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.

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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?

Three Generations Strong

It’s been a while since I wrote here. (The last post was actually written in August). This summer has been monumental. I graduated the Kennedy School. I got a new job in a new field. My grandmother died.

My grandmother, the woman I hope to emulate, died at age 91. My grandmother, born two years after the 19th amendment was ratified, saw the world change in ways I can only begin to imagine. At 16, she went to work to help support her family after her father was killed in an accident. At 22, she travelled from Brooklyn to Temple, Texas to marry my grandfather, who was stationed at an army base there. During WWII, she worked for the military; I know from photos that at some point she sold war bonds, but I imagine she had a wide range of jobs.  When my mother, the youngest of two, was in elementary school, my grandmother went back to school and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. She taught reading until, as she told it, she could no longer climb the stairs at the school. Then she retired.

She loved fully and devotedly. She was , in all the good ways, the stereotype of a grandmother. She baked brownies, and showered us with gifts and kisses and love. She shepped nachas. She told me over and over again, “I just want you to be happy.” And she meant it.

For most of her 69 years of marriage, she served my grandfather dinner every day, making sure it was ready when he came home. Until she was too frail to serve. Then my grandfather served meals and became her caretaker. Even then, she wanted to help out with preparing for holiday meals, and was frustrated when she couldn’t. But she could still offer advice, and food, and love to everyone. And she did.

My Grandma Miriam was a  woman of her era and of every era she lived through. It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway: I miss her terribly.

*  *  *

Today, I was in the  LOFT dressing room staring at myself in the large shared mirror, trying to evaluate a suit. A woman holding her granddaughter–a tiny baby wrapped in a pink blanket–looked on. “That’s a nice suit,” she said.  Do you wear suits to work?”

“I think so. I haven’t started the job yet.”

“That’s the kind of suit that the young women wear in my office,” she said. “I’m a corporate attorney.” We talked about suit jacket options, and she congratulated me on getting a job.

“She’s beautiful,” I said, motioning to the baby. How old is she?”

“One week. My daughter needed new jeans.”

On cue, her daughter came out for an opinion on a pair of jeans.

“Can  I ask you something else? Is this shirt is too low?” I asked the grandmother. It wasn’t.

“I would wear that to work, and I’m a corporate executive,” the daughter said.

I changed back into my own clothes, and congratulated the women on the baby. They congratulated me on the job. I bought the suit, shirt and all.

*  *   *

As far as I remember, I never went clothes shopping with my grandmother. Maybe I did, when I was a tiny baby wrapped in pink and my mother needed a new pair of pants.

The last time I visited my grandmother in her house, I came bearing a brand new dress that I planned to wear to my graduation. I modeled it for her and got her approval. She told me I looked good in it and that it wasn’t too short. “That’s how you know it really looks good,” my sister said. “Grandma would never tell you it looked good if it didn’t.” True.

As I write out today’s dressing-room conversation, it seems utterly mundane, but I think that’s why it thrilled me: the normality of the high-powered women, the way they were willing to offer fashion advice, which really was also career advice. The tiny, third-generation strong woman resting in her grandmother’s arms, still completely unaware of the blessings of the strong women that came before her. The blessings I am so lucky to have.

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My mother, me, and my grandmother.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Newspapers

This is an old post that I never hit “publish” on, about the sale of the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos. In the name of actually starting to write things on this blog again, I am not going to update it to reflect Bezos’ visit to the newsroom or the Post’s coverage of today’s shooting at Navy Yard and the decision to drop the paywall for the coverage. For those people who are not journalism geeks, I apologize in advance for the references that will be confusing. I will try to add some hyperlinks sometime soon.

In college we talked about minutia and dreams. About em dashes and Oxford commas and deadlines. About race and gender and labor unions. About the mission of a Journalist to give the world part of what it wants to hear and part of what it ought to. About saving the industry, about rejection letters, about getting picked up in the college section of the New York Times. About newspaper politics and newspaper sex. About Woodward and Bernstein and Pulitzers and student-reporter-sized exposes.

In college, we were sentimental about newspapers without even realizing it. We were madly in love and mad.

And slowly we grew up.

