It’s Gross to Use Otto Warmbier’s Tragedy to talk about White Male Privilege

Otto Warmbier was a 22-year-old American who, early in 2016 was convicted by a North Korean court of stealing a poster. He was put in a North Korean prison, until he was returned to the US in a coma on June 13th of this year. Warmbier died without waking up on June 19th.


A few progressives have responded by saying… Well, I’ll let Affinity Magazine’s (now deleted) tweet speak for itself.

The comedian Larry Wilmore (who I’m usually a fan of) also criticized Warmbier harshly about a year ago, making fun of Warmbier for crying as he begged for mercy:

Look frat bros dudes, if your hazing includes international crimes, you’ve got to read the fine print on your American frat bro warranty. It’s all the way at the bottom so it’s easy to miss, but it says: “Frat bro privilege not valid in totalitarian dystopias.” Listen, Otto Von Crybaby, if you’re so anxious to go to a country with an unpredictable megalomaniac in charge, just wait a year and you’ll live in one! It’s coming, you guys! You know that shit is coming! Make America Great! It is catchy. I’m going to cry. Okay, to get a better sense of Otto, let’s talk with some of his fraternity brothers. So, please welcome Preston and Hawes. So guys, is it upsetting to see your frat brother begging for mercy in North Korea?

Do I have to explain how repulsive that is?

(Wilmore apologized a couple of days ago.)

The writer La Sha wrote the HuffPost article “North Korea Proves Your White Male Privilege Is Not Universal.

It’s important to note that La Sha’s article was written before Warmbier’s coma and subsequent death. Also, the article’s approach is all over the place; for a few paragraphs, it verges on satire, demonstrating what it would sound like if people responded to Warmbier’s case the way many whites respond to police shootings of Black people. But that satiric tone, if it was intended at all, is ambiguous and not maintained. Both the introductory paragraphs and the conclusion seem very much in earnest.

All these views fall somewhere on the spectrum from wrong to disgusting. Here’s why:

1) It’s blame-the-victim. Placing the blame on a victim when what happened to them is grossly disproportionate for whatever they allegedly did wrong is, well, wrong. And it blames the wrong person.

The reason I object to people saying “well, rape is horrible, but she shouldn’t have gotten drunk” when a woman is raped is not that I think it’s never a mistake to get drunk. (For example, if she had gotten drunk, slipped in a puddle, and thereby gotten mud on her favorite shirt, I probably would think it’s her own fault for getting so drunk.) My objection is, first of all, that it’s unreasonable to say “well, she shouldn’t have gotten drunk” regarding a rape victim, because the harms she suffered is so grossly disproportionate to anything she did wrong, that bringing it up that way is frankly indecent. And, secondly, it fails to put the blame where it belongs – on the rapist.

That the person acknowledged “rape is horrible” in passing on route to their main point doesn’t change any of that.

The logic in this case seems similar to me. Even if Otto Warmbier did steal a poster, what happened to him was so vastly disproportionate that blaming Warmbier himself becomes indecent. And La Sha’s passing acknowledgement that the punishment was wrong doesn’t make it okay.

2) All of these people take it as fact that Otto Warmbier stole a poster. But we don’t know if that’s true. The face of the man in the video is impossible to make out. Human Rights Watch called his trial a “kangaroo court.” And it’s safe to assume that Warmbier’s “confession” was coerced.

This is not a trivial point. When we accept without question North Korea’s version of events, we are (effectively if unintentionally) taking the side of the oppressor against the victim.

3) Using “privilege” to explain one individual act (that may not even have happened) is the wrong way to think of privilege.

Privilege is a useful way of talking about aggregate disparities between groups of people. We can say, for instance, that employers favoring thin job applicants over fat job applicants (because they assume fat job applicants are lazy) is an example of thin privilege. But we shouldn’t point to a single instance of a thin person being hired and say that it’s an example of thin privilege.

We don’t know that. Even if thin privilege didn’t exist, some thin people would still get hired. Similarly, if even white male privilege didn’t exist, some 22-year-olds would still make foolish mistakes.

Privilege is a little like global warming in this way. We can say for certain that extreme weather events are happening because of global warming. But that doesn’t mean we can point to any one storm and say “this was caused by global warming.” Global warming tells us what’s happening in the aggregate, but it doesn’t establish causation for any single event.

Even if Otto Warmbier stole a poster – and I feel compelled to repeat, we don’t know that he did – we can’t know what caused him to be do that. It could be white male privilege, but it could also be any of dozens of other factors that make up any individual’s personality. Privilege is real and important, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all explanation of any time a privileged person acts badly.

