack I was taking in the piece, which had been based on the statement Díaz initially released through his agent, at least tacitly confirming that the allegations against him were true. Nonetheless, I think what I was trying to write about is still worth sharing. I’m not interested in debating here whether Díaz is guilty or innocent. If you’re interested, I made my own position clear regarding whom I believe in my earlier post and you can engage that whole debate, if you wish, by reading through the #JunotDiaz hashtag on Twitter.

Many of those responding in the immediate aftermath of the allegations against Díaz took refuge in the idea that “hurt people hurt people.” They wanted an explanation, a way to see him as damaged, and therefore flawed, not as the cynical, manipulative, and predatory hypocrite the accusations made him seem to be. I sympathize with that impulse, but in cases where a man who was violated as a boy becomes a perpetrator (and, yes, I realize Díaz was in this case only an alleged perpetrator), the explanatory power of “hurt people hurt people” actually obscures a very important fact: While many of those who commit sexual violence do have histories of sexual abuse, most boys who have been sexually violated do not go on to commit sexual violence against others.

To elide this fact does at least two objectionable things. First, it implicitly pathologizes what it means to be a male survivor, as if the violations committed against us were a kind of self-replicating virus. Indeed, this myth is sometimes referred to as “The Vampire Myth,” and it is on the list of myths about male survivors that every advocacy organization I know of makes it a point to fight against. The second problem with The Vampire Myth is that it shrouds in its pathologizing logic the fact that men who were sexually violated as boys were still socialized into dominant modes of manhood and masculinity, no differently than other men, including—for those of us who were violated by men—the men who violated us. Whatever else may be true about male survivors, in other words, when we commit sexual violence or act out in misogynistic ways, we are also always doing so as men. To suggest otherwise, to look at that behavior primarily through the ostensibly genderless lens of “hurt people hurt people,” is to imply that sexual violence perpetrated by male survivors has different roots than the same kind of violence when it is committed by other men—as if having been sexually violated somehow removes our gender socialization from us.

Not all men commit sexual violence, obviously, but misogyny and sexual violence are congruent with, do emerge from, the values that are inherent in typical male socialization. This is part of why, as a survivor myself, I resonate with the idea that I might be able to blame any such behavior on my part on the fact of having been violated. It would be nice, and convenient, to turn what the men who violated me did to me into a kind of teleology, the primary cause for which all the sexist, misogynist, and other dysfunctional behavior I’ve engaged in over the course of my life provides the evidence. Indeed, when my understanding of myself as a survivor was still new and raw, I saw myself—I think I needed to see myself—in that way. It helped maintain the integrity of a line I felt compelled to draw, about which I will say more below, between myself and the people who did, or other people who could, violate me. A person’s life, however, is far more complicated than can be explained by any single event, traumatic or otherwise; and so to pretend that the other formative experiences of my life, especially, in this case, my socialization as a man, have been secondary at best in determining how I have behaved as a man would be to pretend they were not formative experiences at all—and that makes absolutely no sense. Continue reading

Posted in Feminism, Men and masculinity, misogyny, sexual assault, sexual harassment | 2 Comments  

Cartoon: It Does Sound Wonderful


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After I posted this cartoon on Twitter, some folks assumed that the Youtuber was a caricature of a vlogger called “The Amazing Atheist.” That wasn’t my intent – I was just trying to draw a cliche of what right-wing vloggers look like – but after reading their tweets, I googled for photos of “The Amazing Atheist,” and damn.


Transcript of cartoon

This cartoon has four main panels, and also a tiny “kicker” panel under the bottom of the cartoon.

PANEL 1
This panel shows two men, in what looks like a kitchen. One is a bald man with glasses and a argyle sweater vest, the other is a man wearing a sleeveless shirt who has a full-sleeve tattoo on his left arm. Tattoo is sitting at a table, with a plate of food and a coffee mug in front of him, watching something on his smartphone. Argyle has his hand on Tattoo’s shoulder, and is leaning over to watch Tattoo’s smartphone.

ARGYLE: Whatcha watching?
TATTOO: Some Youtube guy.
YOUTUBER (speaking on smartphone)L You know what Democrats really want? Socialism!

PANEL 2
A close up of Tattoo’s smartphone. On the phone screen, a video is playing, showing a man yelling at the camera, a forefinger held up in the air.

YOUTUBER: Can you imagine how hard it is to be a cop now?> If you so much as rough up a suspect – BOOM! You’re fired!

PANEL 3
Like panel 2, a close-up on the smartphone. The youtuber looks aggravated and his holding both hands up in a “explaining my point” sort of gesture.

YOUTUBER: You can’t make jokes about anyone anymore! Jews, Blacks, gays, trans, fatties – all off limits!
YOUTUBER: Racism was a problem like a century ago – but that’s all over now!

PANEL 4
Argyle has turned to Tattoo is and is clasping his hands together in front of him, in a begging gesture. Tattoo is amused.

ARGYLE: Can we please move to the American the right thinks we live in?
TATTOO: It does sound wonderful!

