What I Hate About Christmas

“Hate” is probably too strong a word for how I feel about Christmas, mainly because I’ve made a decision to opt out of everything I hate about the season and I’m therefore actually pretty neutral on the subject. But as the snow is now on the ground, seemingly to stay, the lights and decorations are going up, the tunes are starting to play and the parties are being discussed, I recognize that my emotional reaction may actually start to shift towards that all-out “Bah, humbug” point.

Here’s the thing: Christmas consists almost entirely of bullshit. I don’t just mean that it’s become overly commercialized and commodified – though it has – because I think that the “putting the Christ back in Christmas” people are doing the exact same thing in ways that are as bad or worse. The entire ritual is based around performed joy, the inauthenticity of which is palatable from nearly corner and which, to me, is the antithesis of any kind of actual joy. I’ve always hated Valentine’s Day not just for its incredibly overcommodification of Hallmark-ified “love”, not just for its overwhelming heteronormativity and enforcement of gendered relationship expectations, but because the extent of that prescibed affection is such that if a partner were to tell me he loved me on Valentine’s Day, it would mean less than nothing. I’ve come to feel the same way about Christmas, only tenfold, because the expectations extend to every relationship I have, and further, to the presumption that I – especially as a Christian – should feel some sort of warm, fuzzy gratitude deep down in my cold, cold heart.

I’m actually a very hopeful person, despite my penchant for sarcasm and the Scrooge-esque sentiments outlined above. I’m just a big believer in authenticity with a deep aversion to expectations. I grew up in a family where serious dysfunction was consistently masked by intense pressure to present an outward image that everything was okay, and Christmas amped up the volume so that we had to project “fantastic”. Partially by luck, but also because I’ve made a series of conscious choices to move towards eliminating all the bullshit from my life, I’m in a position where I can opt out of a lot of Christmas-based expectations. Baking? Not a chance. Tree/decorations? Too much work. Family gatherings? Sorry, I have a job that requires me to work on Christmas day, but hey, I’d be glad to meet up with people in a much more low-key setting. Gifts? Only in so far as I can do something that actually matters to the people I really care about, and not – for example – if I have to resort to a box of chocolates/cheap decoration.

Mainly, what I refuse to do is perform joy or peace or love. Not because I hate joy and peace and love, but of course because I’m a huge fan of joy and peace and love, and I take them far too seriously to project false versions of them or, for that matter, to limit their relevance to December. Like I said, I feel really fortunate that I’ve situated myself in life in such a way that I don’t have to tolerate very many Christmas-based expectations, but I feel a lot of empathy for those people who can’t really shed them and who are still dancing the dance of stressed-out anti-joy. For my own sake, I’ve reached a comfortable détente with Christmas and its attendant pressures, but I do still kind of hate watching what it seems to do to everyone else.

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The Violence of Forgetting

Today, November 20th, is Transgender Day of Remembrance. While I can get cynical and frustrated with November 11th ceremonies mourning and honouring those who died in “noble” wars, this remembering is different. Queen Emily and Little Light both have great, informative posts about what it is we’re talking about here, about the violence that is going ignored and about the emotional impact of all of that violence.

Although Little Light emphasizes that this is not about raising awareness or promoting a face of public acceptability, and although this day serves a particular, sacred function within the trans community, as a cissexual woman looking at the cissexual world, I can’t help but feel that “remembrance” is an incredibly inadequate term. Because in all honesty, it’s not so much that we’ve forgotten this kind of hatred and violence or the individuals who have suffered from it, it’s that we’ve systematically refused to notice their humanity in the first place.

There’s a violence to ignoring, to obscuring, to the peaceful maintenance of order and emphatic refusal to mention the “problems”, and it goes hand in hand with physical violence, dehumanization, intimidation and hatred. There’s a violence to invisibility. There’s a violence to forgetting.

More on Parenthood and Selfishness

I seem to have become somewhat easily baffled. I was going to do a simple list-style post about “conversations I don’t know how to have anymore”, filled with references to people from whom I expect more missing the basic points of feminism/anti-oppression/acceptance, but the list just keeps getting longer in my head.

I’ve often written about the idea that not having children is a selfish act, about the equation of motherhood with selflessness, and about my own decision to likely remain childless for my lifetime. Despite never having had children, I do try – hard – to sympathize with the position that it changes your perspective on a lot of things, and to allow for kinds of emotions, opinions and attitudes I just can’t understand. I really struggle, however, with the fact that I think that on the whole, having children in our culture tends to make people more selfish. Certainly, parents in general – and often, mothers in particular – are required/called upon to make certain kinds of sacrifices in their personal lives in order to meet their children’s needs. Incredible amounts of time, money, and energy go into ensuring that other people are clothed, housed, fed, and I know that a lot of what I do with my life would instantly become impossible if I were to have children.