4) It’s not always wrong to politicize tragedies. Sometimes a tragedy suggests policy actions we can take to make future tragedies less likely, and in that case not talking about the steps we could take might be irresponsible. (Questions of time and place still apply, of course). Are there policy options that would make it harder for firms to promise American tourists that visiting Korea is safe (as the tour firm that took Warmbier promised)? If so, now might be a fruitful time to push for that change.

Similarly, BLM activists are 100% right to use each new police shooting as an occasion to push for change.

But it doesn’t follow that every tragedy should immediately be politicized. When we consider responding to a tragedy with politics, we should ask ourselves: Is what I’m saying related directly to a policy change that could have prevented this tragedy? Am I discussing this in a way that disparages the victims? Is talking about this in this way showing a lack of compassion for the victim and their family? Will this actually help in any significant way?

I assume that La Sha, Wilmore, and Affinity Mag failed to ask these questions. They considered only one factor. That’s rigid one-note thinking; that’s doctrinaire politics taking precedence over compassion. And yes, it’s wrong.

I have no interest in being part of a political movement that blames the victim of an authoritative regime; that laughs at the suffering of torture victims; that can’t imagine any priorities other than their own political narratives could ever be relevant. But that’s what our movement would be if Affinity Magazine’s attitude, as displayed in that tweet, becomes the norm.

Posted in In the news, Korea, White Privilege | 53 Comments  

Cartoon: It’s No Longer About Obamacare


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Transcript of cartoon.

This cartoon has a single panel, which shows Mitch McConnell, holding an axe, standing next to a huge tree that he’s clearly been chopping down; the tree is labeled “Medicaid.” Next to the tree is a tiny baby tree that he’s not chopping down, labeled “Obamacare.” In the branches of the Medicaid tree, there are countless tiny people looking terrified.

MCCONNELL: What’s the fuss? We’re only repealing Obamacare.

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Conservative zaniness, right-wingers, etc., Health Care and Related Issues | 4 Comments  

Open Thread and Link Farm: Just Wash Your Hands Edition


  1. Daughters Will Suffer From Medicaid Cuts – The New York Times
    “The burden [of elder parent care] is particularly demanding for daughters, who spend as much time on such care as spouses of older adults, and as much time as sons, in-laws, grandchildren and other relatives combined.” (Indirect link.) Thanks Grace!
  2. Why Are So Many Young Voters Falling for Old Socialists? – The New York Times
    “Britain and the United States used to have parties that at least pledged allegiance to workers. Since the 1970s, and accelerating in the ’80s and ’90s, the left-wing planks have one by one been ripped from their platforms.” Again, hat tip to Grace. (Indirect link.)
  3. For Foster Teens Seeking Abortion, Going to Court May Be the Only Option – Rewire
    Grace says: ” Remember my post on restricting access to abortion, a few years ago? I missed a spot.”
  4. This 2016 HuffPost article, “North Korea Proves Your White Male Privilege Is Not Universal,” was disgusting when it was published over a year ago; it seems even worse now that Otto Warmbier has died.
  5. Mathematician turns Juno images into stunning Jupiter flyby video: Digital Photography Review
  6. News media do under-report some terror attacks – just not those involving Islamist extremists | The Independent
  7. Lawmakers across the US are finding ways to turn protesting into a crime – Vox
    So much for conservatives’ commitment to free speech.
  8. How G.O.P. Leaders Came to View Climate Change as Fake Science – The New York Times
    At this point, very few GOP leaders would dare speak out in favor of climate science. It really makes me despair. The Times article blames Obama for using executive powers to address climate change, but what other approach was possible?  And it exaggerates how willing to accept science the GOP was during McCain’s run, although it certainly was better than it is now. (Indirect link.)
  9. NEW YORK 1911 | MoMA
    Amazingly clear film footage of NYC in 1911. Mostly just street scenes, almost entirely of white men, but still fascinating to me. I forget how universal hats once were.
  10. Don’t just blame Trump for quitting the Paris deal — blame the Republican Party – Vox
    Trump isn’t an outlier on this one; his ignorance and his denial of science lies firmly in the mainstream of his party.
  11. The Myth of the Kindly General Lee – The Atlantic
  12. Far right raises £50,000 to target boats on refugee rescue missions in Med | World news | The Guardian
    “Far-right activists are planning a sea campaign this summer to disrupt vessels saving refugees in the Mediterranean, after successfully intercepting a rescue mission last month.” Perhaps not legally, but morally this is basically murder.
  13. On Harvard and Humor – In A Crowded Theater
    A blog post (which I mostly agree with) criticizing Harvard’s decision to rescind acceptances of students who had a private online conversation where they exchanged offensive memes. There’s also a follow-up post in which she addresses some criticisms of the first post.
  14. Body-cam study: Oakland police spoke less respectfully to black people – San Francisco Chronicle
  15. Amazon Patents Method to Prevent In-store Comparison Shopping
  16. Obama / Trump / Caesar – Rob Melrose – Medium
    Essay from the director of the Obama Caesar about the current controversy with the Trump Caesar. Apparently the controversy was started by a Brietbart writer who hadn’t actually seen the play and who thinks it ends with the death of Caesar.
  17. Nevada’s legislature just passed a radical plan to let anybody sign up for Medicaid – Vox
    Calling it a “plan” is a bit of an exaggeration – essential details are lacking. But still, this is potentially very exciting. UPDATE: Nevada governor Sandoval vetoes Medicaid-for-all plan. That’s too bad, but I won’t be surprised if this comes up again.
  18. How Many People Are Wrongly Convicted? Researchers Do the Math. – Phenomena: Only Human
    They estimate that about 4% (!) of prisoners on death row are innocent.
  19. Eager To Burst His Own Bubble, A Techie Made Apps To Randomize His Life : All Tech Considered : NPR
    I saw someone on Twitter criticize this person for being privileged, to be able to assume that he could go to any public event (including parties thrown by people he’d never met) and be welcomed. If so, I think it’s one of those privileges that we should want all kinds of people to have, not a privilege that we should want wealthy white men to stop having.
  20. 3 ways Senate Republicans can pass Obamacare repeal – Vox
  21. Silver lining watch: Republicans are about to make Medicare-for-all much more likely – Vox
    “If Republicans strike down Obamacare, the ‘Medicare for all’ movement will become more powerful than they can imagine.”
  22. The real reason Republicans can’t answer simple questions about their health care bill – Vox
    Because the bill itself – which is cuts health care for millions of people and uses the savings for a tax cut for the rich – is too odious for them to risk talking honestly about it.
  23. Maria Tiurina: My Giant Watercolor “Eden”
    Inspired by Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.”

