Not the Right Stuff: Winning At All Costs

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I was raised by an American patriot, a U.S. Air Force pilot who did, in fact, have the Right Stuff in every fiber of his being.

You know that phrase, right? Brought to national consciousness by the Tom Wolfe book about astronauts (The Right Stuff, 1979), this phrase has come to mean, in the very best sense, someone who embodies the qualities of courage, confidence, dependability, toughness, and daring. Someone who always chooses the high road, who always does the right thing, the fair, honest, trustworthy thing. Someone who doesn’t lie or make excuses.

I am just old enough to remember a time when just being American gave you the assumption of having the Right Stuff. You might say I drank the Kool-Aid of the American Myth. But I was raised by members of the Greatest Generation, people who worked hard, sacrificed for their country (and their kids), who believed in the nation and its founding principles, and who not only believed that American myth, they embodied everything good about the myth.

But they’re gone now, and I don’t believe the myth any more.

The reason I don’t believe it is the behavior of Republican Party. The party of Lincoln, they like to remind us, but don’t you believe that for a minute. As this article notes, Lincoln would be horrified by today’s GOP; he would identify much more with Democrats. (In fact, the Republicans and Democrats have essentially swapped platforms. So enough with the the false equivalencies, meme makers.) As recently as the 1950s and ’60s, Republicans in our nation’s capital played an important role in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (shepherded by a Democratic president), righting—or beginning the process of righting—so many wrongs caused by the Civil War. (Read about this here. And here.)

But something happened.

I started noticing it—the fraying of the fabric of the Right Stuff—in 2000, with those hanging chads in Florida. It was astonishing to see the GOP send a hoard of lawyers and PR people down to Florida to meddle, to control (to take over!), to shape the story rather than to just keep an eye on it, to win at all costs—and to ultimately steal the election from the rightful winner, Al Gore Jr., a Democrat. In a recount of all undervotes and overvotes conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, Gore emerged the victor under all standards. In his account of the election (Too Close to Call, which is on my bookshelves as I write), Jeffrey Toobin observed, “[I]t is a crime against democracy that [Gore] did not win the state and thus the presidency. …The wrong man was inaugurated on January 20, 2001.”

That wrong man, George W. Bush, ushered in an era of strongly partisan politics that continues today. (I won’t even get into his many inadequacies, but I’ll say this: I believe in my heart that my father, a lifelong Republican who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, would have been so disgusted by Bush’s failure to fulfill the requirements of his military service contract that he would not have voted for him. Daddy believed in being a person of your word. Don’t get me started on those awful Swift Boat Vets, who are as far away from the Right Stuff as you can get. Shame on them. Seriously: shame on them for the lies they told.)

It was clear to me, in 2001, that the Republican party had cheated to obtain power. It was clear to me that there was, in fact, a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” and its intentions were to win at any cost.

And if they didn’t win, they would obstruct government. We now know that while Barack Obama was celebrating his first inauguration, there was a secret meeting of Republican party leadership—who planned to obstruct his every move. This is a fact, not fake news, for those of you inclined to that sort of naysaying. Journalist Robert Draper’s book Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives, reports that the GOP began plotting Obama’s defeat on the night of his first inauguration. This is not governance, people. This is not the Right Stuff.

It’s shameful, really.

And it was obvious, even before it was verified by our strong free press. “Nevermind the nation was falling off the fiscal cliff. Nevermind the global economic system was hanging in the balance. Nevermind we were on the verge of another Great Depression,” the Washington Post says. “When the nation needed single-minded focus, the Republican political establishment put power over the national interest” (emphasis mine). It wasn’t just in Washington. All over the country, Republican-controlled statehouses passed voter suppression laws, to remove voters from the rolls, to make it difficult for minority voters to be heard. This is more of that winning-at-all-costs thing, and it disgusts me. When we needed the Right Stuff, we got, instead, Republicans.

