Tina Fey, White Feminism, and Hopelessness

I had originally started writing this post last week after watching the now infamous Tina Fey clip the morning after it aired. I was immediately enraged by the piece, and frustrated at all my friends who had posted it early along with commentary expressing their excitement for this incredibly problematic act. My first post was angry and outraged and not very nice. However, after having had the weekend to process, and to sit a bit more with the responses, I have come to a perhaps more nuanced thought on the whole affair.

I don’t want anyone to think I’m splitting hairs here – the bit was wrong. It was offensive. It was racist and transphobic and classist as fuck and misogynistic. But don’t worry, I’m going to lay it all out for you. The bit starts with her saying she comes out on Colin’s (white  man) side rather than Michael’s (black man) because it’s her “best side” and not because she’s racist. Like,  uh oh, we’re already in deep water. She then makes a joke about graduating college a virgin but still liking college. Because apparently female sexuality is relevant to this conversation of white supremacists – the same demographic of men who actively advocate the rape of college women while demonizing college rape victims who have the audacity to come forward and name an accuser.

Next, Fey attacks Trump’s name. Because, again, there isn’t, like, enough *actually relevant* material over which to criticize Trump so we should definitely ad hominem the fuck out of him to make our point? Yes, we’ll take time to snark out the same type of attack white feminists like Fey vocally oppose when being hurled at women. Then, Colin is addressed and appears alongside Fey while she continues on her rant, completely cutting Michael out of the frame and context as she goes on to say that she hopes the Nazi’s protesting in NYC over the weekend get beaten up by black drag queens who are really “still” just “..6 foot 4 black m[e]n.”

Okay, let’s stop for a moment. First of all, what the fuck. This comment is so littered with garbage hatefulness. Let’s break it down, shall we? First of all, Fey, despite living in New York, has taken herself out of the equation. She has placed the onus of the counter-protest on the backs of queer people of color. Let this sink in: Fey, a white woman sitting in a comfy NYC studio and who is literally about to eat cake because of how depressing the whole situation is to her personally, explicitly calls on the violent counter-protesting of the Nazi protestors BY QUEER PEOPLE OF COLOR. So now Tina Fey gets to be annoyed and frustrated and angry and hopeless while actively expecting queer people and people of color to show up to do the emotional, physical, mental labor of counter protest.  All of this while literally sitting next to a black man who has, up to this point, been kept off screen, and whose only lines in the bit, other than the one he says prior to her coming out, all revolve around her. After delivering this incredibly offensive line, the camera finally pans back out to show Michael nodding along. Because the black man only really serves to validate racist words spoken by the white woman, apparently.

Beyond this, nah, Tina Fey, drag queen’s aren’t really just tall black men. Some might be, but they certainly aren’t all. There are many drag queens who identify as bisexual or gay men, but there are also drag queens who identify as trans women amongst other diverse arrays of gender and sexual orientation. To make a statement like this requires an immense entitlement and ignorance – and an entitlement to one’s ignorance – that is alarming and unacceptable for any of us who’s goal is the dismantling of systems of oppression.

Then comes the “funny” bit. Fey brings out a cake, and suggests to the audience that, rather than getting involved in the yelling at people that she really wants to do or getting caught up in the “potential violence” (which she has, again, literally just a moment ago advocated for by calling for black drag queens to punch Nazis), that they should rather turn to a local jewish or black owned bakery, buy a cake, and “sheet cake it” by yelling their frustrations into the sheet cake. So after calling for protests and potential escalations by people of color, she then proceeds to remove her own obligations to participate in that process by instead turning to growling into cake in the privacy – and safety – of her own home. When Colin remarks that several of the Nazi protests have already been canceled, she even frames this progress as her own victory: “sheet caking is a grass roots movement.”

The implication here is clear: as a straight white ciswoman, Fey, though horrified at the current state of affairs, has enough privilege that she can stand down. Ultimately, she expects that those with the most to lose – queer people, people of color – will be the ones who will need to step up to defend the rights of us all. And that is neither fair nor acceptable. We all have our roles to play, and that may or may not including being present at rallies and counter protests; however, the idea that one can simply stay out of the very process we expect others to show up to and claim as self-care the act of going out to buy an expensive cake which one can eat and yell into is the very definition of white privilege which is part of the critique of white feminism.

More than 50 percent of our country lives in poverty. They don’t have the luxury to just run out and buy a cake to yell and cry into to relieve their stress. They certainly cannot afford to do so at a small local bakery. Many of the women of color watching this sketch are actively concerned about whether their children – some of them those same tall black drag queens – will make it home alive today. Something tells me that eating cake doesn’t provide the same kind of catharsis for the fear of losing your child on a daily basis as it does for a frustrated wealthy white woman. The classism and racism of this bit is so astonishingly tone deaf, I honestly have a difficult time watching it.

