News and Features
Here we are, twenty years on, and the reports of the Israeli army smashing its way through Palestinian towns remind me of what came out of Lebanon as Sharon and his invading army raced north. Israeli troops beating, looting, destroying; Palestinians huddled in refugee camps, waiting for the killers to come.
But there is a huge difference. Twenty years ago, at least for people living here in the United States, it was harder, though far from impossible, to get firsthand accounts of what was going on. You had to run out to find foreign newspapers, or have them laboriously telexed from London or Paris. Reporting in the mainstream corporate press was horrifyingly tilted, putting the best face on Israeli deeds. Mostly, it still is. But the attempted news blackout by the Sharon government and the Israeli military simply isn't working.
Here's Aviv Lavie, writing in Ha'aretz on April 2:
A journey through the TV and radio channels and the pages of the newspapers exposes a huge and embarrassing gap between what is reported to us and what is seen, heard, and read in the world.... On Arab TV stations (though not only them) one could see Israeli soldiers taking over hospitals, breaking equipment, damaging medicines, and locking doctors away from their patients. Foreign television networks all over the world have shown the images of five Palestinians from the National Security forces, shot in the head from close range.... The entire world has seen wounded people in the streets, heard reports of how the IDF prevents ambulances from reaching the wounded for treatment.
As always, there are the courageous witnesses. These days we have the enormously brave young people in the International Solidarity Movement sending daily communications back to the United States that flash their way round the Internet and even translate into important interviews in the mainstream media.
Meet a few of them. Here's Jordan Flaherty, filing this account on Indymedia:
Last night the Israeli Military tried to kill me. I'm staying in the Al Azzeh refugee camp, in Bethlehem, along with about twenty other international civilians. We're here to act as human shields.... On the hill above the camp is an Israeli military sniper's post. To get where we were staying in the village, most of us had to cross this street. It was a quick, low, dash across the street. As I ran, the sniper fired.... The shots began as I came into view, and stopped shortly after I made it to the other side. They were clearly aimed at me. And, by the sound of them, they were close. All night long, there was the sound of gun shots, as the military shot into our village. We stayed clear of the windows.... The guns and bullets were, no doubt, paid for by my tax dollars. Which is, of course, why we are here.
Or Tzaporah Ryter, filing this on Electronic Intifada:
I am an American student from the University of Minnesota. I currently am in Ramallah. We are under a terrible siege and people are being massacred by both the Israeli army and armed militia groups of Israeli settlers.... On Thursday afternoon, the Israeli army began sealing off each entrance to Ramallah.... Those traveling in began desperately searching for alternative ways and traveling in groups, but the Israelis were firing upon them and everyone was running and screaming.... Israeli jeeps were speeding across the terrain, pulling up from every direction and shooting at the women and children, and also at me...
Or the extremely articulate and self-possessed Adam Shapiro, whose testimony ended up in the New York Daily News and on CNN, where he told Kyra Phillips:
This is not about politics between Jew and Arab, between Muslim and Jew. This is a case of human dignity, human freedom and justice that the Palestinians are struggling for against an occupier, an oppressor. The violence did not start with Yasir Arafat. The violence started with the occupation.... Arafat, after every terrorist incident, every suicide bombing, after every action, has condemned this loss of life, of civilian lives on both sides. The Sharon government, sometimes will apologize after it kills an innocent civilian, but it does not apologize for raping the cities and for going in and carrying out terrorist actions, going house to house tearing holes through the walls, roughing up people, killing people, assassinating people.
Most of the time you open up a newspaper and read a robotic column--as I did the Los Angeles Times's Ronald Brownstein the other day--about Palestinian terrorism and the wretched Arafat's supposed ability to quell the uprising with a few quick words. And then you turn on the NewsHour and there, of all people, is Zbigniew Brzezinski, stating the obvious, on April 1:
The fact of the matter is that three times as many Palestinians have been killed, and a relatively small number of them were really militants. Most were civilians. Some hundreds were children.... in the course of the last year, we have had Palestinian terrorism but we have also had deliberate overreactions by Mr. Sharon designed not to repress terrorism but to destabilize the Palestinian Authority, to uproot the Oslo Agreement, which he has always denounced, in a manner which contributed to the climate, that resulted in the killing of one of the two architects of the Oslo Agreement.
