Friday, April 27, 2012

Gender Equality in Dependence Shaming

For a while I have wanted to write about dependence and American culture.
I was re-watching and episode Mad Men (prepping for the new season's release) recently when the impetus struck me full in the gut. In the scene (season 1, episode 10) Joan is consoling her roommate Carol who has just been fired so her boss could save face. Carol says to Joan: "I'm going to have to ask for money from my parents". Joan, not missing a single beat says "You shouldn't be ashamed of that, you're a single woman trying to make it in the city." (or something to that effect). To be absolutely clear I do not miss 1960s culture but I do miss the notion Joan expresses in this scene: The notion that a single working woman is entitled to shame-free financial assistance.

This is not about nostalgia. It's about how I'm, on some, level angry at the cultural shifts that have occurred in stingy financial reaction to the gains of gender equality in the work force. I can't expect to be financially supported and have that be acceptable. I do certainly recognize that the privilege Joan is referring to was only available to some (white, attractive, women born to middle-class parents who are expected to marry well). This anger I have is not about resources or privileges being fairly distributed. This anger I feel is about the shame in this culture that is newly (in the past 40 years) associated with being a woman who needs financial assistance.

This status quo affirms the Calvinist tradition in America when it comes to judging those who ask for and need financial assistance. In the past the unquestioned “husband/man as the breadwinner” paradigm, while certainly causing many problems, allowed some women to feel totally okay with a situation of financial dependence. In the last forty years more and more women have challenged this by entering and cementing themselves in the US workforce. Unfortunately along with those jobs came the societal expectations of being an employable individual. There is a pressure to succeed and become independent financially (despite the clear wage and privilege disparities). This is a problem women inherited as we slowly and surely became more vital presences in the workforce.

A shitty economy deepens the blame and shame that we are encouraged to feel. The job market is so dilapidated as to only offer me few opportunities to do work that is physically and emotionally draining and pays me 2/3 of what I think I should be getting paid for the work I want to do. I am angry at the paradigm of jobs. I am angry at America's disdain for my financial dependence. I should not feel such sharp pains of shame when it comes to receiving financial support from those that love me. But I do. I experience so much shame when I think about asking my parents or anybody else for financial help. 

In the past I have felt wracked with guilt and felt myself to be begging when and if I applied for scholarships. I avoided financial aid office at school. I planned out defenses for every possible question they might have about my needs. I knew I would not just be battling the paperwork. I would be battling something else. I didn't know it then but I was battling the ingrained shame that Americans are supposed to feel when they ask for financial help. This is why I am angry, and why I find myself longing for Joan to tell me that it is okay that I need to ask for financial help sometimes.

Friday, April 20, 2012

the Dignity of Work

Lately I've been thinking about the phrase "the dignity of work." It has been flying around a lot lately in the media. Most often in the mouths of people talking about welfare and work programs. Newt Gingrich brought it to light quite famously back in November when he repeatedly made the ridiculous spit-ball of of a statement about "giving"  poor young (presumably black) school kids “the dignity of work” by making them part-time janitors for the school grounds. He went on later to make a special point of the fact that these kids (the presumably black ones) in urban neighborhoods "where nobody has worked and nobody has any habit of work"

More recently though, it has come from the mouth of our presumed presidential republican candidate, Mitt Romney in what could be called the "mommy" battle the media recently went on a giant frenzy about (I won’t go into it but man is THAT a can of worms in and of itself).
Romney wants mothers to have “dignity of work”. But what does that really mean? The term itself has been sloshed around so much and has been used as if it has a nearly iconic power. According to the ol reliable wiki the phrase originates in Catholic teachings.

“Employers must not ‘look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but ... respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character’."

Now don’t get me wrong, employers respecting their employees sound great, but notice that the initial definition is includes only men and relates only to those in an employer-employee relationships. It was originally only used to refer to and include only the transactional definition of workers and work.
After researching the actual historical context of this phrase I’ve sussed out my previously ambiguous squicky feelings about the modern use of the phrase “dignity of work”.
Its original establishment as well as the current use of the phrase "dignity of work" is rooted in an employer-employee relationship. It actually has very little to do with personal or communal sweat, progress, or projects (which I personally believe constitute work). The classic and current definition of this type of “dignity” denies and excludes any non-paid work a person might do.

