Chiraq And The 'Sex-Strike' Myth

Spike Lee went on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last Tuesday to discuss his movie Chiraq. In the course of doing this he made some rather unfortunate comments. Chiraq, a cinematic retelling of the classical play, “Lysistrata,” has already raised eyebrows for seemingly endorsing the notion that a “sex strike” could quell inner city violence. Lee has noted that the movie is satire. Perhaps so. But when it comes to the efficacy of sex-strikes, Lee seems dead serious:

What’s happening on college campuses today, you know, what happened at the University of Missouri where the football players got together and said unless the president resigned they weren’t going to play, I think that a sex-strike could really work on college campuses where there’s an abundance of sexual harassment and date rape.  College campuses and universities, I think that’ll work.

The audience then applauded this comment. I’m not sure why. Claiming that sex-strikes can stop rape  is premised on the idea that rapists are somehow concerned with the thoughts and opinions of their potential victims. There is very little evidence support this contention.

Much like advising women to combat rape by wearing longer skirts, the sex-strike solution holds that there is something in the behavior of women that might alter the calculus of predators. This seems unlikely. Rape is plunder of the body. It relies on the individual power of the rapist and also on the tolerance of institutions which have a heritage of either endorsement or looking the other way.  The notion that individuals, themselves, should be expected to successfully combat not merely the power of individual rapists, but rape as heritage, which is to say  the predilections of courts, colleges, churches, fraternities, societies etc. is rather incredible.

One might as well claim  that sharecroppers could have ended debt-peonage if only they’d refused to pick cotton. But the kleptocrats of Mississippi did not serve at the pleasure of sharecroppers. And rapists don’t ply their trade at the leisure of women. They ply their trade through great violence--a tactic shown to be quite effective against any manner of “strike,” no matter the genre.

Even the more narrow claim that “sex-strikes” can somehow stem the violence in the inner cities is wrong. It is wrong morally, because it rests on the notion that women, as a class, are somehow responsible for the kind of socially engineered violence you find in cities like Chicago. But it is also manifestly false. Lee cited Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee in his comments, asserting that she’d won a Nobel Peace Prize for using a sex-strike to end violence in Liberia. It’s certainly true that Gbowee received a Nobel Peace Prize and made incredible contributions in her country. It is also certainly false that sex strikes were the method by which she made those contributions. The sex strikes “had little or no practical effect,” Gbowee has written. “But it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention."

That sex strikes are more effective at attracting media than curbing violence should not be surprising. Indeed these stories turn heads for reasons not wholly disconnected from our long heritage of rape.

Woodrow Wilson and the Problem of Civic Plunder

Last week MSNBC host, and former Congressman, Joe Scarborough seemed shocked that Princeton students would object to having numerous buildings on their campus named after president, and bigot, Woodrow Wilson.

I think there’s some room to debate over whether changing the names of buildings or taking down statues is an appropriate way to deal with institutions that have chosen to honor people like Wilson. The act of veneration says something about both the venerated and venerator. That Princeton once chose to plaster the name of an apologist for the Ku Klux Klan all over its campus should never be forgotten. I generally prefer some sort of contextualization, some way of making it absolutely clear who the honored figure was and why the institution honoring the figure chose to ignore it.

But I also attended a university where the concerns were somewhat different. I don’t really know how it feels to be a student at predominantly white school and see Wilson’s name everywhere. I suspect it can’t help but to increase one’s feeling of alienation.

Reasonable people can disagree about how to deal with the memorialization of Wilson. But they can not disagree, as Dylan Matthews points out, over who Woodrow Wilson actually was:

Leaving aside the broader question of whether Wilson's name should be removed, let's be clear on one thing: Woodrow Wilson was, in fact, a racist pig. He was a racist by current standards, and he was a racist by the standards of the 1910s, a period widely acknowledged by historians as the "nadir" of post–Civil War race relations in the United States.

As Matthews notes, Wilson was racist, not by the standards of our time, but by the standards of his own time. A defender of domestic terrorists, exhorter of the Lost Cause, Wilson actually resegregated the federal government. In regards to race, Wilson’s presidency does not represent more of the same, but an actual step backward.

Let us not be abstract here.

Resegregating the federal government did not merely mean white and black people not being able to hold hands, it meant civic plunder. Here is Gordon J. Davis recounting how Wilson destroyed the livelihood of his grandfather, John Davis:

Over a long career, he rose through the ranks from laborer to a position in midlevel management. He supervised an office in which many of his employees were white men. He had a farm in Virginia and a home in Washington. By 1908, he was earning the considerable salary — for an African-American — of $1,400 per year.

But only months after Woodrow Wilson was sworn in as president in 1913, my grandfather was demoted. He was shuttled from department to department in various menial jobs, and eventually became a messenger in the War Department, where he made only $720 a year.

By April 1914, the family farm was auctioned off. John Davis, a self-made black man of achievement and stature in his community at the turn of the 20th century, was, by the end of Wilson’s first term, a broken man. He died in 1928.