I should call them, probably, Tea Party Republicans—which is not the old-school Republican party of my parents (nor a few of my friends). This Republican party has declared war on people like me, to its detriment and to its great loss. I was raised (by my Republican daddy) on Right Stuff thinking, the thinking that says we need all voices and viewpoints at the table. Two heads are better than one and all that. Or, as they say, e pluribus unum (from many, one):

This shared foundation has been our motto from the earliest days. It’s an incredibly unique goal for governing, rarely successful throughout human history. It’s built around the simple truth that there is strength in unity, so we should seek it. Unity does not require agreement in all things. That is impossible. Unity is strongest, in fact, when it is diverse. Real unity is a setting aside of some disagreements and distinctions to rally around a central vision. This is the hard work of democracy.

Sadly, my daddy’s Right Stuff thinking apparently was lost on my Republican brother, about whom I’ve written previously. And he and his ilk, the Tea Party, brought us Trump, who is, it’s painfully obvious, the opposite of the Right Stuff.

He is, not to put too fine a point on it, mentally and morally deficient. I’m not going to bother to back up that statement with links because at this point you know it as well as I do. There were the lies, the rallies, the speaking to his supporters’ basest instincts. Lying. Ridiculing the disabled. Lock her up, throw them out. People of color being beat up. Pussy grabbing. Lying and more lying. And registered Republicans standing by, holding their noses, perhaps, but not speaking out against any of this.*

Even now, I have friends who continue to mouth the let’s-give-him-a-chance mantra, in spite of the mounting evidence that the 2016 election was manipulated by Russia—Russia! A hostile foreign power, for heaven’s sake! If this doesn’t enrage and unsettle you, it may be that you have placed ideology above preservation of the American way (as in “truth, justice, and …”). Or, as I say, lack of the Right Stuff.

Not long ago, someone I once worked with (he is a Tea Party Republican, lives here in my town) called me, on Facebook, “the enemy.” Not in a general sense. He called me by name, and told me that—because I’d just expressed my opinon—at least now he knew I was the enemy. About this warlike language, the author of the article I’ve quoted above says, “It is this sort of tribal thinking that we have seen wreck civilizations throughout history. The great American experiment is unique in so many ways but one of the most unique attributes is this voluntary setting aside of certain tribal priorities and desires for a shared greater good. We dare not dismiss these strong tribal divisions. They are deepening, not healing.” (Emphasis mine.)

The enemy. I gotta tell ya, that gave me a chill.

Some years ago I was told to my face I couldn’t possibly be a Democrat and a Christian. No, really. I’ve been called a hater by an old friend. Every few days my brother posts something on Facebook about haters (by which he means, I think, Democrats) or libtards (by which he means, I think, Democrats). Right after he unfriended me, he posted this: “Someone unfriending you because of your anti-liberal post is kind of like the garbage taking out itself.” Now, aside from the fact that, again, he unfriended me, how was I supposed to interpret that? I’ll tell you: that I—Democrat that I am from that day in 1971 when I first registered to vote—am garbage. And you know what? I’m at peace with that. I can look myself in the mirror.

And, strangely, I feel more like the hated than a hater.

I was raised to be fair, tell the truth, to treat others the way I would want to be treated (with kindness and respect, among other things). These are Right Stuff qualities, and though I know I sometimes fail, I do strive for them. I was raised to be competitive, to go after the things I wanted, but that winning in and of itself was not the goal. “Winning at all costs” is not the sort of human being I was raised to be. Winning at all costs is not a Right Stuff characteristic.

And failing to speak up when there is clearly something seriously wrong here is not a trait of those with the Right Stuff either. (The Washington Post says, “It remains unclear whether Republicans will ever act ‘as if larger principles are at stake,’” as they did during the Watergate investigation.) As I write, with new revelations daily about Trump and his associates’ Russian connections, there is just barely an inquiry, nothing that could really be called an investigation. Some Republicans, in fact, continue to obstruct calls for such an investigation.**

We’ve lost the narrative of the Right Stuff, y’all. And the longer we go with one party placing power and winning above country and people, we will continue to be lost.

* Well, at least two I know of—George Will and Max Boot—have spoken out and publicly left the party.

** Before I finished this piece, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to oversee an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. It’s a start.

 

When Is a Super Bowl Television Commercial Un-American?

I was invited to a Super Bowl party at the beginning of February. These were new friends who have a longstanding tradition of throwing a Super Bowl party, and it was fun. A great American tradition, right?

