Susan J. Douglas

Black Lives Matter Brought Environmental Racism of Flint into the Spotlight, and Helped Expose How CEO Politicians Are Failing Us

This article originally appeared in the March issue of In These Times, an independent monthly magazine dedicated to advancing democracy and economic justice. Be the first to read stories like this: Get In These Times today!

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Dumbing America Down, Conservative Style

Among the many visionary goals of our nation’s right wing—impoverish older people, starve the poor, deny climate change, outlaw abortion and contraception, eliminate healthcare for millions—few are more foundational than defunding education in general and higher education in particular. Public colleges and universities nationwide have seen significant funding cuts over the past five years, and while the recession is usually blamed, the Right keeps the fiscal screws tight by cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Here in Michigan, in Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s first budget, there was a 15 percent cut in state aid to universities and a $1.8 billion tax cut for businesses. This equals a win-win for the Right: Keep the fat cats in your corner, and constrain the opportunity for young people to learn a host of things that might, well, make them interrogate right-wing policies. The Pew Research Center and others have found that lower income and less-educated whites arebecoming more likely to vote Republican than Democrat, with 54 percent of those without a college degree identifying as Republican in 2012; only 37 percent identified as Democratic, so the gap is, well, quite wide.

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Beware the Credit-Industrial Complex

My daughter is a freshman in college and is learning a lot, including how to manage her money. Recently, she got a powerful initiation into the predatory practices of banks -- a lesson more and more of us are learning each month. She made a miscalculation and thought she had more in her account than she did. When she went to make a withdrawal from an ATM machine, the bank let her, even though she was in deficit. Comerica bank continued to let her make such withdrawals, and charged her $32 a pop for doing so. A $4 charge at a coffee shop became a $36 charge with the fee. A $6 sandwich became $38. She had never authorized the bank to permit deficit spending. And she, like most people, had no idea that the bank would still let her use her card if she was broke. The bank doesn't tell you it will do this. Why? Because it's a huge source of profit for them.

BusinessWeek reported on a student whose bank, Pittsburgh's PNC, allowed him to charge $230 on his debit card even though his account was in the hole. PNC charged him $217 in fees for the privilege. A PNC spokesperson says such a policy "helps our customers avoid embarrassment." The student said he would rather have been embarrassed than gouged.

In 2004, banks pocketed $32 billion in service fees, up from $21 billion in 1999. According to BusinessWeek, such fees accounted for 76 percent of profits at the Midwestern bank, TCF. Wells Fargo in San Francisco reportedly charges $2 every time someone with a low balance calls a service representative, and a whopping $30 an hour when a rep helps someone reconcile an account. Not surprisingly, the majority of these fees falls upon the poorest customers.

One out of five customers switches banks because he or she is so outraged by these charges. One estimate by Gartner Research shows that it costs banks less than 50 cents to return a payment request, while turning around and charging us anywhere from $25 to $40 for this "service."

The barely regulated banks are getting away with one usurious practice after the next: In addition to the subprime fiasco now threatening the entire economy, there are the extortionate service fees on your bank accounts and the escalating interest fees, late fees and truncated payment cycles on your credit cards. Millions of us now get credit card bills that give us 10 days -- and those aren't 10 business days -- to pay up or get hit with a late fee. No wonder the credit card industry has been one of the most profitable in the country, earning on the order of $30 billion annually. The rates credit card companies charge retailers have gone up 85 percent since 2001, and those are passed onto us.

In 2005, Congress passed the infamous bankruptcy "reform" act after major lobbying by the financial-industrial complex, adding to the enormous pressure many people are feeling from the mortgage-housing-credit crisis. Designed to protect creditors, the law makes it harder and more expensive to declare bankruptcy.

It used to be that people in financial trouble could file under Chapter 7, which typically allowed them to keep their homes while other property was sold off to help cover credit card and medical debts. What pissed off the banks was that, after flooding everyone with offers to acquire even more credit cards, some of this debt would get massively reduced or written off under the old law.

The new law forces people to file under Chapter 13, which requires them to accept a 3- to 5-year repayment plan on all debt. This may lead to even more foreclosures. And for those who still can use Chapter 7, it now costs twice as much to file as it used to. While many conservatives blame individuals for charging and borrowing irresponsibly, one of the major causes of going into such debt are the huge medical bills racked up by those without health insurance.

