Tuesday, November 4, 2008


All Is Well poster by Alvin Blair

Maybe. I don't know.

Can you repeat the question?

You're not the boss of me now, you're not the boss of me now, you're not the boss of me now, and you're not so big.

Life is unfair.

It appears that the middle school approach to governing (and choosing our elected officials) is an experiment coming to an end. For two weeks now, people have been engaging in an activity which expresses their preference as to who they want to make decisions for them. Today we'll do it in massive numbers. On a fundamental level, this is a yes-no decision. The right to say yes or no is one of the earliest behaviors we learn and one of the earliest we have taken away from us.

We assume parents limit their children's autonomy for reasons of safety and well-being. Much of the time, that's an accurate assumption. But we, as parents, are also regularly handing on our scar tissue from how our own yes-no power was unjustly fucked with.

When my daughter was around four years old, she discovered she could collect spit in her mouth and make interesting sounds with it. She quickly became enamored of this activity. Just as quickly, I realized I could not tolerate it. If we were trapped together, say in a car, I simply told her to stop. If we were at home, I forced her to go to her room or outside "to do that". I don't remember offering an explanation beyond "Because I don't want to hear it" or, even more likely, "Because I said so." (Translation: I have power over you, and I'm exercising it without any recourse on your part.)

If I had been interrupted by someone I trusted, I might have been able to come up with a reason for my visceral reaction and aversion. If I really, really trusted them at that point in time, it's remotely conceivable I could even have told them the reason: My teenaged older brother used to torture me and my little brother, 8 and 11 years younger than him respectively, in every manner he could imagine. One of his favorite tactics was to hold us down -- he was a high school quarterback -- and let spit dangle from his mouth over our faces, closer and closer to our own mouths, until either he lost control and it fell on us and/or we vomited. Begging for mercy made no difference. The ultimate goal was to make us retch at the merest hint of his saliva.

Now, after years of therapy focusing on my childhood abuse, that particular button doesn't make me instantly crazy -- I can listen to a child engaging in this rite-of-passage self-exploration for a few minutes before, politely, asking them to find something else they can do with their mouths. I've wiped my share of drool and snot, and although I'm still a sympathy hurler (I can't watch one segment of The Meaning of Life, for instance), I don't have a glass stomach. But I'm still carrying damage from that early denial of my right to say no.

When I look at our culture, I see us as all carrying damage with regard to yes-no judgment. One feminist precept states that you cannot claim to have the freedom or judgment to say "yes" if you cannot also so "no" without major consequence. Notions of consent are predicated on this. And under conservative rule, consent has been under constant attack and abridgement. We are, in many ways, more confused about consent than we were three decades ago.

I write this as an initial effort in the task before us to clear our cultural confusion and regain yes-no clarity. The main body of this task will begin after the election, after we have not only won the Presidency but swept government. We the People are profoundly angry as a result of our growing comprehension of how our consent has been manipulated, stolen, and taken for granted. We may be confused, but we still have a "no" in our grasp and I believe we are going to use it in landslide numbers.

In a recent conversation with Jesse, he said he thought the erosion in our yes-no judgment arrived in full force with advertising. Advertising comes at us without our consent, and we are not able to engage in a two-way conversation with it. Each decade growing up under its influence creates a more passive response to the world, a passivity which finds solace in authoritarianism and xenophobia. (Not to mention porn, fast food, uniforms, and shopping, all of which encourage avoidance of actual thinking about your actions and taking power.)

I see a prior-to-advertising cultural predisposition to denial of autonomy, however, one whose coattails advertising rode in on. Some days I can see an enormous blueprint for it -- totaling, of course, to the number 42. Other days, it's mostly the reality of all the denials of no that I bump up against as a woman.

As a woman, I was raised to not say no. I was raised to avoid, defer, deflect, flirt, make a joke of it, pretend, charm, parse, diminish, or barricade any "no" I might have in response to a male approach. On the average day, the average woman dances around "no" dozens of times, because to do otherwise is to be accused of not being a real woman. It is the grammar of our female syntax, how to imply "yes" without landing in a snare. (The root word of glamour is grammar, a spellbook.)

I come from a generation which dared allow ourselves to see the skein around us which tells us plain boiled "no" is not an acceptable answer. It's a stark vision. To a lesser extent, I've also learned to notice how people of color are forced to say "yes" to anyone white. Children of color are carefully taught how to not deny a yes to white people. Don't be confused by its flipped version, the angry/defiant immediate "no" which so upsets white supremacists: The flip side of a coin is still a shape accepting the stamp of a metal hammer.

This election has brought out in the open, in a new way, our pathology around who gets to say "no", and who does not. I believe the results of today's voting will be, at its most basic, a reach for the right to say "no" by those who have not done so, not reliably and as clearly, in the past. It is more than a "fuck you", it is an energizing, often exuberant "no". No as the cornerstone of a new discourse without lying. No as honor.

Or, as it was perfectly said by Adrienne Rich in her 1977 essay "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying":

"Truthfulness anywhere means a heightened complexity. But it is a movement into evolution. Women are only beginning to uncover our own truths; many of us would be grateful for some rest in that struggle, would be glad iust to lie down with the sherds we have painfully unearthed, and be satisfied with those. The politics worth having, the relationships worth having, demand that we delve still deeper.

"The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.

"When relationships are determined by manipulation, by the need for control, they may possess a dreary, bickering kind of drama, but they cease to be interesting. They are repetitious; the shock of human possibilities has ceased to reverberate through them. When someone tells me a piece of the truth which has been withheld from me, and which I needed in order to see my life more clearly, it may bring acute pain, but it can also flood me with a cold, sharp wash of relief. Often such truths come by accident, or from strangers.

"It isn't that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you.

"It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.

"The possibility of life between us."

[ Find Your Polling Place | Voting Info For Your State | Know Your Voting Rights | Report Voting Problems ]