Friday, January 03, 2014

Getting Past the Past

The last two weeks gave me ample opportunity to interact with new people and new perspectives. I respect strong opinions and even stronger people, but have to concede that the two in tandem can quickly get in the way of forming community. We are curious beings, craving our own space and unquestioned rightness, but requiring the periodic company of others to feel truly satisfied. Home, as Robert Frost said, is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Beyond blood, we are usually not as charitable.

Men and women of questionable personal conduct are described by apologists as products of the times in which they lived. We, the living, have to determine whether anyone who came before us is worthy of the benefit of the doubt, or excused for deeds that are not acceptable in the current day. Generations beyond our own will wrestle with similar judgment calls, when it comes time to take stock of our own successes and failings. I would like to believe that we're not prisoners of our own times, but past experiences can have a lasting ability to repeatedly cast us into jail.

In feminist and gender studies terminology, I'm a third-waver. Sexism and gender discrimination do not escape my critical eye, but I recognize that what was true forty years ago, for the most part, does not persist today. Betty Friedan's famous problem that has no name is less prominent in our age, but has shape-shifted. The second-wavers of a generation prior to my own won converts by the score. Their grievances were substantive, the ills they protested easy to observe. Injustice writ large can be denied, but it cannot be refuted.

But before I summarily write off an entire generation, some visionaries could see beyond their myopia. Gloria Steinem, I am grateful to say, is one of them. "Those of us who were taught the cheerful American notion that progress is linear and hierarchical," as she put it, "may have had to learn with pain that no worthwhile battle can be fought and won only once. The issues still repeat themselves in different ways and in constantly shifting arenas." This is a most crucial and essential distinction, showing both insight and wisdom, two concepts always in short supply.

Should Hillary Clinton run for President in 2016, her most enthusiastic supporters will be women of her generation. They remember a sexist culture where women took menial jobs, rarely won promotion, and were shut out of a men's only fraternity. Women with these life experiences remember typing pools and condescending attitudes. For them, the memories of those inequalities have never faded. Should Clinton enter the race and win, a particular dream deferred will finally come to pass. I hope that the symbolism of her election, should she win, does not prove to be more lasting and effective than the key initiatives passed during her time in office.

Candidate Barack Obama's March 2008 dense and brilliant speech on race is nearly six years old. Even though the analogy isn't always airtight, a few parallels can be drawn between discrimination based on race and discrimination based on gender. Obama's address spoke to everyone stuck in the past and unwilling to observe the march of progress. It strikes at the core of what is arguably the most complex paradox of existence. How do we reconcile intellect with emotion?

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country - a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen - is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope - the audacity to hope - for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

I've returned to this topic more than once, because it is easily forgotten. I say again, it is easy to internalize the slights and insults of our past, collectively and independently. Those experiences should never be discounted or cast aside based on the whims of someone else, but nursing grievances for years can be counter-productive. Personal experience informs our convictions, leading us to take on particular causes, regardless of whatever form they take. Unless we are willing to examine how the two come together, we will remain mired in a tragic past.

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