After predictable dissent from Kissinger, Brzezinski went on:
It's absolute hypocrisy to be claiming that Arafat can put a stop to the terrorism.... the fact of the matter is that his ability to control the situation would be greatly increased if there was serious movement towards political process, towards a political settlement and that the United States took the lead.
Between this brisk statement and the eloquent courage of Adam Shapiro and his brave fellow internationalists, the truth is getting out--not fast enough, not loud enough--but better than twenty years ago.
Recent days have brought the first tentative but welcome roadblocks to the Bush Administration's war-fevered assault on civil liberties. In Newark, Superior Court Judge Arthur D'Italia, calling secret arrests "odious to a democracy," ordered the Immigration and Naturalization Service to release the names of post-September 11 detainees to the New Jersey ACLU. Although the release of the names has been delayed pending a federal government appeal, Judge D'Italia's courageous ruling is a significant victory for constitutional principle.
Meanwhile, a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit requesting the names of detainees and related information continues in federal court in Washington, DC. The Center for National Security Studies, which is representing numerous civil liberties and media outfits (including The Nation), recently filed a brief supporting its own request for this material. The Administration is expected to file a response in mid-April, and oral arguments could take place weeks after that.
Some of the most important restraints are being applied from abroad. In the case of accused hijacking conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, Attorney General John Ashcroft confronted a clear choice between his domestic political goal of advancing the death penalty and the international goal of a palatable legal campaign against Al Qaeda. Ashcroft tried to have it both ways, committing himself to capital charges against French citizen Moussaoui while seeking further cooperation in the case from the anti-capital-punishment French. The result: French officials have publicly promised to withhold any evidence that might lead to a death sentence. Ashcroft's prosecutors are on the hook, stuck with a sketchy conspiracy case requiring proof that the silent Moussaoui, grounded in jail on September 11, was a sufficiently active and knowledgeable architect of the Al Qaeda Trade Center and Pentagon attacks to merit a capital conviction.
The sense that European human rights commitments are having an impact despite the Administration's guff was even clearer when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld effected a brief reverse-rudder from George W. Bush's military tribunal order. This past fall the Administration fumed when UN Human Rights High Commissioner Mary Robinson denounced the tribunal order, but Rumsfeld's new plan to require public trials, unanimous votes for a death sentence and additional layers of review was clearly designed to quiet international criticism. Rumsfeld's amendment to the Bush order does not get to the heart of the constitutional problem, however. The tribunals still represent an unlawful seizure of judicial authority by the President. And Rumsfeld's March 28 admission that prisoners in Guantánamo Bay could stay locked up even if acquitted of charges reveals what is in effect a permanent policy of internment without trial, a policy made possible only by the Al Qaeda prisoners' continued status in a no man's land between the Geneva Conventions and US law. This policy has European allies nearly as alarmed as they are about the tribunals.
There are two important lessons here. One is that in the months since September 11, players in the federal system of checks and balances--Congress and federal judges--have largely failed to resist the Bush Administration's constitutional power grab. The second lesson, however, is that resistance is more than possible. With state courts sometimes better guardians of civil liberties than are the Rehnquist-era federal courts, and with Europe deeply invested in its Continental human rights covenants, it may turn out that local and transnational coalitions will become an effective means of preserving civil liberties. State courts at home and allies abroad are turning out to be the most compelling protectors of the essential American values the Bush Administration has been ready to sell down the river.
Odds are good that on a plane or boat or bus somewhere in the world sits a refugee headed for the United States carrying the seeds of a weapon of mass destruction. The agent he unwittingly carries is insidious and lethal but slow acting, so the deaths it causes can come months or even years after it is disseminated in the population. It has the potential to overwhelm, to kill thousands, and there may be no vaccine, antidote or cure.
What is this ominous threat? An ingenious new biological weapon? No, it is a very old nemesis of humankind--tuberculosis, an infectious disease that kills more than 2 million people every year. Because the majority of them are poor and outside our borders, we don't hear much about them, but that may soon change. Tuberculosis is making a comeback and is conquering the treatments that have kept this killer at bay in the developed world. Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis--a death sentence in most developing countries--is becoming more common and is incurable in about half the cases, even in the United States.
Two numbers in the President's budget proposal stand in stark contrast to each other: $6 billion to fight bioterrorism versus $200 million to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. That works out to a little more than $1 billion per US anthrax death last year, as compared with $33 per global victim of the more common infectious scourges in 2001.
