Tag Archives: social change

Theater And The Absurd

When the whole world seems nuts–when every morning we wake to some bit of news that causes us to shake our heads and mutter “What the f**k are they thinking??”–the arts become even more essential than they are in more normal times.

(And they’re pretty darn essential in normal times. Assuming there really are normal times, rather than times that are simply a bit less harrowing than others.)

I share this bit of non-wisdom as an introduction to a new theater venture in Indianapolis, where I live.

Indianapolis is already home to a thriving arts community, including performing arts;  this new theater company  (full disclosure: I have joined its Board of Directors) will add a distinctive perspective–a feminist point of view.

Summit Performance Indianapolis was established by two supremely talented young women who are determined to produce top quality theatre exploring the lives and experiences of women.

Summit’s focus is threefold: to employ women of diverse backgrounds as playwrights, theatrical designers, artisans, actors, and staff; to create high quality theatre productions centered on social issues of the moment; and to use these productions as springboards to inspire an ongoing dialogue about those issues in the Indianapolis community through performance talk-backs, guest speakers, and town hall discussions.

The company will be housed in the Phoenix Theatre’s brand new, state-of-the-art facility on  the Glick Peace Walk (a key stretch of the city’s widely-lauded Cultural Trail).  Its two founders are among central Indiana’s most experienced theatre artists: Georgeanna Smith Wade and Lauren Briggeman.  Its goals are lofty: Summit Performance Indianapolis not only aspires to be a pillar of quality entertainment and a cultural hub, but also, in the wake of #metoo and #timesup, to serve as a necessary forum for women’s voices.

If you are curious, you can find more information on the theater’s Facebook Page.

Tumultuous times tend to produce new, exploratory arts outlets. Whether that art is visual,  musical or theatrical, it satisfies a very human need to engage with the social changes we are experiencing, and to understand the disruption that comes with the uprooting of the tried and true. The arts are a way we come to terms with the ever-changing world we inhabit; they help us recognize the truths and passions of others–and perhaps more importantly, of ourselves.

At some point–assuming our insane “Commander in Chief” doesn’t start a nuclear war–Americans will become more comfortable with the reality that women and men are just human beings with different plumbing, who should be seen as the individuals we are. Women’s voices, after all, are human voices, some pathetic, some strong, some profound, some wise, some not.

Until very recently, social structures have ensured that females of the species would have very different life experiences than their male peers. Theater is an ideal place to explore those differences and remind us all that–in the wider scheme of things–they were imposed upon humans whose actual differences are pretty superficial. Theater is a place to listen to, and learn from each other–and to internalize those messages.

It will be fascinating to see how Summit Performance develops. To those of you in Central Indiana, I say–stay tuned!

About Those Dire Predictions…

Today is the second annual Women’s March.

The first one was followed by an eventful year for women–from #metoo to vastly increased civic activism to record numbers of women running for political office. Those activities haven’t been universally applauded, but that’s nothing new. Every time we women assert ourselves, we are met with the usual warnings: children will be neglected or traumatized, marriages will fail, society will suffer, we women will enter old age embittered and alone.

I know the defenders of patriarchy will be disappointed, but it really doesn’t work that way.

A couple of weeks ago, I referenced Stephanie Coontz’ book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, in which–among other things–Coontz reminded us that “Leave it to Beaver” wasn’t a documentary. In 2016, she updated the book, and the Council on Contemporary Families, a research institute she heads, issued a report on some of the data that would be part of the revision. That data just goes to show how often all those dire predictions about the effects of social change turn out to be wrong.

A few examples:

In the early 1990s, there was much hand-wringing about “scarlet women” and rising out-of-wedlock births; the warning was that the children would become juvenile “super predators,” morally-impoverished and violent.

But between 1993 and 2010, sexual assaults and intimate partner violence dropped by more than 60 percent. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, the murder rate in 2013 was lower than at any time since the records began in 1960. Since 1994, juvenile crime rates have plummeted by more than 60 percent, even though the proportion of children born out of wedlock has risen to 40 percent.

