13 February 2012

Black, Blue and Brown

I was in college when Whitney Houston's first album came out.  We all loved it and played it incessantly.  But I knew who Whitney was long before that.  As an obsessive reader of Seventeen magazine in the early eighties, I saw her all the time.  She, like Phoebe Cates and a few others, was one of a handful of teen models who appeared over and over again in Seventeen's pages, showing us how to dress and do our hair and behave around boys.  Whitney was the only regular African-American model in the little troupe.  Instead of being light-skinned and wispy, she was tall, dark, and athletic.  I admired her greatly, and when she achieved success as a vocalist, I felt like a friend had hit the big time.  I bought her first album and sang along until my throat was raw.  I still know every lyric.

Whitney's life wasn't easy, and it came to a premature end over the weekend.  She was only a few years older than I, and she had survived a lot, until she could no longer survive it.

One of the things she had survived is - and I use this phrase only as an introduction because I hate it - "domestic violence."  Let me tell you why I hate that phrase.  I think it's a disingenuous euphemism.  (I am aware that I have a few teen readers - if necessary, please look up both of those words before proceeding.)  Violence is violence.  Calling it something different when you do it to someone who lives in your home, who cooks your meals and does your laundry and raises your children, is an insidious form of misogyny.  (More SAT words.  Just keep the "dictionary.com" window open as you read.)  It's insidious, but it's ingrained, and it is accepted in our culture and our lexicon.

If you beat some stranger on the street, blacken his eyes and smash in his nose and send him to the hospital, you are a violent felon.  You will be locked up along with the other violent felons for a very long time.  You can tell the judge that you had a difficult childhood, that you yourself were beaten and abused, and maybe even that you're sorry and you won't do it again, ever.  Your words will likely fall on deaf ears because you beat a total stranger.  You are a danger to society.

But if you beat your spouse or partner, blacken her eyes, smash in her nose and send her to the hospital, you are a domestic abuser.  Your victim is unlikely to call the police, report the crime, or seek treatment.  She is likely to hide her wounds, because there's something embarrassing about being attacked by your life partner.  Poor thing.  He himself was abused and beaten as a child.  He said he was sorry and swore he'd never do it again.  If you report him, he might get into trouble.  He doesn't want to lose his children.

Even if the attack is reported to the police, it's not a violent assault.  It's a domestic incident or domestic violence.  The victim is referred to as a victim of domestic violence or abuse, and if she lives, she is praised as a survivor.

That's crap.  She is the victim of a violent assault.  I don't care whether it happened in the bedroom or the subway station.  Let's call it what it is.

I can't tell you how many women I know who have been victims of this sort of thing.  Bright, well-educated, high-achieving women, with and without children.  You know a lot of them too, though you might not be aware of who they are.  But because I am a lawyer, when someone I know loses a tooth to a fist in the middle of the night and wants someone to talk to, she calls me.  She is usually whispering, so as not to wake the children.  By the time I hear about it, it's been going on for some time.

Can you imagine being beaten up by a stranger on the street repeatedly before help is summoned?  Of course not.  Can you imagine enduring such a thing for years and not telling anyone, while the perpetrator continues to attack you?  How about reporting it, and then being admired and praised as a "survivor" while the perpetrator continues to walk the streets, his livelihood and reputation unaffected?

This was just a small slice of what I imagine Whitney Houston - who I still think of as my teenage buddy - went through before her death, at the hands of her own husband and the father of her child, Bobby Brown.

Last night was the annual television broadcast of the Grammy Awards, the music industry's highest set of honors.  One of the featured performers, Chris Brown, is still on probation a year after beating his girlfriend's face to a pulp.  We all saw the pictures because his girlfriend, Rihanna, was also a popular musician, and the press saw fit to splash photographs of her broken nose everywhere.  She was unable to appear at the Grammys last year because of the injuries she sustained in the attack.  He was banned from performing last year, but this year it was apparently okay for him to go onstage as though he's not a violent felon.  The crowd applauded him heartily.

What does that sort of attitude - that sort of applause - teach our sons and daughters?  Shame on the Grammy organization for endorsing him in this way.  Shame on him for showing his face in public in anything other than an ad for a violence-prevention campaign.  Shame on every single person there who applauded him.  You have endorsed, knowingly or not, an accepted form of violence in our society.

