October Links Roundup: That’s What I Like

There is no theme this month.

The single best medical decision I ever made was to get the Mirena chemical IUD this year–or as I call it, “Van Helsing”, because it stopped the bleeding! I was somewhat pushed into it because my insurance company forced me off the brand-name Pill that kept my endometriosis under control, and the generic version was making my blood pressure go up (or perhaps that was the frustration of losing control over my reproductive health??).

But I didn’t actually hear about the IUD option from my OB-GYNs. It was never suggested to me, during the 30+ years I’ve been chronically disabled from menstrual pain. No, I had to read about it in the comments on an article about fertility magic at Little Red Tarot. Some goddess must have been looking out for me, because my periods have stopped, and for the first time since I was 10 years old I can make plans like a normal person. I don’t have to deal with losing a week of my life every month to pain and insomnia, or the shame of having to make false excuses for my unavailability because menstruation is a taboo subject for many people. As with all hormonal medications, your mileage may vary, but it dramatically changed my life for the better.

Lack of information is just one of the obstacles to good reproductive care. In her essay “You’ll Feel a Pinch” at the online literary journal Catapult, Megan Stielstra writes about her decision to have her IUD replaced early, in case the Trump administration makes birth control even more expensive and hard to get. She had to go through a lengthy and humiliating process to get this authorized. I blame the Religious Right; they’ve capitalized on people’s reasonable moral qualms about abortion to gain veto power over all health care relating to sexuality and reproduction.

Turning from real-life monsters to probably-imaginary ones, comics artist Greg Ruth explains why “Horror Is Good for You (and Even Better for Your Kids)” on the website of sci-fi and horror publisher Tor.com. (Hat tip to Love, Joy, Feminism for the link.) Childhood is scary, so stories that acknowledge the strangeness and dangers of the world are validating and can teach resilience. Horror archetypes teach us truths about intimacy, isolation, difference, and the struggle to find your place in a community. Moreover, the constraints of writing for younger readers can produce more subtle and effective fiction, because the writer can’t go for the lazy shock value of sexual violence and gore. No wonder I became a horror fan in junior high… around the same time I started to bleed every month… coincidence?

Also at Tor.com, the Lovecraft Reread series by Ruthanna Emrys and Anne M. Pillsworth offers insightful and witty critiques of work in the HPL tradition. After covering H.P. Lovecraft’s original tales, they have gone on to reread stories by weird fiction contemporaries like M.R. James and E.F. Benson, and contemporary practitioners such as Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Bear, and Brian Lumley. You may even find horror greats like Ramsey Campbell dropping in to the comments section, which is remarkably respectful and well-informed.

The high-modernist poet T.S. Eliot was my other big literary obsession during those teen years. Revisiting Lovecraft this year, I noticed some psychological similarities. Both writers contemplated man’s humble place in the cosmos, liked to name-drop erudite references in multiple languages, had a fastidious and even phobic attitude about sexuality, and resorted to racist caricature in their defense of Anglo-American civilization. I wondered if they were aware of each other, since their iconic works were written in the 1920s-30s. Wonder no more: in comment #9 to the Lovecraft Reread of HPL’s “At the Mountains of Madness”, user “trajan23” treats us to HPL’s TSE parody, “Waste Paper”, which begins thus:

Waste Paper
A Poem of Profound Insignificance
By H. P. Lovecraft

Πἀντα γἐλως καἱ πἀντα κὀνις καἱ πἀντα τὁ μηδἐν

Out of the reaches of illimitable light
The blazing planet grew, and forc’d to life
Unending cycles of progressive strife
And strange mutations of undying light
And boresome books, than hell’s own self more trite
And thoughts repeated and become a blight,
And cheap rum-hounds with moonshine hootch made tight,
And quite contrite to see the flight of fright so bright
I used to ride my bicycle in the night
With a dandy acetylene lantern that cost $3.00
In the evening, by the moonlight, you can hear those darkies singing
Meet me tonight in dreamland . . . BAH
I used to sit on the stairs of the house where I was born
After we left it but before it was sold
And play on a zobo with two other boys.
We called ourselves the Blackstone Military Band
Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey, won’t you come home?
In the spring of the year, in the silver rain
When petal by petal the blossoms fall
And the mocking birds call
And the whippoorwill sings, Marguerite.
The first cinema show in our town opened in 1906
At the old Olympic, which was then call’d Park,
And moving beams shot weirdly thro’ the dark
And spit tobacco seldom hit the mark.

Never fear, you too may find a place in the literary canon of white men, with help from the Lovecraft Engine, a random phrase generator that remixes HPL’s favorite over-the-top descriptors. My first go-round gave me “That iridescent, fabulous menace,” which is exactly what I aspire to be.

Speaking of fabulous, our queer link of the month is Brandon Taylor’s LitHub essay “Who Cares What Straight People Think?” Taylor writes about what is gained and lost when books with queer characters go mainstream, no longer segregated in specialty bookstores or back rooms. One could argue that when straight writers and readers consume narratives of queer suffering, it perpetuates a narrow stereotype of LGBTQ lives as tragic and Other. Perhaps it’s more progressive to write mainstream fiction about characters who just happen to be LGBTQ. However, Taylor concludes that it’s a mistake to use outsiders as our reference point for self-censorship. Gay-bashing, AIDS, child abuse, and other traditional tropes of queer fiction are still unfortunate realities that we must be free to write about:

It is tempting to imagine that this is the way things ought to be, tasteful meditations on the human condition with queer people at their center, that the supposition of a queer default means an abandonment of trauma narratives and queer suffering. That everything will be alright when we’re finally writing of ourselves in our everyday lives, everything smooth and bourgeois and immaculately styled.

But that would be a grave miscalculation, a failure to understand the fundamental nature of the problem at hand. Queer people live their everyday lives under the threat of violence and political persecution. Queer teens would rather die than continue living in a world that is actively hostile to them. Our narratives must remain alive and vital to that pain, to the very real suffering we endure. To assume a central queer gaze is not to pass judgement on narratives of queer suffering at all, but to allow queer people to continue to tell their stories, to write into their own narrative spaces without the need for a heteronormative overculture. After all, it is the heteronormative gaze that renders these narratives problematic. It is their place of prominence in the overculture that presents the problem, not the narratives themselves.

It is not enough to merely write queers in comfortable bourgeois captivity. You have not conquered some artistic challenge. You are not artistically pure for turning away from queer suffering. Our comfort and our agony are of a piece. They reflect one another across the length of our experience. The answer to Michelle Hart’s question about the state of gay literary fiction is this: we must move toward a queer aesthetic, which permits the true simultaneity of queer experience. We must stop waiting for permission. We must stop looking to the overculture for legitimacy. Within a queer aesthetic, we weep and we laugh and we withdraw and we advance. Queer suffering and queer joy dominate the ordinary instant. We are everything at once.

 

 

The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast and the Death of White Jesus: Final (?) Thoughts from NecronomiCon 2017

My visit to NecronomiCon 2017, the convention of H.P. Lovecraft horror fans and scholars in Providence RI, concluded with the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast on Sunday morning. Darrell Schweitzer’s Amorphous Tabernacle Choir treated us to Mythos-inspired hymn parodies. Scott R. Jones spoke about the cosmicist philosophy of his book When the Stars Are Right: Towards an Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality, or as he likes to call it, “Keeping it Real-yeh.”  Horror writers Cody Goodfellow and Anthony Teth presided as priests of Yog-Sothoth and Shub-Niggurath, with mitres that the Episcopal Church could only envy. Goodfellow (left) even looks suspiciously like former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Hmm… haven’t seen him lately…

The genius of this Monty Python approach to religion is that you get all the fun parts of high-church Christianity–gory pictures, occult medallions, over-the-top vestments—without the doublespeak that death is life, torture is salvation, and the universe is a safe place. It reminded me of the Church of Satan, a humanist organization that doesn’t so much literally believe in evil supernatural entities, as reclaim those symbols to expose the weak spots in traditional religion. (Because humanism is just more fun with fancy dress.)

The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast was finely balanced on the line between farce and sincere religious-philosophical questioning. The refusal to collapse one mode into the other seemed like a healthy shadow-integration, the Zen paradox that we approach the deepest wisdom through discovering our foolishness.