When I say we encourage an increase in selfishness with parenthood, it’s largely because of way so many parents are inclined to fight for their own children at the expense of anything else. I’ve written before about how the self-sacrificing mother myth can be destructive because it creates a conflation of the mother with her children, making their actions inherently “all about her” because she has no other self left. This is somewhat similar, in that the children, or the family unit, become an extension of the self, and the “other” expands a little further into the “out there”.

A lot of this current thought is connected to some of those conversations I just don’t know how to have anymore, which are pretty good examples of what I’m talking about. There’s a woman I love very much, who I consider in many ways to be an extremely generous spirit, and who works extremely hard to take care of her family. When her children have health problems, if she isn’t able to get an appointment with an appropriate doctor, or even able to get answers to their test results, in a timely manner – say, within a couple of weeks – she gets extremely upset. More than once, I’ve heard her ask in frustration “Are we suddenly living in a third world country?”. The most upsetting of conversations with her, for me, revolve around a young girl who was sort of becoming friends with her older daughter (age 11) last year. The other little girl (also 11) has developed already, tends to wear revealing clothes, and, I think, will talk in sexual language. My friend doesn’t really want her daughter hanging out with this other young girl, and I can respect that. What I can’t respect is the way the other girl is talked about – the word ‘slut’ is studiously avoided in the presence of the local feminist, but the meaning is clear, and it goes without saying that she is ‘bad news’, a ‘bad influence’, ‘inappropriate’ etc. There’s not even any consideration of what the other girl may be thinking or feeling, she is not only marked as immoral, that immorality is automatically assumed to start and end with her.

I kind of go silent in these conversations – which, from me, fortunately, is in itself a statement, since I’m so rarely quiet. But how do I say, in response to the former comment, that really? You really refuse to recognize the privilege you’re working with, even compared to a lot of people in this country? The last time she said it, it was shortly after I had been listening to Stephen Lewis talk about the impact of the “brain drain” on HIV/AIDS in Africa, referencing the fact that in Namibia (I believe), a country of several million people, the exodus of locally born and educated doctors and health care professionals in search of better employment elsewhere has left the entire country served by only 93 doctors, including only 2 pediatricians.

If I do say something, not just with this one individual but with most parents, the response is generally that yes, it’s exaggerated, but the expectation is that I should understand how that desire to protect one’s children emerges. And on some level, I do, but I can’t help but notice how open-mindedness and tolerance, or a general belief in equal access to such human rights as health care in principle is much easier to throw out the window when children enter the equation than when only adults (one’s self and perhaps a partner) are at stake. Being a big skeptic about biological determinism and a quase-cultural anthropologist type, I don’t honestly know how much of this behaviour is “natural” and how much reflects the cultural prioritization of one’s own children as extensions of the self.

As usual, I want to be clear that I’m talking about what I perceive to be tendecies or pressures. I’m not universalizing this behaviour, I’m not criticizing all parents and I’m certainly not dismissing parenthood. My main suggestion is that there is a cultural push toward increased “selfishness” that is attached to parenting, one that is actually supported by the idea of “sacrifice” that creates a superficial mask of selflessness.

Because apparently I feel like being controversial in the morning.

Remembering

There is something that bothers me about Remembrance Day, and I can never quite put my finger on what it is – at least, not without knowing that my discomfort is at least somewhat inaccurate, because I’m not sure it’s Remembrance Day in principle that’s problematic, so there’s some baby-bathwater conflation going on. Like a lot of people who have opposed or criticized contemporary wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, even Kosovo), I know how quickly discussion of “remembrance” turns into “support our troops”, even here in Canada. It’s a day when it’s rendered unseemly to criticize military practices and policy, even as what we’re supposed to be bringing the horrors of war into public consciousness.

I think my problem is that we’re not. Not really. We’re listening to mournful trumpet music, looking at wreaths and poppies, reciting a poem that has been stripped of emotional power for most of us as through sheer grade-school repetition, and looking at black-and-white photos of smiling young men in uniform. We’re practicing symbolic rituals that, for the vast majority of Canadians, have absolutely nothing to do with war. Remembrance Day involves a series of prescribed ways for discussing, thinking about and “remembering” specific wars, as well as specific ways of fighting those wars. First of all, we’re talking about the noble wars – the Great War, the Second World War, battling communism in Korea. Second, we’re talking about the men who took up arms to go over there and fight. We’re allowed to talk about how they died, but not about whom they killed. We’re not allowed to talk about women who were raped as acts of war. Maybe if we’re really feeling generous, we’ll talk about how Canadian women stepped up on the home front, we might check out some pictures of young, 1940s era war widows holding babies and looking stoically prepared to face the challenge, but certainly not about the likelihood that such women fell into poverty from lack of social support systems or ability to work. We’re not going to talk about the post-traumatic experiences of soldiers or people living in war zones.