You also can't renegotiate mortgages in bankruptcy court. Reps. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and others have introduced a bill that would allow bankruptcy courts to do this, but lobbyists for the banking industry are already working to scotch this. As Chris Hayes advocated recently online at The Nation, "the long-term challenge" is to regulate this industry. Hayes also reported that "Blue Dog" Democrats -- the coalition of moderate-to-conservative Dems who vote with Bush Republicans -- urged House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) to delay the Miller-Frank bill. This despite the fact that foreclosure rates continue to zoom, in some places two to four times what they were this time last year.

What the Democrats ought to do during their next trips back to their districts is just ask constituents what they think of their credit card companies, their banks and their mortgage companies. What they might hear is that these are some of the leeches people want pulled off of the body politic immediately.

NY Times Book Review Smears Katha Pollitt

Don't become a feminist. I mean it. Because then you might end up like Katha Pollitt. Wait, isn't Pollitt an award-winning poet and columnist? Isn't her "Subject to Debate" column what most of us turn to first when The Nation arrives? As the sharpest feminist commentator in the country, doesn't Pollitt make feminism seem cool?

Not if you're the New York Times Book Review, which has rarely met a feminist it liked. The former ballerina Toni Bentley, author of a book on the delights of crotchless panties and the epiphanies of anal sex (I quote: a "direct path ... to God"), was assigned to review Pollitt's latest collection of essays, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories, and apparently didn't like it. Fair enough. But Bentley, possibly disappointed by the lack of sodomy, used her review as an opportunity to trash feminists and to trash Pollitt for both being one and not being one who is stereotypical enough.

"Groaning and moaning from clever, sassy women has become a genre unto itself," writes Bentley of feminist writings, "the righteous revenge of the liberal, pre-, during- or postmenopausal woman," meaning that even feminists cannot escape from being governed by their hormones and their wombs. Feminists, as we know, are always angry and "shrill"; they are "enraged, educated women" whom Bentley labels "vagina dentate intellectuals."

Back in the early '70s when women's liberation became a major news story, the most frequently used image to illustrate the movement was a woman learning karate; male editors actually insisted on this. That way, you could convey quickly that all feminists were threatening, man-hating Ninjas. Similarly, Bentley likens the feminist writer to "a kind of intellectual Mike Tyson" (now there's an oxymoron!) whose "pugnacious prose is her lethal weapon." But what feminists really need -- heard this before? -- is a good fuck. "[S]he is still not as likely to be seduced into bed as the bombshell bimbo, one reason she's so irate." Ignoring a host of recent feminist books, particularly those written by young women, Bentley cites Daphne Merkin's essay about being spanked.

Bentley's review is part of a robust tradition in the Times Book Review to stereotype feminists as single-minded, humorless ideologues who march daily to some shrine where we all genuflect before images of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and then impose a rigid dogma on all other women. In Karen Lehrman's June 1997 review of Meredith Maran's memoir Notes From an Incomplete Revolution, Lehrman informed readers that feminism, for women, is about being able to "spit, smoke and sit with their legs apart," that "good feminism" invariably produces "bad mothering" and that the women's movement has "a line" about how all women should behave. Feminism is "outdated, repressive and condescending."

This wasn't surprising given that Lehrman was author of The Lipstick Proviso, which argued that women should reject feminism because what feminism is really about is forbidding women to wear lipstick or pantyhose. Even in Laura Miller's critical review of Lehrman's book, we learned that a "handful of college professors" and women in "women's studies programs" do fit Lehrman's stereotype of feminists as "a battalion of scolding academics who condemn makeup." What feminists want for most women, as the title of this review suggests, is to be "Oppressed by Liberation."

Pollitt was also profiled in the New York Times Magazine, and here the focus was on whether Learning to Drive -- a personal memoir about motherhood, aging and betrayal by her boyfriend of seven years -- made her a traitor to feminism. Did admitting to her fear of and inability to drive actually reinforce stereotypes about "female ineptitude and ditziness?" What did her "girlish confession" about her anguish over her boyfriend's philandering "say about the current state of feminism," as if one person, however prominent, stood for millions of others? Pollitt was also asked about the proliferation of nail salons, as if that somehow indicated that women no longer want equality.

