In starting to research a paper this morning, I just came across the news about four MSF workers who’ve been abducted in Darfur (some of the articles say three, some say four – there are some conflicting reports about whether both of the Sudanese guards who were with the foreign staff members were released immediately or whether one of them continued to be held). One of them is a young Canadian nurse, originally from PEI, named Laura Archer.

There’s a lot of contextual information that’s really important to understand in order to get a full sense of the situation, including the fact that the Sudanese government has very recently issued an expulsion order for MSF personnel working in Darfur. The government’s order, in turn, comes on the heels of the International Criminal Court’s decision to indict the Sudanese president. MSF maintains a strict policy of non-involvement with judicial and political events/organizations, but reiterating that fact has not cancelled the expulsion.

This is the context of these kidnappings. All remaining MSF staff are now being pulled from Darfur. The MSF workers’ descriptions of how devastating it is to be leaving are fucking gut-wrenching, and those are just the words of aid workers.

And you know what really destroys my faith in humanity? The CBC story. Here’s the one on the kidnappings, and here’s the profile of Laura Archer, the Canadian and therefore the one for whom we are supposed to have greatest sympathy. In sincerity, it does seem like she’s an incredibly strong, passionate and compassionate human being, but I cannot let go of frustration at the fact that despite the fact that she was working with an organization called Doctors Without Borders, we are expected to see her as a Canadian first and foremost, acting on the basis of Canadian values and driven by Canadian virtue. I make that observation above and beyond the concern generated about white Canadian individuals that we can’t ever seem to muster for black Africans themselves. You don’t get a lot of CBC profiles offering us the life histories of individuals living in the camps that Laura Archer worked in. You don’t get a full human picture of that humanitarian crisis, becaus you don’t get a full human story about the full humans living in it. You get a bunch of statistics and numbers and racial/ethnic identities, never names and never stories.

Honestly, that feels like the basic not-rocket-science to me. Before diving in to the cesspool that is the comment section on those CBC pieces, I would just add the observation that the other individuals (Italian, French and Sudanese) who were kidnapped along with this woman were men (actually, I’m not sure about the Sudanese guard, because I’ve only ever seen reference to “Sudanese guards”, but I’m making the possibly erroneous assumption that they were male. I won’t speculate as to why I haven’t seen their names, because there could be a lot of reasons). From the CBC commentariat, it ultimately seems less important that Laura Archer is Canadian and more relevant that she’s a kind, innocent, pretty, blonde woman who’s being held captive by savage beasts. I’m blissfully unaware of how to create a perma-link directly to specific comments on CBC articles, but the most recent two comments when I opened the article were “Of course she is beautiful, she from PEI” [sic] and “Hello nurse” (that latter from a user named “toetag”). This sexualization shit makes me want to vomit, but I think I feel even worse when people who are apparently putting slightly more thought into the question who noted that the motive for the kidnapping could clearly be discerned from the woman’s picture. While I don’t deny that the risk of specifically sexualized violence that Archer faces is relevant and different than the fears faced by the men with her, there is just so much wrong with that comment. Several people gave that comment in particular a thumbs down/disagree, but a few others did the opposite, and I think it points to so many layers of misunderstanding about rape as a weapon of war, not to mention its complete ignorance of – and, it seems to me (since all of this information is readily available with a few clicks), apathy about – all of the contextual details surrounding this specific kidnapping, right down to the basic fact that she was not the only person taken.

But the worst, for me, and by far the largest proportion of problematic comments, are the ones that are asking why we’re not sending in a military response to rescue Laura Archer. “Our boys” can do this. We can – and must – send in strong white men to save this pristine, victimized white woman from her savage kidnappers (presumably African, presumably black). Again, I don’t want to sound cynical about the woman herself – not only are there obvious reasons to respect her work, her quotes make her sound like someone who does the work from a place of genuine and deep compassion – but I hate the way the story and responses are constructing her to be the perfect victim. There are comments on the overall “Darfur kidnappings” story in particular that disagree with this construction, but only in so far as her/their decision to go to such a scary, dangerous, God-forsaken place means that they should have expected such things to happen. She shouldn’t have been walking around alone in that dark alley country.

I really could go on and on about this one, but I’ll wrap up with a quote that I’m glad the CBC decided to include, from Laura Archer herself, which covers a lot of the point in far fewer words than I ever use. In discussing her first trip with MSF, in Central Africa, she noted:

The experience was humbling. I knew that, unlike my locally hired co-workers, I could leave. I was constantly aware of the fact that I had a safe home to return to.