SMALL KICKER PANEL BELOW THE BOTTOM OF THE STRIP
Argyle talks to Tattoo; they both look amused.
ARGYLE: Getting in should be easy – I hear they don’t guard the border at all.

Posted in Cartooning & comics | 5 Comments  

Open Thread and Link Farm, Fall Back Upon Preparedness Edition

  1. CMV: Most fat people are better off not trying to become “normal” weight. Instead, we should pursue fat acceptance and other ways of improving our health. : changemyview
    I did a “Change My View.” Spoiler alert: My view wasn’t changed.
  2. One man’s mission to bring better ramen to the incarcerated
  3. A Professor says the 2nd amendment right to self-defense is necessary; is accused of racism; rebuked by his university president; there are many death threats and demands he be fired.
    How strange that (as far as I could find) none of the prominent worriers about the “campus free speech crisis” wrote about this case. I wonder what was different?
  4. Ocasio-Cortez scored a victory — for well-designed campaign posters – The Washington Post
  5. Here’s Why This Mama Merganser Has More Than 50 Ducklings | Audubon
  6. Ocasio-Cortez’s Socialism Can Work in the Midwest
    As long as it isn’t called “socialism.”
  7. I Was a Female Incel – Quillette
    I certainly don’t endorse all of this essay, but I found it interesting.
  8. Free Speech for the Chattering Class Isn’t Free Speech for All | Noah Berlatsky on Patreon
  9. Abolish ICE? Medicare for all? Democrats are campaigning in poetry. – Vox
    “An old saying about American politics holds that you campaign in poetry and govern in prose.”
  10. My cousin takes this pervert down for grabbing her ass. He is later arrested in front of his wife and 2 kids when the cops arrived. : JusticeServed
    There’s video! I feel sorry for the kids, though. (But they’re not in the video). See also: Grabbing The Situation By The A** – notalwaysright.com (thanks to Mandolin for that link).
  11. Why the Migration or Importation Clause of the Constitution does not imply any general federal power to restrict immigration – The Washington Post
    From an originalist perspective, it’s hard to see where the Constitution gives the Federal government the right to broadly restrict immigration. Of course, I’m not an originalist – but many of the people calling for stricter controls on immigration are, or say they are. ETA: Here’s an alternate link.
  12. BBC – Culture – Why these anatomical models are not disgusting
  13. Critics of the Sarah Sanders restaurant protest say MLK would never have been so “uncivil.” But in his day, King was savaged as the enemy of civility. – Vox
  14. Young Leftist Candidates Are Breathing New Radicalism Into Stale Climate Politics
  15. Easily Mused: Al Williamson’s “The Success Story”This six-page horror comic, created in the 1960s, is a wonderful tongue-in-cheek response to the longstanding comics tradition of successful cartoonists having work by unaccredited assistants. Also, really beautiful drawings by Al Williamson.
  16. Probe found FlORIDA police chief told officers to pin unsolved crimes on random black people: report | TheHill
  17. Conservatives As Moral Mutants | Thing of Things
    “Of course, from a conservative perspective, I am an incomprehensible moral mutant.”
  18. There’s no such thing as a Trump Democrat – The Washington Post
  19. Letters of Note: Arkell v. Pressdram

I have no idea if anyone reading this would even want to watch a 40 minute video essay defending Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which is also about the original novel and the way stories are adapted to different times. But I found it very interesting.

Posted in Link farms | 32 Comments  

Cartoon: Words, Words, Words


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Transcript of Cartoon

This panel has four panels, plus a tiny “kicker” panel below the bottom of the cartoon. Each panel shows a Black woman wearing Saddle Oxford shoes is talking to a white woman with glasses and a pony tail.

PANEL 1
Saddle Shoes is leaning forward to explain something; Glasses rubs her chin thoughtfully and looks up into the air.
SADDLE SHOES: What we need to understand about white fragility is-
GLASSES: The phrase “white fragility” sounds racist to me.

PANEL 2
Saddle Shoes makes a conciliatory gesture, palms up; Glasses makes a “stop!” gesture with both hands, looking testy.
SADDLE SHOES: Sure, whatever.What we need to understand about white privilege is-
GLASSES: I don’t like that term, “white privilege.” Can’t we just say “racism” instead?

PANEL 3
Saddle Shoes, now looking testy herself, keeps trying to explain. Glasses looks angry, her hands on her hips.
SADDLE SHOES: Ooo-kay. What we need to understand about racism is-
GLASSES: The word “racism” is bullying and shuts down conversation!

PANEL 4
Saddle shoes looks annoyed, folding her arms. Glasses looks very pleased, opening her arms in a welcoming gesture.
SADDLE SHOES: I’m getting the impression you’d rather NOT have this conversation.
GLASSES: What a great idea! Let’s do that.

“KICKER” PANEL
The same pair of women. The woman with glasses is talking angrily.
GLASSES: Talking about things I disagree with is divisive!

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Race, racism and related issues | Leave a comment  

The Janus Case: What Freedom’s All About. Or At Least That’s What They Want You To Think.

