I have a jumble of thoughts and a lot of other things vying for my attention, and my urge is right now to just give up. But I think what I have to say matters right now, so I'm going to try. I'll start with this Saturday, which I spent at a conference about Ellen Willis, a conference built around a posthumous release of her writings on rock music titled Out of the Vinyl Deeps. Willis wrote about music in the context of her version of radical feminism, which was a pro-pleasure feminism that was highly critical of knee-jerk identity politics which often replace the right wing policing with a left wing one. Not that Willis was a mindless choice feminist who claimed everything every woman does ever is great because it's her choice. She just had a keen eye for the difference between legitimate, productive criticisms of genuine oppression and the pointless circular firing squad that erupts on the left when everyone starts to vie for the spot of purest, most noble progressive/feminist/etc. The intersection of this and rock criticism was her willingness to work out in public why she wasn't going to feel bad about liking certain rock music even if it had misogynist content. Kathleen Hanna spoke movingly on a panel of how Willis's work helped keep her sane after Riot Grrrl descended into a circular firing squad, or as Hanna put it, a "beauty pageant in reverse" where people were so busy trying to score points that real work in fighting the man had basically been forgotten.
I went home and proceeded to turn off the internet and start really pouring through this book, trying to really grapple with the ideas in it away from the din of the internet. I haven't finished it, because Bin Laden got killed and that was a distraction—which I'll get back to in a moment—but I did manage to read a mind-blowing essay she wrote on her evolution away from being someone who didn't like punk rock to someone who did. And she freely admits early on that a strain of internalized aesthetic Stalinism kept her from liking punk at first, because she perceived the dudeliness of the culture that led to an easy misogyny. But, in a series of events that's too long to recount her but you can read in PDF form here (the essay is called "Beginning To See The Light"), she started to see how punk's form fit very nicely into her desires to poke holes in pretensions and hierarchies and power plays and other bullshit that feeds into our oppressive systems.
I want to quote a couple passages that are relevant. In this first, she talks about her reaction the Sex Pistols' indisputably misogynist anti-abortion song "Bodies":
It was an outrageous song, yet I could not simply dismiss it with outrage. The extremity of its disgust forced me to admit that I was no strange to such feelings—though unlike Johnny Rotten I recognized that disgust, not the body, was the enemy. And there lay the paradox: music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, love, hated—as good rock and roll did—challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation. Similarly, timid music made me feel timid, whatever its ostensible politics.
Earlier, she describes with some irritation how intra-feminist politics made feminist music—and I would argue feminist expression generally—timid:
Years ago Ella Hirst had told me that she thought most female performers did not have a direct line to their emotions, the way men did—they were too busy trying to please. It seemed to me that too many of the women's-culture people had merely switched from trying to please men to trying to please other women.
She goes on to describe an example:
A couple of years ago I had gone to see the feminist folk-rock group the Deadly Nightshade at a lesbian bar in Boston. They sang "Honky Tonk Women" with rewritten, nonsexist lyrics. Someone in the audience sent them an outraged note, attacking them for singing an antiwoman song. The lead singer read the note aloud and nervously and defensively complained that the writer hadn't been listening. The incident helped me understand why I wasn't enthusiastic about the group. They did not have the confidence, or the arrogance, to say or feel, "If you don't like it, tough shit." It was not that I thought performers should be indifferent to the response of their audience. I just thought that the question they ought to ask was not "How can I make them like me?" but "How can I make them hear me?"
These observations of Willis's echoed through my brain in two very different ways today: one regarding intercine warfare amongst feminist bloggers and one regarding the circular firing squad reaction of liberals who immediately set to shaming and scolding other liberals for celebrating that Bin Laden was killed. Let's see if I can tease this out a little.
On the first one, what happened was Jill Filipovic issued a long response to the large numbers of humorless joy-killers who hang out at Feministe, waiting for her to say something they can blow way out of proportion, so as to start a flame war accusing her of insensitivity or having nice things, which she is apparently supposed to feel bad about. I have no idea what has managed to keep this place relatively free of the joy-killing trolls, though I have a few guesses I won't bother you with here. Either way, I've always felt bad that Jill gets abused so much by bullies who hide behind feminism, and was glad to see her punch back.
