Thirteen Years

On Rosh Hashana 2001, the shofar reminded me only of sirens.

In early October 201, at the Barnard open house, the representative asked how many students were afraid to come to school in New York. A few hands went up. Then she asked how many parents were afraid to send their daughters. All along the back, where the parents were standing, hands went up.

That weekend, we went to Ground Zero. Stood silently looking across the rubble still smoking. Even after a shower, my hair smelled like smoke.

Five years later, I interviewed people who had been at Columbia that day, a professor of terrorism who turned on the television and thought for a moment the image of the burning tower was a bad movie, student photographers who walked the length of Manhattan, a student who had interned at Lehman Brothers at the World Trade Center that summer. His hand shook as he passed his I.D. across the table to me. Five years later, the card, with a World Trade Center icon, was still in his wallet. We talked in early September sitting outside, a day just like the one he was remembering.

The high school auditorium with the televisions showing the falling towers and projecting news broadcasters who sounded as confused and scared as us, feels worlds away and like I was there yesterday.

Privilege and Outrage: Why I Care About Ferguson

This is 2014. Photo: Associated Press

On the one hand, this should be the shortest post ever: “Because I am human and American,  I care about human rights, our constitution, racism, and poverty.” Done. Hit publish and walk away.

On the other hand, a lot of people who look like me, live near me, and have similar backgrounds to me, don’t see it that way.

The last time I found myself completely unable to stop reading a news story, was when it felt really really personal. When I finally gave myself a news break, I felt relief and calm. This time, I turned off my computer on Friday evening and didn’t turn it back on until Sunday night. When I did, I felt guilty, because Ferguson is not just about Michael Brown, it’s not just about protesters or journalists who are being stopped from doing their job. It’s not just about Ferguson. It’s about the black kid who gets pulled over by the cops ten times a month. It’s about schools with just over 50 percent graduation rates. It’s about segregation in the year 2014. It’s about the criminal justice system in this country. It’s about black boys who are taught to never call the cops. It’s about systemic racism. (Don’t believe me? Take a look at the Twitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. Read this. And this. And this.  And this).

And, because I’m white, I can turn off the news and I have the option to tune all of that out. I don’t live with that systemic racism, so when I turn off the news, I have the privilege of tuning it out. My friends, co-workers, fellow citizens, are not so lucky.

When I think about why this is the news story that I can’t stop reading about, I think about the West Wing‘s Toby Ziegler reaction to the shooting in Rosslyn:

Toby: Why does it feel like this? I’ve seen shootings before.

President Bartlet: It wasn’t a shooting, Toby, it was a lynching. They tried to lynch Charlie right in front of our eyes.

To head it off at the pass: yes. I know that the West Wing is not real. I know that in that fictional world, Charlie was shot at by white supremacists and that in the real world, it’s likely that Darren Wilson’s motives were not overtly racist.

Wilson may have shot in fear, but that fear probably has roots in the way our society portrays black men: as dangerous and disposable. Michael Brown’s death may not have been a lynching, but it drove to the surface a lot of anger about a lot of racial injustices. It exposes my country’s darker side, the demons that we have not conquered, the demons we haven’t even really tried to fight because it’s more comfortable to ignore them. 

Yes: “We.” This should be a problem for everyone.

Last week, a commenter on Jezebel said  something along the lines of, “I wish we didn’t make this about race, so that everyone could be outraged.” But, you don’t have to be the victim to be outraged. Exercise empathy muscles. Be outraged because it’s unacceptable not because it could happen to you. Educate yourself. Learn that most protesters are not looters. Check your language. Are you making gross generalizations? Are you saying, “not to be racist” or “no offense, but…”? Ask yourself, how can I change myself and how can I change the system, no matter how small an impact. (Does anyone have an answer to the latter question? Let me know!)

In response to a piece from The Forward   “Why Jews Should Care About Ferguson”, someone on Facebook wrote.

“Would you be scared to open your shop there past 9pm? Now? Exactly, so cut it. You have no stake in the game. But those with shops over there do. So how can you belittle their concern for safety?”

Nobody in the thread or in the article had justified the looting. The idea that we somehow shouldn’t or are not allowed to care about the broad underlying injustice because we don’t know what it’s like to be store owners in Ferguson is even more mind-boggling than the idea that you should only be outraged if you are black. I have a stake in this game. We all should. 