The pictures we see are all going to be in black-and-white, and there’s not going to be any blood in them. Not visibly, anyway. Everyone is going to be wearing nice, neat uniforms, remaining silent and on their best behaviour. A friend of mine called it a national funeral mass, which I suppose is fair, and his point is that there is a place for exactly this kind of ritualistic “mourning”. As he said, you don’t show the pictures with the blood at the funeral of an individual who died violently. I’m still contemplating his point, because something still sits wrong with me, as the whole constructed experience feels problematic. I still question whether it’s the event in itself or what has become an inevitable component of it – that you’re not allowed to mention the problems with the official story, let alone the other half of the story, or even the contemporary military and its actions.

I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how war has become an event mitigated through television screens and newspaper articles, and I suppose my point is that I don’t see how this changes it. In fact, I think it makes it worse. Peace activists I know are far more likely to have seen photos of real, bloody, violent death from recent or ongoing conflicts and wars, or even to have been on-hand to see some of that violence. The sepia tones, the flowers, the narrative of nobility, honour, sacrifice – that creates more distance, not less, between us and war. Lest we forget, this shit happens in colour.

I’m not wearing a poppy today, and that’s pretty much why.

…and Children

This is a post that has nothing to do with elections of any kind. Consider yourselves warned.

Two (of three) of my classes have conspired this week to make all of my readings relate to the subject of HIV/AIDS in Africa as it connects to various aspects of Globalization. This particular pile includes Stephen Lewis’ 2005 Massey Lectures “Race Against Time“, the fourth part of which is called “Women: Half the World Barely Represented”. Instead of picking up the book itself, I’ve been listening to the recorded versions of the lectures as broadcast on CBC, and I think there’s some advantage to that, because Lewis is an incredibly passionate speaker and the sincerity of his anger and frustration comes through much more clearly in his own voice.

Though his assignment and main point of reference is HIV/AIDS in Africa, this lecture is about global gender inequality in its entirety and the incredible lack of attention paid to women’s needs by the international community, specifically the UN. In his analysis, despite the rhetoric of the UN statements, women are treated in one of two ways. First, through “gender mainstreaming”, which assumes that women’s issues will be taken care of if we just let the boys in charge continue trying to fix things as they always have, specificity of concerns be damned, and (more importantly) with no respect for the fact that we’re starting at a disadvantage. Second, lumped in with “and children” or as “pregnant women and babies” or “and families”. It’s that second point that interests me.

The compare and contrast of UNIFEM vs. UNICEF reveals that while the latter had over 8000 full time staff in 2004, the former had 45 or 50, and the budget differential came out 40:1. Now, I should hope it’s obvious that this argument is not intended to say that children are unimportant, nor would I pretend that women’s rights and concerns can be divorced from children’s/family needs, particularly as connected to poverty and especially globally. But I find those statistics telling, and I also find it noteworthy that we, as feminists, often find ourselves arguing for women’s rights with reference to the way improving them will have an impact on children, families, communities etc. Again, don’t get me wrong – there is definitely a relationship. I fully believe that improvements in women’s rights and making specific effort to reduce women’s experiences of poverty, violence and marginalization will improve the broader community, including the lives of children/families and have a positive impact on local economies.

But somehow, I can’t help but notice that we’re falling into a trap of feeling that we have to justify women’s rights with reference to some logic other than women’s rights. Women matter because of children, because of their role in the family, because of the community. We can get people to care when we call it child poverty, which obscures the reality that (both locally and globally) we’re largely talking about women’s poverty. If we’re talking about women specifically, without reference to chidlren, pregnancy or families, we get what Lewis calls “a monolith of indifference and paralysis” (his argument is a lot more extensive than I’m presenting here; I highly recommend the book/lecture recordings if you get a chance). As his title suggests, we’re talking about half the world, but there’s very little motivation for talking about their rights in and of themselves. Women’s marginalization has an extremely strong correlation to child poverty, infant mortality, children’s health, you name it…and child poverty, infant mortality, children’s health are extremely important issues. But that’s not why women’s rights matter, and I’m frustrated to no end that the only way we’re able to get women’s issues on the radar is to frame them in terms of their impact on children.