Transactional (paid) work is something we do privilege in this country. We honor respect and ideologically legitimize the work a person does for pay. This assumption exists in the common introductory question"What do you do?" The implied actual question being asked is "What work are you paid to do?"

I have written previously about how our culture propagates, in many pervasive ways, the idea that folks without money don’t matter or that money is the equivalent of moral or philosophical value. The phrase "the dignity of work" is just one more divisive way that this is being done. It is especially effective because the semantics of this phrase really does resonate. I believe in the semantic meaning of the dignity of work. Working hard and investing in your own progress as well as the progress of those with whom you work is really awesome amazing and powerful. It is something I believe everyone deserves to feel.

However, when Romney says these words so iconically it or Newt says it or even when the Catholic church said it all the way back then, they sure as hell did not mean non-transactional labor. They do not mean babysitting your younger siblings because your mother can’t afford a sitter, or taking care of your grandparents/parents as their physical health deteriorates with age. They certainly don’t mean changing your own baby's diapers, or helping out with the community pea patch. These thing are not covered by the phrase “dignity of work”. What they actually is mean going out to someone else’s business and committing hours of work to an employer who has more privileged that you. They mean being paid to do alienated labor.

"The dignity of work" historically as well as currently is being used to legitimize work within pre-existing structures of capitalism. "The dignity of work” means “the dignity of participating in our current paradigm of jobs.” It means submission to a punch-clock, salaried, or hourly system of pay. "The dignity of work" actually means the submission the the current hierarchies and relationships of capitalism. “The dignity of work” as Newt and Romney talk about it is about putting your faith in capitalist systems as a mode of feeling dignity.

Anyone who has been unemployed (there’s 8.2% of us right?) or felt cheated by the system know that this is the opposite of empowering. It is, in fact, and a great display of magical semantics, asking  oppressed folks to accept their role in capitalist hierarchies. Whenever I hear someone in the media using the words “dignity” and “work” I am going to be suspicious of possible capitalist and/or Catholic idealism about transactional work. Although, I will be listening hopefully for signs of actual human dignity; for faith in commitments to actual personal and collective progress.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Ghosts (or fighting against internal networks of oppression)

I am a poor and often jobless writer. I have little to no faith that anyone will pay me for the most valuable work I see myself doing. Paying the rent is an uphill battle. Feeling okay about how I manage it is damn near defying gravity. Last fall I lost a job that broke my body and paid me shit. I am still getting over it. I am still forgiving myself for it. I cried every time a letter came from the unemployment office because I knew that one of them was going to tell me that I did not qualify because I was fired from the only real job I held for more than four months. It'd been a tough year.

One of the worst things that I can feel happening to me is that I wake up or stand still for too long, and forget to fight for a little while. In that instant I begin to believe that I (and my work and abilities) don't matter. That is the easiest and perhaps most common feeling that seeps across whatever differences separate oppressed people. 

The most insidious forms of oppression operate as background noise. In America there is a cultural narrative telling some folks that they are unimportant (because we're too fat, or too poor or much of a homo). Now, it is not just these messages that oppressed folks must ignore,  but we also have to fight these notions within ourselves. Those messages have been coming at  us since before we learned to fight. They are part of our thought process and value systems. Thus life becomes a continual battle of reminding yourself that yes, you do matter. The actions you take and the things that you are building do matter. There is value in your humanity.