I am outraged because as a Jew I believe that I cannot ignore the oppression of others just because things have gotten easier for my people and my family over the decades. We are asked to always remember that we were once slaves and to treat others accordingly.

I am outraged because I remember how uncomfortable it was to be told before a school field trip that any misbehavior in the museum would reflect badly on all Jews everywhere, and the way that information about Michael Brown has been handled by the police, by some parts of the media, and by the Internet reminds me that black boys and men carry a burden that is similar but many times heavier. (I don’t want to link to it, but google Michael Brown Marijuana and then think back to high school).

I am outraged because as a (former) journalist, I believe that the rights of freedom of press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and redress of grievances should not be corralled and must be protected even, and especially, when protecting them calls into question structures of power, and the status quo. Even when its scary or difficult. I agree with the police who believe it is part of their job to protect these rights not with the police who believe it is their job  defend against them. I am outraged because I love this country and part of that love comes from being able to criticize its failings

I am outraged  because I agree with  former Madison, Wisconsin Police Chief David Couper, who wrote, “In a democracy, police have a very complex role compared to what is expected of the police in other systems. The power of the state must be balanced with the rights of an individual; other systems have no balance requirement—only to use the power given them by the state. Uniquely, police in a democracy don’t exist solely to maintain order on behalf of the state, but also to assure that the fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen are protected in the process.”

I am outraged because as a white person, I automatically benefit from systems, perceptions, and stereotypes that hurt others and I’m not OK with that.

I am outraged because as an American I want to live in a country that lives up to the values enshrined in the constitution.

I am outraged because I believe that everyone’s life is enriched when everyone has opportunities that allow them to reach their full potential. I believe that the American Dream should not be reserved for those who do not have to overcome poverty, sub-par public services, or bigotry.

I am outraged because as a human I believe that skin color should not serve as a barrier for entry, that the poor should not be treated as less-than, that failing students should not be dismissed as net-losses.

I am outraged because as a human I understand that teenage deaths are tragedies, whatever the cause.

I am outraged because as a person, I believe that we could be doing better, and not trying makes me furious.

I am outraged because racism even in its most subtle forms should be considered outrageous. Full stop.

A Serotonin-Colored Ribbon

Seratonin

A version of a Serotonin necklace from Amazon. Maybe it needs to come with a tag that says “ask me about this”

Something about the coverage of Robin Williams’ death struck a chord with me. Maybe it was my horror in hearing that details of how he killed himself were published in the LA Times. (I didn’t read the article, but I’ll say here what I said to the person who mentioned this to me: why is that news? And, in England there are actually restrictions on publishing the hows of suicides in attempt to prevent copy cat suicides. I do not support restrictions of the press but I do support reasonable and rational self-restraint and the asking of “is this news”). Maybe because he was a childhood icon. But probably it was because of the shock from people who couldn’t imagine how a man so beloved, so successful, so funny could kill himself.

Slate has done an excellent job addressing this head on with a few writers successfully mentioning their own struggles with depression without making the stories about them, explaining for what must feel like the millionth time that depression is a disease, and that people who suffer from it can’t just be told they are loved or should be happy. Some of the articles also point out that some of what the public loved about Williams could also have been Williams trying so hard to fight for his health.

I remember that. The fighting with myself. Something I have never said on the Internet for fear of the stigma: I had depression the fall after college graduation.
 
Thankfully, I was never suicidal. Thankfully, I got help that worked for me and my serotonin has been balanced for years now. Thankfully, I had friends and family who noticed and helped me get help. I remember thinking I was doing such a good job hiding it, only to have a friend respond to my admission–because that’s what it felt like–of depression with “I know. I guessed.” The fight with myself was exhausting and ineffective, and it was prolonged by the stigma and by the idea that somehow I could just will myself better. Which was bullshit. I know  that, with treatment and support, I survived a disease that hits some people a lot harder than it hit me and that can be deadly.  And I’ve been thinking about that when listening to people talk about Robin Williams.
 
 One bit  from Slate’s coverage has stuck with me over the last few days:
 

Mental illness isn’t a marketable disease. I’m sure there are many celebrities who suffer from it, but we don’t have a celebrity spokesperson. There are no ice bucket challenges for depression. Cancer survivors can proudly show off their scars, but no one wants to see ours. We don’t have a ribbon or color. Anyone want to buy a gray KitchenAid mixer for mental health research? And depression is one of the more acceptable mental illnesses to have. Imagine a 5k run for bipolar and borderline personality disorders.