We were warned that women who were selfish enough to pursue both motherhood and careers would inevitably “outsource” our maternal responsibilities and/or neglect our children. We can skip the guilt. (Now they tell me!)

Today, both single and working moms spend more time with their children than married homemaker mothers did back in 1965. And, according to David Cotter, Joan Hermsen, and Paula England’s brief report on Moms and Jobs, educated professionals – the women most likely to work outside the home – spend many more hours in child care than their less-educated counterparts.

Remember when pundits and scolds warned that no-fault divorce laws spelled the end of the American family?

In each state that adopted no-fault, the next five years saw an eight to 16 percent decline in suicide rate of wives and a 30 percent drop in domestic violence. Although no-fault divorce is now universal, divorce rates are actually falling.

Well–so maybe no-fault divorce didn’t destroy the institution of marriage, but legal recognition of same-sex marriage will surely do it; for one thing, it will never be accepted by the American public; for another, think of the children!

As late as 1996, 65 percent of Americans opposed same sex marriage, with just 27 percent in favor. Yet by 2011, 53 percent favored same-sex marriage, paving the way for its legalization in 2015. Definitive, long-term studies now show that children raised by two parents of the same sex turn out fine.

There’s much more, but you all get the drift. Bottom line: keeping marriage and the unequal relations between the sexes “the way they always were” is neither necessary nor desirable.

Ironically, although the public has adapted, politicians and government haven’t.

Since 1993, the federal government has made no substantive progress toward policies that help women and men reconcile work and family obligations, while other countries have leapt ahead. In 1993 the Family and Medical Leave Act gave workers in large companies up to 12 weeks unpaid job-protected leave. But 23 years later, only 13 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave, and 44 percent don’t even have the right to unpaid leave. By contrast, every other wealthy country now guarantees more than 12 weeks of paid leave to new mothers, limits the maximum length of the work week, and mandates paid annual vacations. Most also offer paid leave to fathers. The result? American workers express higher levels of work-family conflict than their European counterparts. And the U.S. has fallen from 6th to 17th place in female labor participation among 22 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development since 1990. The one exception to this backwardness? The Pentagon, which runs the best affordable and universal childcare system in the country and just instituted 12 weeks paid maternity leave.

Other things that haven’t improved in the past quarter-century? Women’s reproductive rights and wage inequality. And as the #metoo movement has illustrated, sexual harassment.

In her speech at the Golden Globes, Oprah predicted that “change is coming.” As far as I’m concerned, it can’t come soon enough.

Meanwhile, I’m going to the March.

Entrails, Tea Leaves and Other Prognostications…

The just-announced Pulitzer Prizes for 2016 included the award for Drama, which this year went to the smash hit Hamilton.

At Political Animal, the irony of that award was duly noted:

What’s so fascinating about all this is that – in the midst of a nativist Republican backlash to “take our country back” – the hottest thing in the country is a rap musical performed mostly by people of color that is all about our lily white founding fathers. Ain’t life grand?

At risk of reading too much into these particular “tea leaves,” I think the success of Hamilton does  rest on more than the admitted brilliance of its music and staging (we were fortunate enough to see it a few months ago, and I can attest to that brilliance). I think it signals an embrace of the culture change that–among other things– is driving our contemporary toxic politics.

I have previously suggested that this is a time of paradigm shift–a time when our previous understandings of the world we inhabit are being challenged by globalization, scientific discovery and diversity.

A “paradigm” is a pattern of received beliefs that we use to make sense of the world. The term was popularized by Thomas Kuhn, a physicist who—in the course of research for his dissertation—picked up Aristotle’s Physics and found that it made no sense to him. Reasonably enough, Kuhn assumed that neither he nor Aristotle was stupid, so he concluded that they were operating from such different realities that communication was not possible. He subsequently wrote a book about the way science adapts to new discoveries, or “shifts” its paradigms.

It isn’t only science. Cultures shift in much the same way.

Our paradigms, or worldviews, are formed through a process of socialization into a particular culture–a constant transmittal of messages about the way the world works, about the reality we inhabit, about the “natural order” of things. Every so often, in human history, that “natural order” is challenged, and the result can be disorienting.

