Archive for July, 2010

This isn’t news for my local readers, but I want to say a few words in tribute to Art Gish, who was killed in a tractor accident earlier this week. Art was a fixture around Athens, Ohio, selling his organic produce at the farmer’s market, often including such exotica, by American standards, as dandelion greens. You’d see him on campus if a progressive speaker came to town. You’d see him and his wife Peggy in front of the courthouse, demonstrating and holding vigils.

But sometimes you wouldn’t see him, or Peggy, because they were somewhere in the Middle East delivering a message of peace and compassion that was inspired by their Mennonite faith. Peggy, who was once taken hostage, was in Iraq when Art was killed. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to get such news while far from home. Neither she nor Art ever fliched because something was hard. Still, my heart aches for her.

There’s a terrible irony in his own tractor causing his death, on his own land, after he had stood up to tanks and bulldozers far from home in the West Bank. Here’s an AP photo of Art facing down an Israeli tank.:

(Source: Phil’s Clippings)

Art’s life and work were honored on Democracy Now yesterday; I can’t embed the clip, so go here and then fast-forward to about 9:35. Last year, DN interviewed Art and Peggy here about their work with the Christian Peacemaker Team. (It’s also impossible to embed, so I’ll include the transcript at the end of the post.) But Art was no publicity seeker. To the extent that the AP and DN recognized his work, he would want us to direct our attention to the work yet to be done, the peace yet to be made.

Art was just 70 – no longer young, to be sure, and with a full life behind him, spanning all the way back to his work in the civil rights movement of the 19960s. I didn’t know Art well – just to say hi to him – but I know his work was not done.

It seems almost trite to wish him eternal peace, and to wish his family peace in the here and now. But that’s what Art stood for, and that’s what he and his loved ones deserve. Peace – and the living memory of the work to which he dedicated his life.


The DN interview, fall 2009:

AMY GOODMAN: Five years ago this month, in April of 2004, the first photographs from inside Abu Ghraib appeared in the US media. The photos showed Iraqi prisoners being tortured, abused and humiliated by US forces and private contractors.

While the first photos were broadcast on 60 Minutes and published in the pages of The New Yorker, the initial reports of torture actually came months earlier. Beginning in 2003, members of the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq began documenting dozens of cases of torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners inside US military facilities.

We’re joined right now, here at Ohio University in Athens, by two local peace activists, longtime members of the Christian Peacemaker Team, Peggy and Art Gish. Peggy Gish has worked in Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams since October of 2002. She helped document the first reports of abuse inside US prisons in Iraq. She’s author of Iraq: A Journey of Hope and Peace. Her husband, Art Gish, has been part of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in the West Bank since 1995. He’s the author of several books, including Hebron Journal: Stories of Nonviolent Peacemaking.

Thank you so much for being with us. It’s wonderful to have you with us. Peggy Gish, let’s being with you. President Obama just took a surprise trip to Iraq. You, yourself, were kidnapped there in Iraq.


AMY GOODMAN: Just talk to me.

PEGGY GISH: I’m sorry, I’m not hearing you right.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, just listen to what I’m saying, just as I’m talking to you here. What happened to you in Iraq?

PEGGY GISH: What happened in Iraq?


ART GISH: What happened to you in Iraq?

PEGGY GISH: In Iraq, yes. Well, two of us were traveling to a very impoverished area in northwestern Iraq, and there were groups of people who wanted to work nonviolently to deal with the struggles there. And two of us were abducted on the way home. I was kept only two days, and my—


PEGGY GISH: In the compound out in a desert. And my colleague was kept for another six days. Then we were released unharmed, which we think has something to do with them hearing about the work of CPT and the kind of work that we were doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Of the Christian Peacemaker Teams.


AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about that, and your work being seminal in getting out the photographs of Abu Ghraib.

PEGGY GISH: Yes. We started this work in the summer of 2003, and what—it grew out of just helping the Iraqi families that had people detained among their family. And then we began discovering gross abuse in all of the prisons of Iraq, not just Abu Ghraib. And there was a lot of brutality from the very beginning of the house raid in the middle of the night, where soldiers acknowledged that they had thirty seconds or forty seconds of absolute terror to subdue the people, and then brutality in the questioning, the interrogation process, torture going on in that process, as well as in the imprisonment time. So we were hearing stories from men and women who had been in Abu Ghraib and other prisons, and we compiled a report on seventy-two prisoners that became part of a pool of evidence, and we were one of several organizations, Iraqi and international groups, that put tremendous pressure on the system to make it public.

AMY GOODMAN: Why have you chosen to live in Iraq for so many years under the gun, I mean, in the midst of the US attack, why you’ve chosen to live in Iraq?

PEGGY GISH: Yes, why do I go back? I go there because I’ve been given a deep love for the Iraqi people, and love is really what has overcome the fear that I have to struggle with when I go there, but also because I am from a country that has done tremendous damage to their society, to the people, devastated the lives and culture of a people, and I want to do some small part in trying to help the people of Iraq, but also to let the people here know what is really happening there. So part of our work is just truth telling, witnessing what the occupation has done, what that has meant for people.

