More SEX (tell somebody!)

There I was, bent over an imaginary toilet bowl, after eating an imaginary pizza, when my pretend best friend accidentally entered the stall and…oh no.

When I was in high school I participated in a staged reading of a friend’s play about male bulimia. Yes, it affects guys too, you see. And if you’re like me, and have suffered through plenty of bad theater (and TV) in your life, you are familiar with the message play (or the “very special episode”) where a writer, with the artlessness of an adolescent, makes a well-intentioned case to raise awareness for something. My favorite is Dorothy on the Golden Girls getting chronic fatigue syndrome.

I call them “Tell somebody!” plays. Because more or less that’s always the last line.

Easy A, now playing at a theater near you, makes, I feel, a more artful case for awareness-raising. In this case the issue is that people have sex.

Now wait a minute, you say. I’m not positive, but I think I already know that people have sex. I hope you do. But the fact of the matter is that while we may be living in an oversexed culture – references and innuendos abound – we are often surprisingly mum about the Main Event itself, and especially about the fact that teenagers are participating in it. With any luck, they’re doing so more often and more successfully than the rest of us. Don’t they say a guy hits his sexual prime at 18? Get to it.

But just think about how many cultural references you’ve heard to “the talk” and compare it to how many times you’ve actually seen “the talk” represented in a way that doesn’t make a parent just seem like an idiot.

Easy A centers around an extended comparison to The Scarlet Letter, and features an English teacher who is better looking but not as funny as I am. In my first ever American Lit class, I started with Mary Fisher’s 1992 speech to the Republican National Convention (the link is to American Rhetoric – good for what ails you). This speech is famous because it provided a nice, blonde, white woman poster child for AIDS awareness. If the GOP was going to ignore AIDS when HIV-positive Mary Fisher – one of their own – asked them not to, then Kushner was right and they were just heartless bastards.   

Fisher asked that the GOP lift the “shroud of silence” around AIDS. She wanted to turn the “whisper of AIDS” into a battle cry. It takes about ten minutes to get a room of teenagers to tell you that “shroud of silence” is a metaphor, but in the meantime they understand the main issue: Tell somebody! Or, let’s talk about it!

Fuzzy English, or “terminological inexactitude,” as Easy A calls it, can happen by omission too, you know. Not talking about something can be just as misleading.

We did start talking about AIDS, thanks to Mary Fisher and many others, and so it’s hard for some teenagers to imagine a time when we didn’t. Of course, now the issue with AIDS is that its victims – the poor, the foreign – have become invisible to some of us again. I for one was shocked, and embarrassed with myself, to volunteer one day in New York at a center for those living with AIDS. I guess I thought that was over in this country.

And then the 21st century brought strange things like President Bush leading Christian conservatives to increase aid to Africa and fight AIDS there, while outlawing anything but abstinence-only sex education in his own country. Say who?

Teenagers have sex. And we’ve all seen the studies that say virginity pledge kids do even more freaky stuff because Bill Clinton warped our definition of sex forever. Not talking about it, and not passing around the bucket of rubbers, is a big bad idea.

That’s why I think Emma Stone’s Olive is a fine descendent of Hester Prynne. That book’s all about sex, by the way, which people seem to forget. I mean The Scarlet Letter boils down to two people who could not keep their clothes on. This is why I played “Sexual Healing” and had my students write love letters to each other when we read it. It’s the one thing the much-derided Demi Moore version got right: two naked people showing their appreciation for each other. Olive points this out to her teacher, saying that she thinks the book is inappropriate for her age group.

But she also ends by telling us, about her new love interest, “I think I’ll lose my virginity to him. Maybe in five minutes, maybe tonight, maybe sixth months from now, or maybe on the night of our wedding.” You’ve got to love that. It’s really about finding when the time is right for you.

(But really, guys, if you can find a willing partner, don’t let 18 pass you by).

Then, in a moment of defiance to make Michael Hardwick proud, she adds, “Either way, it’s really none of your business.” That’s right! But we’re glad we’re talking about it, in general.

The whole movie errs on the side of disclosure (another blog tie-in). There’s a charming bit with the dad being ironic about his son’s adoptedness (the son is black in a family of whiteys), and another of my favorite lines is when he asks the kid, “Where are you from, originally?”

Some kids are adopted. Tell somebody!