I wasn’t expecting a genuine religious experience at this conference, but I got one. At a couple of points during the weekend, I had this brief and unprecedented feeling of freedom from my constant strivings to cheat death and achieve significance. The Mythos looks mortality and infinity directly in the face and accepts them, even semi-ironically celebrates them, which I found such a relief from the relentless religious-cultural-psychological project of propping up the ego and distracting ourselves from the abyss.

The Prayer Breakfast sermons were solidly humanist rather than nihilist. That is, they used our humble and mysterious position in the web of life as a reason to reject all forms of xenophobia, arrogance, and fanaticism. I especially loved Teth’s “Sermon Against Purity”, reprinted on his website. Some highlights:

The concept of Purity is anathema to life itself, since any rudimentary study of biology can clearly show the interdependence of organisms to the life cycles of the invisible squirming masses of microbes, germs, and bacteria that cling to epidermis and esophageal tract, stomach lining and salivation ducts.

Enjoy your breakfast, by the way.

Those creatures made sterile or bereft of these helpful swarms in lab experiments grow weak and die, barely able to digest or process what would normally be considered “basic foods.”

Yet the concept of Purity is also anathema to death. Those aforementioned masses responsible for the continuance of a creature’s life will almost immediately begin devouring their host the moment life processes cease, while dozens of various mammals, reptiles, molds and fungal growths eventually have their fill and leave the rest to worms, mites, plants and trees. Even if we go back to the philosophical root of death itself, entropy, we find not this supposed purity, but an exceedingly complex system of devourment and proliferation, with cooperation and competition creating a teaming miasmal stew of wonder and possibility…

…And one of the most ridiculous of these, shall we say, Puritanical concepts, is where folks profess this enigmatic and frankly preposterous Purity within, of all bloody things, human genes. Yes, humans, those oddly bipedal, domestic primates who for thousands of years have been humping their neighbors, humping their friends, humping their neighbors’ friends and friends’ neighbors, until eventually deciding to migrate elsewhere and continue the rampant rutting cycle with whomever happens to be nearby and (theoretically) willing. Humans who have been mongrels since the beginning, and shall be so at the end.

Yet some take this even further, claiming even greater purity and superiority over these shambling masses of great apes, while carrying Polynesian garden torches of all things, and flashing a salute fit for Caesar…

…Yes, humans who claim superiority over all other terrestrial life on this adorably blue, spinning sphere due to a combination of brain size and thumb dexterity, but still have a helluva time figuring out that most basic of tenets: Don’t shit where you eat.

At the bookfair, I picked up a pamphlet of Robert M. Price’s sermons from the 1995-2006 Prayer Breakfasts, which I’m about halfway through. Price is an actual former Baptist pastor and theologian who went on a trajectory through liberal Christianity to atheist humanism. Some of his non-Cthulhu-related sermons are available on his website. He’s also a well-known literary critic and editor of Mythos fiction. “Founder and Editor, The Journal of Higher Criticism; Founder and Editor, Crypt of Cthulhu; Fellow, The Jesus Seminar“. You don’t see a resume like that every day!

Price’s Cthulhu sermons don’t have the positive political vision or moral center of the ones I heard this summer. He emphasizes the Nietzschean joy of facing the abyss. Spiritually, all we have is a choice of fictions. The ultimate forbidden knowledge is that there is no knowledge. Setting this alongside Lovecraft’s white supremacist views and the majority-whiteness of the conference attendees, I started to wonder whether there’s something white about this brand of intellect-driven disillusionment. It takes a certain amount of privilege and safety to feel that you can dispense with religion’s prophetic, justice-seeking function.

Simultaneously with Price’s sermons, I was reading James Cone’s 1969 classic Black Theology and Black Power to prepare notes for a church discussion group. In his chapter on black Christianity in America, Cone says the black church’s central theological problem was why God had allowed slavery to exist when it was so clearly a violation of God’s moral law. The courage and risk involved in affirming God’s existence notwithstanding, as a black person with this history, makes white death-of-God theology “seem like child’s play.”

It’s understandable to repudiate faith because you’re morally outraged by oppression, says Cone. “But if it arises out of one’s identity with an advancing technological secular society which ignores the reality of God and the humanity of man, then it appears to be the height of human pride.” (Here’s looking at you, Jesus Seminar.) According to Cone, only the oppressed, or those who are sacrificially in solidarity with them, really have the right to decide whether God is dead or irrelevant. “If theology fails to re-evaluate its task in the light of Black Power, the emphasis on the death of God will not add the needed dimension. This will mean that the white church and white theology are dead, not God.”

Perhaps our modern god has been an idol of (liberal) intellectual or (conservative) moral certainty, not a real presence we depend on in our helplessness and unknowing, so when those certainties die, God appears dead. Whether you replace that with the Jesus of liberation theology, or a sense of oneness with all life, I think there has to be something we align ourselves with, above the oppressive systems of the moment, so we can name falsehood and evil for what it is, and find strength to resist. Even Lovecraft’s anti-theistic stories are full of moral judgments and outraged adjectives–unspeakable, decadent, accursed, loathsome, and the like. The universe may not be on our side, but we ought to be.

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Eldritch Gifts: More Notes from NecronomiCon 2017

Iä, everyone! I continue my report from NecronomiCon Providence, the recently concluded convention devoted to all things H.P. Lovecraft. Here are some highlights from the panel discussions and author readings. (I did not attend the off-site movie screenings because I am (A) chicken and (B) have no sense of direction even with a map.) Generalized trigger warnings apply for all links below: death, creepiness, blasphemy, sexual situations, etc.

Author discoveries:

Guest of honor Kij Johnson‘s fiction blends poetic surrealism, horror, and feminist critique. She read “Mantis Wives”, a strangely poignant–even romantic–story about the female insects’ well-known habit of decapitating their mates, and an excerpt from her novella The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, which was vivid and tense but went somewhat over my head because I haven’t read Lovecraft’s “Dreamlands” stories. Johnson also referenced her Nebula Award winning story “Ponies”, available on the Tor.com website. It is a masterpiece about the cruelty dealt to, and inflicted by, little girls. I know it’s a great story because I keep trying and failing to think of alternate choices that would avert the protagonists’ bleak fate.

James A. Moore read a suspenseful excerpt from his novel Deeper, a horror/adventure novel about what happens when Lovecraft’s sinister New England town of “Innsmouth” is rebranded as a tourist destination named Golden Cove, and a marine research team discovers that the monstrous Deep Ones still live in its waters.

Matt Bechtel read from his debut collection Monochromes. His punchy reading style went perfectly with the rapid-fire humor of these flash fiction pieces, with their unexpected turns toward melancholy or terror. Some followed the logic of high-concept poetry: for instance, what happens when “Someday” finally comes?

Nnedi Okorafor prefaced her reading by pointing out that humans, usually white and Western, are the default characters in alien first-contact stories, and it’s really time to shake things up. She read the fantastic beginning of her novel Lagoon, where first contact is made instead with marine animals in the ocean outside Lagos, Nigeria. Okorafor’s multiple-award-winning novels include the Binti and Akata Witch series.

Craig Laurance Gidney read the beginning of a very scary ballet story from his limited-run novella The Nectar of Nightmares, and I may never find out how it ends because it’s out of print. Damn it, Craig. I’ll check out his Lambda Literary finalist collection Skin Deep Magic instead.

Gwendolyn Kiste read the title story from And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, a fine example of movie-buff noir about a murdered actress haunting an obsessed fan.

Panel discussions:

“Writing Non-Stale Mythos Tales” (Vincent O’Neil, Alex Houston, Kij Johnson, Tom Lynch, Peter Rawlik):

Cthulhu has been so normalized by pop culture, how can we create a frightening Mythos tale today? Think about what makes any story a fresh example of an established tradition, e.g. fairy tale retellings. You could write about what is left out: center the perspectives of supporting characters, as in “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead”, or the original author’s blind spots–obviously race and sex were big ones for HPL. New books looking critically at Lovecraftian racism in a Mythos contest include Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (which I loved!) and the anthology Heroes of Red Hook (Golden Goblin Press), all stories from the POV of minority-group characters in the Jazz Age setting of HPL’s singularly racist story “The Horror at Red Hook”. Unusual genre mashups bring out distinctive features of both: P.H. Cannon’s Scream for Jeeves parodies Lovecraft by bringing his cosmic horrors into the world of his contemporary P.G. Wodehouse’s frothy upper-class comedies. (I must read this!)

