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Today we were discussing gender relations. In my limited Spanish, I tried to argue that while the basics of the gender roles are the same between this country (from what I’ve seen and heard) and the United States, the effects are different. As always, the US is hugely varied. Norms can differ enormously between different subcultures. But in general, this country reminded me of what I’ve heard of the US in the seventies. More relationships based primarily on physical passion, early days of feminism; the stereotypes are still very strong. Not just different gender roles but the specific role of women is seriously looked down upon. Ironic given the mutual dependency of caretaker/domestic women and childishly dependent/breadwinner men.

S tried to argue differently. Yes, there’s machismo in the United States. Yes, a single mother is perceived negatively.

“It’s less than ideal.”

S: “Yes. Less than ideal.”

I asked M, “Is it a scandal here if a woman is a single mother?”

M: “In the villages, yes. A big scandal. And for any single mother, it’s her fault – why couldn’t she hang onto her man?”

“See?” (to S). “It’s different here. Very different.”

Then I asked M, “How common is it here for a couple to be like a partnership? Where the man and the woman respect each other?”

M: “That’s the ideal marriage! It’s rare. Now a days, if a man and a woman study together or work together, and they build a relationship and then decide to get married… That’s good, and it’s more common these days. But still very rare. I know maybe… four or five couples like that. …It’s still very common that people get married because they feel they have to. Because the girlfriend is pregnant.”

This argument had arisen from a discussion of divorce proceedings, specifically alimony in cases where no children and no abuse was involved. M and I were both instinctively against the “maintain a style of living to which the person has become accustomed” situation, citing perverse incentives and the absurdity of an adult not being held accountable for his or her own decisions, especially now that education between the sexes is much more egalitarian.

S, who has serious health issues and has spent the past several years gaining education rather than work experience through the support of his wife and is now contemplating a separation while suffering unemployment in a dismal global economic situation, was strongly in favor of alimony. He’s in favor of governments providing material support to their citizens in general.

With his recent physical handicaps, his increasing age, high education level, stagnant work experience, and the deteriorating economy, he can’t pick up jobs the way he used to. He’s suffering an identity crisis. He places great stock in education and knowledge as indicators of worth.

I didn’t want to directly criticize his approach to his own problems, hardly knowing him, so I didn’t, but I was thinking… “Sometimes you just have to suffer. Especially as the economy gets worse and worse…” I was remembering men I had met in homeless shelters. Men who were intelligent but for constellations of reasons had lost their footholds. For S, all it would take would be a divorce with no alimony, failure to find a good job, depression, and then a descent into alcoholism followed by harder drugs.

And I still couldn’t bring myself to feel that his wife should be legally obligated to support him for the rest of his life. Until he reaches sixty-five and the government takes over.

In the meantime, I’m seeing firsthand and in an intimate setting what incipient desperation looks like. I’m renting a room from T. She made a good living in the tourist trade, but these days tourism is slow. She’s relying more and more on the savings she had accumulated over the past several years. Recently she took a big risk in renting space for a shop. Every day of commuting to the market burns through more and more money – and then the money for supplies, and more for all of the unexpected structural work that appears to be necessary. It might be a year before she starts making a profit – if she can hold out long enough. Between the shop, the tourism work she still does when she can find it, and helping her daughter with her small grandsons, T is running herself ragged, and it looks like it still won’t be enough.

Sometimes T sets aside food or paid housework for a friend of hers, whose family is bordering on destitute. Three women: A cheerful grandmother; the haggard, underfed mother – T’s friend; and a young daughter, remarkably bright, cheerful, outgoing, and ambitious – and desperately in need of serious dental work that the family has no hope of being able to afford.

I don’t know where the father might be.

As for the father of T’s children – he used to be a good man, but success changed him. He and T were never married, and she discovered that with his wealth he was supporting two other women – a legal wife and family and also a concubine in a different city. T cut off all contact. She raised her children with the help of her own family, and until recent years, they were doing just fine.