At the end of every academic year, my union hosts a dinner at which a group of faculty, staff, and administration put on a musical show, the main purpose of which is to poke fun at ourselves. It’s a wonderful reminder that we shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously that we forget who we are, why we do the work we do, or why it matters that we are a union—one that just this year celebrated its 50th anniversary. I’ve been at the college for nearly three decades and I’ve been in every show except one, which I missed because of my wife’s graduation. The script is always original—we base it on the issues we’ve confronted during the year, the national issues that have been impinging on us, and the eternal issues that all teachers and students face—but the songs we sing are spoofs on well-known Broadway melodies, on standards from the American songbook, or popular music.

For the past two years, I have played Donald Trump, and the narrative of our show has been built around the conceit that this best president, with the best ideas, who can make the best deals, and who knows more about everything than anybody else was the best choice to solve the (very real) problems that have been plaguing our college for the past six or seven years. In last year’s show, I sang “I Am The Very Model of a Model College President”—based, of course, on Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General“—and this year I sang our version of “Just in Time,” by Jule Styne, with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, about how I/Trump arrived just in time to deal with the campus’ most pressing problems. Here’s a montage from this year’s show, in which you can see me briefly in my Trump wig:

As you might imagine—we are an academic union in an agency-fee state—the then-still-not-decided Janus decision figured prominently in our thoughts this year. In my capacity as union secretary, I’d written five posts about the case for our blog, and so I was charged with figuring out how to work the case into the show. The third post in that series, Preparing for Janus: What We’re Up Against, zoomed out to look at the case from a national perspective, and what I learned from researching that post was what I tried to channel as I wrote the monologue that would be spoken by our version of Mark Janus. Now that I’ve read the decision itself, what I wrote seems to me even more apt than it was when I wrote it.

It’s satire, of course, which means it’s unabashedly partisan, so it’s not a fully fleshed-out argument; and, despite what my Mark Janus says, Donald Trump actually has very little to do with how the Janus case ended up before the Supreme Court, though Trump has been very useful to the right wing billionaires and ideologues who’ve been working for at least 15 years to make it happen. Still, I thought the monologue worth sharing:

Hello, my name is Mark Janus. Your new president, Donald Trump, has asked me to speak to you about why it’s so important to make Right-to Work the law of the land. President Trump—successful, self-made man that he is—truly has his finger on our nation’s pulse, and he understands why it’s important for working men and women to be able to find jobs, regardless of whether they get paid fairly, whether their working conditions are safe, whether they can get fired for no other reason than slapping away their boss’ hand when he—or she; have to be careful not to be sexist—started massaging the wrong inner thigh under the table at the company dinner no other employees were invited to…truly, you have no idea how lucky you are to have as your college president a man who really gets it, who will make sure that stuff like fair pay and fair treatment don’t get in the way of your right to work.

So why did he ask me to come here to speak with you? After all, I’m just an average guy from Illinois. Well, I’m also the plaintiff in that Supreme Court case you’ve been hearing so much about. The one where the Court’s going to decide once and for all whether or not average people like us can be forced to pay a union for services that union provides us. I’ll give you an example. I work for the Department of Health Care and Family Services in Illinois, and I’m represented by AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. They negotiated a fair contract. I get paid pretty well for what I do; I have a good benefits package; a path for promotion if I want to take it; a retirement plan. The contract also helps guarantee that my workload stays reasonable, that I have recourse if I’m treated unfairly; and I stand fully behind my right to all of that, and to the union’s role in making sure that contract isn’t violated…and you know what? So does my legal team, and those wonderful Koch brothers, and all those other conservative organizations, who are paying for my legal team. In fact, I don’t know a single person on my side who doesn’t say, “Sure, if there are enough people who want to form a union, they should do so; and if they want to go ahead and negotiate a fair contract for everyone in the bargaining unit, then, hell yes, they should go ahead and do just that. If it makes them happy, it makes us happy.” We just believe that if they’re the ones who want to be a union, they’re the only ones who should have to pay for being a union. That’s what freedom’s all about, isn’t it? Not having to pay for something when you can get it for free.

Here’s another example. When I was hired, even though I said I didn’t want to join the union, the union still deducted from my salary what it calls a “fair share fee.” Yeah, I know, that money is supposed to compensate them for the work they have to do to negotiate for me, to represent me…but do you know what they then had the nerve to ask me to do? Lobby for a soda tax! Can you believe it? First, what the hell does that have to do with education? More than that, though, they put me in the position of having to say no, of having not to show up for that rally or whatever—because, frankly, I think a soda tax is stupid; if people want to get fat on soft drinks, that’s their business—and putting me in that position was just so unfair! What good are all those benefits, who cares about “the work they do on my behalf” if they’re going to treat me like that?

So that’s why I’m here. Because your President Trump knows my name has become synonymous with the kind of freedom of choice you need to polish the jewel this college is, the kind of freedom on which our great country was founded—though if you study ancient Roman mythology, you also know I was named after Janus, the god of beginnings and endings, and so I am asking you to help me make this the beginning of the end of the unions’ left-wing stranglehold on our nation’s politics… (Here, Janus was interrupted by other characters who sang a pro-union song.)

At bottom, that’s what the Janus case was really about. Nothing more and nothing less.

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