Why Hillary Is the Way She Is

Let’s get one thing straight about Hillary Clinton — she has been shaped and sculpted and pressured and forced into boxes for decades of national political attention. She is the product of thousands of meetings and focus groups and opinion polls and strategy sessions. Much of the changes she has made to herself (clouding, probably, her true self and producing the phoniness everyone hates about her) are the result of America’s profoundly sexist culture, especially when it comes to women in positions of power.

With the impending release of her book this week, everybody’s talking about why Hillary lost. Of course she’s reflective of a spinelessness among Democrats in the 21st century. No one’s debating that. Of course she’s blaming Bernie for her loss when any child looking at this chart understands what the bigger problem was. Of course she has cozied up to Wall Street and demonized black kids and taken some atrocious positions over the years. None of that is in dispute, but neither does it change the core tragedy at the heart of Hillary Clinton, Politician.

Just look at her name — when Bill Clinton first became governor of Arkansas in 1978, she was Hillary Rodham. She was independent and strong, working to improve the health care of rural folks in the state. But many voters thought she was too uppity. She didn’t act demure or shy, like most First Ladies. In 1980 Bill Clinton was defeated by Republican Frank D. White, in part because conservatives attacked Hillary. When Bill ran to reclaim the seat, Hillary started calling herself “Hillary Clinton” and occasionally “Mrs. Bill Clinton”. He won his re-election bid in 1982.

Thus it has been for everything Hillary has ever done in the public spotlight. When she became First Lady of the nation, she was attacked for not baking enough cookies. She was attacked for working to improve health care instead of smiling for the cameras. She was attacked for speaking up about women’s rights in Beijing. And nothing she ever did in response to her husband’s constant sexual depravity has ever been good enough for The American People.

The American People are not always well-informed. They often vote with their guts, and their guts wear glasses thick with hostility toward powerful women. The American People often have mommy issues and male privilege and Queen Bee mindsets that make them hostile toward any woman trying to ascend ladders, especially those related to political power. So when someone like Hillary tries to relate to The American People, she can’t simply act on instinct the way Donald Trump can. She has to do whatever she can to appease their bizarre expectations. Like Trump, she tried doing that when she first entered politics. She was shot down with violent intensity. So she started adjusting her behavior, and she’s never stopped.

I don’t love Hillary Clinton, and I don’t even like her very much. She has made an ocean of compromises to further her legal, economic, and political futures. However, I need the world to acknowledge the unique kinds of pressures she has faced for decades, and start changing the way we discuss and critique women in the political sphere. They face particular kinds of scrutiny and prejudice, and no story of their rise or fall is complete without an appreciation of those factors.

That is all.

Letter to a Young Male Feminist

I’m active on a Reddit forum called /r/AskFeminists, and today I got a message from a guy who’s trying to find his way on the path of being a guy who believes in feminism, while also enduring a lot of harsh attacks that feel personal. (I have no idea how old he is, but I’m guessing he’s younger than me.)

I wrote a letter to him, which I thought I might reproduce here for posterity. Perhaps it will be useful and/or interesting for someone else. (I’ve removed some of the more specific elements from his original message to me.)


Thank you for your kind message. I understand where you’re coming from, and I hope I can be of service.

One of the most important things I realized on my journey was that patriarchal conceptions of masculinity are a poison injection that we guys receive on a daily basis — you’ve got to be physically strong, you’ve got to be cold and indifferent to suffering, you’ve got to dominate other people (especially women). This poison sucks our humanity away unless we resist it, and it also (this is key) causes untold suffering for women.

As a result, many female feminists are frustrated and angry — as they should be. Many black people are justifiably frustrated and angry when police officers kill unarmed black folks, but they’re angry at white supremacy, not individual white people. (Of course unrepentant or oblivious white people can also incur wrath, but activists with #BlackLivesMatter understand that nothing changes unless we attack the roots of white supremacy, and we make very little progress when we go after individual white folks.)