Re-emerging infectious diseases like malaria, HIV and tuberculosis continue their inexorable march, devastating poor countries in Africa, Asia and South America and ultimately threatening the richest countries. Either we are all protected or we are all at risk. It would be better to recognize that the developed world's inaction and callousness have allowed epidemics to flourish in the fertile soil of poverty, malnutrition and poor living conditions made worse by wars, internal displacements, repressive regimes, refugee crises, economic sanctions and huge debt payments that require poor countries to cut public services.
If we can possibly be unmoved by the staggering numbers affected by the AIDS pandemic alone (3 million dead in 2001, more than 40 million people living with HIV, 28 million of them in Africa), then perhaps we will be moved by fear. Of the world's 6 billion inhabitants, 2 billion are infected with latent tuberculosis. With adequate treatment, TB is 90 percent curable, yet only a fraction of those with the disease have access to this simple technology: a course of medications costing only $10 to $20 per patient. As a result, tuberculosis is now the world's second leading infectious killer after AIDS. Resistant tuberculosis, the result of inadequate treatment, is spreading at alarming rates in poor countries and in urban centers of rich countries. According to the World Health Organization, an eight-hour plane flight with an infected person is enough to risk getting TB.
Of all the rich countries, the United States has its head buried most deeply in the sand. It is the stingiest, spending only one cent on foreign aid for every $10 of GNP. Only $1 in $20 of the aid budget goes to health. A recent WHO report estimated that spending by industrialized countries of just 0.1 percent more of their GNPs on health aid would save 8 million lives, realize up to $500 billion a year via the economic benefits of improved health and help those in poor countries escape illness and poverty.
George W. Bush's recent pledge to increase foreign aid comes too late and with too many strings attached. The proposal doesn't start until 2004, making it largely hypothetical. The current budget keeps spending flat at about $11.6 billion. Even with the promised increase, US spending on foreign aid as a proportion of GNP will still pale in comparison with that of other developed nations. And along with this carrot comes a big stick: Only countries that continue to let corporations raid their economies through detrimental free-trade policies will be eligible.
Bioterrorism is a danger that should be taken seriously, but the current counterterrorism frenzy threatens to militarize the public health system, draining resources away from the research, surveillance systems and treatments needed for existing health problems. Already the political war profiteers have criticized the CDC's funding priorities, using the terrorist threat as cover in an attempt to advance their reactionary agenda. In a letter this past November to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, Republican Representatives Joseph Pitts, John Shadegg and Christopher Smith criticized the CDC for "inappropriate" actions. The Congressmen wrote that "we have grown increasingly concerned about some of the activities that the CDC is funding and promoting--activities that are highly controversial in nature, and funding that could be better used for our War on Terrorism." They specifically objected to AIDS prevention programs targeted at gay men and to a CDC website link to a conference sponsored by organizations promoting reproductive health, including abortions, for women. Bush was happy to oblige by cutting $340 million from the CDC's nonbioterrorism budget.
Just as a missile shield will not protect us from crazed men with box cutters, so mass vaccination campaigns and huge stockpiles of antibiotics will not keep us healthy in an increasingly unhealthy world. September 11 should make us more aware than ever of our shared vulnerability. Making the world safer and healthier means prevention and early treatment of disease, inside and outside our borders. It means building a healthcare system designed to keep people healthy instead of spending billions on bogymen while the real killers are on our doorstep.
Two Palestinian-Israeli wars have erupted in this region. One is the Palestinian nation's war for its freedom from occupation and for its right to independent statehood. Any decent person ought to support this cause. The second war is waged by fanatical Islam, from Iran to Gaza and from Lebanon to Ramallah, to destroy Israel and drive the Jews out of their land. Any decent person ought to abhor this cause.
Yasir Arafat and his men are running both wars simultaneously, pretending they are one. The suicide killers evidently make no distinction. Much of the worldwide bafflement about the Middle East, much of the confusion among the Israelis themselves, stems from the overlap between these two wars. Decent peace seekers, in Israel and elsewhere, are often drawn into simplistic positions. They either defend Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by claiming that Israel has been targeted by Muslim holy war ever since its foundation in 1948, or else they vilify Israel on the grounds that nothing but the occupation prevents a just and lasting peace. One simplistic argument allows Palestinians to kill all Israelis on the basis of their natural right to resist occupation. An equally simplistic counterargument allows Israelis to oppress all Palestinians because an all-out Islamic jihad has been launched against them.