These things help make up for the movie’s inevitable shortcomings – some of their jokes are too (get it) easy. I think they dispense with the Christians a bit too glibly, but you just have to get behind (get it) a movie that makes gay jokes about Huck and Jim.

If only the people who made that movie could deal with this recent Katy Perry Sesame Street kerfuffle. It was brought to my attention by my friend Kim that parents were complaining about a music video Perry made for the show which is currently on youtube. They raised such a stink (why is the squeaky wheel of squeamishness always louder than the one of liberty?) that Sesame folk decided not to air the clip on their show. The parents should have had a problem with the fact that Katy Perry songs cause brain damage by seeping into your cerebellum at night and distorting your previously sensible taste in music. But they just didn’t like her cleavage.

I agree that cleavage can be a distraction from education. To teenagers. But I was in a kindergarten class this Monday, and I really think this debate would have eluded them. And the younger kids, well, I only stayed in their room for five minutes, because it was a terrifying baby-doll graveyard.

People have cleavage. TELL SOMEBODY.

Finally, I have to mention that a friend of mine put tape across the front of her copy of The Vagina Monologues so that the title was obscured. When I asked why, she said so she could read it in public and not have people (moms) come up and scold her. This is sensible, but made my heart hurt.

Lucky for us, as part of the theater group I’m starting in 2011 (too many websites!), I’m as of this morning an official V-Day sponsor!

So, VAGINA VAGINA VAGINAS. Tell somebody.

Cruel? Unusual? Ironic?

“It’s a death row pardon, two minutes too late.”

But perhaps our songbird should have said, “It’s a death row pardon, ’cause you wanna die.”

In 1998, Brandon Rhode was robbing a house in Jones County, Georgia, with an accomplice, when he was interrupted by the 11-year-old son of the family who lived there. They killed him. Then they were interrupted by the boy’s 15-year-old sister. They killed her. Then they were interrupted by the father. They killed him.

The mother came home to find the bodies.

Brandon was 18 at the time. He was sentenced to die, as was his accomplice, in 2000.

Death row inmate Brandon Rhode, in a photo released by the Georgia Department of Corrections. Brandon, as you can see, is white. The Moss family, I presume, was white. I presume this because the odds are against white men being put on death row for killing black people, and frankly the odds are against so many of the people who troll internet discussion boards being as particularly outraged by Rhode if he had killed a black family. I said it. What now?

And outraged they are. If you want a sample, I recommend findadeath.com, where you can read a message board devoted to details of the case – some which read as conjecture – and condemnations of Brandon Rhode. And then, the main event is this post on October 13, 2009, by Caligerbear@verizon.net:

I am aware there is alot of misinformation and facts left out of every story.
I am The surviving Mother and Wife.This is my family. I sat through the two Death Penalty trials..We did nothing to bring this on,There were no drugs or connection with My husband..There are TRULY random freaks of nature,children of Satan, out there walking around and it could happen to anyone. Thankyou for this venue and God Bless Us…

Now, I don’t want to suggest that this is someone posing to be the surviving Moss, because you and I know that would be too disgusting for a human to consider. I just find it odd that this woman would find her way to making this comment in this place at this time. She received plenty of condolences – who’s gonna even attempt to call somebody out on that? – including my favorite, which included a frowny emoticon.

😦

If you’re in the mood for more, you can poke around almost any news story posted on the case; if there are comments, there are bound to be a vast majority of them cursing the man. I find it striking that so much of the language still revolves around the word “fry,” as in, “let the bastard fry,” even though Rhode, like most people on death row in this country, is facing lethal injection. We know that many people do not find death by needle to be fully gratifying.

Now, on findadeath.com it’s mentioned that Brandon Rhode was a “methhead” and, thus, was the scum floating on the pond of society and not really a loss to anyone.

This may be the truth. This may also be the truth:

Brandon was born in Picayune, Mississippi to a 16 year old mother who didn’t know she was carrying a child for the first five months of her pregnancy. She admitted to using drugs including LSD, marijuana and Quaaludes early in her pregnancy… At 5 years old, Brandon was in the house when his stepfather attempted, unsuccessfully, to murder his mother by shooting her in the head with a shotgun…He himself began drinking alcohol at age 11 and smoking marijuana, using LSD and mushrooms by 12.  He resorted to petty theft to support his growing drug habit.  

