Burden of Proof

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I’m a little tired of seeing conservatives bemoan the lack of due process in the Kavanaugh situation. Where’s the presumption of innocence, they want to know? But we’re not talking about criminal law here. No one to my knowledge has suggested arresting and trying Brett Kavanaugh in a criminal court on charges of attempted rape. Rather, Judge Kavanaugh is being scrutinized for a lifetime appointment on the highest court in the United States.

Two women have come forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual assault in high school and college respectively. This is not a small matter. It goes directly to the character of a proposed sitting Justice of the Supreme Court. And, if true, it indicates an attitude toward women that is incompatible with Supreme Court decisions on the myriad issues affecting women in this country.

I am not saying Judge Kavanaugh is guilty. But the allegations must be brought forward in a transparent and fair hearing by the senators who will decide whether or not to vote for Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Unfortunately, many Republican senators have already decided that they do not believe Christine Blasey Ford. Public statements by Lindsay Graham and Mitch McConnell clearly indicate that they will vote for Kavanaugh’s confirmation no matter what Ms. Ford or other witnesses say.

Judging from social media, conservatives have all decided that Brett Kavanaugh is a good man being wrongly smeared. How do they know? I don’t think any of my Facebook friends are personally acquainted with Judge Kavanaugh. They are simply taking the partisan line, which is unfortunately the default in this country of late.

But there are many open questions. What does the reference to “Renate Alumnius” in Kavanaugh’s yearbook mean? Is it a reference to the alleged sexual conquest of a girl named Renate he and his friends knew in high school? What about the high school buddies who tell a tale of binge drinking and partying throughout high school? And why is Mark Judge, a man Ford claims was present when Kavanaugh attacked her, in hiding? If his friend Brett Kavanaugh is such an upstanding guy and there’s no truth to Ford’s accusation, you’d think he’d be eager to come forward and testify.

These questions about a Supreme Court nominee should give the Senate Judiciary Committee pause. And it should take the time to investigate the claims of the two women who have accused Kavanaugh. But even if the allegations are true, I doubt they will stand in the way of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. After all, when Anita Hill was practically dragged into the hearings by her hair to testify to sexual harassment by then-nominee Clarence Thomas, she was not believed. Rather, Thomas played the race card, declaring the hearing to be a “high-tech lynching.” I find that detail to be a bit ironic, as it’s usually liberals being accused of playing that particular card.

Many women have regrets over sordid sexual encounters with men. They may feel shame or disgust. But sexual assault engenders something else: fear. The women who have accused Kavanaugh have expressed such fear and its disabling effect on their lives. These women at least need to be heard and truly listened to. The mostly male Senate would do well to remember that these women are someone’s daughter. How would they wish their own daughters to be treated, not just by men such as Brett Kavanaugh but by their own deliberative body?

 

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Fab New “Queer Eye”

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When the reality series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy debuted in 2003, I immediately fell in love with the self-named “Fab Five,” five gay men with different areas of expertise whose job each episode was to do a makeover on a straight man. I loved experiencing the free-spirited attitudes and funny repartee of Carson, Ted, Kyan, Thom, and Jai each week as they took men from clueless to chic.

So I was a little skeptical about whether I could embrace a whole new Fab Five in the Queer Eye reboot that premiered earlier this year. After four episodes, I’m happy to say that I find the new quintet as endearing, funny, and sweet as the original five. So far, the new Fab Five have been focusing their efforts on sprucing up the “redneck” contingent in Georgia. To see them prancing around the environs of Nascar and antique car fans has been amusing and surprisingly touching.

While the original Queer Eye aired during a period when gays on TV were still a rarity, the show did not explicitly address homophobia or gay rights. The Fab Five’s “gayness” was an unspoken subtext to the Cinderella stories that unfolded each episode.