The rest of the bit is  more of the same: Fey’s frustrated ranting about the missing responses from the GOP (why can’t Paul Ryan just tweet about it!? – which, again, separates those in privileged positions of power from the movement in the streets), the hypocrisy of Trump’s tweets about Confederate monuments, getting called out by your kids for being upset or frustrated and being overwhelmed by feelings of powerlessness that can then be eaten away by adding grilled cheese to the cake. She then ends the bit with a call to ‘all reasonable people’ to not show up. And while the point is well-intended, it is also clear that Tina Fey has no idea how change works. You know why the revolutionary war was successful despite being run by a minority of the country? Because loyalists didn’t show up to fight. Do you know why the Confederacy is still part of the union? Because unionists DID show up to fight against the principles of slavery. In order to fight back and win against a group – albeit a minority – who is hellbent on destroying America, we have to fucking show up.

I’m also aware of the really horrifying piece that appeared over the weekend white mansplaining the art of satire to defend Fey. There are moments I could see sparks of the temptation to label the bit as satire (“Most of the women I know have been [sheet caking] once a week since the election!” or the bit about militias being out and about as she eats cake); however, the piece as a whole has too many conflicted statements to be read as a satirical bit. It’s literally not how satire works. The point of satire is to be tongue in cheek, of which Fey’s bit certainly is not. If it was intended as satire, it is neither good nor effective. If, as I suspect, it was not, it would do us well to stop trying to make up defenses of offensive shit simply because it also engages in some critique which resonates with us: Fey doesn’t get to go off on tirades about Trump and the radical right and then have the offensive bits be called brilliant ‘satire.’

This leads me into my thought process which appeared over the weekend: I was truly surprised by the number of my very smart, progressive, involved, highly respected white feminist friends who sustained their defense of this piece. Is it me, I wondered? Am I the one who is wrong or missing something? However, after watching it again and citing all of the above listed horribly offensive things said or implied during Fey’s bit, I realized it wasn’t. So, then: what is it about my friends’ experiences that I am missing?

I think it’s hopelessness. It’s a feeling of isolation and overwhelming stressful emotions. It does speak to the progress of white women in this country that we can have a bit like this. That Tina Fey can get on national TV and eat a cake and rant about the horrors of the US in 2017 speaks to a different kind of privilege and voice for white women than the last time we were debating Nazism in the 1930’s and 40’s. Yet, there is still a feeling that women aren’t safe in this country. There is a constant barrage of attacks on women’s bodies and rights which are then met with paternalistic gaslighting and victim blaming from the men in power. We are watching our queer siblings and our siblings of color being attacked on a regular basis. We are watching our disabled siblings being ignored or invalidated and watching healthcare and other aspects of economic justice come under attack every day for months. It is exhausting, and frustrating, and defeating and Tina Fey speaks to that mounting feeling of white female exhaustion and the desire to simply sit back and yell-eat cake.

The problem is, this doesn’t solve any problems. It doesn’t solve OUR problems, and it doesn’t solve the problems of our loved ones under attack. While we MUST actively engage in self care (and hell, maybe stress eating grilled cheese and cake is part of that), we also are obligated to not perpetuate the problem. And Fey’s bit, as well-intended and spot on in some of it’s attacks on the absurdity of the GOP establishment as it is, places a big ol’ glaring spotlight on how white feminists unintentionally perpetuate the same problems we are fighting.

So here is my message. Dear fellow white feminists: We must do better. We must stand for an intersectional form of justice. We must stand for the dismantling of white supremacy alongside the dismantling of patriarchy. We must stand alongside our oppressed siblings and lift their voices along with our own. We must listen to those whose experiences of oppression do not match our own. We must shift our language mindfully and intentionally in order to not perpetuate racist, transphobic and homophobic, classist, ableist assaults which fuel the oppression of our siblings. We must do better. We MUST do better.

Of Trees and Forests

Human brains are interesting things. They have such amazing capacity for such diverse ways of thinking and observing. For instance, they can consider the individual particles in the break down of the atom while also being able to work through complicated city planning strategies. It is true that there seems to be a role for genetic predispositions in thinking processes (I have a hypothesis that ADHD is simply a different form of neurological processing); however, as is true with any other muscle in the body, the brain works and responds automatically insofar as we train it to do so. We program our brains to work in certain ways, to focus on certain ways of thinking, to respond automatically to certain stimuli. This is supported through neuroscientific studies of mindfulness, which have shown both neurophysiological and neurofunctional changes as a result of mindfulness training.

I say all of this to say that the old adage, “missing the forest through the trees,” is an especially prescient one these days. It is incredibly important to observe the trees. We should be watching individual trees and groups of trees for signs of their health and signs of environmental change. But we should also be able to see the entire forest – the complex ecosystems flourishing within and which both exist because of and provide existence for the trees. The trees impact the system, and the system impacts the trees. And just because all we see are the trees doesn’t mean that’s all that is there. These ways of ‘seeing’ or ‘thinking’ could be described as systemic versus individual, or perhaps more simply as macro and micro lenses. On the macro level, we have the forest; on the micro, the trees or the frogs or the bird population, etc. Ultimately, it takes seeing through and considering the needs of both lenses in order to be good stewards of the forest AND the trees.