Most social change is incremental, evolutionary–and even then, it can be hard for people to navigate. But we seem to be at one of those junctures where the shift is both relatively sudden and massive. Long-held belief systems–religious and secular–are being called into question.People who can’t deal with the pace and scope of this change are understandably terrified.

Think how you’d feel if you awoke one morning in an unfamiliar environment–surrounded by people (including your own children and/or grandchildren) speaking a language you didn’t understand except for tantalizing bits and pieces, with customs that were both alien and familiar, and expectations you couldn’t fulfill.

As hard as it sometimes is to be sympathetic, we need to realize that for inhabitants of the “old” reality, the world really is ending. Same-sex marriage, empowered women, an African-American President, “press 1 for English,” drones, social media….We wake up every day to a million and one reminders that we inhabit a new and uncharted world; a rap-music, multicultural portrayal of America’s founding fathers is just one of them.

And for so many people, it’s a reality too hard to accept. Too hard to get one’s head around.

So..back to a (mythical) simpler past with Trump? Or an embrace of a different, fairer, more equal world? I guess we’ll see.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

I’m beginning to wonder whether GLBT folks are today’s canaries in the coal mine.

For those of you unfamiliar with the canaries’ function, the phrase refers to the fact that well into the 20th century, coal miners would bring canaries into the mines to serve as early-warning signals for toxic gases, primarily carbon monoxide. The birds were more sensitive to the presence of the gas, and would become sick before the miners had been exposed to dangerous levels.

I began to consider this (admittedly odd) analogy yesterday, when members of the Indiana General Assembly—as retrograde a group as one could find outside, perhaps, Mississippi or Alabama—announced that they would not hold a vote during this year’s session on a measure to amend the Indiana Constitution by inserting a ban on same-sex marriage.

Only those of us who have lived in Indiana the past few years can appreciate the magnitude of this announcement. Legislative homophobia has been a given, and the prospects for this particular piece of bigotry had been considered bright.  Those of us who oppose the measure had pretty much settled for strategies meant to “kick the can down the road.” (Indiana is one of those states where amending the constitution is difficult; a proposed amendment must be passed in identical form by two separately elected legislatures, after which it goes to the public in the form of a referendum. Opponents focused on getting changes in some of the more ambiguous and mean-spirited language of the proposed amendment; changing the language would at least delay what seemed inevitable.) The working assumption has been that the ban was a slam-dunk to emerge from the General Assembly, and that an eventual public vote would likely lodge discrimination solidly in the state’s charter.

The legislature can still vote on the ban during next year’s session, of course. But the postponement is significant.

Consider the context: The 2012 election ushered in Republican super-majorities in the Indiana House and Senate. Worse, we’ve elected a dyed-in-the-wool culture warrior as Governor. In the wake of the election, prospects for defeating or even delaying the ban looked even more hopeless than before.

But that’s where it gets interesting. A couple of statewide polls show a solid majority of Hoosiers—whatever their position on same-sex marriage—oppose amending the constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court has accepted two significant cases, one involving a challenge to DOMA, and one an appeal of California’s Proposition Eight. The President was re-elected handily, even after his very public endorsement of marriage equality.

What seems to be a sea change on gay rights issues increasingly seems to be only part of the story, a leading indicator of a broader social/political shift that is just becoming visible.

Here’s my current analysis (and it’s worth every penny you are paying for it—in other words, nothing): The upheavals we now refer to as “the sixties” created an enormous backlash. All of a sudden, there were uppity black folks, bra-burning feminists, anti-war activists and other troublemakers undermining the natural order of things. Those various movements—womens’ movement, civil rights movement, antiwar movement—permanently changed American society, but they also engendered huge resentment and push-back. That backlash ushered in the so-called “Reagan revolution,” and energized the culture warriors and “family values” organizations.

Just as the 60s movements became excessive, and spawned reaction, the GOPs rightward march has now gone much too far. Women, minorities, young people and reasonable, moderate Republicans are abandoning the party in droves. Except for a remaining fringe of old white Southern heterosexual men, Americans have become comfortable with diversity and the other results of the disorienting sixties—at the same time they are getting increasingly uncomfortable with the extremism and “us versus them” worldview of today’s conservatives.