 
This paragraph actually sent me searching not for a mental health ribbon, but for a serotonin necklace or key chain. Because, in this case, maybe ribbons aren’t enough.
 
Maybe the “ribbon” for depression can also be a teaching tool:
 
“What’s that?”
 
“Oh, it’s serotonin, the chemical widely understood by scientists and doctors  to be linked to depression; when people are depressed, it often is reflective of a chemical imbalance in the brain. That’s one of the reasons why depression should be considered an illness, and not something that a person can just will away if they smile enough, get enough perspective, are strong enough, or just pull themselves up. I’m a survivor. Others aren’t so lucky.”
 
A ribbon that is actually a molecular structure could start a conversation with the curious and push past a lot of the stigma by diving straight into the very issues that undercut the stigma. It appeals to my inner geek and my inner advocate. It certainly doesn’t launch the type of campaign Molly Pohlig  is referring to in that piece, but it could be something, a code for those in the know that there are other people out there and a way to start conversations with others.

Personal Rage

Chalk messages written on a storefront on Newbury street the week following the Boston Marathon bombings and the arrest of Tsarnaev.

The idea of human rights arose in parallel to the rise of photography; when we could see abuse happening around the world, we had more reason to get angry about it.* Photos made the tragedies seem closer to home. In the age of the Internet, it would follow, we should be able to get outraged about everything. But we don’t. Maybe there are too many things worthy of our outrage. Maybe, when we have access to information about everything we need a way to rank tragedies, to say this one is closer to me. These victims looked like me or lived near me or could have been me.

All of which is complicated by the fact that while we could have equal access to information to everything, we actually don’t. News doesn’t get all covered equally. Rich white child victims might sell more papers than black teenage victims. I feel dirty just writing that. It shouldn’t be true. But too often it is. War in an African country gets fewer viewers to tune in than a dick pic scandal in Washington D.C. Sometimes, lots of news competes for the same news cycle. (See for example: the international section in the last few weeks). Sometimes, it’s a slower news week so one story gets more attention than it would any other time.

Sometimes the news is personal; we find ways to make it so, We find that someone we know knows the mother of a kidnap victim. The planes came from our airport. For a few hours, or minutes even, we couldn’t reach our family, worried that they were hurt or that their homes were destroyed. A bomber attacks our city.

Journalists are taught to remove themselves from the story. It’s the ultimate death of the author, by choice, a surgical removal of a person who actually is part of the story.** Well-written journalism moves me as it should, but objectivity is a habit that dies hard, so I was shocked to find myself furious when I read that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s lawyers wanted to move his trial out of Boston and to D.C. Lawyers said Tsarnaev “could not receive a fair trial in Boston or elsewhere in the state” because a large percentage of people knew someone at the marathon, were affected by the shelter-in-place city shutdown during the manhunt, and presume that Tsarnaev is guilty.

And my first thought when reading that was “well Dzhokhar should have thought of that before he planted a bomb at the Marathon! He should have thought of that before he placed a bomb at the finish line of a race that embodies the city, killing Martin Richard, Krystle M. Campbell, and Lingzi Lu and then shooting and killing MIT police Officer Sean Collier later in the week. He should have thought of that before attacking MY CITY.”

“Woah,” I thought. Not only should I still be thinking of him as “the alleged bomber,” because that’s how newspapers refer to suspects who have not been found guilty, but I also actually do believe in the right to a fair trial for everyone, that upholding our democratic values when it’s the hardest is what makes our democracy strong. And yet, my reaction to the news was that if Tsarnaev wanted a fair trial, he shouldn’t have committed the crime. Twisted logic at its best.

Because ultimately, I didn’t sleep for a week after the bombings, reading the news non stop. Because this year on Patriot’s Day, standing at the bottom of Heartbreak Hill wearing a Boston Strong t-shirt felt like the healing I didn’t know I needed.

Because it turns out that inital rage cannot always be suppressed by journalism ethics and democratic values. That initial reactions can be tempered in the name of logic and values, but can’t be prevented altogether. That while we should rage about all tragedy, some will be closer to home than others, and that there’s a limit to how small the world can shrink. Even in the age of the Internet.

photo-6

A memorial to the victims of the 2013 Boston Bombing victims, placed at the finish line of the 2014 Boston Marathon.

 

* I first heard this idea in Samuel Moyn’s History of Human Rights class. Any misrepresentation of this is a reflection of the fact that I took the class my sophomore year of college, not of Prof. Moyn.