The new Queer Eye seems to be aiming more overtly for acceptance and understanding between people whose cultures are vastly different from each other. In the first episode, for instance, Bobby confronts the stereotype of gay couples having one masculine and one feminine member. And in episode four, African-American Karamo has a meeting of hearts and minds with a white Atlanta area police officer.

I realize that reality TV is not all that real. For instance, I doubt Karamo being pulled over by a police officer (who turns out to be a friend of the makeover recipient) was a real surprise. And no doubt some of the conversations had between Fab Five members and their subjects are prepared in advance. But there are some honestly touching moments in Queer Eye, as five gay men lovingly coax a straight guy out of his comfort zone and give him a new lease on life.

The success of Queer Eye is not just the opportunity to see that gay and straight people have a lot in common. It’s also a celebration of those aspects of gay culture that bring color and dimension to the world. Just as blacks shouldn’t have to tone down or assimilate in order to find acceptance, people in the LGBTQ community should also be accepted and embraced on their own terms. I’m glad to say that Queer Eye is a delightful step in that direction.

Anne of Green Gables a Great Female Role Model

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Somehow in my childhood, I missed out on reading the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Written in 1908, Anne of Green Gables and its numerous sequels tell the story of a young, red-headed orphan girl who is mistakenly sent to an aging brother and sister who live on a farm on Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Last week, I watched two delightful Canadian mini-series based on Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea, and I fell in love with Anne. While her story seems conventional enough and has a happy ending, Anne is a heroine to be reckoned with. Young girls would do well to use her character as a model for themselves as they grow into young women.

One trait I love about Anne is that she is not afraid to speak her mind. Even though she is an orphan and dependent on the mercy of the Cuthberts, who take her in on a provisional basis even though she is not the boy they had requested to help them with the farm, she asserts her opinions to the cantankerous Marilla and refuses to allow their gossipy neighbor, Rachel Lynde, to make her feel small. Later in the series, she continues her forthright and assertive ways, whether or not they lead her to trouble in school or to be fired from her position as a teacher.

Anne’s sense of self is especially impressive in her dealings with the opposite sex. On her first day of school in Avonlea, class hunk Gilbert Blythe pulls her red hair, and in response she breaks her slate over his head. Even though Gilbert insists he was only teasing, Anne refuses to back down and insists that his behavior is unacceptable (#MeToo). Gilbert is awed by Anne’s character and falls in love with her, not for her beauty, but for her brains. Throughout Anne of Green Gables, the two of them vie to be first academically.

In a rural 19th century environment, Anne is not content to be courted, settle down, and marry. She has dreams of bigger things and leaves the island to continue her education and be independent. Within the strictures of her time and place, Anne continues to insist upon following her own path, a path which eventually leads back to her beloved Avonlea.

But if Anne were simply an assertive go-getter, her value as a role model would be limited. What I love most about Anne is her unfailing kindness and respect for others. It is a respect born not of fear, but of compassion and empathy. In her young life, she too has suffered from others’ cruelty and indifference, so she refuses to be indifferent to the plight of others. A notable example is when she takes her first post as a teacher at a girls’ boarding school and wins over the cold and lonely spinster, Miss Brooks.

Watching the story of Anne Shirley unfold on the screen, I was pleasantly surprised to find a modern heroine in an old-fashioned setting. Far from being out of date, the stories in Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, and others in the series are just the ticket for young girls and boys to experience today.

For my part, I intend to correct the lapse in my youthful reading endeavors and pick up these timeless gems by L.M. Montgomery. Happy summer reading!

 

 

Ice Queens*

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The Winter Olympics have started, and that has turned my attention to the only event I actually follow during the weeks-long spectacle: women’s figure skating.

Years ago, my oldest daughter and I were captivated by the likes of Michelle Kwan, Sarah Hughes, and the adorable Sasha Cohen, all of them American figure skaters chasing a gold medal. Following in the tradition of American Olympic gold medalists such as Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, and Kristi Yamaguchi, only Sarah Hughes managed to grasp that gold ring. Still, their graceful performances on the ice were magical, and we even bought tickets to see them skate on their post-Olympic tour.