Maria Tiurina eden

Posted in Link farms | 100 Comments  

Cartoon: 36 Annoying Anti-Feminists (revised and expanded!)


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You may remember an earlier version of this cartoon, which had only 32 anti-feminists.

After this cartoon was first published, I got a lot of criticism. Some of it was the expected mindless anger (I hope you die, you’re just trying to get laid, etc etc) from the less intelligent anti-feminists. Some of the comments from the smarter anti-feminists were actually helpful (for instance, if a lot of people misread the same panel in the same way, that’s a panel I can clarify).

But the comments that really made me want to revise the cartoon came from feminists who reminded me of some anti-feminists I missed. (Indeed, on reading this, one of my housemate’s first comment was “where’s the bitter divorced guy?”) I had a little free time during my New York City trip, so I decided to add in four of the anti-feminists I missed last time. And while I was doing that, I thought I’d revise some of the old panels. For instance, in the first version of Mr. Buzzword, I somehow forgot to include the word “snowflake,” an omission that has bothered me ever since. :-)

(In one case – “the comparison shopper” – I completely redrew the art. The original drawing for that showed an angry character. Anger seemed like the wrong emotion entirely, so I drew a different character who was more snotty than angry. The original, angry character drawing got moved to the “kicker” panel below the bottom of the strip.)

If you want to just skip to the new ones, they are panels 31-35 – that is, the fifth-to-last to the second-to-last panels.

Transcript of cartoon is below the cut. Continue reading

Posted in Anti-feminists and their pals, Cartooning & comics | 17 Comments  

I’m in Chicago at CAKE (Chicago Alt Comics Expo) This Weekend

I’m in Chicago for CAKE (Chicago Alt Comics Expo) at table 313, both today and tomorrow.

It’s free to attend, so if you’re in Chicago, I hope you’ll come say hi. (And let me know you’re an “Alas” reader! I love meeting “Alas” folk.)

I’ll have HEREVILLE with me, of course. And I’ll be selling the first issue of SUPERBUTCH. And I’ll have a few minicomics, as well, including 36 ANNOYING ANTIFEMINISTS I’VE MET ON THE INTERNET. Hope to see you there!


Posted in Appearances | 3 Comments  

Lines That Didn’t Make The Cut: Ruth’s Story

Trigger warning: These lines describe the sexual exploitation of a young woman.

Ruth’s Story

It wasn’t like I showed him anything
he hadn’t seen before. Besides, he took
the ones with clothes, the good ones, only if
I did a few from the waist down. Once,
we hadn’t been together for two years,
because I promised my friends I’d score, I posed–
one last time I told myself–for a hundred
dollars worth of coke. One hundred dollars.