Of course, I’m one of those people who loves the event as much for the rollout of interesting new commercials as for the game. Remember the EDS ad “Cat Herders” from 2000? Oh my goodness. (And I can relate.)

Obligatory cat photo (Bean).

You can’t really catch all the nuances of a long-form commercial at a party, so I came home and looked up some of the commercials—especially when a few of them started to be excoriated on social media. Some people were calling them un-American.

Wait—seriously? Coca-Cola shows folks having fun with a music bed of “American the Beautiful” … Audi depicts a young girl participating in a Pinewood Derby–like event while her father ruminates about the inequality many women still encounter in the twenty-first century … and Budweiser, for heaven’s sake, that bastion of American sentimentality,* gives us the story of their founder’s journey from Germany. From Germany, people! I had German great-greats just six generations ago!

(*Clydesdales, anyone? Clydesdales and puppies? Oh my goodness. They’re all about the tear-jerking, and this commercial was no different.)

Five years ago (nay, a year ago), no one would have been upset by these ads. Maybe some would have shed a tear. They are little slices of Americana. But today? Good grief. Folks are boycotting Budweiser because—well, I’m not sure why. This is a big, smart company with a big marketing department manned by smart, college-educated marketing professionals. They no doubt had hundreds of folks view this ad in focus groups. They liked it, and they went with it. But some people seem determined to perceive trouble, to take offense. Some seem determined to be angry.

Lighten up, y’all.

The Very Rich Are Different From You and Me*

It’s been an interesting season, don’t you think? Because some of our income comes from overseas, we (and by we I mean Gerry) watch the currency market. We watch the stock market in general too. It’s all connected. When the markets are down, we feel some concern.

Unlike, say, the wildly wealthy. (*The actual quote, from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “The Rich Boy,” begins with the words “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”)

In a Vanity Fair article I read a few months ago about a famous French interior designer** I found the following passage, which seemed revealing (and a little disconcerting). The journalist is accompanying the designer to a Paris furniture dealer. Here the designer finds a beautiful writing table—a bureau plat—from the twentieth century. The interviewer is shocked to learn the table costs $1 million.

Is it difficult to get a client to spend a million bucks on a bureau plat?, I ask as we speed to the next destination. “No, no, no,” he says offhandedly. “It’s not hard at all. They want the best quality.”

Recent global financial upheaval notwithstanding? “No, no, no,” he repeats. “It hasn’t changed anything.”

It’s something to think about, yes? When you’re saving for a special trip or worried about retirement, say.

I’ve never been particularly driven by money. My parents were working-class folks just one generation removed from the dirt farmers who were their forebears. I never expected to have much—and I didn’t even think of it in those terms. I just wanted to have a life: a husband, children, a home, a pet. I would work, hard, to maintain them. I didn’t expect it to be easy. And I didn’t aspire then or now to wealth. That I have everything I need and pretty much everything I want is a true blessing for which I am grateful every day.

But in these uncertain times, I think about this story, which surprised me in the moment. “No, no, no. [The recession] hasn’t changed anything [for the wealthy].” Whatever happens here in the next months and years, the very rich will not be affected the way you and I will. It’s certainly something for the constituency to think about.

** Me, I like to design my own interior. No million-dollar tables here though. 🙂

 

Both Men I Married Were Immigrants*

“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. … Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25: 42–43, 45)

Just sayin’, y’all.

* My first husband was born in Nicaragua and immigrated to the United States with his family when he was a little boy in the 1950s. When I married him about twenty years later he was still here on a green card. You know about my second husband. I find it fascinating to watch the unfolding of current events through his eyes.

Two Timely Poems

I don’t know about you, but I first read these poems in high school. I had a great teacher (and, one should add, a great book—I still have it) and thus was born a lifelong love of the word-thrill only poetry can provide. The rhythm, the rhymes (or not), alliteration, imagery, and much, much more come together in ways that move me, over and over. And yes, I buy books of poetry too.

I’ve been thinking about “The Second Coming” for months. Grim and dark, written in 1919 at the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Irish War of Independence, William Butler Yeats’s masterpiece speaks directly to events happening now, nearly a century later:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

If the imagery in this poem shakes you up, you’re not alone. The Wall Street Journal says, “A torrent of bad news and political upheaval has given new life to a nearly 100-year-old poem written in the aftermath of World War I.”