It is pretty clear that both American political parties in 2017 are missing the forest for the trees. Their policy ideas (trees) exist apart from any real coherent vision for the country (forest). It has struck me especially throughout this past week, with many individual lawmakers from the GOP coming forward to condemn the domestic terrorism of white nationals in Virginia last weekend, that the GOP does not understand the systemic perspective of their individual policy platform. Similarly, I have been struck by the lack of a coherent individual policy platform, or similarly any true understanding of the systemic impact of the nonspecific ideological rhetoric, from the rising progressive wing of the democratic party as backed by Sanders.

Let’s start with the right. Republican legislators in Washington have been shocked and appalled this week by the association of literally their voting base with their party. The GOP has been pandering to white supremacists through both rhetoric and policy for decades, but is somehow deeply surprised to see that this logical conclusion could possibly be tied to them. I believe this is due to a narrow and blinded perspective of policy with a lack of systemic insight. Society interacts with policy in ways that we can actually predict through strategic systemic analysis.

So what do I mean? For decades, the Republican party has fought long and hard for increased regulation over citizens’ rights and bodies. These increased regulations include areas such as women’s bodies, educational curriculum (especially in history and science), housing protection, worker protections, gender/sexuality/ethnic/religious protections, healthcare protection, financial protection, etc. At the same time, they have been fighting for diminished regulation over areas that protect citizens, such as financial institutions, environmental protection, gun rights, corporate exploitation of labor and social institutions, etc. When we put these two things together, the result is a society which actively participates in the repression of the rights of citizens, despite their best efforts to position themselves otherwise.

When you spend so much time and effort instituting policies which disenfranchise the vast majority of the country from rights to education and protection, what do you think will happen? The way the right has consistently been able to institute all of these policies has been through a fear mongering campaign to white Americans: “they” (people of color, women, queer people, etc) are destroying your country! Let’s regulate them! (*oh, and also we’re 100% regulating you, too, but we’ll make sure you have guns to facilitate your false perception of self protection!). This has enabled the GOP to institute a variety of unsustainable policies which actively work against even their own self-interest (after all, capitalism DOES depend on people buying shit… how would one actually continue to fund a market where the majority of citizens have seen an income freeze for 30+ years?).

Similarly, the left is facing a challenge of branding and coherence. The ‘progressive’ wing of the democratic party has turned to language of ‘revolution’ and ‘economic justice’ without providing any coherent picture of what that means or looks like, or really even any substantial individual policy ideas. This is a tremendous problem. Furthermore, the leader of this brigade, Sen. Bernie Sanders, has shown over and over again that he lacks a basic understanding of intersectional conceptions of justice, often advocating for policies which would continue to disenfranchise massive numbers of citizens (or against policies which would do the same) all in the name of an incredibly limited and rather non-systemic understanding of what economic justice means, continuing to place it back in the hands of white men, albeit more white men than currently experience economic prosperity.

The lack of understanding of the system, along with the blindness to the impact of specific policies to a coherent systemic/structural social goal, is hampering progress for both sides. Add to this the complete incompetence of so many politicians on both sides of the aisle around technology and the nearly unlimited pace of technological development, and we see a legislature that is unprepared and frustratingly short sighted. There is a lack of consideration of the impact of technology on policy and vice versa. This has left a gaping hole in the policy infrastructure in its ability to protect citizens, with a massive loophole for corporations which seems to be left free from oversight.

Governing is an applied art. It depends on both the theoretical AND the practical. Governance lies at the intersection of theory and praxis, which is why I find it so fascinating. To return to a point from my earlier post, no one wants to go to a therapist who doesn’t have any case conceptualization and only depends on treating individual symptoms. Similarly, it is unhelpful to have a therapist who understands the case conceptually but has no idea how to treat the concerns. Why then do we approach governing in this way?

It would do us well to come together – many voices, many perspectives – to develop a coherent vision to move towards. One with concrete goals. Once we have these vision and goals in place, we can work towards envisioning the policy that would take us there. The founding fathers did a great job starting us off on this point, but even they were incredibly informed by the rigorous and plentiful political theory of their day. The path towards democracy did not come from a vacuum, but rather from a massive swell of intellectual labor and discourse happening amongst the political classes of the day. We need to return to this discourse of theory in order to get policy right. And for that, we need more, not less, diversity of thought and resources.

Let’s Talk About All the Untrained Folks Pretending to be Counselors and Therapists, Shall We?

Alright, y’all. This is a problem. A real problem. There is a trend happening of people who do something and then think, “Hey! I did this thing and it was really therapeutic! I should start helping people when they have the same problem I had!” These come in several forms – most notably “life coaches” who have zero actual training or expertise whatsoever, and most recently this barrage of “philosophical counselors.”