A key element of a Lovecraftian story is the movement from faith to gnosis. Characters discover that the universe is not at all what they thought it was. In a sense, this is always a fresh theme, because we can all be terrified by the loss of what we believed in, or getting what we want and regretting it. Our own personal mortality comes as a surprise emotionally, whatever we might know intellectually.

The panelists were in agreement that tentacles do not a Mythos story make. Neither does pedantic flowery language. Most writers don’t have the vocabulary and grammatical discipline to imitate HPL’s style. We’re in a post-Mythos world where we can’t be surprised by the same discoveries that HPL’s characters made. No modern person would meet Cthulhu in real life and not already know about the books. Perhaps all fiction is meta-fiction now! Everyone is aware of living in a particular genre and literary tradition. (My favorite example of this is the scene from the movie “Stranger Than Fiction” where Dustin Hoffman asks Will Ferrell 23 questions to determine what genre of novel he’s living in, so he can stop the author from killing his character. “Do you find yourself inclined to solve murder mysteries in large luxurious homes? Has anyone left a large wooden horse outside your door?”)

“Guests of Honor Panel” (s.j. bagley, Ellen Datlow, Kij Johnson, Stephen Graham Jones, Steven Mariconda, Nnedi Okorafor, John Jude Palencar, Donald Sidney-Fryer, Richard Stanley, Peter Straub)

Squee! I shared an elevator with editor extraordinaire Ellen Datlow! I played it cool, though, and did not exclaim how her horror anthologies have pleasurably scared the crap out of me since high school. I also felt like a high-level fangirl for remembering Omni, the science fiction and fantasy art magazine that I read in the 1980s. Datlow was their fiction editor back in the day.

The panelists spanned the genres of fiction, criticism, poetry, visual art, and film. They considered: What is “weird fiction” (or poetry, etc.) and why do we create it? It is creative work that presents us with the unnameable, makes us grapple with our insignificance, or dissociate from normal modes of cognition to see another aspect of reality. Straub said, “I like the sense of luxuriance… amplitude… narrative overflow” in probing the limitations of human comprehension. Sidney-Fryer observed that “the weird serves to purify the ordinary emotions by heightening them.”

In what sense is weird fiction political? Panelists disagreed as to whether all art was already political, versus the mid-20th-century New Criticism dictate to stick with the words on the page. Some suggested that it’s political–perhaps by virtue of being anti-political, unconstrained by ideology or “decency”–to write about taboo subjects. Straub called it liberating to face the experience of abjection, to stay present with the emotional discomfort of the events on the page, instead of spinning intellectual theories about them. Consciously layering political agendas onto our reading can be an avoidance mechanism.

“Anyone who writes fiction where cruelty is a common thread is surely responding to the presence of cruelty in his own life,” added Straub. He said he came from a “classic traumatic childhood” and was supremely blissful when writing a novel about sociopathic serial killers, because it was cathartic! “Dark” fiction is integrated fiction. In American life, we are taught that it’s a moral duty to reject the shadow side, but that is where our life takes root. The biggest religious moralizers are often the ones who are caught in perverse scandals.

“A Very Terrible Difference: Race, Gender, and the Other” (Byron Nakamura, Faye Ringel, Jenna Randall, Troy Rondinone, Fiona Maeve Geist, Eli Shurberg, Daniel Schnopp-Wyatt)

Humanities professor Faye Ringel gave a paper on Lovecraft and racism, surveying some of the recent literature that’s used the Mythos to criticize HPL’s politics: Black Tom, Matt Ruff’s wonderful Lovecraft Country, and Paul Lafarge’s The Night Ocean, which she said examines HPL’s possible homosexuality. (The old boy seemed more asexual to me, but am I going to object to slash fiction about anybody? Never.) Both LaValle’s and Ruff’s black characters decide the Old Ones are not as scary as white humans. Interesting fact: the first KKK represented themselves as the living dead, the ghosts of Confederate soldiers, so ghost stories are an apt genre for a novel about American racism.

Troy Rondinone discussed Orientalism in 19th and early 20th century pulp fiction. Orientalism is Palestinian cultural critic Edward Saïd’s theory that the East is configured in the Western mind as the Other, a surrogate or underground self that defines the West in contrast to its alleged backwardness–decadent, exotic, mysterious, deceptive, effeminate. Hence the many references to primitive death cults and menacing gods of Egyptian origin in the work of HPL and contemporaries. Watch out for the same unfortunate tropes today in films like “The Mummy” and “The 300”.

Geist and Shurberg (Hampshire College, represent!) gave a paper about mapping intersections of queerness and negativity. Geist quipped that though we don’t know much about Lovecraft’s sex life, his stories are “kind of thirsty” about miscegenation. Scholars and fans have made this fake hermetic separation between HPL the great writer and HPL the gross racist. (Indeed, primo Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi dis-invited himself from this year’s convention to protest what he felt was excessive focus on the author’s political sins. Too bad so sad.) Our reading of him will be deepened by putting these halves back together.

HPL’s incorporation of eugenicist views in his writings fits with his stated personal opinion of sex as mechanistic and degraded, an undisciplined force that potentially leads to the degeneration of the social body and the species. More than just a product of his time, his racism harks back to the academic literature of the 1800s, about the virile empire that goes forth to conquer lesser peoples but is vulnerable to impurity from interbreeding. These scholars developed complex racial taxonomies that remind us of Lovecraft’s fixation on the genealogy of once-great families in decline.

For a cosmic pessimist who believed in the universe’s indifference to human values, HPL was heavily invested in the moralistic hierarchy of the races. “He was an atheistic Puritan.” Perhaps that was the repository for his anxiety about his own metaphysics–faith in fragile white civilization replaces traditional religious faith. “The Call of Cthulhu” encapsulates this paradox: the opening describes the dark seas of infinity and the tiny happy island of ignorance, and isn’t it a coincidence that all the Cthulhu cultists are people of color?

This observation was a good segue into Daniel Schnopp-Wyatt’s paper about the historical antecedents of “Call of Cthulhu”, which has a memorable scene of a human sacrifice cult in the New Orleans bayou. In the early 1910s there was a notorious spree of axe murders in Louisiana against the families of poor black agricultural workers. The media sensationalized them with rumors that the killings were related to voodoo. A 17-year-old black girl named Clementine Barnabet was coerced into confessing, then subjected to brutal medical and psychological treatment in prison. Schnopp-Wyatt is dubious about her connection to the murders, let alone voodoo. This paper left me agreeing with “Black Tom” that I’d take tentacled aliens over a run-in with the American mental health and criminal justice systems, any day.

Until next time, I’ll see you in the Rapture–

It’s a gift to be squamous,
it’s a gift to have fins,
it’s a gift to have gills
when Cthulhu wins.
When all the stars are right,
on the world’s last night,
we will swim in the glory of R’lyeh’s light.

(Darrell Schweitzer’s Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir Hymnal)

September Links Roundup: A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest

At her blog the prowling Bee, Susan Kornfeld has been analyzing each of Emily Dickinson’s 1,700+ poems since 2011. This 2012 post looks at a poem where the moment of greatest anguish paradoxically clothes itself in the appearance of vitality. In Emily’s words:

A wounded Deer –leaps highest –
I’ve heard the Hunter tell –
‘Tis but the ecstasy of death
And then the Brake is still!

The smitten Rock that gushes!
The trampled Steel that springs!
A Cheek is always redder
Just where the Hectic stings!

Mirth is the Mail of Anguish –
In which it cautious Arm,
Lest Anybody spy the blood
And “you’re hurt” exclaim!

I confess I’ve only studied a small fraction of Dickinson’s output, the oft-quoted verses most likely to appear in school anthologies. She is something of a cottage industry round here (Amherst is the next town over from us) so I have also toured her house and seen two movies about her, most recently Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion”, which came out this summer.