When I said I didn’t want to end the shoot
the way we always did, he offered more:
a twenty dollar bill to fuck. I walked out.

I know if he called right now with fifty
bucks worth of cocaine, I’d consider posing.
What scares me is for twenty-five I wouldn’t.

I wrote these lines, which tell a true story–my memory is that the last two tercets make up pretty much an exact quote–more than a thirty years ago. I was an undergraduate in college at the time (I think it was my junior year), and I was working part-time as a youth advisor for the local Jewish Center. I remember thinking when I wrote them how important it was to tell stories like Ruth’s, and I tried unsuccessfully for many years to get the poem published. Over time, though, I came to realize just how much of Ruth’s story is missing from the poem: how “he” got her to pose nude in the first place, for example, or the fact that she was not older than sixteen when it happened and that she was only seventeen when she told me about it.

The Ruth in the poem of course is not the same person as the Ruth I knew in real life, and there is nothing in the poem that hints at why its Ruth has chosen to tell her story, or to whom; and there is no exploration of how telling the story changes her or how hearing it changes her audience. The lines remain, in other words, a generally faithful rendering of a disturbing story a girl told me a long time ago, a girl whose face I can still see, whose last name I still remember, whose trust changed me, but a story which–I think this might have been the first time I tried to write about a topic like this–I was not able to transform into art.

I have not thought about Ruth in a very long time, but this morning, as I was paging through the drafts of poems on my desk, trying to decide which one to work on next, I took the time to read these lines all the way through, which brought her back to me. I hope, wherever she is, that she is happy and fulfilled.

Posted in Rape, intimate violence, & related issues, Writing | Leave a comment  

Cartoon: “The Democrats Abandoned Blue Collar Voters”


If you enjoy these cartoons, please support them on Patreon.

This is something that I hear and read frequently, and it always annoys me: People who say “blue collar” or “working class” when what they mean is white working class people. As if people of color somehow don’t count as part of the working class. Ever since the election, this has come up a lot in “why did Hillary lose” analysis.

I don’t usually laugh at my own cartoons, and what I do laugh at is sort of random. But the final line in this comic strip, for whatever reason, makes me chuckle.

(The two paragraphs above, taken together, summarize the job of being a political cartoonist:: Think of something that pisses me off, and then try to make it funny. )

Right now the art looks pretty good to me – but it usually does, right after I finish drawing it. I mainly concentrated on trying to keep the figure drawings loose and lively; I have a real tendency to stiffen up which I’m always fighting against.


Panel 1
Two women are having a discussion on the street, a brunette and a redhead. Redhead is speaking intensely.

REDHEAD: Democrats abandoned blue collar voters! That’s why they lose!

Panel 2
BRUNETTE: But don’t democrats push a lot of stuff to help the working class? Minimum wage, obamacare, college grants, the dream act…
REDHEAD (dismissively): Those all help urban people.

Panel 3
BRUNETTE: Besides, Clinton WON blue collar voters, so-
REDHEAD: She only won the blue collar vote if you count urban voters.

Panel 4
Redhead is now looking annoyed, with her arms folded; Redhead leans forward and yells angrily.
BRUNETTE: So to clarify, when you say “blue collar,” that means white?

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Class, poverty, labor, & related issues, Race, racism and related issues | 123 Comments  

Repost: Reading The Veil and The Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, by Fatima Mernissi

About two-and-a-half years ago, I posted about Mernissi’s book because reading it was an instructive journey into my own ignorance about Islam, particularly about an aspect of that religion that, to put it mildly, sticks in the craw of many, many people in the west: the hejab. My plan at the time was to read her book and post a kind of reading journal as I went, but a host of circumstances intervened, making my reading a far more disjointed experience than such a project would have required. Even if I’d been able to devote the time to the book that I’d wanted, however, a single reading would not have been enough for me to post in the way I originally had in mind. Mernissi’s argument is subtle and complex and relies not only on a textual analysis of passages in the Quran, which I have never read, not even in English, but also on a body of religious and historical research and commentary with which I am completely unfamiliar. I simply did not know enough to do what I originally wanted to do in the way that I wanted to do it.

Instead, I posted some passages from Mernissi’s “Preface to the English Edition,” which is clearly intended to frame her book for a Western audience, because I thought then that encountering the very different framing that she, as a Muslim woman, brought to the issue would be instructive. Now, in light of the recent attacks in England and President Trump’s subsequent doubling down on his travel ban, I think it’s worth encountering that framing again. There is a difference between confronting oppression and violence perpetrated by Muslims who justify their actions within Islam and essentializing as inherently Muslim the hatred motivating that oppression and violence, which is what Donald Trump did when he said, “I think Islam hates us.”