But in the feminist blogosphere, “calling out” has increasingly turned into cannibalism. It’s increasingly turned into a stand-in for actual activism. We have increasingly focused on shutting down voices rather than raising each other up. Pointing at the gap has replaced doing the hard, often thankless work of filling it……
None of which, again, is to say that you should just turn your head if an important topic isn’t being addressed, or if something isn’t being addressed adequately, or if someone fucks up. It is to say that we should all keep the end goal in mind, and communicate accordingly. And none of this is about the Shameless post in particular — it’s about the entirety of this corner of the internet, and how we treat each other, and how there’s this weird sense that we’re all in competition for the Best Feminist prize and that we win by cutting each other down and calling each other out and denouncing anyone who gets more attention than we do.
Best Feminist prize: love it. It's hard to put your finger on when someone crosses the line from issuing a legitimate criticism to when someone is trucking in outrage for the hell of it, but like with obscenity, you know it when you see it. You can just tell when someone is more interested in feeling righteous than doing right, and when they prefer to tear down rather than build up. Sometimes they prefer it because it's easier. Sometimes they're bullies and assholes. Most people I see doing this are genuinely just lazy. They don't want to meet people where they're at. They don't want to be challenged. They want clear black and white rules and they want to believe that oppression can be overcome by just policing other liberals endlessly to make sure they don't say words like "lame" or "crazy". They see some of the uglier emotions in people, like bitchiness or morbidity, and they want to silence instead of think about how these emotions can be channeled in the right direction. They want to score points in some game that never ends by mouthing off because you joked that someone is ugly or reacted with irreverence to some cultural event or piece of writing. They hear the Sex Pistols' "Bodies" and want to flip it off rather than grapple with the complex emotions it brings to the fore.
But they're wrong. Willis ends her essay "Beginning To See The Light" with this feeling of wanting to be challenged even by stuff that makes us uncomfortable because it falls outside of an easily defined set of rules about what you are and are not allowed to say and be a Good Feminist. Turn a couple pages and you find Willis in 1997 noting, almost marginally, that this urge of hers ended up being the right one in retrospect. Instead of abandoning punk rock because of the misogyny, many feminist-minded women were drawn to it because of its anarchist urges. And they picked up guitars and started to make the music that there hadn't been before. They started, as Jill suggests, to fill the gaps. Grappling instead of silencing was more work, but what it created was greater. It turned into Joan Jett. It turned into Riot Grrrl. It turned women into feminists who would have avoided it like the plague if the only path to feminism was a dour one centered around coaching people to watch their mouths instead of open their hearts. Though Riot Grrrl did descend into a similar clusterfuck, and it similarly caused a lot of people to quit. The people who survived and went on to make more music that is feminist in spirit and in content were those who decided that they simply were going to not let critics put them in a corner where they valued not-offending over speaking their truths.
What does this have to do with Osama Bin Laden? Well, I saw a similar kind of thing going on with the reaction of many on the left who were made uncomfortable when others reacted not with a Christian-tinged sobriety, but with partying in the streets or crass jokes on Twitter. They told us to shut up and quiet down and act with more "dignity", aka all this WASP shit that I'm so done with that I think I was born done with it. When I see piety crop up so rapidly, my number one urge is to stick a clown nose on it, but I did try to respond at Double X more thoughtfully. My feeling is that elation is a reaction that is understandable, and instead of trying to squelch it, we should try to understand it. And by understanding it, we can use this feeling for our purposes, to demand an end to the war now that we've accomplished this goal. In other words, to listen to the Sex Pistols and instaed of turning it off in disgust, to think, "How can I use this and make something greater out of it?"
If feminists had abandoned punk rock, it would have degenerated into a stew of misogynist bile. By engaging it and channeling it, feminists were able to turn it into a feminist art form. I see the jubiliant reaction to Bin Laden's death the same way. Liberals can decide it's shameful to enjoy it, and shame each other out of it. That will mean the only people who engage in it will be conservatives, meaning that it will, beyond a shadow of a doubt, turn into a bloodthirsty call for more scalps.
Or we could engage it. We could take this form—this relief, this ecstasy—and own it. We can say, "YAY WE WON, LET'S BRING 'EM HOME!" We have a choice: Do we want to feel righteous and pure, or do we want to have a part in shaping what happens next with all this energy?
I've noted before that I'm done with words like "problematic" that serve not to illuminate or deepen understanding, but to create unease and get people to shy away from dealing with the complexities. I'm also done with a liberalism that prioritizes point-scoring over grappling. And with liberalism that is always on the look out for people having too much fun or being messy or complex. Not that I'm going to give up criticizing or saying harsh things, as I did with my post mocking the American tradition of the proposal. In fact, I would say that these insights are probably going to make my world more complex, my choices harder and more oriented towards the gray. But that's a task I'm willing to take on and hope others are willing to join.