Many of T’s current problems have to do with her daughter. A is smart and serious, but as T puts it, she’s a magnet to bad men. The father of her first son is now a transvestite drug addict. Their son is almost four years old now and has no contact with his father. The father of her second son, her newborn, works hard but makes hardly any money and doesn’t support her or the new baby. That burden falls to T. Meanwhile, the four-year-old has become violently jealous of his mother’s relationship with her boyfriend and with the new baby.

A might propose to her boyfriend in the interest of creating a stable home life for her children. T burns with shame and indignation at the thought of her daughter having to beg her boyfriend to marry her. She also worries that the man will not be a suitable role model for her grandson but instead will make his home life even more miserable than it already is. In addition to his emotional problems, the four-year-old has severe allergies and runs a real risk of working himself up into a deadly tantrum some day. There is medicine that would work as a prophylactic, but of course it’s expensive. T worries about him night and day.

Obligations: Legal, Moral, Societal.

Cascading consequences.

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I just have threads of ideas, but I want to get them out, write them down, and look at them. Something like an outline.

I’ve been thinking about human rights. It seems to me that there is a big difference between what might be considered “rights” in the classical Western sense – liberty, property(?), justice – and “rights” as the word is increasingly used, particularly in developing nations, to refer to material necessities – sufficient food, clean water, etc.

It strikes me that it is very dangerous to confuse the two.

I would argue that rather than clamor directly for the latter, it is more important to demand the former as the means of obtaining the latter. If one argues directly for the latter, one encounters several problems. The existing state apparatus might capitulate, and the result is often a state of patronage/dependency/dole/welfare which engenders contempt in those who pay and resentment in those who receive along with hosts of perverse incentives and poisonous inversions of pride. Or rather than capitulate to demands, the state might answer them with increased oppression, and the result is war, each side fighting for its own interests. Right demands might, and the principle at play is power and the ability to wield it. Or, more commonly, a combination of the above – bread and circuses to buy out the majority of the public and silent, virulent repression of those voices that still resist.

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You know, I think it’s generally easier to discuss things through the lens of fiction – or easier to discuss things that are fiction. The less personal, the less real, the easier not to offend.

I’ve been ill this past week – jet lag -> weakened immune system -> nasty cold – so I’ve been watching a lot of DVDs.

I was watching CSI with a friend, and I commented that I really didn’t like one of the main female characters. There are a few reasons, but the main one is that the show makes it very clear that her career takes priority over the emotional well-being of her kid.

My friend defended the character, and added that, as a woman, I should unquestioningly support other women in their ambition.

It made me think of something I had heard another Arab woman say – that she was shocked to see how, in the United States, women don’t automatically look out for each other – that she was used to a much greater sense of solidarity.

That the character is a single mother in the United States and is estranged from her extended family I would say strengthens my critique. That she is the only strong support for her child is all the more reason for the child to be her top priority, especially considering the fact that in her career, while she is important, she is not unique. Nothing drastic would happen if she quit.

This is obvious and reasonable to me. I wonder what it says about me. That I am a US resident, accustomed to individual needs and individual responsibilities? That I am an nth-generation feminist, more concerned with abandoning the playing field than leveling it?

I really wanted to talk about the American Way of Life and Casablanca.

Casablanca is a very enjoyable movie with great actors, great dialogue, an exciting setting, and a genuinely interesting story. It’s easy to see why it’s a classic, but the thing is, it is also supposed to be a great romance. However, a) there is no chemistry between Bogart and Bergman that I could see, and b) I don’t see how the Paris story really fits either of their characters. I mean, sure the idea of the romance in Paris in which they were escaping their problems – but they way it’s shot it seems more like Roman Holiday (which has fantastic on-screen chemistry, by the way) than anything set during a war.

So I really wonder, how and why did Casablanca achieve its reception, its reputation, as a great melodrama?

The only thing that comes to mind is to link the dialogue, which is romantic, with something very literally minded about the WWII American mindset. Something in line with the fact that even though the politics in Casablanca appear to be very cynical, very ambiguous, the “sentimental” romance is linked to the moral dichotomy – Germans Bad, French Resistance Good. The tension between Rick’s cynical exterior and his lovelorn heart is also a tension between his outward neutrality and his ultimate decision to kill the German officer and allow the Resistance leader to escape, even subordinating his personal romance (“the problems of three little people”) to that greater goal.