From page vi:

Is Islam opposed to women’s rights?….Is it not odd that in this extraordinary decade, the 1990s, when the whole world is swept by the irresistible chant for human rights, sung by men and women, by children and grandparents, from all kinds of religious backgrounds and beliefs, in every language and dialect from Beijing to America, one finds only one religion identified as a stumbling block on the road to true democracy? Islam alone is condemned by many Westerners as blocking the way to women’s rights. And yet, though neither Christianity nor Judaism played an important role in promoting the equality of the sexes, millions of Jewish and Christian women today enjoy a dual privilege–full human rights on the one hand and access to an inspirational religious tradition on the other.

That initial framing question is important. She is not denying that there are Muslim governments which actively deny rights to women; she is asking if Islam itself is opposed to women’s rights, asserting that if nothing inherent in being practicing Jews or Christians prevents Jewish and Christian women in the West from accessing their full rights as citizens and asking why we should assume the same can’t be true of islam.

From pages vi-vii:

Westerners make unconscious religious references constantly in their daily activities, their creative thinking, and their approach to the world around them. When Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts walked on the moon on July 20, 1969, they read to the millions watching them, including us Muslims, the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: “In the Beginning God created the Heaves and the Earth…” They did not sound so very modern….Here is a clear message for those who doubt Islam’s capacity to survive modernity, calling it unfit to accompany the age of higher technology: why should Islam fail where Judaism and Christianity so clearly succeed?

Again from page vii:

[H]ow and where can a businessman who profitably exploits [Muslim] women…find a source in which he can dip his spurious rationale to give it a glow of authenticity? Surely not in the present. To defend the violation of women’s rights it is necessary to go back into the shadows of the past. This is what those people, East or West, who would deny Muslim women’s claim to democracy [as practicing or at least consciously self-identified Muslim women] are trying to do. They camouflage their self-interest by proclaiming that we can have either Islam or democracy, but never both together.

From pages vii-viii:

Any man who believes that a Muslim woman who fights for her dignity and right to citizenship excludes herself necessarily from the umma and is a brainwashed victim of Western propagand is a man who misunderstands his own religious heritage, his own cultural identity. The vast and inspiring records of Muslim history…speak to the contrary. We Muslim women can walk into the modern world with pride, knowing that the quest for dignity, democracy, and human rights, for full participation in the political and social affairs of our country, stems from no imported Western values, but is a true part of the Muslim tradition….Women fled atristocratic tribal Mecca by the thousands to enter Medina, the Prophet’s city in the seventh century, because Islam promised equality and dignity for all, for men and women, masters and servants. Every woman who came to Medina when the Prophet was the political leader of Muslims could gain access to full citizenship….

From page ix:

[That Mohammad’s] egalitarian message today sounds so foreign to many in our Muslim societies that they claim it to be imported is indeed one of the great enigmas of our times […] For those first Muslims democracy was nothing unusual; it was their meat and drink and their wonderful dream, waking or sleeping.

These last two quotes made the most impression on me, not because I am sure Mernissi is right–I find her book persuasive, but I don’t know enough to say more than that–but because her assertion that “the quest for dignity, democracy, and human rights, for full participation in the political and social affairs of our country…is a true part of the Muslim tradition” so thoroughly undermines the Western-centric framing used by so many people—too many of them in positions of policy-making power and influence, who claim to be fighting “radical Islam.” Mernissi is a serious scholar of Islam in ways that the overwhelming majority of those people are not. On that count alone, her assertion deserves to be taken at least as seriously as anything they have to say on the matter.

Finally, I’d like to say this. In writing this post, I am not trying to defend Islam as a religious practice, a body of law, or a way of life. Rather, I am interested in making visible the often very biased framing that we use to understand and critique Islam here in the West–which, I hasten to add, doesn’t mean that I think we have no right to call out the oppressive behavior of Muslim governments, organizations, or people, or to call oppressive Islam as it is practiced and/or enforced by those entities. To acknowledge the existence of Mernissi’s perspective, much less its validity, is merely to acknowledge that the most useful, constructive, and effective answer to that oppression may not lie with us and that perhaps we ought to stop behaving as if it did.

Posted in Islam, Islamaphobia | Leave a comment  

Repost: Domestic Violence Has Always Been a Current Running Through My Life

Going through some old emails, I recently came across the name of the woman I talk about in the beginning of this post, in whose escape from her abusive husband I played a small role. I remembered this post, which I wrote back in 2010 when I first met her and which I think is worth reposting.

Three weeks ago, as the students were filing out of the room at the end of one of my classes, a woman stopped in front of my desk and said something along the lines of, “So I want to write poetry, but I don’t know how to start. Can you help me?”