Why is it unimaginable that the millions of feminists in this country might be complex people? That they might also have a sense of humor? Feminists, especially in the age of Bush, couldn't make it from one end of the day to the next without a sardonic joke and a good laugh. Indeed, as Pollitt's new book lays out in often eloquent and unsparing honesty, women -- even ones as formidable as Pollitt -- remain pulled between the powerfully competing ideologies of feminism and anti-feminism, between feminism and femininity.

Women, especially young women, are not about to give up the gains won by feminism, but they also see the costs of failing to conform to a narrow, corporate definition of femininity. This ongoing negotiation of defying yet acquiescing to prevailing norms about what a good, enviable, worthwhile woman should be is the story of most of our lives, nearly 40 years after the second wave. Stereotypes of feminists such as those proffered by the Times misrepresent and demonize women of all ages who continue to push for equality of opportunity for all, which has yet to be achieved.

Missing the Katrina Moment

I recently received a letter from Nancy Pelosi, my close personal friend. Well, at least the letter was addressed "Dear Friend." If I sent the Democrats $25 or more, I would be the lucky recipient of something not available in any store, anywhere--the "Democrats Fighting Donkey Lapel Pin! Exclusively Yours!"

The letter said that the "conventional wisdom here in Washington says that it's better just to go along and get along." But the Democrats were not going to do that, Pelosi insisted. "I am going to work hard and fight alongside Senator Reid and all the Democrats in Congress to make sure we are asking the tough questions" of John Roberts and other judicial nominees. Hmm, I guess that explains Reid's instantaneous puckering up to Harriet Miers and the Democratic split on the Roberts vote.

The letter assured me that the Democrats will "ensure your rights are safeguarded." Which Democrats? The increasingly Republican-lite Hillary Clinton, who, whatever her celebrity status, cannot win the presidency and has sold out on everything from the invasion of Iraq to abortion rights? John Kerry? Joe Biden? As compelling as the donkey pin offer was, I resisted temptation. The letter is now making its own contribution to Ann Arbor's recycling program. When we have to turn to The West Wing to hear a sophisticated dismissal of intelligent design by a fictional presidential candidate, or fantasize about Geena Davis being president, we know just how bereft we are.

There have been the intermittent reports and think pieces about how the Democrats need an agenda, their own "Contract with America," since people don't seem to know what they stand for. Indeed, in my letter from Pelosi, the "demands" that were listed were all about rolling back the excesses of the Bush administration--saying no to privatizing Social Security, stopping cuts to veterans programs and the like.

But where is the bold, pro-active agenda? To create one, they would do well to get out of Washington, fast, away from the consultants and politicos, and talk to everyday people. They would get an earful, and it would be ferocious. The Democratic leadership seems somehow unable to grasp the huge gap in outrage between them and their base. Go anywhere, talk to people who are Democrats or, poor souls, progressives, and the sheer fury of everyday people, if it could be harnessed, would solve this winter's upcoming energy crisis. People are not only enraged; they are also deeply worried.

Hurricane Katrina not only changed things for the Republicans--it changed things for Democrats too. Katrina exposed the nation's continuing failures to combat poverty and racism; it exhumed, from the '70s, awareness of the country's energy dependency and profligacy; it showed that we can move people in and out of a Big Ten football game more efficiently than out of the path of a storm; it showed that you actually need a functioning federal government; and it revealed our contempt for the elderly and the sick. (Indeed, we desperately need an 80-year-old rapper to proclaim "George Bush hates old people.")

So, while it was fun to pop champagne corks when Tom DeLay was indicted, and when the networks, in mid-October, revealed the White House's careful rehearsals with soldiers in Iraq for a supposedly "spontaneous" exchange with the president, the Democrats must see the implications of Katrina for them.

On the Sunday talk shows, various representatives of the party are urging, and taking, the oft-cited advice from Napoleon, "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake." When is the last time we remember the Republicans doing this? It is this silence--that comes across as sheer cowardice--that is enraging people and could make a turn to a third party much more attractive to many more people. Pelosi and the lugubrious Reid are reportedly meeting with mayors and governors to develop a strategy for 2006. But where are the meetings with actual people? Where is Howard Dean's barnstorming of the country, with town meetings everywhere, to get a reality check on the passion of the people?