Patriarchy is a different monster from white supremacy, but in both cases we (or at least I can speak for myself here — not sure what your racial/ethnic background is) have a responsibility to fight against the mindset and structures of privilege.

The key for us, as allies in a struggle against these “abstract monsters” (as I call them) is to distinguish justified anger against patriarchy (or white supremacy, or cisgender superiority or class dominance or whatever it is) and anger toward individuals. (Of course some feminists are just bitter or mean, and they may lash out at individuals.)

The worst thing you can do is confuse the two, because diverting a critique of a system into a discussion on personalities is part of the dominant-culture trap. (If you haven’t yet watched it, please take a few minutes and enjoy this important — and entertaining — video from JaySmooth called How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist.)


So all of that is a bit of prelude. Let’s see if I can offer some specific, concrete advice for you.

  1. When someone criticizes men as a whole, do this: (A) Ask yourself — Do I do that? Is it true about me? (B) If so, confess and think/talk about how you can make some changes. If not, move on. (C) Ask yourself — Is that a fair generalization? In my experience and research, does that apply to most guys? (D) If so, agree and commiserate about the nature of the problem. If possible, offer your unique insight from “inside the club”. If not, explain why you disagree.
  2. Recognize that equal treatment alone isn’t necessarily enough to solve huge historical problems. Native Americans were killed off by the millions and had all their land stolen. Making sure they are taxed at the same rate as white folks isn’t going to do much to recalibrate the historical imbalance at the core of their dilemma. The same is true about addressing the centuries of patriarchal violence that have created our current context between men and women. Of course equality is a perfect goal in the long term — but sometimes it’s not enough.
  3. Put this quote somewhere you can see it every day: “The true human ideal is to forgive those who are foolish and help those who are evil.” – Bankei Yotaku. Cultivate an essence of forgiveness. That way, when someone foolishly misdirects their anger at you, instead of becoming defensive, you can reflexively say: “I don’t blame you for being mad, and while I don’t like being the target of that anger, I share your frustration at the patriarchy.”
  4. Do more asking of questions than making of statements, especially when talking with people who disagree with you. Let’s say someone makes a claim like “Men can’t be feminists.” (I’ve heard that before.) Start by simply asking: “Why not?” You might follow up by asking: “Can white people be allies in the struggle against white supremacy?” Most of the time, I’ve found, when I disagree with someone, there’s a difference of understanding about what a word means, or how we apply a particular rule of thumb. When we ask questions (rather than barreling ahead, certain in an assumption), we increase the likelihood of a productive/respectful dialogue.
  5. Remember that you still have a lot to learn. As Socrates said: “The more I learn, the more I realize I know nothing.” It’s tempting for me to think that I’ve “made it” to a level of enlightenment, where I don’t deserve any criticism at all. But none of us ever reaches this place, especially if we don’t live a daily life of irritation/aggravation/violence from systems of oppression. We have to be willing to be self-aware and (when necessary) self-critical at all times.

Now let’s see if I can answer your questions directly.

I find myself turned off by the really harsh stereotyping and especially the arguing, judgement, and condemnation. How do you deal with that aspect of it?

Hopefully I’ve answered this, but let me also say that some argument can be helpful. If we feel stifled or restricted, then we may not be able to have the honest (but painful) conversations needed to shatter illusions and oppressive mindsets.

Of course you should always be confident to stand up for yourself as a person, and talking simply about how you feel can be a good way to do this. (Remember that part of the poison of patriarchy tells us that we should never do this.) Use “I” statements and stay focused on yourself as an individual, while acknowledging larger problems and not trying to focus the discussion on you.

How do you deal with all the different voices saying 100 different things and telling you what you, as a man, are supposed to be?