The moment after writing that statement my brain backlashes. Because I've been told so many times that it isn't true. How can such a thing get infused in us down to the bone? Is it as innately human to tell people they don't matter as it is to be compassionate? The humanist in me wants to say no, but history has proved otherwise. We have all experienced oppression from somebody/somewhere (being bullied, ignored etc.). The feeling of imposed unimportance/insignificance is one that we can all relate to. Its constancy is the thing that frightens me. It is what haunts me.
Its ghost shows up in my life again and again.
  1. As a lower income individual I experience this through having to repeatedly and aggressively tout my importance to potential employers. I have to justify my importance to them, justify why I should matter to them, as if I already don't. While looking for work, I must divorce myself from any dream of defining the value of my own actions and skills. 
  2. As a female-bodied person my importance as a whole person is denied by people who insist that I only matter if my body is shaped and moves in a certain way; when my father touches my stomach and tells me I should “get rid of” the soft part of my belly that sticks out over my jeans; or when a man assumes that it is okay to relate to me only on the subject of my looks. This behavior denies that my identity is as important as I say it is. These actions let me know that it's definitely my looks that are most important.
  3. As an out queer person I endure peoples assumptions about my feelings. They let me know my feelings don't matter because, they aren't like their feelings, and they assume (to their detriment) that they can't relate to them. This is as simple as someone responding to the fact that I am attracted to women or that I'm in multiple relationships with the response of "How can you do that?"

You other me when you define the terms of my difference from you. I work, love, and live just like anybody else. I do it with my identity and my body and my soul. I do it by listening to what I want and then pursuing what I want in a way that I deem most appropriate. That is what I call being alive; what is it to live powerfully. 

Alice Walker says that “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.” There is a weariness that comes from living powerfully in dis-empowering circumstances. This weariness comes from constantly opposing those who would define me without respect for my consent or humanity. 

Sometimes I can't take it. I forget, and for a moment, I believe that ghost are right about how much I matter. Those are what I'd call the bad days.

First Post

Meet me in the margins
bring your world-weary fingers;
bring me your smile 12 hours old;
bring your favorite copy of your favorite book
the corners folded down.
Point me to the passages you have edited yourself.

We'll pull up raw full stops.
Make jagged our most precious sentences.
We'll dress down all our paradigms
and exchange naked stares over coffee.

Bring your bluffing nicotine fingers
sling me your coffee stained witticisms
Meet me in the margins and we'll dance down the hierarchies
pressure our light though each textual prism.
We'll make the angled words less comfortable

I've seen those stark glyphs cut with horizontal certainty
I've seen them hold you hostage by your own compassion
And I saw the way you never gave in.

Meet me in the margins.
Find me there,
all sputtering syllables and jellyfish skin
and I will sting you one thousand briny confessions:
    I love the way that it itches & aches
    when I want to look at everything
    But my eyes aren't small enough;
    & I think I want a microscope instead of a mouth;
    I want to listen better;
    I'd like to listen like a hawk in flight;
    I wanna listen like a rainstorm;
    I want to listen the way the Arizona desert
    opens her mouth to monsoon season.

I need a place to try out my mouth,
I have a million little teeth in my brain
that I am just beginning to call ideas.
a thousand plankton sized mobius membranes
all teething with spring loaded electrical charges.
My thoughts are what they mean when they say the words “live wire”.

So please,
open those margins to possibility of soldering circuits.
I know that you're crackling too.

Meet me in the margins
lean your voice against my voice.
I promise to cherish your vulnerability
to hold open a hollow for your wild body of dreams.

So if you can,
please meet me in the margins
and we'll soothe our mutual wounds.
Let's press together the holes in our shoes.
feel the miles seep together
matching our distance with journeys overlapping.
                              -February 3, 2012 (the original is posted here on my poetry blog)

I chose this poem  to kick start my blog because writing it re-inspired me to hold open spaces for my own voice. I want this blog to be a conversation the way I want poetry to be a conversation. And to embody the truth that radical, world-changing spirits can thrive in everyday conversations.

In the spirit of it's inspiration, this blog is all for flavoring the personal with radical, and grounding politics in everyday places. This is how I live my life. This is how I'll write my life.

This blog represents me branching out from my predominantly "poet" identity. My name is Wendy & I am concerned about a lot of things. But mostly things related to compassion and the re-humanizing of those who have been dehumanized or had their expressions censored, marginalized, or otherwise silenced.

I write about education, sci-fi, sexism, gender, sexuality, feminism, and classism/access issues. I also might write about honesty and open relationships. I want this blog to dance away the distance between the personal and the political. some of it might be pulled from personal experience, but some of it will be pulled from the mouths/pages of the news media.I hope to have a short hunk of expository something-or-other every week. Thanks for tuning in.