This film, starring Cynthia Nixon, left me wanting to delve more deeply into the poems, but also feeling troubled and strangely soiled. As it was no doubt intended to do, “A Quiet Passion” inspired righteous anger about how the religious and gender-based constraints of 19th-century society would chafe the soul of an eccentric female genius. At the same time, the film’s portrait of Emily was a compendium of humiliating spinster tropes: lonely, emotionally needy, prickly and barely tolerable even to her loved ones, stunted at an earlier developmental stage while her female peers moved on to the adult roles of wife and mother. I squirmed on her behalf, imagining how this woman who’d made a fetish of privacy would react to the knowledge that her social gaffes and chronic pain were displayed on widescreen for us to gawk at. Is there no merciful oblivion for such things, 150 years after her death?

Fairfield University English Professor Emily Orlando wrote in the July 13, 2017 Daily Hampshire Gazette (our Northampton newspaper):

Perhaps most troubling is Davies’ focus on Dickinson’s decline and decease. Here’s the thing: Emily Dickinson — unlike, say, Sylvia Plath or Edgar Allan Poe — is not known for her death. She is known for her vibrant body of work. And yet, the director chooses to put his viewer — and the exceedingly excellent Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson — through an excruciating, poorly directed death scene. The same is true for the seizures that precede her passing: too long, too agonizing…These overwrought and disturbing scenes, while perhaps intended to illustrate the inadequacies of medical treatment in 19th-century New England, effectively privilege the dying and dead female body — the passive trope of the female corpse that is replicated across Victorian visual culture (think: The Lady of Shalott, Beatrice, Ophelia)…

…One wonders why the film ends with Dickinson’s death, with no mention of, say, the goldmine of nearly 1,800 poems Dickinson left for future generations to discover.

On the multi-authored social justice blog The Establishment, Isabel C. Legarda, M.D. has just published an incisive essay, “Emily Dickinson’s Legacy Is Incomplete Without Discussing Trauma”.

There has already been some scholarship exploring the idea of Emily as a trauma survivor. A research study published in Military Medicine noted evidence that she, along with other notable historical figures, “developed symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of repeated potentially traumatizing events.” A paper from the journal PsyArt finds in her poetry “a psychologically acute description of trauma as a distinctive emotional and cognitive state.”

In 1862, Emily herself wrote to mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.”…

…Who was the “the spoiler of our Home” whose footfall Emily dreaded, who committed a “Larceny of time and mind,” and of whom she writes, “He put the Belt around my life?”

Of all the poems that support the possibility that she might have suffered sexual assault, and possibly at home, “Rearrange a ‘Wife’s’ affection” is perhaps the most telling and disturbing, filled with notions of violence and self-harm in the first stanza; devastating shame in the second; “Trust entrenched in narrow pain,” “Anguish — bare of anodyne” in the third; and two recurring tropes in her poetry, the “crown” of wifely duty and an image from Calvary, in the fourth…

She opens the last verse with, “Big my Secret but it’s bandaged — ”; it is both a wound and something to hide. In “A great Hope fell” she confesses of this wound that “The Ruin was within” and that there was “A not admitting of the wound / Until it grew so wide / That all my Life had entered it.”

Many poems — “She rose to His Requirement,” “Title divine is Mine,” “I live with Him — I see His face,” and “It would never be Common” — suggest ongoing trauma, specifically the trauma of being expected to be someone’s sexual partner against her will; they express despair at having to fulfill the obligations of a bride without the legitimacy and joy of real marriage. “But where my moment of Brocade?” she asks…

This piece validated my unease with both the Dickinson of “A Quiet Passion” and the general public image of Emily as a stereotypical recluse or “damaged” woman. She was a triggering figure for me because she evokes pity or distaste instead of outrage. We don’t identify with that Emily, we’re not on her side, we don’t want to be her. (Even I, the fame whore, would think twice about the cosmic bargain: “People will buy your books two centuries from now and put your face on a tote bag, but everyone will also think you’re an unsexy weirdo.”)

Legarda finds persuasive hints of sexual assault, probably incest, in Dickinson’s poems, and links to articles by other doctors and critics who see evidence of childhood abuse or PTSD. Although I have mixed feelings about psychoanalyzing authors based on their art, in this case the endeavor seems like it could restore some dignity to a poet who continues to suffer from the assumptions of a sexist culture.

 

Give Me That Old One Religion: Notes from NecronomiCon 2017

How times have changed at Reiter’s Block. Only a few years ago I would have been reporting on the Wheaton Theology Conference. Now my idea of a spiritual retreat is NecronomiCon Providence, the biennial convention for writers, artists, scholars, and fans who shamble in the footsteps of that 20th-century master of weird fiction, H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). This will be the first of several posts on the convention and revisiting Lovecraft’s work.

HPL penned classics of cosmic horror such as “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, as well as being an influential editor, collaborator, and mentor to many other writers in the genre. His literary heirs include prominent horror writers such as Robert Bloch (Psycho), Thomas Ligotti, and Ramsey Campbell.

It’s strangely fitting that his beloved Rhode Island hometown (his tombstone reads “I Am Providence”) bears the name of a religious belief whose loss tormented him. Divine Providence, the idea that world events are meaningfully directed by a God who placed humanity at the pinnacle of creation, is precisely what has been swept away in Lovecraft’s cosmos. His characters are driven mad by discovering that powerful uncanny forces, superior and indifferent to humans, are lurking below the fragile surface of this illusion we call civilization. Ignorance truly is bliss, but unachievable, as there is nothing so tragically human as the quest for hidden knowledge.

HPL was also, perhaps not coincidentally, a flagrant and neurotic racist. Genealogical and antiquarian research, an obsession of many of his interchangeable narrators, is likely to reveal corrupt ancestry (fish-frog people, humanoid apes, or body-switching wizards) that inexorably pulls the hapless descendant into degeneracy. His work is fascinating not least because it holds up a mirror to 20th-century anxieties about Darwinism, the brutality of the First World War, and the mixing of cultures in an immigrant society.

On a psychological level, forbidden family knowledge is a topic that resonates with many readers. When HPL was very young, his father died from syphilis in an insane asylum, and his mother was also institutionalized there at the end of her life, which must have contributed to his love-hate relationship with intergenerational history and breeding (in all senses of the word).

I personally read incest themes into his work as well. Sexuality is only depicted as corrupting and unnatural, involving the breaking of unspeakable taboos; the ocean, from which his most memorable horrors arise, is an archetype of the engulfing maternal feminine; and in tales like The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and “The Thing on the Doorstep”, evil ancestors forcibly occupy the minds and bodies of their descendants. Incest leaves you with the very Lovecraftian terror that you will become the thing you most abhor. Whether or not HPL was literally a survivor, the symbols are there for us to see ourselves in his characters.

I think HPL was the first horror writer I read, when I was about 12; before that, I’d been such a nervous child that I closed my eyes in the Mystery section of bookstores so as not to see the word “Death”. Turning suddenly and eagerly towards what I feared, I went on to consume every horror anthology I could find in my high school and college libraries. This interest continued until about 10 years ago, when I fell into the deepest part of my PTSD brain and could get nightmares from an episode of “The Simpsons”. Yay, recovery! Three years ago, coinciding with my survivor-conscious farewell to Christianity as I’d understood it, I heard Cthulhu calling…and found something deeply healing in the Mythos.

Cthulhu resembles the evangelicals’ God in many ways, except without the bullshit that he loves you. Cthulhu doesn’t gaslight anyone. Echoing Calvinism’s absolute divine sovereignty, Cthulhu is honestly indifferent, inscrutable, able to destroy the world, and beyond all human ideas of Good and Evil. According to the footnotes for this story in Leslie Klinger’s indispensable The New Annotated Lovecraft (Annotated Books, 2014), HPL was thinking of Nietzsche, another great critic of Christian hypocrisy. Whether you get eaten or not is just random, like double predestination. Cthulhu demands or at least seems to appreciate human sacrifice, but doesn’t say it’s for our own good, unlike the Christian Father God’s sacrifice of his Son. Despite the frequent assertions that the events of these stories have shaken the narrator’s sanity, the Antarctic winds from the Mountains of Madness have the bracing quality of truth dispelling the fog of denial.