This is an excellent question, especially because that sounds like a perfect description of what patriarchy itself means for men. Think about all the ads, movies, TV shows, and discussions with fathers and friends that send these messages. Think about Lady Macbeth telling her husband: “When you durst do it [kill the king], then you were a man; And, to be more than what you were, you would Be so much more the man.” (Yeah, women can feed us poisonous patriarchal messages too.)

I would point out that you’re living (and, I imagine, growing up) in a very different context from the one in which I came of age. (I’m 40; I assume you’re younger.) There’s a level of vitriol and acerbic rage on Tumblr that I never really experienced. Of course lesbian separatism is nothing new; and one of the most important conversations I’ve ever had was with a lesbian separatist who made a very convincing case for why she would never feel safe living among men. (I still don’t agree with the principle, but I understand why people have that perspective, along with black nationalism, etc.)

The point, of course, is that you must develop an independent and critical awareness of what it means to be a man. You’re way ahead of most guys — you’ve started asking questions about how we got to this point, and you’re willing to push yourself to do better and fight for what’s right. Perhaps my best advice is: Keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t sublimate your individuality based on what one or two people tell you to do, but don’t be afraid to deeply consider everyone’s point of view. (The ability to question our assumptions is one of the most essential elements of human consciousness, and one — unfortunately — that most people ignore or abandon.)

Do you have some good writings I could read?

Yes. One of the most important books I’ve ever read was Men On Rape: What They Have to Say about Sexual Violence. There’s some horrifying stuff in there from men speaking honestly about how they see sexual violence and their relationship to it. Obviously feminism is about much more than ending the rape of women by men, but this was an alarming eye-opener for me, and its themes bleed into many other parts of life.

I also recommend Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation. It’s got a couple dozen essays from women of many walks of life. They do a good job discussing their lives and the movement as they see/live it.

Finally, you might want to check out a book called Refusing to be a Man: Essays on Social Justice. Again, I don’t agree with everything he has to say, but he writes powerfully and honestly as a man trying to fight against patriarchal violence.

You’ll notice that I’ve linked to books here, because I’ve found that — while online discussions can be a good way to have smaller conversations — I think that much of what passes for “dialogue” or “argument” online gets wrapped up very quickly in its own assumptions and prejudices. When we write on paper for a general audience, we have to be more open and comprehensive. If your impression of feminism and feminists comes mostly from online interactions (as is true for lots of young people these days; please correct me if I’m wrong in your case), I encourage you to broaden that sample.


Well, that’s a quick response to your message; I hope it’s useful. Good luck to you, and thanks again for writing.

Why Jen Kirkman Is Awesome (And Why She’s Right To Be Mad At Me)

I’ve been a huge fan of comedian Jen Kirkman for years. Ever since I first heard her 2006 standup debut Self Help, I was hooked. Her immaculate timing, her wry self-deprecation, her feminist perspective. She followed it in 2011 with Hail to the Freaks, which took things to the next level. Funny and intelligent, she mixes pop culture with social politics and everything in between.

I devoured her 2013 book I Can Barely Take Care of Myself, especially since it humorously attacks the view that people must have children in order to fulfill their destiny as mature adults. My wife and I decided not to have kids, and it’s refreshing to see someone so succinctly reflect our beliefs on the issue.

When I found out she started a podcast called I Seem Fun, I raced to subscribe. Every week she mixes feminist perspectives, tales of oddballs on airplanes, and reflections from her life. She moves from DMX to Kurt Cobain to Dolly Parton, from #yesallwomen to the art of writing to dealing with stress. Along the way she uses funny voices to ridicule annoying people, especially those pestering her on social media. As usual, she jokes about herself as well, like when she gets the episode number wrong. It’s a fun hour-long show and it always jumps to the top of my queue when a new episode is released. (The only other shows that do this are The Dana Gould Show and My Brother, My Brother, and Me.)