Beyond the beauty, elegance, and athleticism of these masterful skaters, their personal stories are part of the magic. This year’s crop of American Olympic hopefuls all come from ordinary, even humble, origins, and their fierce drive to succeed can be seen as against the odds.

Bradie Tennell is from my own home state of Illinois. The daughter of a single mom, she started begging to be taken ice skating at the age of 2. Unlike Tiger Woods’ father, Bradie’s mother only reluctantly allowed her daughter to enter the world of competitive ice skating. And as opposed to many Olympic hopefuls, Bradie has had the same coach for the past 10 years. That coach, Denise Meyers, refers to Bradie as “a scrapper.” Bradie Tennell stunned the competitive figure skating world by becoming the gold medalist at the U.S. Championships this past January.  Her climb to a spot on the U.S. Olympic team is considered a Cinderella story. Another heart-warming part of that story is the fact that United Airlines plans to fly Bradie’s mother and brothers free of charge to South Korea so that they can see her compete.

Mirai Nagasu is another U.S. ice skater who is more than familiar with hardship. Her parents are Japanese immigrants who work long hours running a restaurant in Arcadia, California. Mirai credits her parents’ hard work and sacrifice for her successes as a figure skater and her dream spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Mirai is best known for executing the difficult triple axel, a feat that she will try to accomplish in the PyeongChang Olympics this month – and a feat no other American figure skater has accomplished in the Olympics. And while her parents have seldom been able to attend her skating competitions due to the demands of running their restaurant, they will be on hand to watch her potentially make history in South Korea.

Karen Chen rounds out the list of U.S. Olympic hopefuls in women’s figure skating. Her championship medal at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and the bronze she won in this year’s competition make her a definite contender. Like Mirai Nagasu, Karen’s parents are immigrants, in their case from Taiwan. But unlike the other two skaters on Team USA, Karen has an Olympic gold medalist in her corner: Kristi Yamaguchi, who hails from the same hometown of Fremont, California, and has become a mentor to Karen. According to Karen, Kristi routinely signs one of Karen’s ice skates before a competition for good luck. And at a mere 5 feet tall, Karen’s favorite quote is from Shakespeare: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Although none of these three skaters is expected to medal in this year’s Winter Olympics, it will be enjoyable to watch them skate and to cheer for them, knowing their back stories and their hard work to achieve excellence. Two Russian figure skaters, Yevgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova, are apparently the ones to watch this year in PyeongChang. Having been exempted from the ban on Russian athletes enacted after the doping scandal at the Sochi Olympics, they are sure to have something to prove as they compete with other young women from around the world.

As snow blankets my world here in Chicago, I’ll be happy to curl up in front of the TV and see the grace and skill of these young figure skaters. May the best women win!

*Postscript: Alina Zagitova edged out her Russian teammate Yevgenia Medvedeva to win the gold in the figure skating finals yesterday. The 15-year-old Zagitova bested her “elder” and the reigning champ in Russia. She will be one to watch in 2022.

 

 

 

 

A Woman Scorned

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When convicted sexual abuser Larry Nasser used the quotation, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” in reference to his victims, there was widespread incredulity and revulsion. Nasser’s implication that somehow young gymnasts were complicit in his manipulative and abusive behavior was horrifying – but nothing new.

For centuries and in cultures the world over, women have often been blamed for their own victimization at the hands of men. At the extreme are the traditions of many African and Middle Eastern cultures, wherein if a woman or girl is raped, the only way she and her family can avoid shame is to have her marry her rapist. Victims of human trafficking are likewise deemed damaged goods and whores regardless of the fact that they gave no consent to the sexual abuse.

As women come forward with their stories of sexual harassment, molestation and outright rape by political figures, college athletes, media figures, and Hollywood moguls, it seems hard to believe that there are so many predatory men in the world. And yet our culture permits and even condones such behavior.