Obviously, I hope she does return to that home. But I also hope that her African co-workers get that same safety and a home to return to (or go to for the first time).


The Desert and Lenten Sacrifice

I was on a bus the other day driving through random small town back corners of Southwestern Ontario, and saw a sign on one of the churches that said “Lent is about surrender, not discipline”.

That got me thinking about a lot of things. I definitely like the overall sentiment, especially since I think the elements of authoritarianism, restrictiveness and punishment still pervade the Christian faith (both from within and from the perspectives of those outside). Moving away from spirituality that focuses heavily on those things – and that is grounded, more than anything else, in fear – is, I think, extremely healthy for anyone and a particularly important part of where I see the intersection between faith and feminism (or really, any anti-oppression activism). The word ‘discipline’ is full of incredibly problematic connotations, not least would be the contemporary assertion of “Christian domestic discipline” as biblically justified spousal abuse. The word ‘surrender’ has some layers to it that I had originally planned to address in this post, but I find my brain going in a different direction, so maybe I’ll get to them another time.

The cultural practice of Lent brings a few things about our social attitudes into focus. Again, I think these attitudes are prevalent among people who are practicing Christians as well as people who aren’t, but who have grown up or lived surrounded by a culture that is full of Christian imagery, mythology and behaviours; I think that’s important, because it has to do with how a specific model of thinking continues to shape both our experience of Christianity and things that purportedly have nothing to do with Christianity directly. What, mostly, do we know about Lent? During my (Catholic) childhood, I was told that Lent is when you give up something you like. Chocolate, or TV, or whatever. As I got a little older, I knew that it was related to Jesus having gone out into the desert to fast for 40 days and 40 nights. If Jesus did it, we should do it. Because of the rather tenuous spirituality of my upbringing, I don’t know that I got an understanding that the whole point was to use this time to get into closer contact with God until well into adulthood. All I really knew was that you were supposed to give something up, that it was going to be unpleasant, but that you should do it anyway.

There’s an equation in this picture between suffering and holiness. There’s a direct line between giving something up and being good. Sacrifice is about loss, it’s about unpleasantness and yes, it’s about discipline.

First of all, there’s a point missing on this chain of causality. I was in my 20s before anyone ever talked to me about what fasting meant to them in a more spiritual sense. I realize now that a lot of people take the opportunity, when they feel that sense of craving or frustration or suffering, to pray. Maybe just to force themselves to be more aware of God, maybe to specifically find a way to be grateful for things, maybe to ask for greater peace and acceptance. But there’s a step there between the suffering and the resulting benefit, so that the suffering isn’t the end in itself, nor is the simplistic prideful victory that you were stubborn enough not to give in to the cravings. The moments of pain (however large or small they may be, depending on what you’re giving up) remind you of something you need to be more conscious of, and you bring that to God.

There’s also the assumption that the main point is the taking away of something that one enjoys. When a lot of people casually talk about Lent, they ask “What are you giving up?” This year, I started jokingly saying that I’m giving up working for Lent, but I fairly quickly realized that I wasn’t really joking at all. I’m taking some time off from the 24-hour a week, shift-work heavy part time job that I was trying to retain while also juggling full-time graduate studies and a few other commitments that require varying amounts of time and energy. For six months, I was sleeping sporadically at best, eating completely irregularly and pretty much never feeling genuinely relaxed or calm. It was starting to threaten my health, physically, mentally, and yes, spiritually. Not only did I lack the time to really focus on prayer and meditation, and not only was my exhaustion starting to make me angry, bitter, frustrated and lacking compassion, I was also constantly getting that prideful perfectionist streak back into me. The one that says that I have to do more than anyone else, and I have to be better than anyone else at everything I am doing, and that the possibility that I might have to drop something or do less than brilliantly at something is really absolutely vital to, like, the survival of the human race or something.

The desert is more than just a place of empty, barren sacrifice. It’s more than this no-fun world where you don’t get to do cool things like play video games and eat yummy stuff (the equation of deliciousness and, yes, fat with sin is full of its own problems, and they clearly apply well beyond the boundaries of the Christian faith into our popular consciousness about what is good and bad and holy, but they’re really the subject of another post). The desert is a place of silence and stillness, where you move away from the multitude of distractions that are not God. It’s a place where you’re forced to take away all of the distractions and performances that you put up on yourself and just be.