Slowly. We went to work at newspapers. We stood in newsrooms as they celebrated Pulitzers, but more likely stood in newsrooms as the paper got bought and sold, as reporters got laid off. We joined unions. We read with awe about Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee and wrote inscriptions to each other about whether we’d give a ball to edit the Washington Post. We hatched plans to save Newsweek, and then stopped reading it altogether, and then it stopped publishing. We went to grad school and foreign countries. We moved across the country and got laid off. We got health insurance and new contracts. We gaped open mouthed at the super stars who considered leaving journalism and then we started doing it ourselves, separating ourselves into the people who really loved the job and the people who loved the idea of the job. We went to law school, to jobs in social media, to jobs in government telling ourselves that the industry changed and these things weren’t so unforgivable anymore, not like they were when we graduated, when so many of us were actually going into journalism. Not like they were when everyone knew that path to the Chicago Tribune was from the Peoria Journal Star to the Chicago Sun Times to the Chicago Tribune. And then, if you moved to Washington with the Tribune (were you lucky enough to follow Obama), you could go from the Chicago Tribune to the Washington Post, and then you’d have Made It. No one can tell you how to Make It anymore but sometimes they tell us to write for free.

“Two more years of this and I am going to do something that really makes a difference, ” one of my college coeditors tells me. Five years ago that would have been blasphemy. Now, I am also leaving. Or at least taking a break.

This is what newspapers talk about when they talk about newspapers, or specifically when they talk about the Washington Post:

They talk “politics, powersuits, and Woodward and Bernstein”. They talk about the “ossified world of newspaper publishing” and about the nostalgia of working for the Grahams. They talk about a “landmark in journalism,” about a microphone in Washington. They talk about Watergate.

They don’t really talk about the people, about the city that isn’t the beltway, about the metro newspaper, about theories of change or disruption. About Chandra Levy, or even “Top Secret Nation.” They don’t talk about questions of identity: a national newspaper versus a local newspaper. About whether all politics are really local, and whether it matters. They don’t talk about covering race or not covering it.

When newspapers talk about the newspaper industry, most of the stories are left untold.

It Wasn’t Enough. But It Was Something.

The other day, as I walked to my apartment, I saw a couple on the sidewalk, across the street from me. At first it looked like they were embracing, but–even from my distance–something looked off. As I neared, I saw the woman break away, and the man grab and pull her. She yelled “stop!” He grabbed her around the neck. She struggled. She walked quickly away from him, but he caught up in short order and threw her to the ground. Both the man and woman went into a house together.

I called the police.

At this point, I will let the official police log take over the narrative:

“We met the witness, who stated that she observed an Asian male and female arguing in front of that address. A physical altercation transpired and they fled into their residence. However, we spoke with both individuals involved. They adamantly denied the physical altercation and stated it was only verbal. No injured were sustained.”

From my conversation with the police, I do think that they believed me. I also saw them interview the man and woman separately from one another. I also understand how hard something like this would be to prosecute, my word against the word of the couple. No injuries, no visible bruises.

And, I understand the huge number of factors that would lead a woman to deny that she had been hurt, culture, a belief that she “deserved it,” what ever happened before I arrived, societal expectations of women’s roles in relationships, and societal depictions of abuse and ideas about who it happens to and who it doesn’t happen to.

I read the Cambridge Police Department rules and regulations about reports of domestic violence. I know that my call and the ensuing report is supposed to show up if someone calls about this address or this person again. I take a little comfort in that, mixed with the heaviness that comes with knowing that it probably will happen again and the uncertainty about whether the neighbors will call or whether they will be reluctant to intervene in a “private” matter.

I am shocked by the brazenness of it, assault on the sidewalk, in the middle of the day, and then an adamant denial that any had occurred. And, I am afraid of the implications of what happened, the message that, if you push around a woman in broad daylight, if you wrap your arm around her neck, but you don’t leave any bruises, there isn’t much anyone can do.

I don’t have many readers, and I usually shy far away from advocacy. But, this platform is all I have. Maybe sharing this story of inefficacy is detrimental. But I share it because I believe that the only way things can change is if people stand up and say, “Bruises or not. This is unacceptable. We will call the police. Every time.”

When I was a teenager, the woman in my local flower shop had a huge amount of bruising around one of her eyes. I didn’t ask her if she was OK or what had happened. By the time I got home, I regretted not asking her. Not because I knew that she had been hit or that she would have told me if she had, but because she could have been, because abuse can happen to anyone. When it was just the two of us in the flower shop, I wasn’t brave enough to say something. The flower shop has since been replaced by a cupcake store. I have no idea what happened to that woman. But I know I should have said something.

This time, I did say something. And, nothing happened. But, saying something is the only way option I had. And I’d do it again. And again. Maybe that woman knows that there are people who are looking out for her, who are watching him. Maybe not.

But if more people called the police. If more people stepped up, more assailants would know that their actions are unacceptable. More victims would know they have the law on their side. I’m left feeling like I didn’t do enough, even though I know I did exactly what I was supposed to do.

So, co-opting a slogan: If you see something, say something. If you hear something, say something. Domestic violence is violence. It’s against the law. It’s not a private matter. Even if saying something once doesn’t do anything, maybe the second or third time will.

At least I hope so.