Two wars are being fought in this region. One is a just war, and the other is both unjust and futile.
Israel must step down from the war on the Palestinian territories. It must begin to end occupation and evacuate the Jewish settlements that were deliberately thrust into the depths of Palestinian lands. Its borders must be drawn, unilaterally if need be, upon the logic of demography and the moral imperative to withdraw from governing a hostile population.
But would an end to occupation terminate the Muslim holy war against Israel? This is hard to predict. If jihad comes to an end, both sides would be able to sit down and negotiate peace. If it does not, we would have to seal and fortify Israel's logical border, the demographic border, and keep fighting for our lives against fanatical Islam.
If, despite simplistic visions, the end of occupation will not result in peace, at least we will have one war to fight rather than two. Not a war for our full occupancy of the holy land, but a war for our right to live in a free and sovereign Jewish state in part of that land. A just war, a no-alternative war. A war we will win. Like any people who were ever forced to fight for their very homes and freedom and lives.
Translated by Fania Oz-Salzberger.
As state budgets around the country are slashed to accommodate the expense of the war on terror, the pursuit of educational opportunity for all seems ever more elusive. While standardized tests are supposed to be used to diagnose problems and facilitate individual or institutional improvement, too often they have been used to close or penalize precisely the schools that most need help; or, results have been used to track students into separate programs that benefit the few but not the many. The implementation of gifted classes with better student-teacher ratios and more substantial resources often triggers an unhealthy and quite bitter competition for those unnaturally narrowed windows of opportunity. How much better it would be to have more public debate about why the pickings are so slim to begin with. In any event, it is no wonder there is such intense national anxiety just now, a fantastical hunger for children who speak in complete sentences by the age of six months.
A friend compares the tracking of students to the separation of altos from sopranos in a choir. But academic ability and/or intelligence is both spikier and more malleably constructed than such an analogy allows. Tracking students by separating the high notes from the low only works if the endgame is to teach all children the "Hallelujah Chorus." A system that teaches only the sopranos because no parent wants their child to be less than a diva is a system driven by the shortsightedness of narcissism. I think we make a well-rounded society the same way we make the best music: through the harmonic combination of differently pitched, but uniformly well-trained voices.
A parsimony of spirit haunts education policy, exacerbated by fear of the extremes. Under the stress of threatened budget cuts, people worry much more about providing lifeboats for the very top and containment for the "ineducable" rock bottom than they do about properly training the great masses of children, the vibrant, perfectly able middle who are capable of much more than most school systems offer. In addition, discussions of educational equality are skewed by conflation of behavioral problems with IQ, and learning disabilities with retardation. Repeatedly one hears complaints that you can't put a gifted child in a class full of unruly, noisy misfits and expect anyone to benefit. Most often it's a plea from a parent who desperately wants his or her child removed from a large oversubscribed classroom with a single, stressed teacher in an underfunded district and sent to the sanctuary of a nurturing bubble where peace reigns because there are twelve kids in a class with two specialists and everyone's riding the high of great expectations. But all children respond better in ordered, supportive environments; and all other investments being equal, gifted children are just as prone to behavior problems--and to learning disabilities--as any other part of the population. Nor should we confuse exceptional circumstances with behavior problems. The difficulty of engaging a child who's just spent the night in a homeless shelter, for example, is not productively treated as chiefly an issue of IQ.
The narrowing of access has often resulted in peculiar kinds of hairsplitting. When I was growing up, for example, Boston's Latin School was divided into two separate schools: one for boys and one for girls. Although the curriculum was identical and the admissions exam the same, there were some disparities: The girls' school was smaller and so could admit fewer students; and the science and sports facilities were inferior to those of the boys.
There was a successful lawsuit to integrate the two schools about twenty years ago, but then an odd thing happened. Instead of using the old girls' school for the middle school and the larger boys' school for the new upper school, as was originally suggested, the city decided to sever the two. The old boys' school retained the name Boston Latin, and the old girls' school--smaller, less-equipped--was reborn as Boston Latin Academy. The entrance exam is now administered so that those who score highest go to Boston Latin; the next cut down go to what is now, unnecessarily, known as the "less elite" Latin Academy.