Kirkman is very friendly with her fans, and I’ve used the opportunity to communicate on several occasions. I thanked her for her feminist response to the #notallmen trend, and sent her an email (which she read on the show, and found amusing) about a time someone showed me a bad movie. When I referred to her joke about the hapless librarian in It’s a Wonderful Life as “podcast gold”, she favorited my Tweet. As silly as it may sound, it’s quite rewarding when a comedian you respect and admire so much takes the time to respond.

Why She’s Mad At Me

Without intending to, I became one of those people pestering her online. One of the characters Kirkman uses occasionally on the show is “The Corrector”, a nasally doofus who takes great pride in disputing tiny technical details. She’ll say something in passing, and then acknowledge that perhaps there’s some tiny point that a pathetic jerk might quibble with (as people often do online): “Well, technically..” (As she points out, it’s usually men who engage in this nonsense, and they often target women as part of the mansplaining phenomenon.)

A week and a half ago, on Episode 60, she started by making fun of The Corrector, since she delivered the introduction flawlessly: “Hey, I said it right! ‘Well, technically…’ I don’t even know.. That guy had nothing to say. He stopped himself.” She sounded almost sad, like she wanted The Corrector to find some small thing to complain about.

So I thought it would be funny if I played the part. I wrote a series of Tweets (yes, more than one) pointing out that “right” is an adjective, and “correctly” is the proper grammatical term in that instance. I pointed out that I am an English teacher. I tried to be intentionally obnoxious so she would realize I was only playing an annoying character, instead of my charming, gracious self. But that’s not how it came through. (Perhaps I thought she might remember me from our past interactions, but that would have been ludicrous.)

She responded angrily on Twitter: “Are you kidding me?” Many of her followers sent me angry Tweets as well, and I felt really bad for days.

Then today she released the latest episode of her podcast, which includes a special “bug off” comment to me. (I’ve provided just the relevant 60-second slice.)

Jen Kirkman to me: “Get a life”

Needless to say, this made me feel sad all over again.

Why She’s Right to Be Mad

Everything Kirkman says in that sound clip is 100% correct. It’s obnoxious when people nitpick about grammar, especially in contexts where it doesn’t matter. As I tell my students all the time, all that really matters — except when you’re trying to get a job or impress your future in-laws — is that the other person understands what you’re saying. (This is the split between prescriptive and descriptive grammar.)

People who use their knowledge to annoy other people are insufferable and pathetic. They are quick to say “I’m just joking” or use some other smug excuse, but that doesn’t change the fact that their comments are obnoxious and pointless. It’s like lame white guys rapping badly; even when you’re doing it ironically, you’re still a lame white guy rapping badly. (Learn how to spit with a flow like The Rhymenoceros and The Hiphopopotamus, and then it can become something else.)

So while I thought I was being clever and insouciant, in effect I was just being a jackass. As with other forms of harassment, intention doesn’t matter. I should have realized how irritating my comments were, and prevented myself from sending them. (I try to be extremely conscious about my gendered interactions, and I think I’ve got a good track record as a male feminist. Still, as she points out, it’s important for all of us guys to check ourselves when communicating, especially online.)

I know what I meant, but it’s irrelevant, and I respect people who call me on my nonsense. (It’s one of the things I love most about my wife.) More to the point, I shouldn’t wait for other people to point out when I’m being dumb. As I Tweeted the day after the original debacle, I should get a tattoo on my forearm that reads: “You are NOT FUNNY when you’re being pedantic about grammar.” I can’t beat myself up about this stuff, but there’s a fine line between doing that and failing to learn from my mistakes.

The Bizarre Intimacy of Social Media

When politicians first began appearing on call-in TV shows, the political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow made fun of the idea that we can feel close to the people on The Box With Colors. Facebook and Twitter have only made this phenomenon more surreal, with our favorite celebrities in such easy reach. (Kirkman points out that she’s far from the level of celebrity most people expect, but she has 139,000 followers and she appears regularly on a popular TV show.)

