Saturday, September 25, 2010

Working Within the Democratic Party? Is it worth it?

Working Within the Democratic Party? Is it worth it? That’s what I’ve been asking myself for the past 30 years. When I was in my 20’s, that was the last thing I wanted to do. Like so many “radicals” (were we really all that radical?) I disdained working within the Democratic Party. I saw D’s and R’s as virtually indistinguishable and didn't see the point of choosing between tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee.

Despite this, I did vote--for protest candidates. My first presidential vote was cast for Dick Gregory, Peace and Freedom Party. People like me were responsible for Richard Nixon’s victory—although since Hubert Humphrey won PA, at least I wasn’t directly responsible.

For me the wake-up call came with the election of Ronald Reagan. I realized there really was a difference between D’s and R’s and that it really does matter who wins elections. A few years after Reagan’s victory I took the plunge and became a Democratic committeeperson. I’ve been toiling away in the grassroots ever since.

Not until the victory of Barack Obama did I feel that all the work we did to build the progressive wing of the Democratic Party was worth the struggle. And I still feel that way. I’ve lost patience with progressives who refuse to acknowledge how much Obama has been able to accomplish given Republican obstruction and the horrendous mess he inherited.

So yes, my answer to the question whether it’s worth working within the Democratic Party is yes— although the Philadelphia Democratic Party does test my faith. This week-end I attended my second PA Democratic State Committee meeting. The good news: we are making progress towards organizing a progressive caucus. I hope that the success of this effort will inspire our Philly progressive Democrats to do likewise.

The Philadelphia regional caucus was the one really depressing session. The meeting was dominated by complaints about insufficient street money and Philly committee people not getting enough respect from the candidates.

Of course, it’s not just grassroots committee people with their hands out, looking to politics as a way to make a buck. I am sure there were some private meetings going on with well-connected lawyers talking about how they hope to get this contract or that contract if we elect a Democratic governor.

To a social movement activist like me, the Democratic Party has been hard to adjust to. In my years working with Philadelphia NOW and now Southeastern PA NOW, none of the wonderful NOW activists volunteering their time have expected to make money from their political activism. Au contraire—many of us were donating far more than we could easily afford to feminist candidates/organizations.

Sure, we got our psychic rewards. For those of us in leadership roles, there’s the ego gratification; for all of us there's the high that comes from working with like-minded (and really nice) people for a cause we care passionately about. So yes, we get our rewards but we’re not looking for a financial pay-off.

My guess is the Philly Democrats complaining about the lack of street money are getting their psychic rewards as well. What I found really strange (and disturbing) was the meeting chair’s comment when he introduced state committee’s new young executive director “as someone who’s close to Bob Brady (the party chair) and therefore close to every one of you.” Sorry, I don’t feel this special connection to Brady and didn’t particularly like the assumption that all the State and local committee people shared that connection.

This party functionary was quoted in Mike Sokolove’s recent NY Times article which a lot of Philly folks seem to have missed:
One morning, I went to visit Lou Farinella, a top lieutenant on the Democratic City Committee under Representative Robert A. Brady, the chairman... I asked him how Sestak could make sure he comes out of Philadelphia with enough votes. “He’s got to get close to Bob Brady,” he answered. “Real close. There’s not a person running for statewide office that doesn’t have to be extremely close to Bob Brady.”
Brady and Sestak represent side-by-side Congressional districts, and I wondered why they weren’t already close. “They are, but they need to get closer,” Farinella explained. And what would happen then? “Bob has a big stick that nobody can see,” he said. “And somehow he manages to wave it in such a way that everybody knows the direction to go in. When he does that, we roll out the big numbers to the polls.”

“A big stick that nobody can see?” Huh? This cult of personality among the party diehards is one of the many reasons talented young people choose not to work within the Democratic Party.

The article continues with a fascinating quote from Ed Rendell:

The day after I visited with Farinella, I talked with Rendell, who is nearing the end of his second term as governor after eight years as Philadelphia’s mayor. ..when I related my conversation with Farinella, Rendell sort of chuckled and said the party, in essence, is over. Sestak’s victory exposed the Democratic organization’s weakness as an Election Day force. “You can’t really say there’s a Philadelphia machine anymore, because if there was one, Arlen would still be standing,” Rendell said. “We backed him, and the turnout in Philadelphia was less than 17 percent.”

The local party desperately needs new leadership. Bob Brady’s machine is probably on its last legs; after all he and Farinella aren’t getting any younger. (But by the time Brady and Farinella leave, I’ll probably be too old and tired to remain politically active.)