In fact, it is that very passion that seems to scare the Democratic leaders. The Republicans have, in addition to demonizing "liberals," succeeded in marginalizing the party's own base in the eyes of its timid and compromised leaders as too fervent, too far to the left. This is no mean achievement given how much farther out of the mainstream the religious right is. How else can you explain the utter absence of Democratic leaders at the enormous antiwar march in late September?

Hurricane Katrina has created the moment for a true paradigm shift in American politics, because many Americans have actually become scared about what it means to have an eviscerated, dysfunctional federal government. That's what Democrats would hear if they listened to their base, instead of shunning it as their own advisors have convinced them to do. If they miss the Katrina moment, it will go down as one of the biggest political blunders of the early 21st century.

Debtor Nation

As the president and his corporate patrons seek to turn the management of Americans' retirements – a.k.a., our "golden years" – over to those highly trustworthy, humanitarian types on Wall Street, we should look at another model of how corporate America helps people manage their finances – the credit card companies – to get a glimpse of where we are headed.

Here are some of my recent favorite credit card gambits: The amount of time my credit card company gives me to turn around and pay the bill has shrunk to about two and a half weeks – otherwise, I'm late. The late fee I pay even if the check arrives one day late has, within two years, gone from about $20 to about $40. They have begun posting a payment due date that is a Sunday – when, of course, they don't do business – and if the check arrives Monday, you are docked the late fee plus all the interest. The interest rates, given what the rest of us get paid on our savings accounts and CDs, would make Shylock blush and certainly revive the word "usurious." Dare to miss a payment, and the company may raise your interest rate up to an outrageous 25 percent. And let's not forget that the financial institutions that issue credit cards are major Washington lobbyists and, thus, virtually unregulated.

All of this and more was recently exposed in "The Secret History of the Credit Card," produced by Frontline and The New York Times. Here are some underreported doozies from the show: Through a policy called "universal default," if you are late with a payment to someone else – say your mortgage company – your credit card company can raise your interest rates automatically because they feel you have become a riskier client. How do they know if you've been late on a car payment? They can now monitor, on a daily basis, your financial transactions and your credit rating.

Always, always, they are trolling for and sticking it to the most financially vulnerable; just as in Bush's budget, those in the most financially precarious positions are the ones made to pay the most. Millions of people already in financial hot water are solicited to accept yet more credit cards. The companies also set the minimum monthly payments so low that consumers could easily be in debt for the rest of their lives.

According to Frontline, since there is no federal government regulation of late payment fees, "the amount of revenue the companies generate from fees ... has doubled" in the last 10 years. Some predict that late fees will go to $50 within the year. The companies can also change your interest rate at will – they just have to give you 15 days' notice. And why are so many of these card companies, like Citibank or Bank USA, based in places like South Dakota or Delaware? Because these states (unlike some others) have no caps on interest rates.

Approximately 10 companies control nearly all credit card accounts, and they have their own individual and collective lobbyists working the Hill daily to make sure there is no investigation into the industry. One thing they also want to ensure is their continued ability to violate your privacy by sharing your financial information with telemarketers or other third parties, even if you object. According to U.S. PIRG, they have also been lobbying hard to change the bankruptcy laws so that it would be harder to qualify for Chapter 7 "fresh start" bankruptcy; instead, people would have to go into a Chapter 13 "5-year repayment plan" program, which, not surprisingly, would include unpaid credit cards. Both Sens. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) have proposed legislation that would require greater disclosure about what it really costs to carry this debt and that would prohibit the arbitrary increasing of interest rates. Given who controls Congress, don't hold your breath.

In part because of these shenanigans, the Kiplinger newsletter reports, "the rate at which people file for bankruptcy has increased 40 percent over the past 10 years and now totals 8.6 out of every 1,000 Americans." Older Americans, Kiplinger predicts, will lead the way. Burdened by taking care of children and aging parents in middle age, and then confronted by escalating health and medical bills while on a fixed – or, if Bush has his way, declining – income in old age, it will be senior citizens whose bankruptcy rates will soar.

The Bush version of Social Security will be just like this. It will further impoverish the poor, the working classes and women and be filled with hidden scams that benefit the financial institutions at our expense. Given that most Americans hate their credit card companies – the industry has a very high complaint rate – opponents of Bush's efforts to privatize Social Security might do well to use the industry as a predictor of what is to come.

Just imagine – the same financial interests that gouge you now, have indecipherable rules in their microscopic agreements, enjoy no regulation and can do whatever they want to screw the average American will soon control our retirements. Priceless.