One of the problems is simply that young girls and women are not believed. As far back as 1990, Nasser’s victims had complained to school officials at Michigan State University about his inappropriate touching. Administrators simply could not believe that a man of Dr. Nasser’s stature could perpetrate such acts. Disbelieving victims goes a long way toward enabling predators to continue their despicable behavior. When the perpetrator of the violence is a person of standing in the community, that standing takes precedence over the safety of the victims. One need look no further than the massive sexual abuse that took place for decades in the Catholic Church to see how difficult it is for victims to come forward and be believed.

The other problem in our culture is perpetuating the myth that men are natural sexual predators, and women are their prey. Long before the Harvey Weinstein revelations, casting couch sexual shenanigans was a common trope. It was widely believed that starlets and young women in many occupations used their sexuality in order to get ahead. Instead of maligning the men who used their power to intimidate and coerce these women, cultural scorn was heaped on the women themselves. This tendency to blame the victim explains why so many women went for years without disclosing the terrible things that had happened to them at the hands of men like Weinstein.

As proof of my point, there is already a backlash developing against the #MeToo movement. Men (and no doubt some women as well) are complaining that demanding a greater accounting of their sexual behavior is a buzz kill in the bedroom. Many point to the story of Aziz Ansari and his unsavory but not necessarily criminal behavior with women he dated as an example that the #MeToo movement has gone too far. After all, Ansari is considered a “nice guy.” How could such a nice guy be held culpable for disrespecting women?

But that is precisely the point. If the “nice” ones cause that much discomfort in a romantic encounter, imagine how scary the truly predatory and sociopathic ones are. We need a sea change in our attitudes about men, women, and sexuality. Clearly, the sexual revolution has done nothing to erase outdated stereotypes.

But there is hope. Women and men who are victims of sexual abuse are demanding an accounting. They are speaking out and expecting to be heard and believed. Certainly compared to a few decades ago, awareness of sexual harassment and appropriate workplace behavior has made many employment situations better for both men and women. Even Disney reconfigured their Pirates of the Caribbean ride to get rid of the pirate chasing a “wench” around and around, ostensibly to catch and rape her.

Laws are important, and law enforcement needs to improve to recognize and prosecute sexual misconduct. Similarly, organizations such as schools and universities need to recognize the problem and prioritize human rights over reputation. But the real change will come when we start to believe sex should be a mutually desirable and consensual act and not a conquest.

 

 

The Resonance of Two Tiny Words

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When I was a young teen, I was walking alone on a street in my safe, suburban town when a middle-aged man in a white sedan pulled up alongside me. He stared at me out of his rolled-down window and said, “Would you have sex with me for $100?” I fled. A few years later during my college years, at my summer job in an insurance agency, the boss called me into his office on my last day of work and made me kiss him on the lips.

These unpleasant memories have come back to me as the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal has lit up the news and social media. Weinstein joins a long line of men who have used their power to sexually prey upon women. Thus when actress Alyssa Milano wondered what would happen if all women who had been sexually harassed posted “Me, too” to their Twitter accounts, social media exploded with those two seemingly innocuous words.

It is hard to have grown up in our culture without having experienced unwanted sexual attention from men: catcalls and wolf whistles; boys rating girls’ attractiveness as they walked down the halls of school; groping and leering. In the Sixties and Seventies to which Weinstein alluded in a lame attempt to justify his behavior, treating women as objects was commonplace. A cursory viewing of the TV series Mad Men has such verisimilitude that it’s enough to give women my age unwelcome flashbacks. The workplace was particularly daunting for women. For example, flight attendants were subject to weight requirements, and women could be fired from their jobs for becoming pregnant. Employers openly told their female employees that men were paid more because they had to support families.

While women have made many strides in society, their characterization as sexual objects persists. Although Weinstein’s detractors are many, some noted celebrities have come to his defense. Woody Allen, for instance, complained of a “witch hunt” atmosphere in which a guy couldn’t even wink at a woman (or child, in his case) without getting into trouble. That’s right, Woody. We don’t want your winks – or pinches or whistles or any other demeaning or sexist gestures. You see, we are human beings, not your fantasy objects.