Even so, I felt a whisper of anxiety at our blasphemy as I entered Providence’s First Baptist Church in America for the opening ceremonies of NecronomiCon that Thursday afternoon. Founded by Roger Williams in 1638, it’s the oldest Baptist church in the country. Apparently HPL’s leadership in architectural preservation efforts put him back in their good graces despite his apostasy–we were told he was kicked out of Sunday School after three weeks for asking too many questions!

Just days after the racist rally in Charlottesville, I was also worried what sort of person the conference would attract, and whether it was insensitive even to be celebrating such a problematic author right now. Never fear, the clientele was solidly queer/Goth/nerd, with not a tiki torch or Confederate flag decal in sight (though some white dude, hopefully not an attendee, shouted slurs at my family from a car window outside the mall the next evening).

Barnaby Evans, executive director of the Providence arts organization WaterFire, emceed the opening ceremonies, setting a politically progressive and inclusive tone that continued throughout the weekend. It was clear that we were here to carry on and critically develop the Lovecraftian legacy of awe in the face of cosmic mysteries, rather than being apologists for his blind spots. Opera arias and organ music by the dazzling Gigi Mitchell Velasco filled me with a sense of the sublime, giving me hope that I could let go of doctrines but keep what I loved about church: a community gathered in a beautiful historic place to meditate on the wonder (and sometimes terror) of mortal existence.

Until our next installment–

In Cthulhu we are trusting,
Though his rites are quite disgusting;
From his crypt he’ll soon be busting,
And that’s good enough for me!

Give me that Old One Religion!
Give me that Old One Religion!
Give me that Old One Religion!
It’s good enough for me!

(Darrell Schweitzer’s Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir Hymnal)

After Charlottesville: Readings for Racial Justice

As my readers are probably aware from the national news, a few hundred white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen and their fellow travelers held a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA this weekend to protest the removal of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s statue from a nearby park. The New York Times has the summary of events. One of the racist movement’s supporters drove his car into the crowd of anti-fascist counter-protesters, killing a young woman named Heather Heyer. Violent clashes claimed two other lives and injured 34 people. “President” Trump issued a weaselly statement condemning “violence on many sides” but did not single out the white nationalists, who happen to represent a loyal part of his voter base.

The rally was protected by a large police contingent who have been criticized for not doing more to prevent the violence. As Jia Tolentino wrote in her New Yorker piece “Charlottesville and the Effort to Downplay Racism in America”, “the spectacle succeeded in proving the ongoing reality of white supremacy in America…Black demonstrators protesting the murder of teen-agers are met with tanks and riot gear; white demonstrators protesting the unpopularity of Nazi and Confederate ideology are met with politesse.” Tolentino’s depiction of the genteel pretense of post-racial liberalism at Charlottesville’s University of Virginia reminds me of the fictitious Winchester University in the sharply funny Netflix series Dear White People. Watch it and learn.

We white liberals are belatedly waking up to the reality of the other America that black people have lived in for centuries. It’s a privilege to be surprised that this kind of violent hatred has never gone away. As Columbia Journalism professor Jelani Cobb said on Twitter, “The biggest indictment of the way we teach American history is that people can look at Charlottesville and say “This is not who we are.'” The best remedial education is to immerse one’s self in stories by and about African-Americans. For me personally, one year as a judicial clerk, reading real-life cases of minority New Yorkers’ encounters with the police and public housing authorities, was worth seven years of critical theory in college and grad school.

With that in mind, let me offer a few literary works from the Winning Writers contest archives that will move you and teach you something about race relations (if you’re white) or hopefully validate your experience (if you’re not).

Winfred Cook’s novel Uncle Otto won first prize for literary fiction in our 2016 North Street Book Prize. In the tradition of Alex Haley’s Roots and Queen, Cook uses research about his forebears as raw material for dramatizing a representative story of racial oppression, migration, and economic mobility during the first decades of the 20th century. The novel covers the “Great Migration” of African-Americans from the rural South during the period around World War I; the emergence of, and resistance to, the black middle class in the North during the 1920s; and the cultural upheavals of the Prohibition era. I’m looking forward to reading Cook’s new book, Wayfarers, a Civil War era interracial gay romance.

Geoff Griffin’s essay “Hey White Guy!” from the 2007 Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest is a humorous look at the social awkwardness of unlearning prejudice and privilege. Accustomed to his whiteness being un-coded, unmentioned, Griffin has a moment of realization about the unequal ways he notices race. Another runner-up from the 2009 contest, Sally Hermsdorfer’s “In the Colored Waiting Room”, depicts a white pharmacist in 1950s Memphis who finds a clever way to silence opponents of his integrated practice. It’s both entertaining and instructive about effective allyship. In “Trayvon”, first-prize nonfiction winner for 2015 Madeline Baars describes the odds against black boys and the persistence of hope in a poor New Orleans neighborhood where she was a clinic worker.

Myron L. Stokes won the 2012 Margaret Reid Poetry Contest for Traditional Verse (subsequently combined with our Tom Howard Poetry Contest) with “For My Ancestors”, a lyrical and passionate ode to forebears who endured slavery: “Their bludgeoned dreams bled of a time/when their children’s children could chase the stars,/learn behind ivy walls…”

In our Sports Literary Contest, which ran from 2012-14, A.A. Singh took a runner-up prize with his essay “Team Sports”, exploring the intersections of his Indian, Trinidadian, Canadian and American identities: “if America doesn’t want me after I’ve learned how to ride a bike here, after I’ve given it my first day of school—after I’ve driven my first car, drank my first beer, moaned in bed with my first hangover, experienced my first love, kiss, and heartbreak—if America doesn’t want me, what country does?”

August Links Roundup: Authentic Voices, Safe Spaces

I often think about my earlier resistance to the social justice ideas that I now embrace, and how much of that was due to the toxicity of discourse in academic-activist spaces. A revealing test of this theory occurred this past spring when I attended a university-sponsored gender and sexuality conference. I’ve been to this one several times over the years; sometimes it’s amazing and other times underwhelming. This year, I was openly identifying as queer for the first time, and longing for some new friends and welcoming groups, which I didn’t really find because there was too much posturing about being woker-than-thou.

For example: One of the keynote speakers, a trans man of color (Latinx, I think) was exhorting us not to ask random POCs or nonwhite friends to educate us about racism. I hear this a lot, and it makes sense, because it’s exhausting and can feel invalidating to be confronted about one’s identity in a debate format. On the other hand, given that we’re all steeped in misinformation and unconscious stereotypes in a racist society, I’m concerned there’s a risk of an echo chamber when white allies are mainly talking to each other. Books and websites by POC will only take us so far, since there is no monolithic “black point of view” etc. When, if ever, is it okay to ask for a reality check from a friend or educator from a minority community: “Hey, is this a legit source?” or “These authors from your minority group disagree with each other, what do you think?”

When I posed that question to the speaker, he decided to make it an example of him refusing to do emotional labor for white people, and punted the question to the audience, which was mostly college kids. I don’t really need a 19-year-old to tell me to read bell hooks. Was it such a faux pas to assume that someone who’d volunteered to give a speech about anti-racism work would actually answer questions about anti-racism work in that context? It’s not like I collared him at the bus stop.

(To answer my own question, if it’s the non-reciprocal emotional labor that’s the problem, perhaps we shouldn’t ask for insight from POC without offering something of value for their work, similar to paying a sensitivity reader to look at our manuscript.)

I could be gracious about the awkwardness because I’m twice these people’s age and didn’t need to fit into this community beyond a single-day conference, but it reminded me how the interpersonal norms in social justice culture can feel like treacherous shifting sands. I’m not complaining about the challenge of unlearning racist or transphobic beliefs, but the unnecessary humiliation of pouncing on subtle imperfections in manners, word choices, or misreadings of unfamiliar social cues. It’s an exception to the autism-friendly vibe that genderqueer spaces have been great at pioneering.

I don’t want to be a white snowflake who acts like her trauma history exempts her from hearing POC’s anger. On the other hand, I think activist spaces, especially in academia where people sublimate their feelings into intellectual swordplay, need a lot more introspection about reenacting oppressive relationship dynamics. Your feelings are legitimate and maybe you’re not ready to do this work today without projecting them all over the wrong people. That applies to me as well as to the person doing the call-out.