And it has been a horrible thing for the people of Iraq. It has meant up to a million people killed, a continued physical devastation of the country. There’s still very little clean water or electricity, very poor medical care. People have been traumatized. Friends tell us that they are so despairing and depressed and do not see much hope for the future of their country, at least not for generations. And so, it is a devastated country. And people say, “I don’t feel like it’s getting better.”

AMY GOODMAN: When were you last there?

PEGGY GISH: Two weeks ago. I just came back.

AMY GOODMAN: What was your reaction to President Obama’s recent surprise trip this week and his calling for troop reductions in Iraq?

PEGGY GISH: Yeah, I didn’t catch all that question.

ART GISH: What was your reaction to Obama going to Iraq this week?

PEGGY GISH: Yeah, I wish that Obama would be speaking out clearly, acknowledging the harm that the US has done there more clearly. And what we see and what Iraqis see is that Obama is just following in the same policies concerning Iraq that Bush has. The timetable for withdrawing is very similar to what Bush had put on the table. And they—I guess I’m afraid that he’s just being sucked into it, being pressured into a kind of aggressive military policy for dealing with the struggles of the world.

What’s happening with Iraq is now being transferred over into the work with Afghanistan, so we’re going to take troops from Iraq, but we’re going to increase the war there, the war on terror. And that is what we ought to be addressing, is our whole foreign policy, the way we are dealing with this whole problem of terrorism in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Peggy Gish. Her husband Art Gish, also a Christian Peacemaker. Art, you spend your time in the West Bank, in the Occupied Territories.

ART GISH: Yes. Since 1995, I’ve been going to the West Bank every winter for three months. And I just came back from spending another three months there.

AMY GOODMAN: Why? Why have you chosen to go there? And explain how the Christian Peacemaker Teams developed.

ART GISH: Christian Peacemaker Teams came out of the peace churches, the Quakers, the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, out of the idea that if we’re really serious about peace, we ought to be willing to take the same risks as soldiers take and go into a nonviolent—into violent situations and be a nonviolent presence there. What if people who want peace made the same kind of commitment that soldiers make?

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

ART GISH: That we go there, and we take risks, and we stand in the middle, and we work for peace in there.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you’ve done in West Bank.

ART GISH: OK. The most important thing we do is listen. And we listen to all sides. We act as international observers. I like to say we have the grandmother effect. There are things nobody would do if their grandmother is watching. So, in any conflict anywhere in the world, it’s really important to have outside observers there who are a presence there, and the people know they’re being watched, and that will reduce the violence.

And then, third, we also engage in nonviolent direct action. If the Israeli military wants to demolish a Palestinian house, we’ll sit on the roof of the house. We stand in front of tanks and bulldozers, and our slogan is “getting in the way.”

AMY GOODMAN: We just passed the anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie on March 16th.

ART GISH: Yes, I knew her.

AMY GOODMAN: A few days before the invasion of Iraq—


AMY GOODMAN: —she was killed in Gaza by an Israeli military bulldozer. She stood in front of a house—


AMY GOODMAN: —just like you, standing to prevent it from being crushed. How did you know her?

ART GISH: I did some work for ISM. That’s the group she was working with, International Solidarity Movement. And I led the training for two days of nonviolence training for her, so I trained her to stand in front of bulldozers.

AMY GOODMAN: And your thoughts, your reaction after she was killed?

ART GISH: Well, that touched me very deeply, since I have some responsibility in that. But she’s one of my heroes, of course. And, you know, I think of the times I stood in front of tanks and bulldozers, and it could have happened to me.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened in those cases? Explain exactly what you do. For example, talk about your experiences in Hebron. Did it happen there?

ART GISH: Yes. There was—in the main central produce market in Hebron, I saw two Israeli bulldozers, two Israeli tanks smashing the whole area. And a big tank came toward me, and I stood there, and it stopped, right in front of me. I didn’t realize that day that maybe I saved my wife’s life that day, because while she was kidnapped, she showed a picture of me standing in front of the tank to the kidnappers, and they were quite impressed and said we’re going to let you go.

AMY GOODMAN: You were in the West Bank. But you, when you were kidnapped, in Iraq.

PEGGY GISH: I was in Iraq, yes.

ART GISH: She was in—yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And you had this photograph with you?

PEGGY GISH: I had the photo with me and the photos of my family, my children, right, and showed that to them. And then they went out with it, and ten minutes later the guard came back in and said I would be released the next day with our translator.

AMY GOODMAN: What drives you to devote so much time to this kind of activism? For our radio listeners, your white hair, Art, your white beard. For kids who might think, what on earth are you doing? You live safely here in Athens, Ohio, but you’re constantly going off to places where you put your own lives in danger.

ART GISH: Well, first of all, it’s a privilege and a gift to be able to stand with the victims, with the oppressed of the world. That’s a privilege. I wouldn’t want to give it up for anything. What motivates us is our religious faith, our faith in God. And as Peggy put it so well, it’s love. It’s our love for the people that drives us.

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you born, Art?

ART GISH: Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.


PEGGY GISH: I was born actually in Nigeria. My parents were working there when I was very young. And then I grew up in Chicago.

AMY GOODMAN: And what got you involved in this peace work, Peggy?

PEGGY GISH: Ah, what got—well, we started our activism with civil rights work, and it a just opened the door to all kinds of other issues for us. Then we became involved with the anti-Vietnam War protests and draft resistance, death penalty abolition. And so, we began to see the interconnection with so many oppressions and problems, economic problems, with the war machine. And then we heard about a group that had a different kind of response, one that would be of standing with people and working with them nonviolently within their countries in those situations.

And so, as we worked in Iraq, we looked for those creative people who were interested, and we did a training with a group of Shia Muslims in Karbala in 2005, and they became known then as the Muslim Peacemaker Teams. With them, then we went into the city of Fallujah seven times during the year of 2005 to work for reconciliation between Sunni and Shia. So that’s the kind of thing that we do. And it’s exciting because we’re a part of a movement of the local people who are doing that and building that up for their country.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you planning to go back to the West Bank, Art? Peggy, to Iraq?

ART GISH: I hope to.

PEGGY GISH: I hope so.

ART GISH: Insha’Allah.

PEGGY GISH: Yes, we hope.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us, Peggy and Art Gish.

ART GISH: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: They’ve written a number of books. Peggy’s book,Iraq: A Journey of Hope and Peace. Art Gish’s book, Hebron Journal: Stories of Nonviolent Peacemaking and At-Tuwani Journal: Hope and Nonviolent Action in a Palestinian Village.

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My Wonky Computer

I probably should know better than to wade into a controversy when my computer is acting wonky, but no. I don’t. Earlier this evening, here’s how my screen looked after it froze and I relaunched it:

This lovely image has appeared several times in the past week, but this time I couldn’t go back to normal simply by restarting a couple of times. I had to unplug it, remove its battery, and hold down the start button for five seconds. Since then, it’s acting happy, but I’m not deceived into believing it’s really okay. So this is to say if I disappear without warning, it’s not because I don’t care. It’s because my machine is kaputt. I’m supposed to fly back to the U.S. on Wednesday, and I’m trying to –

oh hell, I just had to restart again! Okay, so I’m trying to nurse my machine along until I can get it to a tech back home who knows me enough to trust me to say I haven’t abused it. I also have a kaputt CD drive, and I want my AppleCare coverage to cover it. Because honestly, I have treated my computer with love and kindness. It is my auxiliary brain. I only do bad things to my real brain. But you might just find comfort in a glass of wine, too, if your computer looked like this.

In the meantime, if anyone knows what the Stripes of Death mean on a MacBook Pro (vintage spring 2008), I’d be most grateful. They are usually preceded by a freeze-up that gives me lots of pixilated, groovy, pastel colors. But those groovy colors herald one heck of a bad trip. :-(

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The worst plane flight of my life was a transatlantic hop in which a baby cried pretty much uninterrupted from takeoff to landing. To make it worse, the child was really too old to be a baby anymore. He was a chunky twenty-month-0ld! His parents appeared to have no strategy able to calm him! Things got so bad, a nun offered advice at great length to the obviously hapless parents.

Yes, that was a long flight. Numerous passengers would have happily pushed the eject button on that child, even if it had landed him in the Arctic Ocean.

Did I mention the “baby” in question was my own beloved Tiger?

And short of a direct appeal to the Ceiling Cat, we tried everything to calm him. He was just pissed. To keep his ears from clogging, we’d given him a sippy cup during takeoff (one piece of advice that the well-meaning but ostentatiously helpful nun shared with us, after the fact). We’d packed a few toys. We tried walking the aisles with him. We tried rocking and singing him to sleep. Nothing worked.

At twenty months, the Tiger had no stable words. None. Not even “no”! We had no way of knowing why he was so upset. We couldn’t reason with him. Short of wrapping a gag around his mouth, we couldn’t “control” him. We were seasoned travelers with kids by then. My husband had just completed a grueling round of chemotherapy in Germany, and we weren’t traveling on a whim. We were just trying to get home after an eight-month unplanned stay in Germany that began as a brief vacation and reached its zenith months later in the ICU. We were lucky my mate survived. And now we were doing our darndest to comfort the Tiger and let everyone sleep.

So when discussions of “childfree spaces” on a feminist blog (Feministe) quickly jump to saying that sharing a plane with kids is tantamount to a “hostage situation, I’d like to know exactly who’s the hostage here? I’m fairly sure only two people suffered worse than I on that flat: the Tiger and his dad. Well, maybe the nun, too.

We’re in the midst of another shitstorm in the feminist blogosphere, this time about parents’ rights to take their kids anywhere, anytime. The post that touched if off (by guestblogger Mai’a at Feministe) framed it in absolutist terms: We parents should be able to take our kids to bars where the patrons are inebriated and watch the sun come up. Obviously, this is risible. What kid will benefit from spending the whole night out with a parent, sidestepping being trod upon by drunks? Karmithia at Alas sagely pointed out the obvious: late nights at bars are good for neither parent nor child.

It’s unfortunate that Mai’a chose such an extreme example, because I can’t recall seeing a child at a bar – ever – as opposed to a relatively family-friendly bar-restaurant. Had she chosen a less silly example, her post would have still attracted the virulently childfree, but her main argument – that excluding children also marginalizes their mothers – would have been much more defensible. The central question she raised – are children an oppressed class? – also deserved more nuanced discussion. What happened instead was the far more predictable volley of accusations against “entitled” parents. (Much of the incivility came from people who’ve raised kids themselves, so this wasn’t merely a debate between mothers and non-mothers).

Most of the gripes raised in that comment thread addressed strawmen (or strawkids?): the presence of kids in adult-only bars, the ubiquity (?) of kids in upscale restaurants, and the notion that most (maybe all) parents just let their kids run wild 24/7. I have sometimes seen the last problem in family-friendly restaurants, and I’m not here to defend the fairly small minority of parents who seem unconcerned about their child tripping up a server laden with drinks and burning-hot food. I’ve rarely seen kids in pricier places, but I’ll be honest: I prefer to stick to family-friendly restaurants for everyone’s peace of mind. (Or, rarely, go out for a nice meal while a sitter watches our kids.) And bars? Seriously, I don’t get around much anymore, but I have yet to see swarms of kids at cocktail bars or at any grow-mutt party.

There’s just one area where I’ve seen systematic parenting fail: dragging wee ones to PG-13 and R-rated movies. I first noticed this a decade ago, pre-parenthood, when my husband and I took in a matinee of the first X-Files movie. The theater was full of tots who really, really didn’t belong there. Sure, they were loud, and that was annoying, but the real failure impacted the kids. Maybe they weren’t overtly disturbed. I don’t care! I have deep qualms about desensitizing small children to violence, which is what happens when they’re fed a steady diet of violence as preteens and even preschoolers. Yeah, a babysitter costs money. So do cinema tickets. Prevail upon your friends and relatives if you must keep up with Scully and Mulder.

But even the bad judgment of a few parents at the movies is red herring. Judging from the Feministe discussion and perennial nasty Internet comments about kids, the real issue is not R-rated movies, upscale restaurants, grown-up bars, or parties where you can gleefully drop the F-bomb.

Here’s the real problem: Some folks aren’t willing to accept kids in public, period. People really hate sharing airplanes with kids. Too many resent kids in downscale restaurants. Feministe commenters complained about kids on the subway – and oh boy, you need to keep your kids close on the subway as a safety measure, but I have never seen kids run wild on any form of public transit in Berlin. Sometimes, like my Tiger, they like to twist around and kneel on the seats to peer out windows, but they are not posing a public danger. Yet, even when they perch on their seats like little Victorian dolls, they’ve still gotten the evil eye. I thought this was just a Berlin issue, but perhaps U.S. coastal cities are even worse? Feministe commenters pissed and moaned about kids making noise in Target and supermarkets. I mean, really – supermarkets? Who has the cash to hire a babysitter while we buy the food we need to survive??! And does this mean Target’s now off bounds for me, but Wal-Mart is okay?

Basically, anytime people feel they can’t quickly escape, a few of them insist that children better not make a peep. At the same time, these same folks systematically ignore the drunken passengers lurching through the subway car, or the couple on the transatlantic flight who carry on loud conversations in the aisles from Halifax to Ireland. (Actually, I suspect some of them are the drunken and chatty passengers.)

I understand their irritation. I remember feeling similarly at times before I had kids, but if I could see their parents hadn’t fully checked out, I got over myself. I recall only one time when the parents were obviously slacking: yet another transatlantic stretch with a Gameboy turned up to 11 and no headphones in sight. (The parents read and slept while the Gameboy beeped cheerfully all across the ocean.) Nowadays, when a child starts to wail in the plane or grocery store, I feel a nanosecond of irritation, followed by a massive wave of relief: Hey, that’s not my child anymore! And then I feel empathy with the parent and child. If we pass each other, I’ll flash a smile, unless the situation seems too far gone.

I do agree that there are a few places where kids categorically don’t belong: nightclubs, sex clubs, extremely upscale restaurants, and yes, bars while the sun is rising. Heck, parents need a few kid-free spaces, too, for those times when we get to escape! Kids shouldn’t stay any longer in a university library than their desperate parent needs to pick up a few books and leave again. (My little town has a great city library that’s welcoming to them.) Concerts, theater, and hospitals may be perfectly appropriate places, depending on the kids and the circumstances. (I will note that once my mate escaped the ICU but was still in the hospital, the Tiger behaved like a little angel, confined to his stroller and fed continuously with Butterkeks, the German equivalent of graham crackers.)

Parents are responsible for discerning how well their sprouts are able to behave. And yes, I do think kids need to learn to be civil, unlike a few Feministe commenters at the other extreme, who decried that as authoritarian. Civilization happens by gradually stretching the limits of what kids can gracefully handle, and by giving them clear boundaries that gradually expand.

But geez, we shouldn’t have to lock ourselves inside Chuck. E. Cheese until all our children have left for college. I’ve read extremists who say parents should just avoid all air travel until their kids are young adults. Parents remain people, too (often with family four times zones away). And kids are people. I really like how Sierra put this at Strollerderby:

I’m a mom who believes that the well-being of our children is a shared responsibility of everyone. My kids are not an exotic hobby, or a bizarre lifestyle choice. They are little people with all the rights and privileges people are entitled to. Their emotional and physical well-being is in your interest as well as mine.

One of the most important points to be made here about kids being people is that their parents, particularly their mothers, are not their puppetmasters. If my kid starts wailing and throwing boxes of cereal in Aisle 7, I can’t just apologize and turn the volume off the way I can if my cell phone goes off in a crowded theater.

I can do my best to help her behave well; keep her well-rested and fed and entertained. But if she’s losing it, she’s just like any other person with a problem. What she needs is help. You’d never go up to a 25-year-old sobbing two tables away from you at a restaurant and tell them to be quiet; you’d either stay out of it or offer help. Kids deserve to be treated the same way.

Similarly, if a kid crosses a line with you, the thing to do is to gently hold the kid accountable. Politely ask her to quiet down, return your toy or get off your foot.

Generating a culture of fear around moms in public, that they’d better get those kids to shut up and act sweet or else, only serves to make us more fearful as parents. Frightened moms are stricter, less flexible and ultimately less able to handle stressful situations that crop up with their kids. Ease up a little, and the kids will have fewer meltdowns to begin with. Everyone wins.

(Read the whole post here.)

Also: They will pay for our Social Security someday. Now might be a propitious time to start treating them kindly. If we do that, they might actually grow up to be nicer than the commentariat at Feministe (or heaven forbid, the even nastier trainwreck on Jezebel).

In my own life, I’ve been nothing but lucky to have friends and family who’ve embraced my kids, even whey they’re stinkers, and even when said friends have chosen not to spawn. I honor their choices, and they honor mine. My boys are surrounded by love. It’s really just a few strangers who’ve made it hard at times. Hmmm … is that what they mean by “stranger danger”?

By now, the Tiger is a pretty good flyer. We had one more horrid flight (Minneapolis to Columbus, just me with the two boys) where he howled for most of it. My husband met us at the airport. He’d already heard that the Tiger had been a terror. One of his colleagues had been sitting in one row ahead of us. I didn’t spot her, though I knew her casually. She sure didn’t identify herself; it was far more fun to report on my child’s misbehavior, with great relish, after the flight. I’m sure my husband was the first to know, but certainly not the last.

I’d like to credit my parenting – or even the global village – for the fact that on every flight since, people have complemented us on our kids. But when I’m out with kids among strangers, that global village scarcely, except to meddle and gossip. As for our parenting – well, it’s been eclipsed by the invention of the portable DVD player.

(From ICHC?)

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I came upon a banner ad for a very NSFW enterprise in the Berlin subway yesterday. What’s not work-safe in the U.S. is evidently subway-safe here. I’d have snapped a photo but didn’t have the gumption to explain to my kids why it was funny and disconcerting. (Oh, kids, we’re not in Ohio anymore!) At seven and ten, they seem to tune out the soft-porn mags prominently displayed at newsstands, but this ad would’ve required a lot more explaining. So instead I grabbed an image from their website  …

… and yeah, it’s really not work-safe, so do look over your shoulder before scrolling down.

The subway ad included only the company name, plus the charming red-and-gold logo. It was much more subtle. No Crisco, either. (Since when do Germans use Crisco? It’s not organic enough! Oh, never mind. If you explore their website, the answer very quickly, um, slips into sight. Or slips somewhere, anyway.)

Seriously, I’m all in favor of sexual openness, but faced with a triple cock, I’ve got nuthin’ to say.

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In my last post, which discussed the racism behind the conviction of a Palestinian man, Sabbar Kashur, of “rape by deception”, I promised to address the fundamental problems of “rape by deception” in a separate post. I deferred this for two reasons: First, I wanted to address issues of racism and purity separately (insofar as possible). Second, I intend the present post to be the second in a series exploring the issues around defining rape and sexual assault. Last winter, I began this with a post on the spectrum of sexual assault and the limits of the law, in which I concluded:

the law is a necessary but not sufficient instrument for transforming sexual relations. We need a feminist sexual ethics as well. To that end, I teach my students about the importance of enthusiastic consent. If they take it to heart, their chances of committing a crime ought to be nil.

And yet … there’s an area between sexual assault and enthusiastic consent. I don’t want to call it a gray area, because I don’t want to endorse the notion of “gray rape” (which is just a euphemism for defining acquaintance rape out of existence). Still, people are going to continue having sex under conditions of consent that’s defective or problematic or just lukewarm. We need to find ways to discuss this problem without either trivializing it or calling it “rape” or “assault.” In other words, we need a feminist sexual ethics that recognizes the complexity of social and sexual relations, affirms pleasure and autonomy, and emphasizes compassion and communication. “Yes means yes” is a good start, but it’s only a start.

(The whole post is here.)

After I wrote that post, life and work intervened to keep me from tackling the problems of defective consent, but I’d like to pick it up again now that I’m off from teaching and neither of my offspring has broken any bones lately. I think it’s crucial to find ways to talk about sexual violation that both respect the integrity of people who feel violated while also ensuring that the terms “rape” and “sexual assault” aren’t used in such inflationary ways that they become meaningless.

Jill at Feministe circumscribes “rape by deception” in a way that I thought (in my little non-lawyerly way) made loads of sense. She too remembered that case where a man impersonated his brother to extract sex from his brother’s girlfriend. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled it wasn’t rape because no force was involved. This incident, which occurred in a dark room where the woman couldn’t recognize the man, strikes me as precisely the sort of gross violation of consent where the law can and should intervene. The facts are clear-cut, the man’s intent was obvious, and the woman had no opportunity to offer or refuse reasonably-informed consent. So I agree with Jill that there is some place in the law for “rape by deception” or “rape by fraud.” Maybe you wouldn’t categorize it as a first-degree felony, but such conduct deserves to be criminalized.

However, once you move from cases such as impersonation to cases where someone tells a garden-variety lie, you’ve just criminalized 95% of the population. (Or maybe 99.999%)  I do not think it is noble that people lie and misrepresent themselves in pursuit of romance, sex, and love. But neither is it felonious. It shouldn’t even be a misdemeanor, legally speaking.

On the Feministe thread, a few people argued that since lying to a potential sexual partner undermines enthusiastic consent – or really, consent period – it should be criminalized. One commenter who’s a lawyer argued that it should be treated as a misdemeanor, since such lies are more serious than commonly-prosecuted crimes such as trespassing. I agree that lies – even glaring lies of omission – diminish consent. Where I disagree is on the proposition that the criminal justice system could offer appropriate remedies for this. (And as for the trespassers – can we stop prosecuting them too, in the absence of other crimes?)

In part, the problem is simply a matter of numbers: the prosecution of liars would give the U.S. a chance to build more prisons than schools (if we’re not already there yet). Some of the commentators at Feministe echoed Dr. Gregory House’s line: “Everyone lies.” A couple of people protested that they, personally, were always honest, but by and large, I think House is right. Consider online dating. Whether it’s OK Cupid or eHarmony or Adult Friend Finder, people misrepresent themselves. They exaggerate their height, play down their weight, puff up their job titles. They post a photo that’s a year old – or ten. Perhaps the only reservoir of honesty is on Chatroulette, where the naked dudes look pretty much exactly like themselves. ‘Cept they’re not looking to date you. I guess that, too, is refreshingly honest.

And it’s not just men who lie, exaggerate, misrepresent. Take your humble blogger, for instance. I know that when I met the man I eventually married, I didn’t say to him, “By the way, I’m still sort of messed up from my last boyfriend.” In my sexual past, I’ve misrepresented a few other things, including multiple failures to indicate clearly when I was not interested. These days, I’m not even on the market, and yet I own a couple of bras that overplay my actual assets. And that’s just me – a generally honest gal from North Dakota.

Of course, what’s at stake are lies and distortions that could be dealbreakers for a potential partner. Even there, the list is infinite. Would you rule out Republicans? Or only go for Republicans? Do you require gainful employment? Upward mobility? A yacht in the Mediterranean? Are you open to coupling with a trans person? Or would you freak out if your potential partner wasn’t cisgendered? Would you only sleep with someone with long-term potential, or would you rule out anyone seeking a relationship?

A law that criminalized garden-variety lies to potential partners would hit certain groups especially hard:

  • people of color – see the “War on Drugs” for millions of precedents
  • trans people, whose murder is still sometimes excused under the “trans panic defense,” and who already suffer from being branded “deceptive”
  • women whose partners assumed them to be virgins (as Alara Rogers argued compellingly at Feministe)
  • people with STIs, who do have a duty to disclose (in my view), but who would be discouraged from even getting tested
  • pickup artists (okay, my sympathy is lukewarm, but I still don’t want to toss them in jail)

So if we don’t turn to the law, then what? And how are we to respond to the very real feelings of violation that people feel when they’ve been deceived – feeling that are not limited to women, by the way?

I don’t think it’s wrong to spread the word to one’s friends and acquaintances about someone who has told a materially important lie. Politeness often stops people from doing this. Women, especially, are also likely to be deterred by the fear that no one will believe them (which runs parallel to the fears of rape victims), and by fear of slut-shaming. But if someone has behaved like a first-class jerk, we have no obligation to protect his or her reputation. I’m lukewarm on public shaming (as apparently occurs sometimes on Facebook, for instance), but in private conversations, there’s no reason to hold back one’s experiences.

We also need to educate young people – boys and girls alike – on the importance of asserting themselves with a potential partner and asking about those potential dealbreakers before they have sex. The major roadblock here is the difficulty people have in talking about sex, period. From my students, I get the impression that this is slowly improving, certainly compared to my generation. And we need to expose kids to enthusiastic consent as an ideal. Enthusiasm is a pretty impractical legal standard, but it’s an excellent social norm.

Actually, we need to get all those messages out to those of us in our middle years and beyond, too. (It’s just easier to reach kids, since they’re often a captive audience and they’re still more malleable.)

Finally, we also need to propagate the hope that more honesty in sex and courtship will help dismantle rape culture. We’re never going to get rid of lies. We can, however, hope to increase honesty. One way to do that is to reframe sex as a duet instead of a game of conquest.

As for how we respond to the sense of violation when a person has been deceived – well, there I diverge from most of the discussants at Feministe, including Jill, who said the woman in the case ought to be able to define her experience in whatever terms ring true to her. If that means she gets to call it rape, then I disagree.

First, if every person who feels violated or just emotionally hurt can call their experience “rape,” we move into the realm of metaphor. I’ve already argued that “rape” ought not to be used that way. It diminishes the actual offense. It also leads to sloppy thinking and to an elision of the difference between the legal realm and ethics. And frankly, ethics can help in these cases, where the law simply cannot.

Second, if a person claims the label of “rape,” she or he may seek legal redress. That quest will be doomed to failure if their experience has no correlation with the legal standard of rape.

Third, the bad guy in this scenario certainly deserve to have his (or her) reputation smudged. She or he does not deserve to be called a rapist, with all the attendant emotional baggage and social harm. That stigma is nearly as damaging as being convicted in court. (And no, this isn’t “what about the menz,” because women tell plenty of sexual lies, too, and anyway this is about basic fairness.)

So what can we do to honor those who’ve been lied to? Those who’ve seen a partner climb off them, post-coitus, and run straight for the door? Those who’ve placed faith in a faithless partner, or trusted their own heart too hastily?

We need new words. Maybe some of the old ones can be repurposed. In my last post, I described the accused as a “cad.” While “asshole” works pretty well, too, it doesn’t capture the specifically sexual aspect of assholishness that “cad” does. Some of the related words – scoundrel, fraud, even creep – don’t have particuarly sexual connotations. I’m curious if any of you have any better ideas.

Perhaps we need a notion of “sexual violation” to describe situations where dishonesty significantly interfered with a partner’s ability to consent. This wouldn’t be a criminal offense. It would be an ethical category. It would give the victim a way to understand her or his experiences as real, and important, and worthy of a caring response.

And we need to offer victims of sexual violation sympathy and support, instead of slut-shaming. I’m not so sure I could do that for the woman in the Kashur case. Her sense of violation was rooted in her racism. But most men and women who fall victim to liars and manipulators in sex do deserve our support. They should get it.

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Most likely, you’ve already heard that an Israeli court last week convicted a Palestinian man, Sabbar Kashur, of “rape by deception.” He met a Jewish woman on the street outside a Jerusalem grocery store. They struck up a conversation. She assumed he was Jewish due to his nickname, “Dudu,” which apparently is common among Jewish men. Within 15 minutes, the two adjourned to a nearby building and had sex. Afterward, he took off before she even was dressed. She believed he was a Jewish bachelor who was seeking a long-term relationship.

The woman then filed forcible rape charges. Later, she stated that the sex had been consensual but on false premises, and the charge was downgraded to “rape by deception.”

I’d prefer to table the fundamental problems with “rape by deception” to another post. Here, I just want to say that the notion of purity expressed by the presiding judges in this case is deeply troubling. As Haaretz reported:

In the verdict, deputy president of the Jerusalem district court Tzvi Segal, along with fellow judges Moshe Drori and Yoram Noam, wrote that although this wasn’t “a classical rape by force,” and the sex was consensual, the consent itself was obtained through deception and under false pretenses.

“If she hadn’t thought the accused was a Jewish bachelor interested in a serious romantic relationship, she would not have cooperated,” the judges wrote. …

“The court is obliged to protect the public interest from sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals who can deceive innocent victims at an unbearable price – the sanctity of their bodies and souls,” Segal wrote.

“When the very basis of trust between human beings drops, especially when the matters at hand are so intimate, sensitive and fateful, the court is required to stand firmly at the side of the victims … otherwise, they will be used, manipulated and misled, while paying only a tolerable and symbolic price,” he wrote.

The parallel that pops into my mind is one that I realize may be offensive to some folks: the charge of “race defilement” in Nazi Germany. No, I’m not equating these judges (much less all of Israel) with the Nazis. But there’s a notion of racial purity behind this verdict that is reminiscent of Nazi ideas about racial purity as expressed in the Nuremberg Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor (the Blood Protection Law, for short).

Under the Blood Protection Law, only men could be charged. That went for both “Aryan” and Jewish men, though the primary targets were of course Jewish. Women were interrogated and their privacy and reputations destroyed, but “Aryan” women were also viewed as victims. This legal practice followed Hitler’s bilious depiction of male Jewish sexuality in Mein Kampf:

The black-haired Jewish youth lies in wait for hours on end, satanically glaring at and spying on the unsuspicious girl whom he plans to seduce, adulterating her blood and removing her from the bosom of her own people.

(p. 270 in the James Murphy translation of Mein Kampf that’s freely available on the Web)

Compare this with the language in Segal’s opinion:

The court is obliged to protect the public interest from sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals who can deceive innocent victims at an unbearable price – the sanctity of their bodies and souls.

In both instances, men in the out-group are envisioned as predatory and deceptive; they’re sexual beasts, but they’re also terribly clever. In both instances, women belonging to the in-group are portrayed as passive, innocent, and unsuspecting. In neither case are women conceived – or even conceivable – as sexual agents. In both cases, women will be despoiled if the state fails to protect them. In both cases, community, honor, and racial purity are at stake.

You see the assertion and protection of honor, too, in Segal’s insistence that the woman would not have consented to sex with Kashur if she had not imagined him to be 1) Jewish, 2) a bachelor, and 3) interested in a long-term relationship. While it’s crucial not to slut-shame women (and that includes the woman in this case), let’s not forget that insisting on protecting purity enables slut-shaming in the first place. And when it comes to protection, the racial element in Segal’s reasoning is clear: He didn’t object to Kashur’s failure to disclose that he was married. He only emphasizes that the women was deceived into thinking Kashur was Jewish. (Never mind that Kashur apparently never made such a claim.)

Just for the record, I’m not defending Kashur’s actions as ethical. Not at all. He behaved like a complete cad toward the woman who brought charges, and he was an even bigger asshole toward his wife. I’m just trying to tease out the racial implications of his conviction.

Israel was born out of deep historical oppression and trauma. It’s not surprising that some Israelis overcompensate for this. It’s sad and disturbing, though, that any Israeli would support a rape conviction that rests on notions of race defilement similar to those used historically to oppress Jews.

Fortunately, some Jewish jurists are voicing their dissent (again via Haaretz):

Elkana Laist of the Public Defender’s Office yesterday said the Jerusalem District Court had gone too far in its application of the approach of the High Court, “opening the door to a rape conviction every time a person lies regarding details of his identity. Every time the court thinks a reasonable woman would not have had sex with a man based on that representation, the man will be charged with rape. That approach is not accepted around the world either.”

Laist needs to go further and condemn the racist aspects of the verdict (and perhaps she did but Haaretz didn’t quote it). Here in the U.S., Michelle Goldberg says all that needs to be said:

If such a verdict is allowed to stand, it will be evidence of the deep and corrosive racism menacing Israel. Earlier this year, Haaretz reported on a poll showing that 56 percent of Israeli high school students would ban the country’s Arab citizens from election to the Knesset. “Around half the respondents say Israeli Arabs should not receive the same rights as Israeli Jews,” the story said. We’ll soon see to what degree they get their wish.

(Her whole post is terrific – read it here.)

Like Goldberg, I too support Israel’s right to exist. But as she says, “It’s getting harder and harder to be a liberal Zionist.” If Israel is to continue to exist as a democracy, its leaders, judges, and citizens need to repudiate racist notions of blood and honor and reaffirm the humanity of everyone living within its borders.

Note to anyone who’s not a regular reader: My Ph.D. is in modern German history. While most of my teaching is in women’s and gender studies, I just taught a college course on the history of Nazi Germany. That’s why I happen to be acquainted with Mein Kampf - I’m not a neo-Nazi in disguise!

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Once upon a time, when I was a feisty college-aged feminist, I could hardly stand to watch a James Bond movie. The sexism just pissed me off. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily shell out money to see Bond in the theater, but if he turns up on the television, I’m mostly amused. That doesn’t mean I’m happy about sexism in the media. I’ve just learned, with age, to pick my battles.

Gustav Klimt painted a lot of women. Not all of them would pass a hypothetical “feminist correctness” test. (Was Judith really so sultry, and so bloodthirsty?) But you know what? I have very little desire to critique his paintings. I just want to enjoy them. I think that’s perfectly fine. Sometimes pleasure just is. Sometimes it can be left unanalyzed. Even on a blog dealing with gender and feminism.

Here’s Klimt together with Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Enjoy! (Or if you don’t, you can be the critic in comments.)

(Go here if you can’t see the video.)

Video via the Suspect Guru Museum, which has lots of other wonderful art clips.

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