And the current constellation of political parties won’t last forever. My guess is that at some point there will be a new party for those who are socially liberal and fiscally conservative—a group which doesn’t fit easily into either party.

I want a political party that is both socially and economically liberal/progressive. However, since the left wing of the Democratic Party is not large enough to form a viable party, for the foreseeable future the only alternative I see is building the progressive wing of the Democratic party—although that nagging question, “Is working within the Democratic Party really worth it?” will no doubt continue to crop up.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Retirement: The new normal

Last year, my husband and I brought out the champagne. It was our first year of not going back to teaching. Every August, I had dreaded the sound of the cicadas. I felt they were taunting me with their song that I heard as: “you must go back to work. You must go back to work.”

Last year, it was real thrill to hear the cicadas and NOT hear that grim message. It was so strange after all those years of thinking of September as back to school time not to be going back. Strange and exhilarating.

This year we hardly even noticed when back to school time rolled around. Retirement has become the new normal. I’m always a little puzzled by the question: “How are you adjusting to retirement?” The assumption seems to be that there will be some difficulty.

Probably one reason adjustment has been so easy for us is that we had so much time off when we were working. I never taught during the summer, never took overloads. Time to pursue my interests was always so much more important than extra money.

Many of my colleagues who did work over time did not do this out of economic necessity. I am always stunned when I hear people say, “ I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I weren’t working.”

Fine, if you love your job and you can't think of a better way to use your time. But there’s so much I wanted to do: political activism, writing, and gardening. My job was getting in the way of all my volunteer projects.

My only regret is that I haven’t gotten as much done as I intended: I haven’t read as many books as I planned; haven’t made as much progress with my book on second wave feminism in Philly as I had hoped; my Spanish is not a whole lot better than it as a year ago (although it is better); my garden is still far from the garden of my dreams.

I spend a lot of time hanging out with my husband and catching up with old friends, and as Rick says, isn't that what retirement’s for, the chance to take life more slowly, to enjoy just hanging out?

He’s got a point and despite nagging feelings I’m not using my time as well as I might, I love the new normal.

Rick reminded me of how surprised I was when other tourists who at first were stunned by the beauty of Machu Picchu on the return train trip quickly reverted to ignoring the scenery-- chatting away, reading, writing their postcards.

This weekend Rick and I were hanging out with some dear friends (all of us in our 60’s) and we came up with countless examples of how quickly the extraordinary can become unremarkable. We never thought we would see the election of an African-American president, the rapidly changing attitudes towards same sex marriage, and the dramatic changes in gender roles. We never thought the cold war which dominated our childhood (all those air raid drills), our youth, and early middle years would end with a whimper.

And we never thought we would become old and would adjust to this and find out that it wasn’t as bad as we had feared. That too has become the new normal.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A feminist tries to overcome her Islamaphobia

This anniversary of September 11 has been marked by a much more virulent outbreak of Islamaphobia than we have had in the past. It’s motivated me to work on my own anti-Islamic biases. I do not want to be in that company!

My bias against Islam was not the result of 9/11. I realize most Muslims are not terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. For me it’s the burqas, the honor killings, the stonings.

Several months ago in a conversation with a good friend, I expressed my very negative feelings about Islamic societies' treatment of women and how, as a consequence, I could not help but feel intense dislike for the religion. She reminded me that her sister, a woman for whom I have the greatest respect, was a convert to Islam and urged me to separate the religion from the misogyny of some of the societies in which it evolved.

A week ago I was having a conversation with another good friend who was making exactly the same arguments I had been making several months ago. She was reading Hirsi Ali’s latest book and was essentially repeating Ali’s arguments that Islam was a misogynist religion which must be condemned. And I was making the very same arguments my friend with the Muslim sister had made.

With regard to Ali, I greatly admire her courage, but understand why so many Islamic feminists feel that she is undercutting the work they are doing to advance women’s rights in the Muslim world. You are not going to change people if you trash their religion.

The Islamic feminists who want to work for women’s equality without rejecting Islam are likely to make much greater progress advancing women’s rights than Hirsi Ali.

As a secular feminist, I’ve always had some difficulty understanding how important religious traditions are in most people’s lives. And it’s been particularly hard for me to understand why any woman would embrace Islam.