Davis was an upstanding, tax-paying American. But he faced a danger that most upstanding, tax-paying Americans of that day didn’t face—the destruction of wealth for the better upholding of white supremacy. And because wealth is inherited, the effects of this plunder redound through the generations.

As I said, I didn’t go to a school like Princeton. But one need not have that experience, to understand why seeing one’s University celebrate the name of someone who plundered your ancestors—in a country that has yet to acknowledge that plunder—might be slightly disturbing.

Hope and the Artist

The Burghers of Calais, Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden Jeff Kubina / Flickr

I’ve been thinking a lot about the implied notion that writing that does not offer hope is necessarily deficient or somehow useless. To be less coy, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea that my own writing is somehow cheating the reader because it seems so unconcerned with “hope.” I admit to having a hard time with this notion. No art I’ve ever loved takes the offering of hope (or despair) as its central mission, and a good deal of the art I detest does.

I spent some time with Joan Didion’s The White Album this summer. I was enchanted by Didion’s sparse, clean sentences and her detached, almost bemused view of California. But I did not emerge from her work feeling that the sun would still come out tomorrow. I am (slowly) making my way through her collection of political essays. There’s a beautiful symmetry between her stripped-down aesthetic and her exacting view of politics. Didion has no time for piety. Perhaps people think of her as kind of a downer. But that strikes me as a little silly—like going to a steakhouse and complaining about the falafel.

I’ve gone on at some length about how much I adore The Age of Innocence.  The penultimate scene for me is the dose of realism Ellen Olenska pours on Newland Archer. Newland and Madame Olenska love each other, though Newland is betrothed to someone else. He wants to live in a world where this doesn’t matter, and categories like husband and wife don’t either. Madame Olenska will have none of it:

She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh. “Oh, my dear—where is that country? Have you ever been there?” she asked; and as he remained sullenly dumb she went on: “I know so many who’ve tried to find it; and, believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo—and it wasn’t at all different from the old world they’d left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.”

I’ve read The Age of Innocence several times, now. I do not think it would have been better if Newland and Madame Olenska had run off together. This is not a work of life-affirmation, nor a treatise on the ultimate triumph of love and freedom. Olenska says that life has fastened her eyelids open, that it has made it so she can never live in “the blessed darkness” again. I find something of myself here. Hope is not the value that Wharton seeks to impress upon us. Enlightenment—an escape from “the blessed darkness”—is.

I was in my mid 30s by the time I read Wharton, but this perspective—the privileging of enlightenment over hope, of understanding over fables—is old for me. No art more informs my own than hip-hop. This is true from the art of sentence construction to the music’s aesthetic outlook. The third verse of Nas’s “One Love” is an elegantly drawn conversation in which a young hustler recounts educating another hustler—Shorty Doo-Wop—who is younger still. The older hustler is amazed by Shorty’s ruthlessness and when he speaks of murdering someone, part of you wants the older hustler—the voice of “One Love”—to tell the kid to get an education. Nas baits this hopeful desire:

I had to school him, told him don’t let niggas fool him
Cause when the pistol blows the one that’s murdered be the cool one
Tough luck when niggas are struck, families fucked up
Coulda caught your man, but didn’t look when you bucked up

And then he destroys it:

Mistakes happen, so take heed never bust up
At the crowd catch him solo, make the right man bleed.

This is not about stopping the violence. This is about the sagacious delegation of violence. By the time I’d heard these lyrics I’d been a hip-hop fan for well over a decade. But even for hip-hop, advising a kid how to kill other kids felt like a gut-punch. It hurt because the voice in the song is dimly conscious that something is very wrong with his world, but not conscious enough to really join the reader in his urge for uplift.  This is as it should it be. To allow for conversion via light from above, a deus ex machina of hope,  would somehow transform the voice of the piece into a voice of feel-goodism. It would be to lie.

But if “One Love” is not a work of hope, it is very much a work of enlightenment. It’s one of the great illustrations of how living amidst constant violence necessarily alters one’s standards and mores. No one is innocent in Nas’s ghetto—“Jerome’s niece” is shot in the head coming from Jones’ Beach. Revenge is the entire ethos. And whether the listener feels hopeful amidst all of this is irrelevant. Enlightenment—the rendering of academic facts as human reality, the transformation of dead stats into something touchable, the rejection of “the blessed darkness”—is the point.

We don’t like to talk like this—we don’t like to think of “hope” as a kind of darkness. It need not be. If one observes the world and genuinely feels hopeful, and truly feels that the future is not chaos, but is in fact already written, then one has a responsibility to say so. Or, less grandly, if one can feel hopeful about a literal tomorrow and one’s individual prospects one should certainly say so.

But hope for hope’s sake, hope as tautology, hope because hope, hope because “I said so,” is the enemy of intelligence. One can say the same about the opposing pole of despair. Neither of these—hope or despair—are “wrong.” They each reflect human sentiment, much like anger, sadness, love, and joy. Art that uses any of these to say something larger interests me. Art that takes any of these as its aim does not.

The Burghers of Calais don’t need to smile for me. And I don’t need Macbeth to be a fairy tale. Even our fairy tales are rarely fairy tales.