At the age of 13, Brandon attempted suicide by drinking an entire fifth of vodka and was shortly thereafter admitted to an inpatient treatment program at New Orleans Adolescent Hospital (NOAH) for 90 days.  This turned out to be the sole period of stability in Brandon’s life.  He was treated for polysubstance abuse and depression, with positive results.  Although outpatient therapy was deemed essential to Brandon’s recovery after discharge from NOAH, his mother and step-father failed to follow up on the discharge plan which called for regular counseling and drug treatment.  

After a period of relapse when Brandon was 15, he dropped out of school and was sent by his mother to live with his biological father, a hard-core drug addict and alcoholic.  There, Brandon’s drug and alcohol abuse escalated sharply as Brandon’s father introduced Brandon to crack cocaine and used Brandon as a courier to obtain methamphetamine in neighboring towns.  

That information is provided by Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, at gfadp.org. Surely they have a reason to try and cast him in the best possible light.

And so now you have one side saying that the man deserves to die for what he did, brutally murdering that family. And you have another side that says (when more than one defendant is involved it always seems to go thus) that the other guy did the killing, that Brandon suffered fetal alcohol effects, making him mentally younger than his 18 years when the crime was committed (can’t be killed if you’re younger than 18; arbitrary line?), and that, ultimately, three deaths in this case need not be stretched to five.

All well and good, nothing truly shocking. He was set to be killed this fine Georgia day at 7PM. Apparently he wanted to get a rush on things and tried to kill himself. Now, from the little I know about death houses, I have to imagine the man was on death watch for the last 24 hours of his sentence – so what gives? No details on the attempt have been given, but he was hospitalized.

His lawyers are pouncing on this, saying that to kill him now, when he is clearly “incompetent” to be executed (since he wants to die), would be a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which as we all know prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.”

You have to admit that this is just messed. up.

For a dose of sheer crazy, it beats the alcohol-daubed cotton swab they use to prep the injection.

In her novel Regeneration, Pat Barker fictionalizes an account of English doctors attempting to treat the shell shock of WWI soldiers. The doctors realize that their job is to make the soldiers healthy enough to go kill and die again. This crisis of conscience persists in our armed conflicts today, and in other places besides.

Like this one.

I wrote a letter to the Georgia Parole Board asking for clemency for Brandon Rhode. I state that freely. I intended to try to keep myself out of my Fuzzy English work, but this is too much. I’m sick of moral stalemate, of bending-over-backwards-balance.

I did it, but said that I have no real sympathy for Rhode; I can only find myself opposing this execution on principle. I don’t believe anyone should be executed by the State. I may want it, but I want too much for that ultimate justice to be handed down by a flawless system, and we’ll never have one.

There are many arguments to have about the death penalty, and if you want to start one, or promote one, let’s do it. I tend to bring up the cost of it (more $ than life), the possibility of life without parole sentences, the company it puts us in (Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China instead of France, United Kingdom, Rwanda, and about 100 other countries), and, well, the belief I have that human beings might have a chance to do something good with their life if we offer it to them. If they don’t, guess what? The joke’s still on them.

I will say after I typed my clemency letter I nearly threw up. I wondered what I was getting myself into – going on record asking for mercy for this person. And tonight, I was in bed before 10. I felt terrible – I got a bunch of shots today, for travel – and exhausted as I read my nightly chapter of The Phantom Tollbooth. But when the light went off my brain wouldn’t quit, and I got up, shivering, to come down here and write this. I still feel like crap. I still don’t know what I’m getting myself into. But I know that silence in this matter will only be read as assent.

And disgusting as I might find some of his acts, I cannot bring myself to be a part of this ultimate judgment on his life.

So you can take me out of your silent majority.

Corruption, and the Axis of Malignancy

Dexter Filkins and I go way back. I once fanboy emailed him saying that his book The Forever War is really really good, which it is, and he replied, “Thanks.”

So, you know, I feel a bond there. That’s why I used the picture where he looks kinda like Ted Kaczynski (spelled that correctly without Googling; whattup playa). Or at least Gary Busey. 

Recently Mr. Filkins has been reporting from Afghanistan, or “Corrupt-istan” as one of his recent articles calls it. In this article, he has several moments of wordfun – while describing a rather unfun subject.

To begin with, there is the matter of corruption in Afghanistan. Everyone knows it is widespread, and yet to some people, that’s business as usual:

“What is acceptable to the Afghans is different than what is acceptable to you or me or our people,” a Western official here said recently, discounting fears of fraud in the coming parliamentary elections. He spoke, as many prominent Western officials here do so often, on the condition of anonymity. “They have their own expectations, and they are slightly different than the ones we try to impose on them.”