My bias is, I have a background in philosophy. Both my bachelor’s degree and my first master’s degree are in philosophy. I believe very much, and will argue this to it’s core, that my philosophy background and training have made me a much better therapist than I likely would have been without it. I absolutely believe this. As a philosopher, I was trained to think deeply and analytically; I was trained to observe and to attend to all points of an argument. That being said, despite all I thought I knew throughout my training, I shifted – personally, professionally, academically, spiritually – in my time training as a therapist. It completely changed who I am, and even how I think. My philosophically informed thought processes eased into communicative stances and each model of training sharpened the other.

Being a philosopher may make me a better therapist, but it also didn’t make me a therapist. The intense training and supervision I had did. I trained in systems theory, in human and relational development theories, in therapeutic models and family systems theories, in psychopathology and biopsychosocial models of functioning, in clinical ethics. In order to become licensed, I received more than 200 hours of supervision to oversee my clinical practice, and performed over 2500 hours of face-to-face therapy with individuals, couples, and families. I have continued my education through trainings in treating trauma and sexuality concerns, and I focus very much on issues of identity, life transitions, and relational concerns.

Perhaps most importantly, my training as a therapist included intensive time (in and out of the classroom, in and out of my own therapy, in and out of supervision) learning to observe myself in the room and how that impacted the client relationship, learning to be very aware of my own ‘stuff’ and how to use it or own it in the therapeutic process. The idea is that I can use my experience to inform therapy, but also to recognize the ways my own work/life/problems differ from those of my client.

Rather than doing any of this work – personally, academically, professionally – life coaches and philosophical counselors have simply decided that they have enough expertise in their own lives to be able to tell/coach/counsel ‘clients’ on how they should live theirs. The problem is that this becomes tempting for clients. Clients so often want to come in and be told what to do. The problem is, that is simply not therapeutic and actually could be actively harmful: bad advice is likely much of why they are stuck in the first place. Furthermore, these faux-counselors have no holistic or systemic theoretical orientation to understand the complex interplay of mental health issues with “existential” issues.

Life coaches and philosophical counselors are wolves in sheepskins – despite their best intentions. These ‘fields’ are actively appropriating the empirically supported work of psychotherapy and further stigmatizing mental health and psychotherapy through their lack of training, expertise, and oversight. There is a reason that mental health licensure is so tightly regulated: for the protection of clients. People who decide they simply wish to counsel or coach people without doing the work to ensure they are practicing from an ethical, informed, and research-informed perspective.

On womanhood and the ambivalence of motherhood

I am very much a ciswoman as our socialized reality would categorize me. Although I have a passion and presence which might read as masculine (and which have very much gotten me in trouble as a southern woman who refuses to demure), I am femme as fuck and nurturing and empathically drawn to others’ emotional lives. I am a caregiver and what many would call ‘maternal.’ Because of this, I frequently receive the feedback that I “would make such a great mother.” And although I recognize the kindness and well-intended meaning of such a statement, it never doesn’t sting a bit.

While I was in college, I remember my mom sitting me down to review a budget. My brother had just gone off to college in Florida, and she had not worked in over 6 years since my father began a travel-heavy career. She would volunteer at our high school, and was incredibly involved, traumatically and sometimes unfortunately, in our lives – mine specifically. While I was seated at the kitchen counter, she looked at me and said, “I don’t know who I am anymore. I went straight from being a daughter living at home, to being a wife living with my husband, to being a mom living with my family. I’m not sure how to be just Donna.” I remember feeling a profound sadness.

In high school, I was devoutly anti-child. Not only did I not want my own children, I rather didn’t like them at all. As I’ve grown older and more thoughtful, my stance on children has shifted somewhat. I have considered having children; I think there is a magic to intentional parenting that has probably no real comparison. At the same time, I know that if I chose to parent, I would need to do so under very specific circumstances. With an incredibly strong partner and co-parent such that I would not have to be the primary parent. Even better with a strong community of supportive nurturing loved ones; a communal parenting experience of sorts. Perhaps what is really true is that I would make a really excellent father.

I value loyalty and openness, transparent honesty as part of a committed connectedness with another person. Yet, I’ve always found it difficult to commit. I have nearly always been a wanderer of sorts. I have often moved around hobbies and career trajectories. I am selfishly oriented toward internal fulfillment, which for me means allowing myself to be curious and to indulge my desire for more. This typically means not necessarily being grounded in a specific specialized field. I seek out growth and movement and fluidity. And I can’t seem to imagine a way of being a primary parent that isn’t fixed.

Every now and again, I see examples of incredible mothers who are traveling and being phenomenal scholars, who engage with the world with their children, and I think, damn that seems pretty okay. But I come back to a terror… what if I hate it. What if my partner leaves or dies. What if I have to give up everything? I don’t want to be in my 50s or 60s with no idea who I am anymore, lost and without purpose. Psychoanalytically, there is a lot here – specifically around the horror of abjection (I’ll save that for another post); but when it boils down to it, I recognize that the circumstances of mothering – especially in the ways I would value mothering – would be very difficult for me to carry out. The ambivalence is real.