Confronting the Mommy Myth

As I write this, much of the country is focused on the 9/11 hearings and revelations about Team Bush's destructive obsession with Saddam Hussein. We also are witnessing the fruits of that obsession as Iraq spirals down into a firestorm, rent by fervid anti-American hatred. These issues -- that Team Bush misled the country about weapons of mass destruction, that Team Bush was so fixated on avenging Bush the First, that Team Bush has fostered increased terrorism by invading Iraq -- coupled with this administration's disastrous economic and environmental policies, will, and should, dominate the presidential campaign.

But Team Bush also has been conducting another war, here and abroad, a war against women. Currently they are seeking to invade, with considerable success, the private medical records of women who have had abortions so that the administration can defend its new law against late-term abortions. (And please, let's all stop saying "partial birth," an inaccurate, propagandistic term.) They want welfare mothers to work longer hours than they already do in workfare programs. They tried to undermine Title IX and Head Start.

In addition to women in general, there is a huge constituency out there, mothers and children, who have been taken for granted, pandered to or ignored since Reagan. Caught between speed-up at work and the decline of leisure time on the one hand, and the myth of "the perfect mom" on the other, mothers are urged to do more and more with virtually no support from the government or workplace. It is harder to be a mother in the United States than in any other industrialized country.

So the Democrats will be making a big mistake if they don't also take back an issue from the religious right: "family values." For the theocrats, "family values" is shorthand for the forced, governmentally sanctioned reassertion of patriarchy. How about the new family values that actually focus on the needs of, er, the family, and of mothers in particular? And not just the Republican's fantasy of the über-mother, the "soccer mom," who can afford a minivan, a laptop, braces for her kids and trips to Disney World.

If you talk and listen to mothers around the country, guess what you find? An incipient, percolating rebellion.

Still, more than 30 years after the women's movement, we do not have a national, federally funded, decent quality daycare system in this country. We would have had one, had Richard Nixon in 1971 not vetoed the most comprehensive childcare bill ever enacted (with major bipartisan support). But Nixon and his adviser Pat Buchanan thought it was more important to bow to the right wing of the party. Thus, daycare remains a patchwork, with some of us having access to terrific centers while others, especially those in large cities, small towns or rural areas, having very few, if any, choices. In civilized countries, preschool is not seen as some "special interest" for working mothers; it's seen as a developmentally enriching program for all kids.

If all the mothers of America were sent on a fact-finding mission, here's what we would find. In Sweden, we would see that the government requires companies to give a new mother a year's leave at 90 percent pay. It also provides nurseries for most children older than 18 months. A quick stop in Denmark would reveal that nearly half of the children under 3 are in publicly financed nurseries, and nearly 95 percent of children 3 to 6 are. On to France, where 95 percent of children aged 3 to 5 are in preschool. OK, you say, that's Europe. Well, get this. In 1984, Brazil gave workers 12 weeks of maternity leave with pay. (That's right, with pay.) Kenya mandates eight weeks of maternity leave with pay.

What we get here, instead, is backlash. Lisa Belkin's now infamous New York Times Magazine piece on the alleged "opt out" generation of mothers who "choose" not to work was bad enough. Now Time gives us the cover story "The Case for Staying Home" with the subtitle "Why more young Moms are opting out of the rat race." Interestingly, on the cover we don't see the "mom's" face at all. We see a little blond toddler dressed in white (!) hugging a mom's leg, also clad in white (!!). We don't need to see her face; her expressions, her thoughts, her desires are irrelevant. Here the fragile needy child, looking up into mom's face, makes the case for "choosing" to stay home.

Inside we learn about a supposed exodus of young mothers from the work place. A bold faced pull-quote emphasizes that there has been a 3 percent drop in the proportion of mothers with kids under 3 in the work place since 1997. (This is an "exodus?" Especially during a recession when more than 2 million jobs have been lost?) Buried in smaller text is that fact that 72 percent of mothers with kids under 18 are in the work force. Guess why? They have to. And, many like to.

Beyond the dictatorial cover -- "The Case for Staying Home" -- the bulk of the article is what the real story is about: the absolute failure of the workplace and the government to support the family, especially mothers.