There is a politically correct and morally relative part of us that nods at the idea of not “imposing” our standards on others. But this is dangerous. For one, Filkins points out that such beliefs can become self-fulfilling: we say, Afghanistan is bound to be corrupt; then, Afghanistan goes ahead and fulfills our expectations. If I went into my classroom thinking that the black students were likely to do less well than the whites, or that the girls would do better than the boys, it is possible that this mindset could transform the way I teach and grade, and worse, the way the students behave.

When I was in college I did a psych study where I was told I would be taking a test. I went into a room and sat at a computer and was told various facts about how girls score lower than guys on math tests. I then was asked to answer several questions about how those data influenced my mindset. The point was to see if simply planting the seed – hey, I’m bound to do well (or the opposite) – can bring about the effect.

Okay. But also there’s the larger problem of moral relativity – which is, at its extreme, believing that there are no absolute rights and wrongs, and that much can change depending on circumstances, culture, etc.

This is how Merriam-Webster defines corrupt:

a : impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle : depravity b : decay, decomposition c : inducement to wrong by improper or unlawful means (as bribery) d : a departure from the original or from what is pure or correct.

There is no moral wiggle room in this definition: corruption is wrong, improper, not correct or pure. It is associated with decay and decomposition.

Believing that there is a double standard for corruption dividing the “developed” and “developing” worlds (and those terms deserve their own entry) is a dangerous game. All of us have a breaking point; it is the moment when we decide to join a protest (but who does that?), or write a strongly worded (passive aggressive?) email, or storm into the boss’s office and give her what for (were you expecting I’d write “him”?).

To paraphrase a line from e. e. cummings, there is some shit we will not eat. Here, we seem to be saying that Afghans will eat  a lot more shit than Americans.

See also Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “No One Writes to the Colonel” for more on this kind of diet.

This double shit standard may be true at our present cultural moment (although we Americans seem to put up with our fair share of Corrupt-ica), but it reeks of complacency. And not to put you on a slippery slope (or present you with a parade of horribles) but isn’t it that kind of thinking which can allow certain people to write off restrictive clothing, stoning, honor killings, genital mutilation – even genocide – as so much culture, so much history and tradition which we cannot penetrate?

Gary Bass and I go way back. I only met him two months ago, but when you’ve traded Star Wars references with a person, it feels like forever. In reading his book Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention, I have been treated to fascinating historical episodes which were never covered in my AP Euro high school education. I wish they had been, because reading about how the Concert of Europe powers handled Greek insurgency in the 1820s and massacres in Syria around 1860 can reveal all kinds of striking parallels to modern international political concerns.

In Syria, the diplomats of Britain, France, Austria and Prussia were working to restore stability after a period of brutal violence between Christians and Muslims (or Marionites and Druzes; sects of each respective religion). French troops occupied Syria, only to find the restoration of justice a slow-going and difficult process, and that many Syrians resented their presence. Trying to set up a new and improved government, the European powers worried that the country would descend again into chaos once they pulled out the troops. Sound familiar?

As moral and physical fatigue set in, some began describing the conflict as inevitable and mysterious. The British Prime Minister “argued that the barbarous locals were in the grip of ancient ethnic hatreds, with both sides guilty,” and that they were “two fierce tribes who are constantly indulging their implacable hatred against each other.”

To me this sounds very similar to the way many of us were told to digest the Sunni/Shia conflict in Iraq (and beyond). It’s an ancient tribal thing, it’s complicated to understand, and there’s no clear moral high ground. This makes us value their lives less. We don’t even have an accurate Iraqi casualty number, after all.

The word tribal is loaded in itself. No one described the civil rights movement in America as one of tribal conflict. Nor was anyone allowed to write off Southern hatred as “implacable” (which for the record means not capable of being “significantly changed”) – at least not forever. In some countries, we consider no ills to be implacable, save death and taxes. In others, we accept chaos.

I agree that there is a limit to what we can and should do in other countries. I admit that we are not all the same – I have heard compelling arguments from Iraqis about how Iraqis, because of their personalities, needed a strong man like Saddam to keep the country going. However, if there is a vote on the floor to tack on an amendment to corruption’s definition, one that reads “in poor places, not so bad,” I vote no.