This is a good reason for offering segregated self-care spaces, such as the workshops at this same conference that were designated for queer and trans POC only. It’s also important for members of a majority group to learn how to hold supportive space for minority group members’ anger and sadness, just listening silently and non-defensively. What bothers me is when an event is framed as an all-comers venue for dialogue and education, but the rules change on the fly, and at any moment a participant might silence and shame someone else for “taking up space” as a white, male, straight, etc. person.

At their blog Witch Cabinet, Tarot columnist and healer Andi Grace has a sensitive discussion of how to balance our trauma history with our need to be accountable for racism and other prejudices. In their February post “Call-Out Culture and Being Too Much”, Andi writes:

when i was experiencing intense call outs for cultural appropriation as a yoga teacher, i remember sitting in the acupuncturist’s chair, stifling my deep gulping tears and wanting more than anything else to not exist. to simply cease to take up space – especially space that others could judge as harmful. i was drowning in my shame and my guilt – in so much pain i could barely take care of myself, let alone actually meaningfully respond to the call outs.

this is the part where my truth becomes slippery, tangled, elusive and uncomfortable to talk about. this is where i feel nervous and tender and raw. so please, if you’re willing, hear me out. know that i am coming from a place of love.

maybe if you are also a white woman (former, current or hopeful) you’ll be able to take something away from this terrifyingly vulnerable admission. here goes:

when i have been called out often it feels, in my body, indistinguible from being silenced within the context of rape culture.

now, if you are feeling defensive, i invite you to please take a breathe.. and hear me out for a minute, because this idea is much more complex and humanizing than it seems on the surface.

from what i have observed, call-outs operate with intentional force to silence someone who is saying or doing something oppressive. that is their purpose and function: to check the behavior of people who are holding or reinforcing power in violent ways. and often, call outs are given in public and intentionally humiliating ways in order to hurt people and cut them down. i have received call outs that were so vicious, so cruel, so dehumanizing that they teared my life apart. these kinds of call outs are harsh, violent and often closely mimic the logic of and prison industrial complex:

you did something wrong.
something is wrong with you.
you don’t belong.
you have no one you can trust or rely on.
you are unforgivable.

these kinds of call outs are way more common than i think we want to admit to ourselves. i’ve given call outs like this. it gave me rush of power when i did it. i was passing on the trauma someone else had given to me, that’s how the cycle of abuse works.

and.
but.
however.

that does not mean that i think call-outs shouldn’t happen, or that they are not fundamental to the forwarding of social justice agendas. sometimes people need to be called out. i have needed to be called out – and in. especially on my racism. i needed this to help me check and reel in the entitlement that naturally flows from my whiteness. and i’m not arguing that those call outs need to be call ins or be gentle. not at all.

sometimes calling out is part of survival. sometimes people just don’t have the capacity to be patient and kind and gentle, especially when they are struggling under the enormous weight of oppressive power structures. and, in my experience, the people who do manage the kind of composure for a gentle call in, are working much harder to calm their vibes than most outsiders could ever comprehend.

even though my minds understand the necessity of call outs, my uncomfortable realization remains the same: my body can not tell the difference between being shut-down in the context of a patriarchal rape culture, and how it feels to be aggressively called out (whether the call out is totally legitimate or unnecessarily violent)…

…i know i’m not the only person who has felt some version of this, because i’ve witnessed it over and over again. i see it in the people i do harm reduction work with and i see it with folks i offer mutual support, aid and solidarity to. i see it in women and femmes all the time. understanding this, knowing i am on some level constantly trapped in the box of feeling like i’m “too much” and i take up too much space, i have been pondering: how can i learn to hold my loud, fierce-femme self with the gentleness and love i so need to heal?

Gay Christian activist Kevin Garcia spends a lot of time building bridges to non-affirming and on-the-fence religious people, and is thoughtful about the boundaries we need to put around that work when we feel called to do it. He touches on this issue in his funny and incisive talk at this summer’s Wild Goose Festival, “Owning Your Story”. In a blog post last month, “Brave Spaces and Bigger Tables”, he observes, “We have a bad habit of shitting on our allies” in progressive activist culture.

This past weekend, at the Wild Goose Festival (which, I know, is a SUPER white space), I got to sit through two workshops with Mickey Scottbay Jones of the Faith Matters Network. She talked about this idea of “brave space.”

In Brave Space, we abandon the notion that any space is safe for everyone. Because what is safe for me as a queer guy might not be safe for my trans friends, or for my black friends or for the women in my life. In Brave Space, we acknowledge our imperfections and work hard to be sensitive while also acknowledging that we’re going to mess it up. All of us.

But rather than just totally breaking community with those who don’t have all the right language down, all the right tools in their social justice tool belt, we choose to be gracious. We choose to love bigger. We choose to give space to learning, failing, and reconciliation. We choose to give ourselves to healing. (And yes, that is asking something of those of us who embody marginalized identities.)…

…Don’t get me wrong —I’m annoyed anytime another straight (white, male) pastor gets a book deal or gets invite anywhere to talk about being more inclusive when people could be passing the mic to marginalized folks. And we should be calling out our allies when they aren’t making a concerted effort to do so. We should absolutely call them out when the fuck up, just like I hope people will call me out when I fuck up.

But I know so many people, people who strive to be allies to our community who are too afraid to do more work, to be more visible, to fight more fiercely for justice because they know they’ll likely get their heads bit off and/or get dragged on Twitter if they mess up, or they know that no matter what they do, they’ll still get accosted by us. They’ve seen how we roll, and sometimes it’s beyond brutal.

I know were the salt of the earth, but damn y’all, we can really heavy handed with our saltiness. Maybe we should focus on being light a little bit more. Perhaps we could create spaces that are lined with grace and love, opportunities to grow instead of social excommunication?

For an in-depth look at the concept that Kevin references, see Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens’ academic article “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice”. The piece was prompted by their work as diversity educators in the Department of Residential Education at New York University, training the resident assistants who facilitate student life in the dorms. They contend that “safety” may not be the best word for the ground rules of nonviolent and respectful communication, because every discussion of controversial issues and privilege differentials still involves emotional risk. Assurances of safety are misleading, both for marginalized-group members who already know they’re not safe in this society, and for privileged-group members who feel betrayed by the discomfort that arises from the lesson. The authors go on to discuss common “safety” rules for discussions and how they would tweak them to avoid false unity and silencing.

July Links Roundup: Queer and/or Christian Podcasts

Ron Swanson Says ‘You may have thought you heard me say I wanted a lot of bacon and eggs, but what I said was: Give me all the bacon and eggs you have’

Summer is here! Time to stay indoors, in my dark air-conditioned office, and walk on the treadmill. It’s true. But I’m improving my mind as well as my glutes. In between binge-watching “Parks & Rec” on Netflix (I am such a Ron Swanson), I’ve discovered some podcasts about queerness, literature, and spirituality that are well worth your time.

If you love poetry, throwing shade, and gay sex stories–you know I do–Food 4 Thot is the place to be. (“Thot”, a/k/a “that ho over there”, is urban slang for slut, with some racial and class overtones. Slate explains the nuances here.) Food 4 Thot features Native American poet Tommy Pico, author of IRL and Nature Poem; Fran Tirado, editor of Hello Mr.; fiction writer Dennis Norris II, a MacDowell Colony Fellow; and scientist and essayist Joseph Osmundson. Guest hosts have included acclaimed novelist Alexander Chee and Black feminist poet Angel Nafis. Their snappy, rollicking conversations flow from serious analysis to salacious satire and back again: pastoral poetry and colonialism, giving ourselves permission to dislike the classics, awkward three-ways, the greatness of Eartha Kitt, and the name-guessing game “Steakhouse or Gay Bar?”

Kevin Garcia blogs about LGBTQ-affirming Christian theology and his journey to self-acceptance from a Southern evangelical background. His podcast A Tiny Revolution interviews groundbreaking queer spiritual leaders and allies, often people of color. Most but not all are still within the Christian tradition. Guests have included Austen Hartke, creator of the YouTube series “Transgender and Christian”; Deborah Jian Lee, author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism; and Rev. Jonathan Vanderbeck, a Reformed Church minister who had important things to say about monogamy and hypocrisy in “affirming” Christian spaces.