Lewis describes his experiences trying to refocus attention on women in Africa, and in particular on their increased vulnerability to HIV/AIDS, among UN agencies and refers to their attitude as nothing short of contempt. Just from basic experience advocating the relevance of feminism, I can relate to that feeling, and I often find myself falling into the “…and children” trap. To me, this is all connected to the idea of childhood innocence, and the division of the world into deserving vs. undeserving victims. It’s a lot easier to shut your mind off to caring about victims of domestic violence when you perceive it as in some way connected to their own choices. Living in a highly individualistic, bootstraps-based culture, we absolve ourselves of responsibility for adults, but our sympathies are piqued when it comes to helpless children. I don’t think this is disconnected from our sense of what it means to be “charitable” and compassionate, either, as I’ve talked before about how that is frequently a top-down process that ensures that the giver is able to retain a solid sense of hir own superiority. There’s little moral ambiguity – and little loss of control by those who already have power – involved in giving food to starving children, but attempting to deal with the agency and self-determining capacity of adult women (or racialized populations, for that matter) might just mean we disagree and could even find out that “our side” is wrong.

This is getting me into much more basic philosophical territory, but as usual, all roads seem to lead to the same common themes in my mind. I doubt it’s coincidental.

Trust and Politics: I Believe Him

The past week or so, I’ve actually been around, with some time and some thoughts that I could have been blogging, but I just couldn’t bring myself to write when everybody in the tiny circle of my blogging world could think of nothing but the culmination of the past two years of perpetual election. I was going to hide until after talking about the election per se had become relatively passé, but it turns out, I kind of can’t.

I doubt I’m saying anything that hasn’t been said by many before, and better, but I’ve been seeing a lot of continued skepticism from some of the people around me. And you know, I’m under no illusions that now-president-elect Obama is any kind of radical leftist who will enact policies that will really fuck with corporate America or seriously revolutionize the status quo (which, in my world, are good things. Because I am a socialist, among other things). I’m also well aware of the limitations that are inherent in the office and the structure, and that there’s only so much one person can do from one seat, however powerful.

The whole campaign, listening to Obama speak has given me hope. Whatever else he is, the man has the capacity to inspire. To energize. To excite people. That shit matters. Having something to frame the fight around makes it possible to fight. I’m as frustrated and politically cynical as anybody, but the man is such a brilliant, skilled politician that I manage to forget all that. I believe him.

I was watching the results on NBC with some friends, and of course, after they came in, between McCain’s concession speech and Obama’s acceptance speech, Brian Williams et al were telling the narrative they had been handed for the Obama victory: Only in America. Anything is possible, but only in America. Many things will reignite my cynicism, and I have to confess, despite the circumstances, American exceptionalism is one of them. For one thing, only in America, what? Only in America can a black man be elected? Why yes, that is mighty gracious of you folks. Congratulations on not letting racism win. Again. This time. For now. Congratulations on taking the contrast between a mediocre politician who has run an exceptionally poor campaign and made it exceedingly clear that he has no real plan for dealing with the kinds of problems the US is facing right now and one of the most impressive leaders, brilliant rhetoricians, intelligent and skilled policy makers that has emerged on the world stage in a damn long time, and still ending up with a popular vote in the 50-50 range. Only in America can we…overcome everything that was fucked up about us? Well, it would have been nice if it could have been not fucked up in the first place, or if it hadn’t taken literally centuries, not to mention the fact that, obviously, it’s not anywhere near overcome yet, and oh yeah, plenty of other places in the world have been trying to do exactly that (South Africa comes to mind immediately). To be frank, it felt like NBC was giving the nation a giant cookie for the very basics in not being an asshole.

And I felt bad, because they brought out a congressman who had been seriously active in the civil rights struggle, and I found myself feeling cynical even at hearing him say these things, in that case because the line NBC was playing was that this battle is over. We can all pack up and go home, there’s no more fight to be fought. Inspirational? Hell yeah. Has something been overcome? You’re damn straight it has. This shit matters, I know it does. But at that point, NBC was setting the stage for us never to be able to talk about race again, because weren’t we there? It’s over. And I was cynical.

Then there was that speech. Yes we can. That absolute confidence, faith, and clarity of purpose. That refusal to pretend that any of this is easy. That constant focus on giving some direction. Going somewhere, and making damn sure that it’s forwards. He says “Yes, we can” and fuck, I believe him. I don’t believe any politicians. I don’t have a lot of trust for our political institutions, and I make my political choices accepting the reality of manipulation and near-constant bullshit from all sides. This guy? I believe him. I don’t agree with all of his positions, and he’s still far to the right of where I’d like my politics to sit. But I even believe him when he stands up there and says he wants to listen, especially when his consitutuents disagree with him. I even believe him when he raises the possibility of listening to the rest of the world.

Say what you will, but that shit matters. US friends: congratulations (I guess? What does one say about such a thing?). If you could please avoid starting to talk about 2012 for at least a year or so, I would really appreciate it.