Hell, I think it’s a compelling story, and I could see how, leaving the theatre, one might retroactively imagine the romance to be more believable than it actually was.

(Even as a nth generation feminist, no, I’m not happy about Ilsa telling Rick to do the thinking for both of them, but on the other hand… it fit the era, and it does simplify the story, so I‘m not terribly perturbed.)

What concerns me more is the idea of Rick as an American Hero. Even presented as an anti-hero, it is understood that Rick’s true nature is Heroic – I’d say, primarily because he is American, and America in Casablanca is the ideal realm of strength and freedom to which everyone wants to escape. The fact that Rick supported the underdog in Spain and in Ethiopia (really?) is enough to warrant his being a top priority for the Germans and, more importantly, prove his strength and virtue in the eyes of the audience. Even though he supposedly spent a year in Paris doing nothing but make love and after that becomes avowedly neutral and cynical, his Masculine Americanness (in a sea of non-Americans) demands innate heroism.

Even this I wouldn’t say bothers me – this is an American film released during World War II; it’s only to be expected. But the assumptions that came out of WWII – war is a conflict of good vs. bad; America is the ideal society – I should say that these ideas didn’t originate with WWII but were very powerfully reinforced by it. Really set the tone for the 20th century, at least the US narrative.

Cut to present day. Here I am in the Middle East, realizing how powerful an idea the American Way of Life really is. I’m used to critiquing consumerism, imperialism, the all-consuming expansion of American culture – but on the other hand, the idea of having access to global culture, having access to all the conveniences of modern life – it’s a very compelling notion, and it’s one thing to critique it from within the culture, but it’s another thing to not have access to that culture.

Which I guess brings me back to the idea that most people, all over the world, want pretty much the same thing. They want to be able to live comfortably, with dignity, and most of all to provide security and dignity to their families. They want to be able to give their kids what other kids have. That there are consequences to the achievement of this way of life… that’s another question.

And speaking of WWII film tropes, every now and then, when I read something along the lines of “collateral damage” and what’s “fair” in situations of, say, civilian death tolls or human rights abuses, I think about this Mitchell and Webb sketch.

waterfront park

I finally composed myself enough to say, “It’s just so typical of this city: pour millions of dollars into creating a tacky conversation piece that appeals to the affluent while neglecting the actual function of a central public library, which is to provide a service for everyone.” This was substantially calmer than my initial reaction to any mention of the Seattle Central Library, which is to sneer and spit words like “tasteless” “pretentious” “nouveau riche,” to bewail the decline of public space and common good. The people who claim to love this aesthetically confrontational parking garage are the people who never use it but buy all their reading material from cafes and bookstores. No warm or comfortable place in this city but it must be paid for. The most beautiful spaces are in private neighborhoods.

This weekend I observed men, women, and children with clothing neat and new and clean and weather-appropriate, the understated affluence of Seattlites who must be prepared, at any moment, must be prepared for the possibility of an impromptu hike. I wore my own boutique-bought coat and three-inch heels, shivering in my knee-length skirt as cold, wet winds gusted through the corridor of extravagant storefronts. Chuckling at my own hypocrisy. To think about everything all the time, it’s a sort of madness.

I was on my way to a play written by a disillusioned proto-socialist. I was struck by the way fiction can do such concise work of conveying complex ideas. Amazing how much more sophisticated the picture is when presented in music and dialogue than when broken down and reassembled into… sociology, gender studies, philosophy, economics. (Woyzeck, the schizophrenic soldier, accusing and demanding: “What did he pay you?!” Deliciously black comedy: what did he pay you?)

Local food. Local clothing. Local entertainment.

I think that there is great opportunity in Seattle, currently being more or less wasted. There are artists who have some taste and little money and bourgeoisie who have a great deal of money and deplorable taste. I think that Seattle is ripe for cabaret – raucous songs and bitter satire.