One of the more direct consequences of this is that the new Boston Latin inherited an alumni endowment of $15 million dollars, much of it used to provide college scholarships. Latin Academy, on the other hand, inherited the revenue of the old Girls' Latin alumni association--something under $200,000. It seems odd: Students at both schools are tremendously talented, the cutoff between them based on fairly insignificant scoring differences. But rather than pool the resources of the combined facilities--thus maximizing educational opportunity, in particular funding for college--the resolution of the pre-existing gender inequality almost purposefully reinscribed that inequality as one driven by wealth and class.
There are good models of what is possible. The International Baccalaureate curriculum, which is considered "advanced" by most American standards, is administered to a far wider range of students in Europe than here, with the result that their norm is considerably higher than ours in a number of areas. The University of Chicago's School Mathematics Project, originally developed for gifted students at the Chicago Lab School, is now recommended for all children--all children, as the foreword to its textbooks says, can "learn more and do more than was thought to be possible ten or twenty years ago." And educator Marva Collins's widely praised curriculum for inner-city elementary schools includes reading Shakespeare.
Imparting higher levels of content requires nothing exceptional but rather normal, more-or-less stable children, taught in small classes by well-trained, well-mentored teachers who have a sophisticated grasp of mathematics and literature themselves. It will pay us, I think, to stop configuring education as a battle of the geniuses against the uncivilized. We are a wealthy nation chock-full of those normal, more-or-less stable children. The military should not be the only institution that teaches them to be all that they can be.
With compromise legislation stranded in Congress, the report card on the President's faith-based initiative reads "incomplete." Bush, however, has clearly succeeded on two fronts.
How are we to read the International Conference on Financing for Development, which recently concluded in Monterrey, Mexico? Just another United Nations talkathon?
When a girl becomes her school's designated slut, her friends stop talking to her. Pornographic rumors spread with dazzling efficiency, boys harass her openly in the hallways, girls beat her up. "WHORE," or sometimes "HORE," is written on her locker or bookbag. And there is usually a story about her having sex with the whole football team, a rumor whose plausibility no one ever seems to question.
Even those of us who weren't high school sluts and don't recall any such outcast from our own school days have become familiar with her plight--through media stories and the growing body of feminist-inspired literature on female adolescence, as well as the talk shows and teen magazine spreads that have made her their focus. What's harder to understand is how the label persists when the landscape of sexual morality that gives it meaning has so drastically changed--well within living memory. If the sexual revolution didn't obliterate the slut, wouldn't the successive waves of libidinous pop stars, explicit TV shows and countercultural movements to reclaim the label have drained it of its meaning? What kinds of lines can today's adolescents, or those of the 1990s or 1980s, for that matter, possibly draw between nice and not nice girls?
Emily White's Fast Girls sets out to look at the central dilemmas of the slut label. Two earlier books that have focused on the slut--Leora Tanenbaum's Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation, a collection of oral histories, and Naomi Wolf's Promiscuities, a reflection on girls' sexual coming-of-age in the 1970s that combines memoir with a casual survey of the women Wolf grew up with--rely primarily on the subjective narratives of women and girls to explore the slut phenomenon. Paula Kamen's Her Way: Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution surveys the sexual mores and activities of young women, but not specifically of teenagers. White is the first to combine different methodologies in an attempt to write specifically about the functions and significance of the teenage slut--in her words, "to shed some light on that space in the high school hallway where so many vital and troubling encounters occur."
White spoke to or corresponded with more than 150 women who had been the sluts of their school (whom she found largely by soliciting their stories through newspaper ads), and she spent "a couple of weeks" observing in a Seattle-area public high school. She also offers cultural criticism--of horror movies and the riot grrrls, for instance--as well as a digest of psychological, sociological and post-structuralist theory pertinent to the subject. White's evident ambition makes it all the more frustrating that the book's impressive breadth doesn't translate into thoroughness or rigor.
When White interviewed the women--most of them white, middle-class and from the suburbs--who responded to her ads, the stories she heard had certain similarities. There was a "type" of girl who tended to be singled out: She developed breasts earlier than other girls; she was a loud, vocal extrovert; she was self-destructive, tough or wild; often she had been sexually abused; and in one way or another she was usually an outsider, whether she had moved from a different town, had less money than most kids or belonged to some peripheral subculture. Some women described themselves as having been promiscuous, but more said they were not as sexually active as their (untainted) friends, and none of them had done the things that were later rumored. Often the first rumors were started by bitter ex-boyfriends or jealous friends. Once they caught on, the ritual torments and "football team" fantasies inevitably followed.