What I found most helpful in trying to disentangle Islam from the misogyny of many Islamic societies was Nicholas d. Kristof and Sheryl Wu's Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide . (If you haven’t already read this book, it’s now in paperback.) Kristof and WuDunn acknowledge the problem:

A politically incorrect point must be noted here. Of the countries where women are held back and subjected to systematic abuses such as honor killings and genital cutting, a very large proportion are pre¬dominantly Muslim. Most Muslims worldwide don't believe in such practices, and some Christians do—but the fact remains that the coun¬tries where girls are cut, killed for honor, or kept out of school or the workplace-typically have large Muslim populations.
To look at one broad gauge of well-being, of 130 countries rated in 2008 by the World Economic Forum according to the status of women, 8 of the bottom 10 were majority Muslim. Yemen was in last place, with , Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan right behind it. No Muslim country ranks in the top 40. Kazakhstan ranks highest, at number 45, followed by Uzbekistan, at 55.

They argue that these attitudes are better viewed as cultural rather than religious practices. Just as attitudes towards women have evolved in Christianity and Judaism, we are witnessing a nascent move towards gender equality in the Muslim world. They note the cultural attitudes which have already changed:

A useful analogy is slavery. Islam improved the position of slaves compared to their status in pre-Islamic societies, and the Koran encourages the freeing of slaves as a meritorious act. At the same time, Muhammad himself had many slaves, and Islamic law unmistakably accepts slavery. Indeed, Saudi Arabia abolished slavery only in 1962 and Mauritania in 1981. In the end, despite thse deep cultural ties, the Islamic word ahs entirely renounced slavery. If the Koran can be read differently today because of changing attitudes towards slaves, then why not emancipate women as well?

Half the Sky is a hopeful book. I had resisted reading it because I expected it to be depressing. A friend encouraged me to read it as the stories Kristof and WuDunn tell are primarily about resistance rather than oppression.

The struggle for women’s rights around the globe is the major battle of the 21st century. After reading the book, I thought if I were a young woman trying to decide on a career path I would choose working on women’s rights in the international arena. I’d try to get a degree in something like international economic development with a gender emphasis. (It would have been difficult—there’s a reason I was an English major.)

Unfortunately, at this stage in my life my contribution will be primarily a financial one. The final section of Kristof and WuDunn’s book contains a valuable list of resources and various ways to contribute to the cause of women’s rights around the globe.

Their book is a powerful argument that those who want to fight gender inequality in the Muslim world must resist simplistic notions of Islam and instead view Islamic traditions as complex and evolving. It changed my mind.

Monday, September 6, 2010

I never thought we’d return to the same vacation spot every year: Falling in love with Block Island

I never thought we’d return to the same vacation spot every year, but my husband and I have fallen in love with Block Island, a tiny little island about 14 miles off the coast of Rhode Island.

You have to really love this place to put up with the hassles of getting there. Demand for rentals exceeds supply, so to rent a house you need to book in January and book your ferry reservations in January as well. Whenever the weather is bad, the ferry doesn’t run and you’re stuck sometimes for days waiting for service to resume. (This happened to us this year and we wound up spending 3 nights in Jamestown, R.I.)

But Block Island is worth it—gorgeous uncrowded beaches, unspoiled meadows and woodland, great restaurants--the perfect chill-out place. We rent a house big enough to invite friends and relatives. Rick is from Rhode Island and it’s an opportunity for him to see some of his RI friends and relatives and we always invite some of our Philly friends . Part of the fun is sharing Block Island with good friends.

The view from our deck:

The view from our deck at sunset:

Last year I wrote a post defending our low-key vacation. In a sense I was arguing with my younger self. From last summer’s post:

I remember giving my sister a hard time about her Jersey shore rentals: “For the kind of money you’re spending on these shore houses, you could be going to Europe!”

I no longer think our choice needs defending. We’ll go to Block Island every year as long as we can drive.

I love the ocean and for years tried to interest Rick in the Jersey shore. I’m a Philly girl so the Jersey shore is fine with me. And the Jersey shore is only an hour and half away!

But I have to admit the Block Island beaches are far more beautiful than the Jersey shore and I’m hooked--and I'm not at all apologetic about going there year after year.

If a summer goes by and I don’t spend time at the beach I get really depressed. I don’t need a whole summer—a week will do. But I need that ocean fix. (Freud was onto something when he referred to religious/ spiritual experience as that “oceanic”feeling.)

I noticed that I’m no longer constantly second guessing decisions and subjecting everything I do to hypercritical scrutiny. Psychologists tell us we get less neurotic as we age--compensation of sorts for the wrinkles, aches and pains that come with one’s 60’s.

Maybe this is what’s going on with me. I don’t feel guilty about not going to a foreign country and learning about a different culture. So what if we want to go to the same low-key vacation place every summer!