But the thing we don’t talk about – the thing that gets buried under it all – is why all those beautiful wonderful people equate my womanliness with mothering. Why is it that when, as a woman, people like you or find something beautiful about you, they leap to the highest compliment of you should be a mother? And what does it mean to be a woman but not a mother? Can you even exist as a childless woman? Is woman only mother? I know, for my trans and gender non-binary loved ones, that this question becomes even more complicated. What if I want to be a parent but don’t conform to traditional gender roles or presentation?

What does it mean to be a woman but not a mother? There is an entire derogatory language around these people – these childless women – which would present us as threats at worse, or at best social pariahs. And when so much of female identity is wrapped up in mothering and the social desirability of women as private sphere participants, how can I bring my whole self – my feminine and emotional and empathic and joyous self – into the public sphere? I suppose as loudly and unabashedly as possible. It took a long time for me to come to love parts of myself, and my emotional self was one of the last things I learned to embrace. Perhaps because it is so at odds with public values, or because it is consistently diminished and shamed and because I had so many people I loved who told me I was inadequate because of my depth of feeling and inability to hide this emotional world. To bring this whole self to the public sphere, to be adequate in and of myself without concern for those who would diminish woman-not-as-mother, is revolutionary.

‘It Comes at Night’ and the horror of going it alone

* Spoiler Alert: This post does contain spoilers for the film.

Going to see ‘It Comes at Night’ was an impromptu decision, driven by wine and boredom. After a friend’s glorious gallery opening (seriously, check out HannahandtheCosmos.com), another friend and I decided to grab a quick drink across the way. When neither of us had further plans on an otherwise lovely Saturday night, we decided that being adjacent to a theater lent itself to an evening viewing. Scouring the showing times for the evening, I recalled a review about the “depressing and hopeless film,” ‘It Comes at Night.’ Well, picture me enthralled!

The plot of the film is fairly simple: there is a mysterious disease of some sort, along with a strange sort of disconnectedness from “the outside,” none of which is ever explained (thought it’s quite beside the point). We are introduced to this world through the experiences of a family of four (turned quickly to three) and their dog, as they navigate this uncanny alternative normal. There is an attempted break-in by a man (Will) who claims his family is simply trying to survive, a white savior move by the patriarch of the first family (Paul), all mounting to paranoia galore. All of this ends in a devastating climax, resolved by a parallel mother/son moment, which, for me, made the story.

Aside from the plot, which we’ll spend the most time with, it needs to be stated that this film is audio-visually stunning in its detail and intentionality. Our theater was adjacent to a loud film, and there were often moments which had me wishing I was in a sound-proofed space to really experience the fullness of the silence. The use of detailed sound effect to push the loneliness and emptiness of the space (floors squeaking; noises emanating from the woods), and the disconnectedness of the characters (murmuring through the ceilings as Travis spies unseen in the attic). Visually, the representations of spatial awareness, and the push and pull of darkness and light are the best I’ve seen since last year’s knock out film, ‘The Witch,’ accomplishing similar feats of scale and affective response.

Also comparable to ‘The Witch,’ ‘It Comes at Night’ balances the human with the supernatural in a sort of unbothered ambiguity. I love that sort of magical realism quality, but it also lends itself to the darkness of the film and to the sense of unknowingness. There is a moment where a noise from off in the woods – one which, at first, only the dog hears – setting off a parade of the male characters, all chasing off after each other, is never explained or identified. There is a terror in this moment. What is the dog chasing after? What is the feeling of connectedness and instinct driving each of these men to chase, at first the dog and then each other? When the men all stop, arriving and crashing into the clearing one after the other, the dog has been silenced and nothing can be seen or heard. There is no origin, no evidence to witness. They retreat. The eeriness of this moment is riveting, driving uncertainty about the nature of the thing outside.

Still, this is nothing compared to what’s happening inside. As the fear of this dreadful thing drives the families back into the illusory safety of the house, the viewer is funneled into the moral and relational ambiguity of the film. As each of the patriarchs, complicit with their partners, glares subtle mistrust at the other, there are legitimate reasons for each family’s suspicion of the other. Paul, after all, initially stripped and tied Will up to a tree, leaving him for dead, before welcoming his family into his home with strict rules and no option for negotiating collaborative existence. On the other hand, Will has attempted to break in to Paul’s home amid suspicious circumstances, only offering a less than consistent story about the family’s journey and intentions.

The film strikes a brilliant balance between noticing those suspicions and placing them out of view. It does this without ever dismissing them or driving them to become distractions. We just notice them along with the characters, never really knowing what is real or right or who to trust. This reads as very realistic, representing quite accurately the way we as humans compartmentalize our conflicting feelings for others in the face of ambivalent evidence. It is obvious that both men and their families find each other likeable. There are even arguments made by both sides that they could be stronger together. And yet…

This leads us into a final – and inevitable – sequence of events. I will explore my rationale behind this assertion of inevitability later; however, suffice to say (for now) that this climax and denouement are where the film’s true beauty lies: in its horrifying relatability of the viewer to the characters’ final devastating actions. Speaking with my viewing partner at the end, we had different interpretations of the final sequences. Despite this, we could both relate to the affect of the penultimate sequence.