**The New Yorker is laughably strange about this: “‘How would you like it if I called you a whiteskin?’ Sherry Pocknett, a Wampanoag from Mashpee, Massachusetts, asked a person who asked about the name.” It’s possible that the person who asked was not the reporter who wrote the Talk of the Town piece, but given the New Yorker’s record of awkward third person self referrals, I’d bet good money that it was Ian Frazier himself who was doing the asking.

#YesAllWomen

In college, I volunteered in a fifth grade classroom in East Harlem, teaching conflict resolution. We did a “stand up/sit down” ice breaker: We sat in a circle and someone stood in the middle and said something about himself or herself. Anyone who agreed or had the same experience stood up.

The students were blown away that their teacher listened to rap, that other kids had parents who were divorced, or were afraid that their siblings would join gangs.

The conversation that I remember most visibly was this one:

Me: Was there anything that surprised you?

Child One: I was surprised that the adults (the female teacher and the three female volunteers) stood up when someone said “I’m afraid to walk alone at night.” Because you are ADULTS and we are supposed to walk with ADULTS to be safe. If the adults don’t feel safe, how are we safe?

Me: Well, there is safety in number–

Child Two: It’s because of RAPE.

Child Three: Don’t SAY that.

They then went on to discuss everything else they were afraid of or things that had made them afraid (ghosts, spirits as completely distinct from ghosts, a brother getting killed, seeing someone kill himself). These weren’t kids who were isolated from legitimately frightening things, and now, hopefully, all of those kids are teenagers. I’m not sorry we were honest with them, but I’m sad we had to be.

Arthur Sulzberger Is a Newspaperman. He Should Have Known Better.

My own short journalism career was largely unimpeded by my gender (the one big gender fight in my college newsroom ended in conversations and e-mails that  could have been a PBS special on forgiveness and understanding), but I still saw it and heard it. The fellow journalism interns who thought nothing about talking about visiting strip clubs while I was standing right next to them, the female reporter who struggled to get cops to take her seriously when she covered a crime scene, the staff photographer at my school paper who was asked not to take the photos on a story I was writing because the editor didn’t think two women should go to a low-security prison, the writer (me!) who didn’t object to that reasoning despite no indication from our sources that the precaution was necessary.

There were messages I was young enough to ignore that said that to rise to the top was to choose journalism over family. There were congressmen who didn’t take me seriously. There was a Senate press corps that was still predominately male to say nothing of the gender imbalance  in financial-related press conferences.

I knew that I was already benefiting from fights of The Girls in the Balcony  by virtue of entering journalism when I did, and, with her appointment as executive editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson (who also benefitted from those fights) seemed to bust open the glass ceiling long before I was close to hitting it. It seemed that the industry I loved would be a little more likely to love me back. (It turned out, it didn’t, or I didn’t love it as much as I thought I did, but that was not related to my gender).

Abramson, during the announcement of her appointment to executive editor.

The night Jill Abramson was announced as the next executive editor of The New York Times  I couldn’t sleep. Three years later, she was fired. We don’t know the whole story as to why she was fired, but there is reason to be skeptical of claims that is was simply management style, mainly that the Times has had lots and lots of bad managers at the helm. From The New Yorker: 

Another, a prominent reporter, proposed a multiple-choice question: “Tough and abrasive?” (a) Abe Rosenthal (1977-86), (b) Howell Raines (2001-03), (c) Max Frankel (1986-94), (d) Jill Abramson (2011-14), (e) all of the above. “Business is basically good, and the journalism is good, but the culture is bad,” the reporter continued. “But that describes a hundred and fifty years of the paper’s history. It’s always been sociopaths and lunatics running the place. Why step to Jill? People are genuinely upset about that.”

Even if it turns out that Abramson’s lower salary was totally justified, even if it turns out she was a terrible manager, the conversations around her tenure and her management style have been gendered from the start. There was no way they weren’t going to be. And, the conversation around her firing has been gendered. While Sulzberger said that he spoke to female “rising stars” at the Times who didn’t want “special treatment” and didn’t see the firing of Abramson as anything but a decision about an individual, David Carr “heard from several talented young women who are a big part of The New York Times’s future. “’ I really don’t see a path for me here,’  said one. ‘Are we O.K.?’