This proximity brings a bizarre paradox: We feel like we’re becoming friends with the people we talk to on Twitter, even though we exchange only brief slices of words in the midst of lots of other activity. I know that I shouldn’t really be hurt by Kirkman’s comments, just as I shouldn’t get filled with excitement when she likes something I say. But I am, and I do. I suppose these things are all part of the irrational complex casserole that is human emotion.

Through the video game podcast I co-host (and my own politics/economics podcast), I’ve gotten to know some people over social media, and I’m always amused when I find myself on the other end of this exchange. Sometimes people will thank me for providing something fun for them to listen to on the commute, for example. Our audience is relatively small, and we don’t get annoying stuff on social media. I can only imagine how annoying it would be — especially for women in a world where so many guys are oblivious to both their privilege and their potential to be irritating — to deal with random yahoos online all the time.

So while (of course) I’d rather not be blocked from Kirkman’s Twitter feed, I don’t blame her. If you’re reading this, Jen, please accept my apology. I thank you for calling me out on my obnoxious idiocy, and I hope we can still be friends. (Well, technically, we’ve never been friends. Dammit, I’m doing it again.)

Another Reason to Dislike Tyler the “Creator”

A sad article from Australia, about Tyler the “Creator”, about whom I have written before. Here’s the new outrage:

I’m a 23-year-old psychology student from Sydney and in June this year, I was subjected to a horrific torrent of abusive tweets from fans of touring American rapper Tyler Okonma. I challenged Okonma’s lyrics which encourage rape and violence against women by vocally supporting a petition on change.org that suggested he shouldn’t be playing all-age shows.

At Tyler’s concert in Sydney the next day, he told his fans he hoped my children got STDs, and “dedicated” songs to me that included lyrics like “punch a b—h in her mouth just for talkin’ s—t”.

The abuse started almost instantly. First a drip, then a rush, then a flood.  I felt physically sick. He had 1.7 million fans, and it felt like every single one of them had some violence stored up for me – a promise to assault me, the threat that they would rape me, an expression of hatred for my life and my freedom.

It was terrifying at first, and then I started to feel totally disconnected from myself. When one of them said he was going to mutilate my body, I couldn’t comprehend that he could be talking about me.

Obviously Tyler can’t be blamed for what his fans do. But — like the Dr. Dre / Dee Barnes incident — this shows the horrible crossover potential of misogynistic lyrics into real-life threats and even assault. (And let’s not forget that written violence directed at an individual can be extremely assault-like.)

As always, this is not to attack vulgar lyrics, because they can provide catharsis and insight into twisted minds. (Just like Poe and Lovecraft did.) But as a lifelong lover of hip-hop, I’m tired of seeing it used as a weapon against women, and I’m sick of hearing people say “it’s just an act”. We choose our personas, and Tyler has chosen one that is horrible.

RIP Special One

I just learned that Karryl Smith (right), AKA Special One from The Conscious Daughters, died in December 2011. This makes me very sad.

TCD was probably the best female hip-hop duo of all time, and one of the great unknown rap acts in history. Discovered and produced by Paris, an unknown-legend-in-his-own-right, they came correct in the mid-90s with a powerful mix of hard-hitting beats and vivid lyrical skills. Most of their songs are about their own greatness and living an enjoyable life (their most popular song was “Fonky Expedition”), but along the way they dropped in tracks about unexpected pregnancy (and delinquent fathers), police brutality, and domestic violence.

After a thirteen-year hiatus (during which I assumed they had just moved on), TCD returned in 2009 with The Nutcracker Suite, another excellent album. I hoped to hear much more from them in the future. Alas, Special One died last year from blood clots in her lungs.

RIP, Special One. You will be missed.

TimeWaster™

My favorite TCD track has always been the first song on their first album, “Princess of Poetry”.

Today I’m listening to: The Conscious Daughters! Here’s an interview they did in 2009 with the legendary Davey D: