May 2011 Archives

Nameless, but not a stereotype

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Jeffrey_J._Shapiro.jpg
A New York Times article drew a comparison between Roman Polanski and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the connection prompted reflection on media treatment of women and girls who allege rape.

As Jeffrey Toobin reported in his 2009 New Yorker piece about Polanski, in 1977, Samantha Gailey - the 13 year-old girl who Polanski raped - was subjected to invasive grand jury questioning about her prior sexual activity and drug use.  Her lawyer was sufficiently concerned about the trauma she would suffer on the witness stand that he advocated for a resolution to the case that would absolve her of testifying.

Thirty-four years later, the woman alleging rape has been - and will continue to be, if the law prevails - afforded a much wider scope of privacy protection.  Her name has not been released in the American press (although it has been in France).  Her face was not exposed to the press when she identified DSK in a line-up at the police station.  And if she gives grand jury testimony, she will not be subject to irrelevant questions about her prior sexual activity.

Nonetheless, although our law has made some strides, our discourse seems to have a way to go still.  Speaking to the press, the woman's lawyer, Jeffrey J. Shapiro, referred to her as "simple," as in "She is a simple housekeeper who was going into a room to clean a room."  Considering that Mr. Shapiro also offered this gem - "Her story is her story, which she has told to everyone who asked her" - legitimate questions arise as to who is simple.

Mr. Shapiro also admitted ignorance about the facts underlying her asylum claim (which was granted despite the stringent interpretations given by U.S. judges to already high standards), and - even more unprofessionally - answered a question about her immigration status by saying he was "unsure," thereby potentially opening his client to a visit from the INS.

I know only the barest outline of this woman: she is 32.  A widow.  She is refugee from Guinea.  She was granted asylum in the U.S.  She has a 15 year-old daughter and a brother who owns a restaurant in Harlem.  She has been employed at the Sofitel in Times Square for 3 years.  She is a Muslim.  She speaks French and English.

Although not mentioned in any media I saw, one reason U.S. courts grant asylum to Guinean women is that they have been subjected to - or fear they or their daughters will be subjected to - female genital mutilation.  Apart from this concern, Guinea is a politically unstable country, overrun with cocaine and violence.  An example: in 2009 security forces controlled by junta leader Moussa Dadis Camara opened fire on protesters, killing many and brutally raping women.

Even this scant information suggests that the woman in the center of the DSK storm is not a "simple housekeeper," but a human being who has weathered intense experiences, a survivor with capacities for adaptation and resiliency, a person who has known pain and grief, a mother, a believer - in short, a woman entitled to dignity, respect and the assumption of individual complexity that we enjoy about ourselves and that we extend to others for whom we care.

Regardless of the outcome of the legal inquiry into her accusation, whether the law vindicates or castigates her, she is not Aunt Jemima.  If our discourse cannot capture her more accurately, the stereotype will not be her, but us: racists.

(Image of Jeffrey J. Shapiro from his website)

IMF, international aid: screwed

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DSK.jpgDominique Strauss-Kahn is an economist, not a lawyer, but I nonetheless feel that he would have done well to have held himself to the lawyer's standard of avoiding even the appearance of impropriety

Without weighing in on his guilt or innocence, I feel compelled to condemn the apparent impropriety in which he engaged.  I do not refer merely to the sexual assault charge, but more broadly to the situation of the head of the IMF being accused of coercing sex from a Guinean refugee granted asylum in the U.S. and working as a hotel housekeeper.  The symbolism is unmistakable: the IMF rapes Africa.

Regardless of the outcome of the legal inquiry now underway, DSK has sunk the credibility of his organization and its mission.  The IMF is now an organization that overpays horny white men so they can fly first class and wear $7,000 suits and, when they get out of those suits, rape hard-working, devout, socially-disadvantaged people of color. 

And by extension, the same applies to the World Bank, the UN or, for that matter, USAID.  They are no different.

One's opinion of the IMF (or any of the other foregoing named institutions) - whether for good or for ill - is no matter.  The IMF is a public institution, and one that exerts control over much of the global economy and its wealth.  As such, the ethics of its institutional behavior, and the actions of its representatives, must be impeccable.  Public institutions owe the public guarantees that their operations are ethical; otherwise they are illegitimate and have no claim to public funds. 

To have betrayed this obligation to the public so flamboyantly and vulgarly is unforgivable.  No verdict of innocence can expunge this breach.  Whatever else DSK may have done, he has set back the cause of international development.

(Image of DSK from The Telegraph)

Happiness is not all

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Dr_Martin_Seligman.jpgIt's not every day that one's psychological analysis extracted from Hamlet finds confirmation in The New York Times.  But today appears to be that day.

Having blogged about how the paralysis Hamlet suffers because of his existential and epistemological crisis parallels my experience in the face of unyielding rejection and failure, I then read in the Times that

when animals or people were given a series of arbitrary punishments or rewards, they stopped trying to do anything constructive.  "We found that even when good things occurred that weren't earned, like nickels coming out of slot machines, it did not increase people's well-being," [Dr. Martin Seligman] said. "It produced helplessness. People gave up and became passive."
I can relate.  My experience of the world is that, regardless of my merit, effort or desert, luck - that is to say, arbitrariness - is the deciding factor in my accomplishments, both personal and professional. 

Because, as Dr. Seligman says, "accomplishment [separate from happiness] is a human desiderata in itself," my situation is not conducive to satisfaction:

"'Well-being cannot exist just in your own head,' [Dr. Seligman] writes. 'Well-being is a combination of [happiness] as well as actually having meaning, good relationships and accomplishment.'"
Accomplishment must not, therefore, always be based on luck; but achieving this happy state requires a certain redefining of "accomplishment."  For example, as a well-intentioned friend said to me of my novels, I finished them - never mind that they're unpublished and no one reads them.  My friend isn't the only one to employ this technique: in Hamlet, the Danish prince makes "readiness" his accomplishment: "the readiness is all."  The rest?  "The rest is silence."  

This coping mechanism may provide some solace, but the larger relief comes in the recognition that the paralysis is not madness: it's normal.  Well being requires certain objective external conditions that, when absent, sabotage one's enjoyment of life.

That's what the doctor says.  And, I suppose, anticipating that advice through recourse to Hamlet might be considered some sort of accomplishment.
   
(Image of Dr. Martin Seligman from Princeton Alumni Weekly)

The readiness is all

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Alexandri_marathoners.jpg
Seven months ago, I saw the (British) National Theatre's production of Hamlet in London, and it was brilliant.  The director, Nicholas Hynter, dropped the royal house of Denmark into the security apparatus of modern governments.  In addition to imbuing the play with the excitement and suspense of a political thriller, this present-day setting made the power dynamics of the play come violently alive.   

In keeping with the modernity of the production, Peter Holland - writing in the program's playbill - offered an interpretation of Hamlet's dilemma that seems tailored to today's psycho-analyzed, cosmopolitan, post-deconstructionist, alienated audience:

[Hamlet] approaches a paralysis of will that is the consequence of an impasse reached by his thinking: the more he is able to grasp his awareness of how he knows anything the less it seems possible to know anything at all.  The process of knowing makes all truth only relative . . . . Confronted with the enormity of that crisis of truth, the only response is to "Let be," to accept the impossibilities of being human and the limits of knowing and to wait patiently for whatever comes.
The quote to which Holland refers comes at the end of the play, when Horatio is exhorting Hamlet to listen to himself and decline to fight Laertes: "If your mind dislike any thing, obey it."  Hamlet responds by dismissing his feeling of foreboding, saying - in essence - we're all going to die and we don't know when, so what does it matter if it's soon?  "The readiness is all . . . Let be."

I don't know if Shakespeare ever ran a marathon.  I doubt it.

Nor do I have any insight as to whether Peter Holland ever ran a marathon, but he has a goatee, so I think it's unlikely.

Nonetheless, both men seem intimately familiar with the modern marathoner's mindset.  After months of single-minded physical labor, abstinence from late nights, booze and any semblance of vice, the marathoner surrenders to reality: the preparation is all you can do; after that, as my brother says, "anything can happen in a marathon."

In fact, the "anything" that happened to my brother during last Sunday's marathon in Prague, was a pretty damned impressive "anything."  He ran 3:15:57, which is not the kind of fate one can complain about.  Had my brother gone off to fight Laertes, the play would have had a different ending.

Not so with me.  My legs all but shattered, and I staggered across the finish line 5 hours, 9 minutes, and 54 seconds after I started.  I never ran slower in my life.  Indeed, during training, I ran 22 and 23 miles in roughly four hours; but the race was nothing like training: blisters on my toes, leg muscle cramps, and an extended stretch of walking were all present during the race and noticeably absent during training.  Had I been tapped to duel with Laertes, death would have arrived on the playwright's schedule.

While I've had enough exposure to truly rotten fates to refrain from describing mine as one about which I can complain, my situation is nonetheless dispiriting - all the more so because, from the outset, I saw running the marathon as a metaphor for how I live my life, a microcosm that reveals the whole.  I became attracted to this idea last year, when I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and discovered that the key to reaching the peak was going slow and surrendering to the limitations imposed by the environment.  I blogged about the inspiration I drew from my mountain experience to persevere in my writing.

Unfortunately, the take-away here is less upbeat.  Months of planning and work, tireless effort, deprivation of socializing and fun, dieting, forswearing alcohol, money spent on clothes, shoes and supplements - not to mention all the acupuncturists, physiotherapists, chiropractors and masseuses who toiled to get my legs race-ready - resulted in a completely disastrous performance.  Enthusiasm, willpower, investment of resources: all easily come to nothing.

I thought I'd already learned this truism the hard way.  Six years of work, discipline and sacrifice to write novels have yielded (a) four novels on the shelf, as of yet unpublished and unread, and (b) a state of near bankruptcy.  Rejection is the only constant, and my life is so unstable that I've come to feel for rejection a wry and perverted gratitude: it's the only thing I can rely on. 

It also make me want to vomit.  Not just vomit, but curl up in a ball on the curb and stay there.  When your rock is rejection, maybe you're better off under the stone.

Of course, I'm not the first to feel this way.  I refer to the aforementioned "paralysis of will that is the consequence of an impasse reached" when "the more [I am] able to grasp [an] awareness of how [I] know[] anything the less it seems possible to know anything at all.  The process of knowing makes all truth only relative" - although I add, no less painful for being relative.  "[T]he only response is to 'Let be,' to accept the impossibilities of being human and the limits of knowing and to wait patiently for whatever comes."

While I'm constitutionally constrained from waiting patiently - the best I can muster is waiting in a state of thinly-veiled neurosis and sincerely-felt misery - I take the larger point.  "The readiness is all" because it's all we can control.  The loss of control reduces us to paralysis - metaphorically, literally or, if we're really unlucky, both.  Though being without control is an aspect of reality, living in that reality without being sabotaged by it requires a mental discipline of preferring, and prioritizing, what you can control.

That's our choice: lopsided or frozen.

And here, at last, is the metaphor I'll draw: even a lopsided runner (like myself, suffering from a biomechanical breakdown in her right leg) can finish a marathon.

(Images of Maya Alexandri and Talmon Alexandri running the Prague marathon on 8 May 2011 compiled by Maya Alexandri)

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This page is an archive of entries from May 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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