My partner related her perspective to Paul’s actions. This makes the most sense, because it is the experience centered by the film’s narrative. Paul becomes increasingly concerned for his family’s safety, due to the suspicious nature of a door left open and a misplaced little boy. His paranoia gets the best of him, and when Travis wakes him up to tell him he heard the family discussing leaving, he begins jumping to conclusions – the boy must be sick! they are risking our safety! they will come back and loot our home with others! – and becomes intent on killing them out of a drive for self-preservation. It is simultaneously willfully blind and acutely inline with Paul’s worldview that outsiders are a threat to safety (illustrated quite nicely by the statement “remember, family are the only ones you can trust..” Paul mutters to Travis earlier in the film). The move is both rational and irrational.

On the other hand, I found myself feeling Will’s fears – they’ve been literally trapped in this house by the home owners, their son accused of opening a door he cannot even reach, experiencing his own parallel paranoia about the source of the open door, perhaps even his own fear about someone in the house being sick. His own self-preservation instincts kick in as this large and looming home begins to close in on him – and his family. As soon as the kitchen table conversation happened, I leaned over to my watching partner and whispered, “oh my god, everyone is going to die.” I suspect this is the same dread Will was feeling, while Paul still felt some semblance of power or control, evidenced by his shock – though he and his wife hiding in the hallway were each themselves wielding huge guns – that Will still had a gun of his own even after being directed to leave it in a locked cabinet.

After processing the film, I found myself a bit confused by this kitchen table encounter. I realized that I (and apparently my movie-going partner) had been swept along into the fear and frenzy, the suspicion of the characters through this turning moment: Travis reveals that the door had been open when he stumbled upon it. Both patriarchs comment they had assumed Travis had opened the door. Hadn’t he? No! Is he CERTAIN he found it open?! What do you mean little Andrew wasn’t in his room?! Emotional chaos ensues internally, finally erupting through a command (given by Paul) for the families to separate.

In hindsight, this moment makes no rational sense. Mind you, both families are sitting at the table at this point, no one in the masks or gloves of protection, apparently not afraid that they have been exposed to ‘the sickness’ of the dog who’d lain brutalized in the in-between space of this middle room which connects the internal and external doors. However, with this new revelation, we move suddenly from feeling relatively safe in the home to again feeling vulnerable – from a state of knowing to unknowing.

Despite the unquestionable dangers that the open door risked (exposure to the sickness), there is now a new danger: did something else, something hidden, lurking, unknown, get in? The actual danger of exposure has not ever changed, whether someone from inside or outside the house opened the door. The only thing that changes is the ambiguity of how the door became opened. In this way, the proceeding events are mere projections of this imagined and unspoken fear rather than responses to the actual danger.

Although the film primarily focuses on the patriarchs throughout its narrative, it is actually the juxtaposition of the two mothers in the final scenes which, for me, made the film’s ambiguous narrative come together. Although my viewing partner walked out initially saying she thought that Andrew (Will’s son) must have been sick, I disagree. I believe it was always Travis who was sick. I have two reasons for this view – of which the mothers are my final evidence.

First, there are many individual moments, all understandable in a time of crisis, which build and finally snowball into Travis’ death. Despite Paul’s earlier assertion that his father-in-law’s sickness came upon him suddenly within a day, we witness Travis having nightmares, potentially dissociating, and obsessively drawing horrifying figures. Are these just symptoms of stress? Or could they be symptoms of the disease beginning to set in? Furthermore, right before Travis wakes up and goes walking around the house on then night the door is left ajar, we are privy to a nightmare he is having: one in which he walked out of the house and through the woods. Could Travis have been sleepwalking, leaving the doors open as he made his way back to bed? We also see grandpa’s dog growing more and more lethargic, before he runs off to his death. If grandpa’s dog, who Travis spends all of his time with, is sick, perhaps this is how Travis picked up his sickness.

So that’s one piece of my theory. The second, however, revolves around the dual purpose of the final sequences, and the dichotomous mothers. When Andrew is shot and killed by Paul, his mother screams. Over and over. It’s tortuous to listen to. It is true, unadulterated grief. On the other hand, as Travis lays dying in bed, his mother sits beside him quietly, stroking his head and comforting him as she whispers for him to let go. See, for Travis, his mother recognizes the comfort of death – salvation from disease. To be kind, he will be put out of his misery, much the same way grandpa was at the beginning. On the other hand, Andrew’s mother’s tortured response to her son’s killing indicates her belief that he had a long healthy life ahead of him. He likely was not sick. They were hiding him for his protection from the possible illness and the people with large guns, not from inspection.