Filkins brings up another rhetorical oddity. Have you ever heard of a Malign Actor Network? You may think at first this is a group of thespians who always play creepy people (president: Steve Buscemi). Actually it is how we describe bad guys these days.  

Here’s Filkins:

It’s not as if the Americans and their NATO partners don’t know who the corrupt Afghans are. American officers and anti-corruption teams have drawn up intricate charts outlining the criminal syndicates that entwine the Afghan business and political elites. They’ve even given the charts a name: “Malign Actor Networks.” A k a MAN.

He then goes on to suggest that the country is not being run by the Taliban, but by “the MAN.” Rimshot.

More alarming details follow, such as the fact that many MANers are funded by the CIA, or that President Hamid Karzai’s brother is suspected of being involved in drug trafficking.

These are bad things that I hope people learn about and do things about. In the meantime I’m interested in the acronym.

Def 1A of “malign,” M-W reveals, is “evil in nature, influence, or effect.” That’s right. That smell you’re picking up on is vintage 2002 rhetoric. There’s an oakiness, too.

You’ll remember that in 2002 Bush created the Axis of Evil – North Korea, Iraq, and Iran. Not only might that be another self-fulfilling prophecy (morning paper: Oh, America thinks my country is evil; interesting; honey, pass the dynamite) but it also was a master step in framing political debates in religious and moral terminology.

It’s hard to debate someone who uses the word evil. I know, because when I was in middle school I wanted to read Thomas Harris’s Hannibal and my dad said no because he thought the book was evil. So I said, well, but…I…already bought it?

I read it, and really it was just stupid. But that’s not the point here. The point is it’s like the mosque debate: keep your god off my real estate, and my international diplomacy.

There’s a reason we use “Guilty” and “Not Guilty” and not “Evil” or “Good” when we’re pronouncing verdicts. We don’t even use the word “Innocent” because, I would think, of its wider moral implications. This is a point sorely missed by the little black girl who comes out at the end of A Time to Kill to announce that the murderer is going free (“he’s innocent!”) precisely because that movie is about making you feel and not think too hard. So is calling a country evil and then asking you to sign off on blowing it up.

I propose one of two things instead of MAN. Either you get more specific, and call the people criminals, drug dealers, or embezzlers, murderers, thieves, whatever – the legal route, focusing on the actions – or you go with what we all call them in our heads – the bastards, the bad guys, the crooked fucks (pardon), and so on. Malign Actor Network is fancier than Axis of Evil – it’s the Professor in Chief version, maybe. But is that a good thing? Dare I say I’d rather have someone who made no bones about the fact that he’s sitting in judgment than one hiding behind some cute euphemistic acronym?

Nobody likes the guy at the party who’s sitting there judging everyone but not saying anything.

I don’t know when MAN was coined. It could be Bush era or pre-Bush, but it’s not in the Bush spirit. It’s half-assed. And when the same people we’re calling malign are the ones we’re funding, it makes only the worst kind of sense.

And if hearing that America pays for criminals to run other countries no longer bothers you, you might want to reflect on how much shit you’ve gotten used to eating, and whether that makes you more able or less able to care about people who aren’t like you.

Proclitic

When you find clitic in your inbox, you just have to share it. This, with a disappointing lack of humor, was M-W’s word du jour this morning:

clitic \KLIT-ik\

DEFINITION noun

: a word that is treated in pronunciation as forming a part of a neighboring word and that is often unaccented or contracted

EXAMPLE

In “what’s happening?” the “s” in “what’s” is a clitic.

DID YOU KNOW?

We hear clitics every day in sentences like “This’ll be fine” and “C’mon over here.” There are two kinds of clitics: “enclitics” and “proclitics.” An enclitic is a clitic that is associated with the word that comes before it. Contractions, such as the “ve” in “would’ve” and the “ll” in “it’ll,” are enclitics. A proclitic is associated with the word that follows it. Proclitics are transcribed into print far less often than enclitics are, but we hear them frequently in speech. For example, the sentence “They love to dance” is typically pronounced with the “to” truncated to a “t” that gets tacked onto the front of “dance.”

First of all, you have to admit that this is an interesting piece of grammatical data to pick up. Talk about a word to use at parties.

Second, you have to admire the irony that proclitic in this sense involves having a lazy tongue.

Third, you have to think that an enclitic sounds like something you really ought to have checked out by a professional.