These similarities make up what White calls the "slut archetype," and for much of the book she riffs on the common factors of the stories, with chapters dedicated to subjects like the role of suburbia, the slut's social isolation and the preponderance of sexual abuse. Though sprinkled liberally throughout the book, the women's testimonies are only a launching point for White's meditations. She writes about these interviews in a way that at times both romanticizes and condescends to the women. "She walks so confidently in her boots," writes White of one 18-year-old, "causing tremors in the ground beneath her feet. She presents herself as a girl who has crawled up out of the underworld, who has found her way through the isolation and the drugged dreams.... It is a way of coping, this tough act. It's a start." Still, despite certain problems of credibility, this overwrought style is pretty effective at conveying the anguish of the ostracized adolescent girl (if only by echoing her earnest self-dramatization). It's much less suited to considering the girl in social and cultural context.
In editing and interpreting her interviews, White emphasizes their similarities at the expense of the kind of detail that makes a particular social universe come to life. Her time observing the Seattle-area high school students inspires mostly familiar observations. ("The cafeteria is high school's proving ground. It's one of the most unavoidable and important thresholds, the place where you find out if you have friends or if you don't.") Only about half the time do we get any real sense of the sort of community an interviewee grew up in or what the social scene was like at her school. There's even less detail about precisely how she fit into the hierarchy before the slut label took hold, whether she was perceived as threatening or flirtatious, what her past relationships were like with girls, boys and teachers. Even worse is that for all their lack of texture, the women's stories are by far the most interesting part of the book; when White pulls away to supply her own commentary, it's usually vague and predictable--precisely because she's not attuned to the details that would reveal how the slut really functions in the teenage universe. Although she acknowledges that the slut myth is much bigger than any individual girl behind it, she is also attached to the literal-minded notion that the girl being labeled has some kind of privileged relationship to the slut myth--that her individual story is the slut story, and the women's emotional recollections of abuses and scars collectively explain the slut myth. In fact, to understand the myth we need to know at least as much about what the rest of the school is thinking.
White suggests that "the slut becomes a way for the adolescent mind to draw a map. She's the place on the map marked by a danger sign...where a girl should never wander, for fear of becoming an outcast." But, given the arbitrary relationship White found between the slut label and a girl's actual sex life, does the slut myth really have any practical applications for girls? Do they limit sexual activity out of fear of these rumors? Are there particular sex acts that can bring censure in themselves? Can social status insulate some girls from slutdom, regardless of how much they fool around? White doesn't directly pose these questions, but one of her findings hints that, though they may fear the label, kids themselves interpret slutdom as primarily an expression of social status rather than a direct consequence of sexual activity: "Girls who at one time might have been friends with the slut recede as her reputation grows; they need to be careful how they associate with her or they will be thought of as sluts along with her."
The slut doesn't seem to point to an actual line that a nice girl can't cross; she commemorates the fact that there once was such a line, and suggests that the idea of a line still has currency, even if no one can figure out where it is anymore. It's no surprise that she is such a popular subject for third-wave feminists; her ostracism seems to have implications not only for residual sexism but for the way that we personally experience sex and desire.
Ididn't think I had a personal connection to the slut story. For most of my adolescent years, which were in the late 1980s and early '90s, I was very good, and too awkward to attract attention from boys. In the schools I attended there were whispers about who did what, and some girls were considered sluttier than others, but there was no single figure who captured the imagination of the whole class.
Then I remembered something about one of the girls I was closest to from age 10 to about 13 or 14. We didn't go to the same school, but for much of the time we both attended Saturday Russian classes held in her kitchen by an elderly neighbor. She was the only one of my friends who was, like me, born in Russia, though her family still lived in Philadelphia's immigrant neighborhood while mine had moved to a more prosperous, non-Russian suburb several years earlier. My family had a bigger house. We had, thanks to my American stepdad, more American ways of doing things. I was a better student. I think she was more popular at her school than I was at mine; at least, she was more easygoing and sociable. I never felt in awe of her, as I did of other friends. I was not always nice to her, though usually I was.
She knew more about sex in our early years than I did, but, like me, she didn't go out with anyone in the time we knew each other. She was pretty, in a round-faced, unfashionable way that made me think I had a discerning eye for appreciating it. She always seemed more developed than I was. (That may not have been true in any measurable sense.) At some point in those years, though it didn't particularly affect our friendship, and I don't remember thinking about it while I was actually with her, I began to spend nights casting her as my proxy in every kind of pornographic fantasy I could conjure.