“Well, that depends on how the next few weeks go and whether The Times can convince female employees that it is a fair place to work, with ample opportunity to advance,” Carr wrote.

Carr concluded that Sulzberger’s assessment of Abramson’s management failings was correct, but the fact is that the way that the firing was handled at the Times scared some of the women who worked there, made them doubt that there were cracks in the glass ceiling. The coverage of the firing, both the carefully reported and the sensational, didn’t help. I read that coverage and couldn’t remember any of that thrill I had three years ago.

Sulzberger owns a newspaper–THE newspaper. He and his staff should understand messaging and the ways that messages can be unintentionally transmitted or mistranslated. Regardless of what really happened in the lead-up to Abramson’s firing, it’s inexcusable that Sulzberger  didn’t understand that female journalists everywhere were going to see Abramson’s sudden and unceremonious dismissal as a message about the metaphorical glass ceilings in the Times’ window-filled building and therefore in the industry as a whole. Sulzberger–perhaps inadvertantly–sent a message about the way a female reporter and editor is expected to conduct herself and the dangers she’ll face is she dares to be, like many of her predecessors,  pushy and forceful.  And it doesn’t look like progress.

 

The Wolf of Wall Street Failed the Bechdel Test Spectacularly. And That’s a Problem.

This post contains minor spoilers, though nothing in the movie was particularly surprising, so I think if you read this and then see the movie, you will not be upset.

Wolf of Wall Street Movie Poster

Oh Leo. Remember when you were a 90’s heartthrob?

To say that The Wolf of Wall Street fails the Bechdel test is a massive understatement. Women are almost all objectified, evaluated for their beauty and willingness to sell sex. The firm has some women too, but there is only a single actual mention of them outside of aforementioned objectifying. (I get distracted by things like this in movies, I kept trying to figure out why they wouldn’t all sue for sexual harassment/hostile workplace and then trying to figure out if that was even an option at the time, and then I think money. Tons and tons of money, which in this movie buys all other morals and solves most problems (see above, re: buying sex)).

Now, I understand that that is the point of the movie, and that you weren’t supposed to like the characters who were doing the objectifying, buying of sex, harassing, and, in one case, raping. BUT the movie was three hours long and the comeuppance (which also included some long-overdue sticking-up-for-herself from Jordan Belfort’s wife, Naomi (and some excellent acting from Margot Robbie)) takes place in less than an hour. And, it doesn’t seem to hurt Belfort all that much.

So, we are supposed to sit through three hours of movie with Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and come out saying, “God, what a sleaze ball.” Maybe we are also supposed to question the morals of Wall Street altogether (but haven’t we already done that?). But, when you spend three hours with a guy, and sometimes he’s funny, and sometimes you laugh with him, and sometimes you laugh at him, probably the directors wanted us to feel something for him other than hate? Maybe?

And, some people in the theater certainly did. For example, there is a scene where a night of debauchery that costs Belfort $2 million dollars ends with furniture destroyed and prostitutes and stockbrokers  asleep on basically every surface in a Las Vegas suite. Belfort walks through the room, uncovers a sleeping, naked prostitute, and squeezes her breast.

The guy sitting behind me in the movie theater (and presumably a few other people at least) laughed.

OK. I don’t even know what laughing man looks like, let alone what his morals are. Giving him full benefit of the doubt, let’s say he’d never in a million years engage a prostititute, and if he did, he would only do things she explicitly consented to. But he laughed, as in, haha, squeezing a breast.

The movie is set up in a way where the antihero sort of becomes the hero. Other than the prostitutes, a few of the wives, and one or two of the female employees, we don’t ever meet any of Belfort’s victims–the people he stole massive amounts of money from. His crimes are not victimless, but they kind of seem like they are. The Wall Street guys are supposed to be some strange combination of nebby and glamourous, and the Feds are just supposed to be angry and nebby.

Movies are entertainment, right? Escapes? And so the moral of a movie which is almost 100 percent about debauchery, is “imagine this life, where you can do anything you want. Sure, he’s sleazy, but look at all the sex he gets to have.”

And if we start laughing with him, instead of at him, isn’t the movie just glorifying it? Saying, “come along while we objectify and assault?” And isn’t that a problem? Isn’t that part of the culture that lead a man just the other night to grab my friend’s breast, and when she said, “did you just grab my breast?” he leered, “and I liked it,” and then just walked off?

Isn’t that why we should be talking about the Bechdel test even in a movie that didn’t even walk into the right testing center?