The conclusion of the film follows inevitably from the world in which we live. It plays out the logical conclusion of the direction we as humanity are moving. We are so terrified of what might be outside of our control (terrorism! immigrants! gays!), and so assured of our own power to control our safety through self-reliant isolation (guns! bunkers!), that we lash out at everyone else. This is gun culture. This is rape culture. This is the culture of radical individuation – of the myth of self-sufficiency.

Interestingly enough, whether intentional or not, it also illustrates the inevitable outcome of the white savior complex. This struck me early on, as Paul (a white man, married to a black woman and father of a black child) decides to invite the desperate and downtrodden (and brown) Will, who clearly isn’t as well off as Paul (Will announces he was attempting to break in to what he assumed was an abandoned home in search for water), into his home, as long as he does exactly what Paul says and follows the rules. Will’s fate has already been in Paul’s hands; but now his family’s fate becomes dependent upon Paul, as well.

An interview with the writer and director reports that the racial division of the cast was only realized during the casting process, and that this implied a ‘post racial’ world. I find this ironic, however. In my own reading of the film, the helplessness of the people of color (and the complicity of Paul’s black wife in the sudden and immediate plan to kill Will’s family before they can literally escape the house in which they are now being held captive) all points towards the illusion of a post-racial society: one wherein the reality is that the only outcome of the white savior is the ultimate destruction of all.

I highly recommend the film, and look forward to going back to it to see what I’ve missed and what I can add. It is certainly a thinking film rather than a piece of mindless entertainment (I say that without judgment), so it may not appeal to all crowds. There’s also some conflict over whether this can truly classify as horror or if it perhaps fits another genre, perhaps psychological thriller. I won’t contribute to this conversation, but know it’s happening. I’d rather let you decide for yourself!

 

 

The Decline of Theoretical Grounding in the Political Sphere

The word theory makes people shudder. As a therapist, theoretical models of therapy, wellness, function/dysfunction were a large part of my graduate school coursework. I still recall supervisory therapists at my internship site laughing and telling me that once I was done with graduate school and my exams, I would realize that theory isn’t important and doesn’t matter. At the time, I thought of this as an interesting potentially correct statement. Except now, as I make my way through my fourth year of practicing post-graduate school, I recognize theory as more important than ever in my practice. Having a clear idea – based in both empirical research, clinical observation, and some in personal experience – of where dysfunction comes from, what it means to experience dysfunction, and what the heck healthy might look like on the other side is all incredibly important to the therapeutic process. Otherwise, like a life coach, we might just be trying to make our patients conform to our own belief systems. Or worse, we might just be guiding them in circles.

It’s also important, clinically, for the therapist and the patient to be on the same page about where they want to go in treatment. The therapist may need to temper expectations or otherwise give options the patient did not realize were present. The therapist should also know the ropes and tools and be able to communicate the treatment plan in a coherent and concise manner. But the therapist – at least in my own view of the therapy process – should not be acting unilaterally under the assumption that they know what is best for the patient. This is paternalistic and manipulative.

One of my professors liked to use the phrase “road map” when describing the role of theory in psychotherapy. I find this helpful. It’s a metaphor which emphasizes the understanding of change processes. I also like that it can be adjusted as necessary to become a collaborative tool of understanding between the patient and therapist. There are so many ‘brands’ of psychotherapy, and though the intention is the same, the best route for any individual patient depends on so many different things. One of these things is the relationship between the therapist and the patient. Having the ability to collaborate on treatment and understandings of “the problem” and “getting better” is a really integral piece of the “map” of treatment. The therapist has expertise in the tools and methods of change, according to his or her theoretical orientations; but the patient holds the expertise over their own values and life systems, etc. Working together is how the most lasting kinds of change occur for the patient.

So what does all of this have to do with political processes? A lot, actually. See, before I became a therapist, I studied political philosophy. Ironically, perhaps, political philosophy was at the forefront of the founding of our nation. The 18th century, even into the 19th, was rich with political theory. New ways of thinking about the interaction between the governing and the governed (read: therapist and patient in my analogy here) were popping up all over the place. The problem of the tensions between security and freedom began to spring up as “the West” began to fundamentally re-configure the relationship between the “bourgeoisie” and the “proletariat” as the French quite nicely defined for us. This is to say, the relationship between those in the “ruling” classes and average citizens. This conversation was necessarily being had parallel to conversations about the function of government – what does a government do, and why.

Ultimately, these were revolutionary times. The script was being flipped in ways we likely cannot even truly imagine in our modern world. The idea of democracy – that government should function as a reflection of the will of the people, and that power should be held by the people rather than the “ruling classes” – was an incredible notion for a society literally built off of empire building and colonization. And yet, as philosophers, economists, politicians and professors all returned to the heritage of Greece in their rejection of the Roman model, they began having these conversations about the values of governing in public. They argued and brought up flaws in design and they redesigned and they collaborated to create theoretical models of governance that could reflect these changes in attitude around the role of government.