The Fat Feminist Witch “examines witchcraft and paganism from a modern, fat, feminist perspective; with a cauldron full of sass.” I highly recommend her recent interview with Little Red Tarot columnist Andi Grace about setting boundaries and surviving toxic masculinity. I plan to sign up for Andi’s next semester of Hawthorn Heart: Magical Boundaries for Women and Femmes, July 22-Oct. 14. Read an excerpt from the course material at Little Red Tarot:

The most effective boundaries that I’ve been able to enact in my life have all been: measurable, accountable, negotiable and communicable…

…Often, when we are setting a boundary, the need for the boundary arises from an emotional experience. And at the same time, boundaries that are built around our emotional, subjective or qualitative experience of something can be hard to maintain because they can be hard to measure in a concrete way.

This means: the need for the boundary arises from an emotional experience, but the boundary itself will be more effective if it’s nestled in a concrete way of measuring its effectiveness…

Boundaries that are measurable are especially helpful for women and femmes because so much of our exhaustion and feeling of being used or not appreciated has to do with an implicit (or sometimes explicit) expectation that we will provide endless emotional labour. This labour is seen as a requirement and is often measured in how the feelings of the people around us shift based on the impacts of our time, wisdom and attention. And for most women and femmes, when we are giving this labour it goes unnoticed, but when we cease to do so, people feel angry that we aren’t providing, effortlessly and constantly, work that is perceived as a natural and necessary part of our being.

And so being able to measure, for example, how long we are willing to listen to someone process a feeling with us or what we deserve in return for this labour makes tangible and visible the work we do that is often invisibilized.

What podcasts do you recommend, readers?

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Scandalous Trademarks and My Little Piece of Supreme Court History

Trademark law and the constitutional free speech guarantee clashed at the Supreme Court last month in Matal v. Tam, where an Asian-American rock band successfully appealed the denial of their trademark registration for the controversial name “The Slants”. I’m inordinately proud that the ACLU’s amicus brief for the winning side cited a scholarly essay I published in 1996, when I was a wee third-year student at Columbia Law. (Note that the publication year is incorrect in this link: I was pretty smart as a 4-year-old but I wasn’t writing for the Federal Circuit Bar Journal.) But first some background…

Federal registration of a trademark provides important economic and legal benefits to the trademark owner, including nationwide protection against infringement and a presumption in court that your trademark is valid. “Infringement” is when someone else uses your mark, or one very similar to it, on a competing or unrelated product, without permission. The Lanham Act is the federal law governing trademark registrations and lawsuits. A little-known provision of that law, Section 2(a), forbids registration of marks that are “immoral…or scandalous” or bring persons, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols “into contempt or disrepute”. Individuals or institutions can also sue after the fact to cancel a registration that allegedly violates Section 2(a).

Since 1992, Native American activists have been trying to use Section 2(a) to force cancellation of the “Washington Redskins” football team name, on the grounds that it is a racial slur and therefore immoral and disparaging. Their effort seemed to have paid off in 2015 when a federal District Court judge affirmed the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s decision to cancel the “Redskins” registration. Rather than take up that appeal, in 2016 the Supreme Court agreed to consider the constitutionality of Section 2(a) in the Tam case. Perhaps the High Court calculated that members of a minority group reclaiming an offensive word were better representatives of free speech than white franchise owners using a slur against somebody else.

As a poet, I’ve always been sensitive to the slippery, multivalent nature of words, and protective of their freedom to exceed and evade their official definitions. Fundamentalism, whether religious or political, is characterized by the claim that certain words and symbols have a single universal meaning. But words are not fixed objects to be fought over, so much as they are the territory where our battles for power and truth play out.

In my 1996 article, “Redskins and Scarlet Letters: Why “Immoral” and “Scandalous” Trademarks Should Be Federally Registrable” (6 Fed. Cir. Bar J. 191 [1996]), I made two main points. First, Section 2(a) is unconstitutional “viewpoint discrimination”. This is the most serious kind of free speech infringement because it affects political debate. The government should not take sides in the controversy over ideas and symbols in public life. The case law on Section 2(a) shows that it’s been applied in a vague and capricious manner. (This was the most fun part of the article to research. Condoms with American flags on them? Big Pecker Brand T-shirts? Madonna Wine? Are you scandalized yet?)

Second, as a policy matter, political change often happens by parodying or reinterpreting offensive terms, not only by banning them outright. The N-word is undeniably offensive when used by a non-black person, but can be a term of affection or self-assertion in black social life and popular music. “Queer” is firmly established now as a descriptive term for LGBT…not otherwise specified, even though some older gay men hate the term because it was used to insult them.

With commercial symbols and corporate-owned media comprising an ever greater part of our popular culture, the expressive aspect of well-known trademarks is not easily separable from their original commercial function to identify the source of goods. The more famous a mark is, the more its political and cultural significance overshadows its literal one. So it makes sense to bring First Amendment scrutiny to trademark law, especially in politically motivated lawsuits.

I’m happy to say that the courts agreed. In re Tam, 808 F.3d 1321 (Fed. Cir. 2015), was the federal appeals court decision that went to the Supreme Court. (“In re” means “In the matter of” and the Federal Circuit is the court that hears trademark appeals.) Yours truly appears in footnote 2, pg.6. The court said:

Section 2(a) does not treat identical marks the same. A mark that is viewed by a substantial composite of the referenced group as disparaging is rejected. It is thus the viewpoint of the message conveyed which causes the government to burden the speech. This form of regulation cannot reasonably be argued to be content neutral or viewpoint neutral. The government’s argument also fails because denial of registration under ß 2(a) turns on the referenced group’s perception of a mark. Speech that is offensive or hostile to a particular group conveys a distinct viewpoint from speech that carries a positive message about the group…Section 2(a) is a viewpoint-discriminatory regulation of speech, created and applied in order to stifle the use of certain disfavored messages.

…This case exemplifies how marks often have an expressive aspect over and above their commercial-speech aspect. Mr. Tam explicitly selected his mark to create a dialogue on controversial political and social issues. With his band name, Mr. Tam makes a statement about racial and ethnic identity. He seeks to shift the meaning of, and thereby reclaim, an emotionally charged word. He advocates for social change and challenges perceptions of people of Asian descent. His band name pushes people. It offends. Despite this–indeed, because of it–Mr. Tam’s band name is expressive speech… Strict scrutiny must apply to a government regulation that is directed at the expressive component of speech. That the speech is used in commerce or has a commercial component should not change the inquiry when the government regulation is entirely directed to the expressive component of the speech.

The ACLU’s amicus brief to the Supreme Court cites my essay on pg. 34 of the PDF, and also includes some more shining examples of Section 2(a) weirdness: Wanker Beer (OK), Cum Perfume (not OK), BigCock energy drinks (not OK), OneFootCock alcoholic beverages (OK). I imagine that being a Patent and Trademark Office employee is a lot of fun some days.

The plain language of Section 2(a) requires viewpoint discrimination. The PTO’s determination that a proposed mark is “immoral,” “scandalous,” or “disparag[ing]” explicitly turns on whether some members of the public consider it offensive—even if others do not. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that avoiding offensiveness is an impermissible government motivation that elevates certain viewpoints over others…

…That a single word can express multiple viewpoints is exemplified by this case. While some view the word “slants” as degrading, others—namely Mr. Tam and his band—see the term as a means of empowerment. The First Amendment does not permit the PTO to express preference for one view over the other. Indeed, by its very terms, Section 2(a) significantly hinders the practice of reappropriation, whereby marginalized groups reclaim use of a word that has been used to disparage them, often as part of a larger movement for social justice…

Reappropriation by its very nature involves strategic use of a word that is disparaging in the hopes that, over time, it will no longer be disparaging (at least in certain contexts). But Section 2(a) arrests that process, because it prevents use of a mark that is disparaging at the time the applicant wishes to register it—i.e., before the process of reappropriation has likely run its course. It is simply not the government’s role to disadvantage individuals who seek—whether successfully or not—to change the meaning of slurs or disparaging terms. This is viewpoint discrimination prohibited by the First Amendment.

Now that their trademark is about to be reinstated, I definitely hope the Redskins team owners bow to public opinion and respect Native peoples’ demand for a name change.