Flash backward a century to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” published in 1818.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Perspective, yes?

I wish you peace this season, wherever you may find it. Perhaps in poetry.

I Am Your Sister, Your Wife, Your Mother. I Am a Statistic. I Am a Human Being.

I haven’t thought about this in two decades. But I’m thinking about it now, because these words and these statistics are in the news.

  • Every two minutes an American is sexually assaulted; a disproportionate number of them women.
  • One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.
  • In 1995, 28 percent of rape or sexual assault victimizations against females were reported to the police. This percentage increased to 59 percent in 2003 before declining to 32 percent in 2010.
  • The majority of sexual violence against females involved someone the victim knew. In 2005-10, 78 percent of sexual violence involved an offender who was a family member, intimate partner, friend or acquaintance.
  • On average, there are 288,820 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States.
  • As of 1998, an estimated 17.7 million American women had been victims of attempted or completed rape.

I could go on. (Sources linked below.)

You see, I was a victim of sexual assault, of unwanted, inappropriate sexual advances from a powerful man for whom I worked. Until today, I have only told two people about it: my friend Melania (not her real name), and my husband, Gerry.

I have reflected upon this for some time. I don’t bring it up now because I need the catharsis of telling. (I’m not a brooder, not prone to take things hard. I’m tough, I’ve always been tough, and I tend to remember the good and forget the bad.) I don’t bring it up now because I’m wounded or hurt and need help. (I know who the broken person is in this scenario; it’s not me.) I don’t bring it up because I want justice. (God knows there’s little justice in this ol’ world.)

No, I bring it up now—twenty-five years laterbecause there are women today who are being castigated for bringing up similar stories now. They’re being called liars by people (mostly men) who have no freaking clue what it was like, what was involved, what it’s like to live with the memory of something like this in which you were powerless—for a variety of reasons—to simply say, Take your hand off me, you asshole.

So let’s talk about it, shall we? My case doesn’t concern someone in the public spotlight—but otherwise it’s the same: a woman conducting her business, a man who sees women as things for his entertainment.

My Story

I got divorced at age thirty-seven; I was the mother of a six-year-old. I’d been married to my son’s father for eighteen years, and it had been my choice to leave—but it was not a decision taken lightly, and I was rattled to my core. At the time I was slim, didn’t have grey hair, and generally looked about ten years younger than I was.

After my divorce in 1990 I moved home, where I worked for a small family-owned company not far away. It was a stressful job, and while I had a few friends among the staff, for the most part I didn’t fit in. The owner of the company, a man, married with kids, was tall, outgoing, smart, funny, charismatic. He was my boss. The offices were attached to a warehouse, and it was a rabbit warren of hallways and out-of-the-way places that were not always well traveled. You didn’t necessarily run into coworkers going from A to B.

The first incident was this: The boss and I passed in one of these quiet corridors, and he engaged me in conversation. He said something funny, I laughed, we chatted. And then he reached out and gently pinched one of my breasts and said, “I want some of this.” A coworker came around the corner then, and nothing further happened. I didn’t have to respond and both of us were able to pretend as if nothing had happened.

Now—at age sixty-three—I am furious with him. Understand, I’m not damaged by it. I’m not carrying it around. But it was inappropriate at work or in any environment, and I shouldn’t have had to deal with it.

At the time I was shocked into speechlessness. Nothing like that had ever happened to me. (Sure there was that flasher in the raincoat in San Francisco about twenty years earlier, but I’d just laughed at him. Which is, basically, my style.) Also, of course, I needed the job; I couldn’t afford to make waves, though I knew this was sexual harrassment. (Actually, though, my husband reminds me, it wasn’t harassment: there was no quid pro quo. It was inappropriate touching without my consent, and that is assault.)

But I’d already learned how expensive lawyers are. I did nothing.

Just about the time I’d “forgotten” the incident, this man came into my office just as I was leaving it. I was in front of my desk, not behind it, and he asked for something, a document, I had on my desk. I turned around and reached for it, and was shocked to feel this man, my boss, up close behind me, bumping his groin against my rear end.