A question like that is not one you want to give an easy answer to, at least not without hearing a little more of what the person who asks has to say about themselves, why they want to write and perhaps even what they want to write about. So I asked the student to wait while I packed up my things and we went to find an empty room where we could talk. As we sat down, it was clear that my student was nervous about something and I, of course, assumed it was related to her question about writing poetry. It was, but not in the way I anticipated, and so I am going to skip over most of what we talked about to get to the point. After talking a bit about strategies for starting to write, I suggested to my student that she might want to check out a local reading series run by one of my colleagues. It’s a wonderful, warm, welcoming place for beginners to go, both to hear other people’s work and to begin to share their own, but as soon as I suggested it, my students said, “You know, I barely have enough time to work, go to school and go home. I am in a very difficult situation and I know I won’t get the chance to go.”

Something in her tone of voice told me she was not talking about a merely practical difficulty and so I asked her, “By difficult do you mean dangerous?” She said yes. I don’t want to give any more details, since I don’t want anyone to be able to identify her from what I write here, but suffice it to say that she accepted my invitation to tell me more about her situation. She is in a marriage that she needs desperately to get out of. Her husband has not physically harmed her yet, but she is afraid of him, and while she didn’t say so explicitly when we talked, I think she believes him capable of killing her if things ever get to that point. [I will add here that he did subsequently threaten her life, showing her a gun he’d bought just to prove his point.]

I am doing what I can to help, and if it becomes possible, perhaps I will write more about that, but what I have been thinking about today is how domestic violence has always been a current running through my own life, from the boyfriend who held my mother hostage with a butcher’s cleaver to my mother’s best friend when I was a young teenager, who was found stabbed sixteen times in the chest with a serrated knife, most probably by her boyfriend; from the woman in whose bed I spent the night–no sex was involved–because she was afraid that if her boyfriend came back he might get violent (see the poem below) to the woman who lived downstairs from me who screamed like she was dying when the cops showed up at her door because I called them on a night when I was home to hear her boyfriend beating the shit out of her. (Some weeks later, he heard me, through the way-too-thin walls of my apartment, telling the story about that night to a friend of mine, and called back that, now that he knew I was the one who’d “called the pigs on him,” he was going to make me pay for it. He never did, but it scared me into doing everything I could to avoid him for about a month.) And if I go even further back in my life, there was my stepfather’s belt; and then, when I was in graduate school, my own too-close-for-comfort-brush with being the one on whom someone else might have had to call the cops—which I will write more about in the future.

I don’t really have much to say about all this tonight in any analytical sense; it’s just all been coming back to me in waves of feeling and it put me in mind to share this poem, “Coitus Interruptus,” which is from my book called The Silence of Men. There are likely to be all kinds of triggers all over the poem, so if you decide to read it, this has been your trigger warning. The only other thing I will say about this poem is that, with the exception of a few details which I had to alter in order to make the poem work, it is entirely autobiographical:

Coitus Interruptus


Naked at the window, my wife calls me
as if someone is dying, and someone
almost is, pinned to the concrete face down
beneath the fists and feet and knees of three

policemen. I’m still hard from before she
jumped out of bed to answer the question
I was willing not to ask when the siren
stopped on our block, but now I’m here, and I see

the man is Black, and how can I not
bear witness? They’ve cuffed him,
but the uniforms continue to crowd our street,
and the blue-and-whites keep coming,

as if called to war, as if the lives
in all these darkened homes
were truly at stake, and that’s the thing—
who can tell from up here?—maybe

we’re watching our salvation
without knowing it. Above our heads,
a voice calls out Fucking pigs!
but the ones who didn’t drag the man

into a waiting car and drive off
refuse the bait. They talk quietly,
gathered beneath the streetlamp
in the pale circle of light

the man was beaten in, and then
a word we cannot hear is given
and the cops wave each other back
to their vehicles, the flash and sparkle

of their driving off
throwing onto the wall of our room
a shadow of the embrace
my wife and I have been clinging to.

When I was sixteen, Tommy
brought to my room before he left
the Simon and Garfunkel tape
I’d put the previous night

back among his things. He placed it
on the bookshelf near the door
he’d slammed shut two days earlier
when he was holding a butcher’s cleaver

to my mother’s life. I wanted
to run after him and smash it at his feet;
I wanted to grab him by the scruff of the neck
and crush it in his face, to dangle him

over the side of our building with one
ankle in my left hand and the Greatest Hits
in my right and ask him
which I should let drop.