And shame on the Republicans in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, all of whom refused last week to approve the reauthorization of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act.  Violence against women is apparently not actually considered full-fledged violence.  What a sad commentary it is that women in our society need special laws to protect them from violence - laws that are actually controversial enough to be voted down in  the legislature!

A woman is a person.  A domestic violence victim is a person who has been brutally attacked.  Our sons and daughters must know this, understand it, and internalize it.  It must not be hidden or whispered.  We must scream from the rooftops that we will not tolerate it.  If the wives and mothers of the world do not do so, who will?

10 February 2012


You might not have noticed.  Maybe you are not a fan of American football, or maybe you live somewhere in the world where last Sunday was just a regular Sunday.  But here in the United States, last Sunday was Superbowl Sunday - the day of the Big Game in American football.  Americans across the continent crowded in front of the television at 6:00 P.M. to witness the match that resulted in the New York Giants' exciting win.

I am definitely not a Giants fan, for a lot of reasons (few of which have to do with football and none of which I am going to elaborate on here).  But I am a fan of Superbowl Sunday, because we get to eat all kinds of yummy foods, gathered around the television with our friends, watching the excitement, laughing at the commercials, and marveling at the halftime show.

When they won the championship, the Giants were honored with a ticker-tape parade in the Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan.  A very large number of fans gathered in the narrow streets of the oldest part of the city, and confetti flew as the Giants were slowly paraded through the streets.  They were hailed and celebrated as heroes, just as the Yankees baseball team are when they win the World Series, and just as Charles Lindbergh, Teddy Roosevelt, Pope John Paul II, and the returning Apollo astronauts were before them.  (For a complete list of ticker-tape parades in the New York City financial district, see here.)

Over the last few days, one of the news radio stations in New York which has a distinctive political bent started running an item questioning why we throw ticker-tape parades for sports teams but not for returning soldiers.  I listen to the radio a lot because I am in the car a lot, shuttling my kids around, and I usually tune out everything but weather and traffic reports.  But I thought this particular story raised some interesting issues.  The "report," which broadcast repeatedly in the hourly cycle, tapped into a sort of patriotic sentiment that often rears its head in tough economic times.  Prominent politicians gave little sound bites in which they tried to balance we-are-Giants-fans-and-don't-mean-to-belittle-their-achievement with we-love-and-support-our-soldiers-and-need-to-honor-them-more.

Yesterday, the "story" had morphed into a report that a commemorative Giants license plate would be issued for New York motor vehicles.  The question, posed by an upstate Congressman, became: why don't we have commemorative license plates honoring the heroes of September 11?

And I, behind my seat belt, started thinking about the nature of heroes and our culture's obsession with them.

We overuse the word "hero" a lot.  It is used to describe not only victorious sports teams, but also victims of crimes who resist their attackers, people who recover from difficult injuries, parents who fight on behalf of their children, and people who perform daring rescues.  In my opinion, some of these people are actually heroes, but many of them are just excellent role models.  I think those who risked or lost their own lives to save others on September 11 are probably properly termed heroes.  The Yankees and the Giants, though, are the products of a huge commercial sports machine.  Their elaborately-staged matches take place in luxurious stadiums where a beer can cost a spectator $11.  The best players among them earn many, many times more money in their short careers than a fireman, EMT, or rescue team will make in a lifetime.

Is the Pope a hero?  Are returning astronauts heroes? How about Charles Lindbergh? I think these are probably people who, for their fan base, are better termed role models.  They stand for belief systems and achievements that appeal to many people.  I'm not Catholic, so I'll leave the Pope out of this.  I will acknowledge, however, that the achievements of the astronauts and the pilot were truly remarkable in their time.  Nevertheless, I'd be less likely to call them heroes than I would a fireman who rushes out of a burning building with an infant in his arms.

I think we should use the term "hero" more sparingly and the term "role model" more generously.  There are great role models everywhere we turn: the teacher who teaches the disabled child to read, the crime or accident victim who struggles and makes a stunning recovery, the religious or political leader who practices what she preaches, even the occasional athlete.  But a hero is something rare and special.  Let's spare that particular word when referring to people who overcharge us for drinks and entertainment and save it for times when it really matters.