WTF? There was no rescuing coworker this time but I handed him the document and quickly put distance between him and me. I was mortified.

“He Didn’t Mean It”

Notice that? I was mortified, although I’d done nothing inappropriate.

I had this job because I’d been working for the company in a different capacity prior to my divorce. When they heard I was moving to the area, I was offered the job in the “main office.” I’d had the job in the field because my close friend of long standing, Melania, was friends with the owner’s wife. And with the owner.

One afternoon after these two incidents, Melania and I were visiting, and I cautiously brought up what had happened to me. And Melania said, “Oh, I don’t think he meant it like you think he did. You must be misinterpreting it. He’s a jokester.” And we never talked about it again.

See that? Someone I trusted brushed off my concerns.

A Recap

So let’s review the reasons why I did not come forward:

  • This man was my boss; he had money, power, and authority in the community.
  • He chose his moments well; a public discussion of the incidents would be nothing but “he said, she said.”
  • I needed the job: single mom, little money, couldn’t afford to take on a legal case.
  • I had no idea how to handle the situation. I was mortified.
  • A trusted friend brushed off my concerns.

Furthermore, I knew even then that women who report rapes are often blamed for it or told they have misconstrued what happened. Rape culture wasn’t as well understood and documented as it is now, but it was becoming more so. Nowadays corporations are careful to school executives and managers about sexual harassment in the workplace, but in 1990 that was a few years in the distance. It was still a Mad Men society back then, strangely, particularly in smaller companies like this one.

Women like me, we learned to get along with men in the workplace. If we didn’t laugh at their questionable jokes, we at least didn’t make a stink about them. That’s what we called “go along to get along.” I was a pragmatist. I went along, but I did my work and went home—I didn’t hang around with anybody after work.

And so I did nothing, said nothing. I went on.

Flash Forward Twenty-Five Years

A week or so ago, a videotape emerged of Donald Trump bragging about how he touches women inappropriately. It started a national conversation. And within days, other women began stepping forward, saying, “He did that to me too.” I think perhaps there are a dozen of them on the record now.

Naturally, this being an election year, the meme machine swung into action, accusing these women of being liars. These people think it’s suspicious that the women just now “remembered.”

I don’t. Think about the recap. These are all women who were accosted by a rich, powerful, tall (six-foot-two) man. No one else was present, so an accusation would be one woman against the Trump machine, which they probably couldn’t afford to do. In fact, if any of them consulted a lawyer, they were probably advised to not pursue it; Trump could ruin them. And, of course, they were probably mortified and didn’t relish the thought of being publicly shamed.

So what’s different now? There’s a tape; there’s audio proof of this particular type of bad behavior by this particular man. One woman came forward, and then another and another. The stories don’t sound made up when a dozen different women have similar stories to tell (also, they told others at the time, and those people—friends, mentors, and so on—have also verified the stories). Most of us believe them, but there are some very loud, ugly voices calling them liars … and worse.

            And this proves the point. These are all women who, like me, just got on with their lives, because who needs this crap from these assholes? Who needs it? But they are coming forward now because of current events. Because there is safety in numbers. Because there’s proof that this man acts with others they way he acted with them. Because they are angry. Because women should be able to exist in society’s public spaces without fear of being assaulted.

I’ve had a wonderful, happy life. I still have a wonderful, happy life. The things that happened to me all those years ago don’t affect who I am now, and they certainly don’t define me. I don’t live a fearful life.

Though perhaps I should. Some people are angry with the victims, not with the perpetrator. On social media, people I know and love (?) are posting the nastiest, ugliest, lyingest things the meme machine can cobble together, as fast as it can cobble them together.

So let me remind you, my brothers, my fellow Americans, one more time: I am your sister, and it happened to me. I am your mother. I am your wife. I am your coworker, your employee. I am your neighbor. You know me. You know who I am, so you can’t—you shouldn’t—disparage my character simply because I say I was sexually assaulted by a man with power and money. I am coming forward now not for sympathy but because I am angered (nay, I am enraged) by the way you all talk about women.

I am a human being.

I am not lying.

Sources:
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)
National Sexual Violence Resource Center
Bureau of Justice Statistics