Mayim Bialik also completely missed the point by claiming that unattractive actresses (presumably herself) are not harassed in Hollywood. Bialik clearly thinks that Weinstein’s (and O’Reilly’s and Roger Ailes’s and Bill Cosby’s …) predatory behavior was about sex. But for sexual predators, it’s all about power. Objectifying women and threatening their careers if they don’t “put out” are ways of keeping women in their place. And judging from the “Me too”s all over Facebook and Twitter, women in all walks of life have been subject to this same power game.

There are laws on the books to protect victims (both male and female) of sexual harassment. The problem is that a code of silence often prevails, and those in power buy the silence of their victims. It is easy from the outside to say that these actresses should have gone public immediately to stop the predatory behavior of Michael Weinstein. But in an industry as difficult to succeed in as is the entertainment world, it’s understandable why women would choose not to rock the boat. And it is maddening that in the 21st Century women should need to call men out on this dehumanizing behavior.

I am currently reading a book titled Get Savvy: Letters to a Teenage Girl About Sex and Love by Kathleen Buckstaff. In the book, Buckstaff reveals her own emotional struggles after being sexually abused as a teenager at an East Coast boarding school. Like many victims, she kept her abusers’ secrets, but the emotional fallout led to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adulthood. Clearly the stakes are high in our culture for victims of sexual predators.

We need a sea change in our attitudes about gender roles, power, and sex. But first we need to break the code of silence and tacit acceptance around sexual abuse and harassment. And maybe it starts with saying, “Me, too.”

Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian World

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Eggers-Simon-Atwood_CSLA2017_JustinBarbin-700x477At last week’s Carl Sandburg Literary Awards event in Chicago, Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s writing was described as “speculative fiction,” as opposed to science fiction. That distinction is an important one. Margaret Atwood’s futuristic worlds are terrifying precisely because they could actually come into being.

I have been reading Margaret Atwood’s fiction since the late Eighties, when I was introduced to her novel Cat’s Eye in a book club. Atwood’s iconic The Handmaid’s Tale, however, launched her into both the public eye and the world of dystopian fiction. A book as darkly prescient as the classic 1984 and Brave New WorldThe Handmaid’s Tale imagines America as a repressive Biblical theocracy in which women are reduced to their role as bearer of children, more incubators than mothers.

With the increasing erosion of women’s reproductive rights and Trump’s recent directives concerning contraceptive coverage in health insurance, it’s frightening to see how the religious right has influenced government policy to the detriment of women’s freedoms. Yet the handmaids in The Handmaid’s Tale resemble women in repressive Islamic regimes as much as anything, which makes a pointed statement about the dangers of mingling church and state.

Atwood’s more recent fiction includes the MaddAddam trilogy, a glimpse into a pre- and post-apocalyptic world in which global warming has made the Earth a merciless oven, a madman has wiped out most of the world’s population with a virus, and our obsession with technology has created real world, violent “painballers,” genetically modified pigs with cunning human brains, and drones that spy on citizens.

In The Heart Goes Last, civilization has almost completely broken down, and people take refuge in a corporate nightmare where they reside in a prison for half of their time and a controlled, monitored “town” for the other half. I won’t reveal the meaning of the title, but it’s not pretty. Once again, Atwood zeroes in on our autocratic tendencies, the dangers of uncontrolled corporate greed, and our obsession with mass incarceration of our citizens.

Yes, the world painted by Margaret Atwood is surely a scary one. But there is a dark humor in her writing that make her novels so enjoyable to read even as they are scaring the bejesus out of us. Atwood, who appeared at the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards event as an award recipient, is a sly, funny, and acerbic woman. As much as I dread the world her dark intellect conjures, I can’t wait to read her next masterful novel.