So I’m giving up working for Lent, as part of a way of foraying into the desert. Given how much trying to do everything and be everything was taking me away from God, this is, actually, an act of surrender. I’m suffering a hell of a lot less these past few weeks, and in fact feeling a great deal of relief and even joy. None of that suffering was doing a damn thing to make me a better, holier person. I didn’t really ever think it would, but I think there’s a subconscious tendency to move towards that belief, where never enjoying one’s self is the mark of true goodness. There’s a reason the ‘martyr complex’ is so pervasive.

If we could all, collectively as a culture, give that up for Lent, I think that would be really cool.

Hiding Under a Rock

I do seem to have disappeared from the internets, don’t I? For a while, it was the fact that I couldn’t find the footing to deal with the basics of my schedule, let alone add in anything that might require additional thought. After that, it was probably just that I hadn’t noticed how long it had been since I’d had anything to say, despite my intention to start using this space to think through things again. For once, though, my absence from writing has not been due to a period of either overwhelming busy-ness or general malaise that leaves me unmotivated for anything at all.

I’m still reading bits and pieces of what’s in my feedreader, and during the occasional bout of insomnia I’ve actually managed to read a significant portion of the writing on this latest episode of bullshit in the blogosphere. Or these multiple, separate but the same episodes, really. And reading that stuff, I start to realize that actually, it’s the blogosphere that’s been keeping me from blogging. I’ve never been a regular participant in long discussions on blogs, because I find it extraordinarily time consuming, but occasionally, I would use this quiet little space here to work through my own thoughts about where I’m at and what I’m learning, and air them for the passers by who happened to wander in. There are appealing aspects to the spherical elements of the various subsegments of the blogworld.

At the same time, there’s a particular kind of blog-based toxicity that doesn’t seem to have any healthy, redeeming qualities. It goes beyond the basic “anonymity creates a greater quotient of assholery” equation, but it’s another way the context seems to amplify certain social dynamics. Or maybe it doesn’t amplify them at all – like the force of the special white woman tears, or the apologies that have absolutely nothing to do with amends, or whatever else – but I don’t tend to see them elsewhere because I don’t have to deal with racism, homophobia, transphobia etc on a daily basis. I’m really grateful for what my (infrequent, inconsistent, and always half-assed) participation in the feminist blog world has taught me, because there is a hell of a lot of really beautiful, intense, brilliantly angry, passionately personal shit out there, and reading it has helped to change the way I see the world.

About five years ago now, I was surfing the net at my friends’ house and saw some headline linked on MSN or yahoo or something that clearly telegraphed an article chock full of banal sexism and gender role reinforcement disguised as dating advice. When describing the article to my friend later, I said that my thought when I read the headline was “This is going to be offensive – I’d better read it!” The statement came to really point to this quintessential feature of Purtek. At the time, I would seek out the most painfully ridiculous right-wing discussion boards on the ‘net and read through the most blatantly hateful, malinformed and gleefully vicious threads I could find for hours at a time, every day. I enjoyed being outraged. I can’t quite place why, since in those cases there weren’t any countering voices that helped me to actually learn something while also subjecting myself to these screeds, but I continued to explicitly seek the spectacle of vitriol even if I knew it wasn’t exactly healthy.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been anywhere near that bad. In recent years I’ve become vaguely familiar with what calm feels like, and whatever I feel when I’m reading that stuff, it’s not calm. In bouts of insomnia, when I find myself going through those long threads full of conflict and mostly obtuse responses from people who are behaving hurtfully, well, it doesn’t really get me to sleep, which should probably tell me something. I usually figure that if I’m going to have anything to comment about in blog-world, I should know these threads, because that’s where the emotional weight of the arguments is at.  But by the time I get through them, of course, most of what I might say has been said, and more particularly, I’m feeling decidedly uncalm, and uncalm is not a place I like anymore. I want to balance that against the fact that a lot of these emotions are really important and point to so many deeper issues about the nature of oppression and silencing and abuse, and I’ve learned a hell of a lot from standing on the sidelines watching other people’s mistakes. I don’t think it’s healthy to go too far under that rock, but I don’t know if it’s healthy to climb up on top of it and use it as a diving board into molten lava either.

I have to get to class now, but I wanted to make some sort of post as a way to push myself to start saying something.  I’m in the process of making some decisions right now that have me thinking about a lot of things in my life, and I’d like to post some things about that. We’ll see if that works out, but for now, I guess I’m just trying to have a new relationship with the rock.