We mothers have no paid maternity leave, no universal healthcare so that all our kids are covered, no comprehensive after-school programs, no genuine, truly revolutionary new support of our public schools that would revive them (No Child Left Behind already has become a massive joke). Too many workplaces have no onsite or nearby daycare, no flexible time, no job sharing. The right to control our own reproductive lives is under total siege.

Mothers feel they have been sold a bill of goods: We're supposed to be eternally nurturing, supportive and ecstatic about child rearing 24/7. We are never supposed to get angry, because the words "mom" and "angry" aren't supposed to go together. But if mothers in this country never got angry about how they and the nation's children were being treated, we'd still have child labor and laws discriminating against married women in the labor force. Mothers' voices have not been heard, especially during this presidential campaign season. It's about time they were. Check out two Web sites, www.mothersandmore.org and www.mothersmovement.org. And remember: Motherhood remains the unfinished business of the women's movement.

Susan J. Douglas is regular a contributor to In These Times.

The Powerful Women Problem

Ah, the dreams of the women's movement. We envisioned a day when there would be women in high places, and here we are, with a female national security adviser, a female Secretary of the Interior, a female Labor Secretary and even our latest female corporate felon.

Now, I've never been a fan of Martha. Her elevation of domestic chores to an obsession, the profusion, in her magazines, of those dictatorial images insisting that your house be a sun-drenched, voile-curtained, neat-as-a-pin showroom, and her smug condescension while trimming the rough edges off poached eggs, all made me long to throw a cream pie at her.

But like many, I see her prosecution and conviction as a cross between showboating by federal prosecutors and good old-fashioned backlash. Did Martha lie? Looks like she did. Is Kenneth Lay still enjoying one of his five homes in Aspen? You bet.

And there's more to it than just her celebrity. Martha's biggest crime, it seems, was to blur and confound the codes of gender in ways that have made a lot of men, and many women, uncomfortable. A woman who is an expert in hand-washing sweaters and folding napkins into the shape of flamingos is supposed to be nurturing, generous, innocent of ambition, focused on family. But Martha, even before the trial, came to be known as a tough, demanding, ruthless businesswoman who didn't suffer fools and wasn't particularly cuddly.

In a society where we police the borders of gender relentlessly, through clothing, gestures, behavior, language and activities, what are we to make of a woman who sells female domestication in a honey-hued voice but behind the cameras acts like what we expect of a tough-as-nails male CEO? Martha was an irresistible target not only because of her fame but because she seemed a housewife with way too much power. Worse, she was a housewife who got paid -- a lot -- for her labors, and a housewife who seemed greedy.

To emphasize that such a gender offender deserves whatever she gets, TV news reporters have slavered over accounts of how Stewart will be subjected to a cavity-search when she goes to prison. Has the viewing public been urged to imagine the same humiliation for Enron's Jeffrey Skilling?

At the same time, ironically, Team Bush has successfully used women, in cabinet positions and elsewhere, to make the administration seem female-friendly and egalitarian. To read more about this, run, do not walk, to the nearest bookstore to get Laura Flanders' terrific new book, Bushwomen.

She begins with Katherine Harris, and other chapters are devoted to Condoleezza Rice, Karen Hughes, Ann Veneman, Elaine Chao, Christine Todd Whitman and Gale Ann Norton. Of the five female cabinet members she profiles, only one has children. The rest are simply unfamiliar with struggles faced by millions of mothers to juggle the demands of work and family. All have "benefited directly from feminism -- the movement they now cast as women's enemy," writes Flanders, who chides mainstream women's organizations for failing to criticize the policies and actions of powerful women.

Flanders notes how sexist and racist conventions in the news media actually help make these women seem less powerful (and dangerous) than they actually are. For example, all you have to do is say "Katherine Harris" and one immediately pictures garish makeup and shellacked hair. "No one," writes Flanders, "was made more fun of in the media" and "no one did more, more carefully, to use the power of her public office to steal the presidency for her candidate."

Or take the endless pieces that have been written about Condoleezza Rice's childhood in '50s Birmingham, Alabama, and how she rose from there to success. A New York Times piece on Rice, for example, emphasized her hair, dress size and place of birth but "didn't discuss her views on national security until the twenty-seventh paragraph." No Times story so far has dwelt on Vice-President Cheney's youth as a white man in "pre-civil rights Nebraska," notes Flanders, writing that this news frame about Rice both "smacks of racism" and ignores what, exactly, she did after Birmingham.