But I didn’t, couldn’t really:
he was much too big,
and I was not a fighter,
and one of my best friends right now

lives with her son in the house
where her husband has already hit her
with a cast iron frying pan,
and so there is no reason to believe

she is not at this moment cringing
bruised and bleeding in a corner
of their bedroom, or that she is not,
with her boy and nothing else in her arms,

running the way my mother
didn’t have a chance to run,
and there’s nothing I can do
but look at the clock—Sunday,

11:11 PM—and remind myself
it’s too late to call, that my calls
have caused trouble for her already.
When they pushed Tommy in handcuffs

out the front door, past where my mother sat,
quiet, unmoving, and I did not know
from where inside my own rage and terror
to pull the comfort I should have offered her,

the officer making sure Tommy
didn’t trip or run winked at me, smiling
as if what had happened were suddenly
a secret between us, and this our signal

that everything was okay. I wondered
if his had been the voice, calm
and deep with male authority—Son,
are you sure your mother’s in there

against her will?—that when I called
forced me to find the more-than-yes
I can’t remember the words to
that convinced the cops they had to come.


Sophomore year, walking the road
girdling the campus. Up ahead, a woman’s voice
pleading with a man’s shouting to stop.
A car door slamming, engine revving,

and then wheels digging hard into driveway dirt
that when I got there was a dust cloud
obscuring the blue vehicle’s rear plate.
The woman sprawled on the asphalt,

her black dress spread around her
like an open portal her upper body
emerged from. She pulled
the cloth away from her feet,

which were bleeding, and I drove
to where her spaghetti strap sandals
lay torn and twisted beyond repair.
She left them there. Then to her home,

two rooms in a neighborhood house,
and I helped her onto the bed
that was her only furniture, and filled
a warm-water basin to soak her feet,

and he had not hit her, so there was nothing
to report, but she said she was afraid
and would I sit with her a while.
We talked about her home in Seoul,

the man her parents picked for her
that she ran to America to avoid marrying,
and here she laughed—first trickle
of spring water down a winter mountain—

So instead I take from Egypt! I so stupid!
Then: What you think? Can man and woman
sleep same bed without sex?
I said yes.
So, please, tonight, you stay here? Maybe he coming back.

He fear white American like you. I was not a fighter,
but I stayed, and in the morning when I left,
she said kamsahamnida—thank you—
and she bowed low, and she did not

ask my name, nor I hers, and though
I sometimes looked for her on campus,
I never saw her again. Just like Tommy,
whom I forgot to say before was white.

Just like the Black woman who lived downstairs
before I got married, whose cries—Help!
Please! He’s killing me!
—and the dead thud
of him, also Black, throwing her

against the wall, and his screaming—
Shut up, bitch! Fucking whore!—filled the space
till I was drowning. The desk sergeant
didn’t ask if I knew beyond a doubt

that she was being beaten,
but when she opened her front door
to the two men he sent, she shrieked
the way women shriek

in bad horror movies
when they know they’re going to die,
and I almost felt sorry for calling.A few weeks later,

a voice on the phone: You know
what’s going on below you, right?
Please, tape a message to the door: “Mr. Peters
has been trying to reach you.” Nothing else.

And whatever you do, don’t sign it.
For a month all was quiet. Then,
coming home early from work
I walked upstairs past people moving furniture

out of her apartment. No one ever
wants to get involved,
right? a thin white man
in shorts and a t-shirt whispered bitter
behind me. I kept walking

the way Tommy did when he saw me
trying to catch his eye: head down,
gaze nailed to the floor, and then he was gone,
and the questions I wanted to ask him

never became words. That tape
was all I had, till one day,
cleaning house, my mother
held it up:

Do you still want this?

I never play it.

Throw it out then.

So I did.