Among these thinkers and texts – Paine, Jefferson, Locke, Adams, etc – were the foundations of the “American Experiment.” The founders of our nation were intimately involved in these conversations and texts. As the hit broadway musical “Hamilton” points out, Alexander Hamilton collaborated with others to write an intensive treatise on the merits and foundations of Federalism as a binding agent for this new nation. To say that the founders were working from anything other than theoretical foundations would be to completely misunderstand how America began. America was truly a revolutionary experiment in a world of monarchy and colonial imperialism. The founders sat and argued amongst themselves to create a road map from their theories. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Since the founding, our governing institutions have moved further and further away from theory and “big picture” understanding. The GOP has become quite literally a reactionary party, with their goal being a dismantling rather than a building. This has been enacted through many policy goals thought through on an individual level. What is lacking is a coherent global picture. This is like bad therapy. Rather than having in mind the questions: what does the world look like in it’s ideal final form, and how do we get there, they are focused on specific impediments built around a very specific few. This is, in many ways, a regression back to a pre-democratic, pre-America world.

Not to rag solely on the GOP, the Democratic party has a similar problem. Rather than looking to form a coherent theoretical principle to guide them, they instead pick certain platforms to focus on based around public opinion. This is problematic because it lacks unity and prevents direction to guide policy creation. This inability to clearly communicate the goals and direction of the party have played a role in keeping the left stuck.

What would happen if we would re-engage public intellectualism and re-integrate the theoretical into the political realm? I argue it would be a much more healing and fundamentally more coherent governing process, just like a good therapist facilitating change for a patient.

When the Left Behaves Like the Right: Primary Season 2016

This election season has been particularly fascinating.  On the face of the early election cycle, it appeared there was a superbly fractured GOP facing a united DNC.  What seemed like a couple dozen Republican candidates from all across the spectrums of experience and delusion crowded the nomination playing field.  On the other side – Clinton.  Sanders stepped into the game, and I felt confident enough to voice a theory that the DNC had deliberately asked Sanders to run in order to help create space for Hillary to push left without seeming immoderate. This left room for both the typically moderate Democratic voter AND the undecided voter to elect Clinton in the face of such an outrageous and fractured GOP race.

Alas, what has unfurled on the Democratic side has been just as fascinating to watch – if also incredibly frustrating for a liberal like myself, becoming nasty and brutish over time. It appears that the GOP rhetoric war on Clinton has been effective – even on the left. Despite a career-long dedication to liberal causes, Clinton’s detractors on the left are using conservative language to demonize her.  We keep hearing the same things over and over again… “it’s a feeling,” “she’s just… not trustworthy,” “she isn’t transparent,” “she’s owned by big corporations,” “I just don’t like her.”  None of these things is quantitatively accurate (she does have donations from corporations; however, this has not stopped her voting against their causes – AND maintaining positive relationships with them all the while!), and they are an indication, in my mind, of something quite problematic with the left.

It appears that the left is pulling a tea party. The language is nearly identical: we need a revolution; the establishment is too untrustworthy (nevermind that Bernie has been in the Senate and caucused with the democrats for decades; nevermind that Clinton served in the “outsider” Obama White House, nevermind that Clinton & Sanders are very good friends, etc); the establishment isn’t listening to us, etc.  This is interesting, but more than that it is frightening.  What, truly, is going on here?

Literally the only thing Bernie is stronger on in some ways is financial reform. And that is important, so I don’t want to downplay this.  I do believe in challenging the policies of big finance, and I’m all about implementing serious and substantial regulations of the industry to keep it under control.  However, in regards to student loan reform and addressing costs of college (which whoever ends up in the white house will have to deal with in the next few terms anyway – otherwise it is absolutely going to collapse our economy), public education reform, income inequality and other financial reforms the two are nearly identical in policy and voting record.

Furthermore, Hillary has been the first one to respond or come out in support of reform on many social topics.  She sat down with Black Lives Matter first; she came out against Hyde early and decisively – and it took Sanders over a week to respond similarly; she has been consistent in her calls for gun control reform, which Sanders ardently avoids; she has been consistent in her messaging to Latinos in attempts to be inclusive. Yes, she has made mistakes. She has misspoken, or been insensitive in some of her attempts to garner votes or to show herself as relatable. But I think these are the things that happen when someone with privilege is really trying. There’s a reason Sanders hasn’t made the same mis-steps: because he hasn’t been stepping publicly, choosing instead to do so in small meetings across the country.

I like Sanders, I really do. I’ve long been a fan of his work and his voice. However, I believe voters on the left have been duped by the voices yelling and fussing about Hillary on the right for a very long time. There is something to be said for someone who can work the system and do it well, all while not compromising her personal beliefs. The 2016 primary season is astoundingly similar to 2008 in tone… “the outsider” male swooping in to overtake “the establishment” Hillary Clinton. I’m afraid if that’s what we end up doing, we’ll end up with another disappointing presidency – yet another “outsider” man whose promises out measure his abilities to deliver due to a lack of relationships and finesse.