It's always difficult to figure out the relationship between cultural fantasies and mores, on the one hand, and actual behavior and sexual self-image on the other. You could probably spend a long time listening to teenagers and still not get to the bottom of how the slut myth filters into their own lives. Still, the site of the slut's continuous re-creation, the high school hallways, deserves closer scrutiny, and the mysteries of her endurance await further exploration.
The jury is still out on whether it can restore, let alone enhance, its influence.
As Halle Berry elegantly strode to the podium to accept her best actress Oscar, the first for a black woman, she wept uncontrollably and gasped, "This moment is so much bigger than me." Just as revealing was Denzel Washington's resolute dispassion as he accepted his best actor Oscar, only the second for a black man, by glancing at the trophy and uttering through a half-smile, "Two birds in one night, huh?" Their contrasting styles--one explicit, the other implied--say a great deal about the burdens of representing the race in Hollywood.
Berry electrified her audience, speaking with splendid intelligence and rousing emotion of how her Oscar was made possible by the legendary likes of Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll. And in a stunning display of sorority in a profession riven by infighting and narcissism, Berry acknowledged the efforts of contemporary black actresses Angela Bassett, Jada Pinkett Smith and Vivica Fox. But it was when Berry moved from ancestors and peers to the future that she spoke directly to her award's symbolic meaning. She gave the millions who watched around the globe not only a sorely needed history lesson but a lesson in courageous identification with the masses. Berry tearfully declared that her award was for "every nameless, faceless woman of color" who now has a chance, since "this door has been opened."
Berry's remarkable courage and candor are depressingly rare among famed blacks with a lot on the line: money, prestige, reputation and work. Many covet the limelight's payoffs but cower at its demands. Even fewer speak up about the experiences their ordinary brothers and sisters endure--and if they are honest, that they themselves too often confront--on a daily basis. To be sure, there is an unspoken tariff on honesty among the black privileged: If they dare go against the grain, they may be curtailed in their efforts to succeed or cut off from the rewards they deserve. Or they may endure stigma. Think of the huge controversy over basketball great Charles Barkley's recent comments--that racism haunts golf, that everyday black folk still fight bigotry and that black athletes are too scared to speak up--that are the common banter of most blacks. What Berry did was every bit as brave: On the night she was being singled out for greatness, she cast her lot with anonymous women of color who hungered for her spot, and who might be denied a chance for no other reason than that they are yellow, brown, red or black. Her achievement, she insisted, was now their hope.
At first blush, it may seem that Denzel Washington failed to stand up and "represent." But that would be a severe misreading of the politics of signifying that thread through black culture. Looking up to the balcony where Sidney Poitier sat--having received an honorary Oscar earlier and delivered a stately speech of bone-crushing beauty--Washington said, "Forty years I've been chasing Sidney...." He joked with Poitier, and the academy, by playfully lamenting his being awarded an Oscar on the same night that his idol was feted. Washington, for a fleeting but telling moment, transformed the arena of his award into an intimate platform of conversation between himself and his progenitor that suggested, "This belongs to us, we are not interlopers, nobody else matters more than we do." Thus, Washington never let us see him sweat, behaving as if it was natural, if delayed, that he should receive the highest recognition of his profession. His style, the complete opposite of Berry's, was political in the way that only black cool can be when the stakes are high and its temperature must remain low, sometimes beneath the detection of the powers that be that can stamp it out. This is not to be confused with spineless selling out. Nor is it to be seen as yielding to the cowardly imperative to keep one's mouth shut in order to hang on to one's privilege. Rather, it is the strategy of those who break down barriers and allow the chroniclers of their brokenness to note their fall.
Both approaches--we can call them conscience and cool--are vital, especially if Hollywood is to change. Conscience informs and inspires. It tells the film industry we need more producers, directors and writers, and executives who can greenlight projects by people of color. It also reminds the black blessed of their obligation to struggle onscreen and off for justice. Cool prepares and performs. It pays attention to the details of great art and exercises its craft vigorously as opportunity allows, thus paving the way for more opportunities. The fusion of both approaches is nicely summed up in a lyric by James Brown: "I don't want nobody to give me nothin'/Just open up the door, I'll get it myself."
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