Posted in Rape, intimate violence, & related issues, Writing | 1 Comment  

Open Thread and Link Farm, Multimedia Trump Edition


  1. Let’s start with some good news: A federal appeals court just reached a huge decision for transgender rights. Seriously, it’s big. – Vox
    “On Tuesday, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Kenosha Unified School District in Wisconsin violated the rights of a trans student, Ash Whitaker, when it refused to let him use the boys’ bathroom.” “…if bans against sex discrimination in particular apply to trans people, then it’s not just students’ rights that are protected, but all trans people who face discrimination in other settings where sex discrimination is banned — so not just schools, but the workplace and housing as well.”
  2. And more good news: Supreme Court on 5-3 Vote Affirms NC Racial Gerrymandering Case, with Thomas in Majority and Roberts in Dissent | Election Law Blog
    ” This decision by Justice Kagan is a major victory for voting rights plaintiffs, who have succeeded in turning the racial gerrymandering cause of action into an effective tool to go after partisan gerrymanders in Southern states. That Justice Kagan got Justice Thomas not only to vote this way but to sign onto the opinion (giving it precedential value) is a really big deal.”
  3. Related: Why Clarence Thomas’s Rulings on Race Are so Idiosyncratic | New Republic As nice as this decision was, it doesn’t indicate a change of heart for Thomas; it indicates a set of facts that happened to comport with Thomas’ race politics in a way that made him vote atypically. Overall, the Supreme Court still seems likely to rubberstamp most voter suppression efforts.
  4. Do All Violent Offenders Need Long Prison Terms? | The Crime Report
    A scholar is interviewed about his new study, which shows that prosecutors and prosecutors alone have caused soaring prison populations.
  5. House Overwhelmingly Supports Bill Subjecting Teen Sexters to Mandatory 15-Years in Federal Prison – Hit & Run :
    Which puts all the power in prosecutor’s hands. This is a terrible law, which virtually every Republican and, shamefully, all but 53 Democrats voted for.
  6. Alamo Drafthouse Apologizes for Starting Manpocalypse With Women-Only Screening
    “The Shadowy Figure made good points about Representation Mattering and Safe Spaces as she idly flicked raw flesh to her dogs.”
  7. A new GOP bill would make it virtually impossible to sue the police – The Washington Post
  8. The Lead-Poisoned Generation in New Orleans – The Atlantic
    “The story of a decades-long lead-poisoning lawsuit in New Orleans illustrates how the toxin destroys black families and communities alike.”
  9. Researchers say many students still struggle with affirmative consent
  10. This Week in Appropriation: Kooks Burritos and Willamette Week – Blogtown – Portland Mercury
    So the writer is gloating because two white women’s tortilla pop-up business went out of business. That’s gross. And so is this use of the “cultural appropriation” criticism.
  11. The engine of irrationality inside the rationalists – Ketan Joshi>
    Anti-feminists got a hoax paper published and are crowing that this proves gender studies is worthless. But the journal they got their hoax paper accepted to appears to be a pay-for-play journal which publishes almost anything. When they submitted the same hoax to a better journal, it was rejected.
  12. Same study packaged for two different audiences.
    This cracked me up.
  13. Why are people still losing their minds over Hillary?
    Ends with yny starts with mis.
  14. The Debate Link: More Shocking News from the Fair-Weather Free Speech Brigade
  15. What the Mariel Boatlift of Cuban Refugees Can Teach Us about the Economics of Immigration: An Explainer and a Revelation | Center For Global Development
    A much-talked about paper, showing that immigration reduces wages among American workers who never completed high school, had completely spurious results – caused not by any dishonesty, but by a coincidence of when the US Census altered its sampling methods.
  16. The 712-page Google doc that proves Muslims do condemn terrorism | World news | The Guardian
  17. Pregnant at 18. Hailed by Abortion Foes. Punished by Christian School. – The New York Times
    Indirect link.
  18. Johnny Depp Wouldn’t Have a Female Villain for ‘Pirates 5’ | The Mary Sue
    Because there had been a female villain in “Dark Shadows,” a Depp picture which came out five years earlier.
  19. The Real Reasons for Marvel Comics’ Woes – The Atlantic
    Constant relaunches and creative team merry-go-rounds have diminished reader interest and loyalty. (Thanks to Nobody!)
  20. Man still serving time for violating probation by being arrested for robbery of which he was acquitted
    And he’s Black. What a surprise.
  21. Why “tick tock” sounds correct but “tock tick” does not. : etymology
  22. The airport lawyers who fought Trump’s Muslim ban are facing a Justice Dept. crackdown
  23. When ISIS Ran the American South | The American Conservative
  24. Review: Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto is witty and thought-provoking – Seventh Row
    This movie about art manifestos, starring Cate Blanchett playing 13 different roles, sounds really neat. I hope I get to see it someday, although I’m not sure if I’m steeped enough in art movements to understand it.
  25. Police Forces Are Sending A Message To Black Suburban Residents: You’re Not Wanted
    Interesting article about towns that used to be almost all-white, and still have almost all-white police forces.
  26. Housing Constraints and Spatial Misallocation
    An academic paper arguing that the lack of sufficient housing in cities like NYC and San Francisco reduce economic opportunities not only in those cities, but all over the country.
  27. Sweden drops rape charges against Julian Assange — but not because they think he’s innocent – Vox
    Basically, they decided that they have no means of ever bringing Assange up for trial, unless he someday decides to return to Sweden.
  28. Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr – review | Books | The Guardian
    ” By the first world war, soldiers swore so much that the word “fucking” came to function as no more than ‘a warning that a noun is coming’.”


Posted in Link farms | 101 Comments