Gays are among the first to benefit from what I think is beginning: a swing back from the precipice, and a long-overdue reconsideration of what America should look like.

The canaries are breathing. It’s a good sign.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Social Justice

I was asked to talk to a group of scholarship students yesterday about effecting social change and achieving social justice.

I began by sharing a bit of my personal history with social change (there should be some lessons to be learned from living through a significant period of American social history). In my case, I grew up Jewish during the 50s and 60s; I watched the civil rights movement “up close and personal;” I took part in the women’s  movement; and I span the time between when “gay” meant “happy” and no one ever uttered the word “homosexual” and the current fight for same-sex marriage. So I have some perspective. And as I told the students, I can attest to the fact social change is not only possible, it’s inevitable.

Change, of course, is not synonymous with improvement. I’m absolutely convinced that if we want to create progress–good change–our efforts must be framed in ways that are consistent with what I like to call our “constitutional culture.”

“Constitutional culture” is simply a shorthand for the recognition that legal systems shape worldviews. The attitudes and expectations of people ruled by the Taliban are vastly different from the attitudes of people living in a country that emphasizes values of personal liberty and political equality.

The values incorporated in the American legal system, fortunately, are entirely consistent with an emphasis on social justice.

In the wake of the horrific shooting at Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s Town Hall in Tucson, PBS’ Mark Shields made an “only in America” observation that illustrates the point. Shields said:

“This is America, where a white Catholic male Republican judge was murdered on his way to greet a Democratic Jewish woman member of Congress, who was his friend. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year old Mexican-American gay college student, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon, all eulogized by our African-American President.”

There, in a nutshell, is what most of us would consider the triumph of American culture—the fact that the nation has moved, however haltingly, toward a vision that allows all of us to be members in good standing of our society, equal participants in our national story, whatever our religious belief, skin color, sexual orientation or national origin.  What makes us all Americans isn’t based upon any of those individual identities, but upon our allegiance to what I like to call “the American Idea”—a particular worldview based upon an understanding of government and citizenship that grew out of the Enlightenment and was subsequently enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

As I told the students, my argument is pretty simple: Social justice has to be approached from within that worldview, and arguments for social change need to be framed in ways that are consistent with it—or it won’t work.

Take the recent votes on same-sex marriage. The four victories at the polls on Nov. 6th were an exciting sign that public opinion is moving in the direction of equality and social justice. Of course, fundamental rights should never have been put to a vote of the electorate in the first place.  No one got to vote on whether the government should recognize my marriage, and it is constitutionally improper to give me the power to vote on anyone else’s.

The Bill of Rights marks off certain areas of our lives where government doesn’t belong—areas where we get to make our own decisions about our lives. Very few Americans seem to understand that in our system, the issue isn’t whether the book you are reading is good or bad—it’s who gets to decide what book you read. It isn’t whether you are praying to the proper God, or praying at all—it’s who gets to decide whether and to whom you pray. Constitutionally, the issue isn’t who you marry—it’s the propriety of allowing government to decide who you marry.

It’s because our system is based upon protecting our personal autonomy—our right to decide for ourselves how we shall live our lives—that social change so often begins with the courts. When majorities insist on making decisions that are not theirs to make, we need the courts to step in and remind us that in our system, fundamental rights are not subject to popular passions. Theoretically, our courts should all be “activist” when majorities try to make decisions they are not entitled to make, but the truth is, courts inevitably reflect the social attitudes of their times. Brown v. Board wouldn’t have been decided as it was unless popular sentiment had already moved. The fact that we have a judicial system charged with protecting minorities doesn’t relieve us of the duty to create the attitudes that enable the courts to do their job.

That brings us to the importance of framing. If we want to change social attitudes, and produce a cultural environment in which desirable change can occur, we need to frame the issues in ways that appeal to our sense of what it means to be an American.

Successive groups of outsiders have done that. They’ve staked their claims as Americans to equal treatment under the law. In the process, they’ve not only won social acceptance–they’ve made America’s Constitutional culture stronger–and life better and more just for us all.