Just remember what they say at the fried chicken stand: “Only a Breast in the Mouth is Better Than a Leg in the Hand” (Bromberg v. Carmel Self Service, Inc., 198 U.S.P.Q. 176 [T.T.A.B. 1978]) (trademark cancelled under Section 2[a]).

 

High Court to Decide on Religious Freedom to Discriminate

The U.S. Supreme Court has a convenient habit of issuing their most controversial decisions at the end of June, after which they flee the jurisdiction for summer break until October (nice gig!). Today they announced that they’d hear the appeal in Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the case of a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, as reported by The Huffington Post. The high court has twice previously delayed action on the case. More background can be found in this March 2017 article from The New Yorker:

After the incident at Masterpiece Cakeshop became public, another bakery provided Craig and Mullins with a cake, adorned with a rainbow, at no charge. But the affront gnawed at the couple, and they filed a discrimination charge with Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission that September. The commission brought a case against Phillips and his shop in May, 2013.

The situation differs in some important ways from, say, those in which African-Americans were refused service at Woolworth’s lunch counters in the nineteen-fifties. One factor that is not different, however, is the way that religion has often been cited as a basis for discrimination. “Most Protestant churches in the South believed slavery and, later, [American] apartheid and anti-miscegenation laws were ordained by God,” [Yale Law Professor William] Eskridge told me. “Presbyterians, Methodists, Southern Baptists—respectable religions. Maybe several million people still believe that.”

Yet, from the standpoint of individual liberty, a mammoth corporation, such as Woolworth’s, is different from a mom-and-pop business. The regulatory machinery has been hesitant to tell individuals how to behave on their own premises, no matter how repugnant their behavior may seem. To this day, as Eskridge observes, the federal employment-discrimination laws do not apply to businesses with fewer than fifteen employees, and housing-discrimination laws do not affect owner-occupied buildings with four units or fewer.

Also, a Woolworth’s luncheonette could not plausibly have claimed that serving a plate of hash browns was a form of expression protected by the First Amendment. In the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, and disputes like it, the sole proprietors often argue that their work contains a strong expressive element, subject to First Amendment protections. In Phillips’s briefs, for instance, his lawyers never describe him as a “baker” but always as a “cake artist,” arguing that a wedding cake “forms the centerpiece of a ritual in which the couple celebrates their marriage,” and that it “communicates this special celebratory message. Slicing a pizza or pot roast would not have the same effect.”

Judges have rejected these arguments so far, in part because Phillips’s refusal to serve Craig and Mullins was so categorical, and their conversation so brief. They never reached potentially relevant details such as what, if anything, would be inscribed on the cake.

“For all Phillips knew at the time,” an administrative-law judge ruled, in 2013—in a decision later adopted by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and upheld by the state appeals court—Craig and Mullins “may have wanted a nondescript cake suitable for consumption at any wedding.” The commission has conceded that Phillips could have lawfully declined to write messages that he disagreed with on the cake, and it has previously allowed bakers to refuse to adorn cakes with white-supremacist and anti-Muslim messages.

Phillips’s attorneys argue that the couple was asking him to “design and create” a unique cake, and that, even if they weren’t, any cake would convey the “unconscionable” message “that a wedding has occurred, a marriage has begun, and the couple should be celebrated.”

Commentators predict that Trump’s first appointee, Justice Neil Gorsuch, will tip the Court further in the direction of conservative Christian carve-outs from neutrally applicable laws. This trend picked up momentum with the 2014 case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores. That case held that closely held corporations were “persons” with rights to the free exercise of religion under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)–specifically, the right to refuse to cover contraception in employee health insurance plans.

While the wedding cake example may seem trivial in isolation, it’s a microaggression which, if multiplied, intentionally creates a climate of fear and exclusion for LGBTQ citizens. Consider the hundreds of small transactions and interactions you engage in each week, then imagine the anxiety of wondering whether you’ll be refused service, each and every time. Think about having to calculate whether it’s too risky, for your emotional and perhaps physical safety, to leave your house and go to the store today. Craig and Mullins were able to find a competing vendor, but in a small town where the baker’s homophobia is widely shared, you could easily get into a situation of community-wide shunning.

Meanwhile state legislatures are feeling emboldened to apply anti-gay “religious freedom” precedents to more serious matters than pastry, such as medical care, housing, and social services for at-risk children. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, lifted the injunction on Mississippi’s RFRA, meaning that the law now goes into effect. From the story by Mark Joseph Stern at Slate:

A federal judge had blocked the law before it took effect, ruling it violated the Establishment and Equal Protection Clauses. The 5th Circuit, however, held that the plaintiffs in the case did not have standing to challenge the law in court, rendering the injunction improper.

HB 1523, the Mississippi bill, constitutes an all-out assault on LGBTQ people and a sweeping effort to legalize discrimination. Under the law:

  • Businesses can refuse service to LGBTQ people.
  • Employers can fire (or refuse to hire) workers because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Adoption agencies, private and taxpayer-funded, can turn away same-sex couples and trans people.
  • Landlords can evict renters for being LGBTQ.
  • Medical professionals can refuse to treat LGBTQ patients.
  • Clerks and judges can refuse to marry same-sex couples.
  • Schools can exclude trans students from bathrooms that align with their gender identity and discriminate against all LGBTQ students.

And Texas Governor Greg Abbot this month signed a law that purports to give “protection of the rights of conscience for child welfare services providers”. Hat tip to progressive blogger Mindy Fischer for the news on Twitter. Her piece cites a report on the legislation from ThinkProgress, which I quote below:

The bill, House Bill 3859, will permit discrimination against LGBTQ couples wishing to adopt children, in addition to allowing LGBTQ children to be placed under the agencies’ care in “religious education.” The bill goes into effect in September.

As ThinkProgress noted when the bill passed the Texas House in May, the bill affects not only child placement services (think adoption agencies), but group homes, counseling services, care for abused children, and other resources for children with complicated family situations. The bill will have a broad reach, affecting organizations that provide a wide variety [of] care options for a large number of children.

When the bill goes into effect, those organizations can legally refuse to provide care for children on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity, or on the basis of the sexuality or gender identity of someone in their family, as long as the provider can cite “religious beliefs.” They will be able to do the same for same-gender couples wishing to adopt children, and ultimately for anyone whose situation can somehow be considered in violation of their religious beliefs. Texas state Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D) pointed out that it could be used to justify, for example, a Christian organization refusing to provide services to a Jewish family…

Prioritizing the religious beliefs of organizations who care for children over the religious beliefs, and human rights, of children, the bill will allow child welfare services to place LGBTQ children under their care into “religious education” that demonizes them or undermines their self-worth…

…But religious minorities will also be impacted by the bill, which allows child welfare organizations to place children who are members of religious minorities (Jewish or Muslim children, for example) into Christian schools.

It’s hard to believe that compulsory religious education could pass constitutional muster, since even minors have Free Exercise rights. But a lot of things have happened since November that are hard to believe.

An Establishment Clause challenge is also plausible. These so-called religious freedom bills use the neutral-seeming language of individual rights and tolerance to bring about a very specific sectarian outcome: allowing Christians with a heteronormative, religiously exclusivist interpretation of the Bible to evade civil rights protections for women, gays, and non-Christians. The state RFRAs not only give special treatment to religious people generally, but primarily benefit those who are duty-bound by their faith to avoid moral contamination from nonbelievers. This purity-based approach is specific to right-wing Christians (and Jews and Muslims, but I doubt there are many of those controlling the Mississippi child welfare department). Though I’d love to see liberal Christians refusing to pay state taxes under RFRA because they have a moral objection to the racist Mississippi police force or the Texas capital punishment system–wouldn’t the government just tie itself in knots to avoid applying the law then!

One could argue that the Mississippi and Texas RFRA privilege religious over non-religious motivations to the point that it creates an unconstitutional establishment. Modern Supreme Court case law has tended toward the view that the Establishment Clause not only forbids favoritism toward particular denominations, but also bans a general government preference for religion over secularism. However, conservative jurists like the late Justices Scalia and Rehnquist routinely pushed back against this broad interpretation. We can only pray that the court does the right thing next term. (Want citations? Sure you do. Check out Caroline Mara Corbin’s 2016 article in the First Amendment Law Review, “Justice Scalia, the Establishment Clause, and Christian Privilege”.)