The Bushwomen, writes Flanders, are "an extremist administration's female front" and if the corporate media took them more seriously "they wouldn't stand a chance." They have been used to mask the ongoing gender gap plaguing the Republican Party. Flanders reminds us that in 2000 Bush had an 11-point margin over Gore with men, but that he lost women by the same amount. Thus it is crucial for women to look beyond the cabinet window dressing and learn what these Bushwomen are really about.

The Martha drama and Team Bush's acute awareness of the gender gap ensure that gender will be front and center, if in often sneaky, subliminal and superficial ways in the coming campaign. Bushwomen and the Stewart conviction remind us how fatuous stereotypes keep us all in line and undermine women and the issues that matter to us most.

Mommas in the Marketplace

There it sat on the dining room table exuding kryptonite: the Sunday New York Times Magazine with the cover headline: "Q: Why Don't More Women Get to the Top? A: They Choose Not To." The subtitle read, "Abandoning the Climb and Heading Home." An angelic white Madonna in her Ann Taylor outfit with what appeared to be the Hope diamond on one finger, several selections from Tiffany's bracelet department on her wrist, and a toddler in her lap represented all these American mothers who are "heading home." I feared the worst -- yet another post-feminist piece of swill about how mothers can't hack it at work and would much rather play Chutes and Ladders all day. I was not to be disappointed.

Since the late '80s and the debut of "the mommy track," we have been subjected to these stories about mothers seeing the light and chucking it all for junior. The format is almost always the same. Five women who went to Yale and, say, the Harvard Business School, married to men whose salaries equal the operating budget of Wal-Mart, decide to have kids and then quit their jobs and -- poof -- there is a national "movement" of mothers not only rejecting the workplace, but feminism as well. This article, written by Lisa Belkin (a former Times reporter who decided to quit and write freelance because her husband could easily support them), follows the template perfectly. Only here the privileged white women we meet from the "Opt-Out Revolution" are Princeton alums (as is Belkin) or from other elite universities who then went to work in law firms or newsrooms.

This post-feminist drumbeat is a slap at mothers who do work for a living because they need to, want to, or both. It is also, of course, an assault on feminism as misguided, irrelevant, out-of-date, or all the above. As one of the mothers tells Belkin, "I don't want to take on the mantle of all womanhood and fight a fight for some sister who isn't really my sister because I don't even know her." Ouch. Well, as a feminist throwback to the days of "sisterhood is powerful," I do think that all mothers must debunk these stories each and every time they appear, for ourselves and for each other. We mothers, whether we work outside the home or not, must say "Excuuuse me" to such alleged "trend reports" that pit working mothers against stay-at-home mothers and undermine mothers who work. So let's begin.

Excuse me #1: Class bias, race bias, need we say more? In fact, at one point Belkin notes that 95 percent of white men with MBAs are working but only 67 percent of white women with MBAs are. But she adds (parenthetically, no less) that the numbers for African-American women are closer to those of white men. Doesn't this make you a tad suspicious about the whole notion of "choice?"

Excuse me #2: The discourse of "choice." Despite the headlines, what we learn inside the article is that the first two women we meet, one an attorney, the other a television reporter, were confronted with speed-up at work -- 55- to 75-hour weeks -- at the same time they were having children. Both asked for shorter and more flexible hours and were turned down. Their "choice" was to maintain their punishing schedules or to quit. I am sorry, but this is not a choice. As one of these women admits, "I wish it had been possible to be the kind of parent I want to be and continue with my legal career." The cover headline totally misrepresents this woman's dilemma.

Excuse me #3: Selective use of statistics. The article emphasizes findings from a recent survey in which 26 percent of women in senior management said they did not want a promotion. So that means nearly three-quarters did. And how does that compare to men, many of whom don't want high-stress jobs either? We then learn that Fortune reported that out of 108 women in high-powered jobs, "at least 20" have chosen to leave. Maybe I'm dumb at math, but doesn't that mean that four-fifths have not made this "choice"?

Excuse me #4: Biology is destiny. Whenever you need to keep women in their place, it's always good to cite examples from the animal kingdom. Belkin uses baboon analogies. She makes the usual disclaimer about the misuse of biology, and then goes on to tell us that we mothers (but not dads?) are genetically driven to protect our kids and "seeking clout in a male world does not correlate with child well-being." You mean earning a decent salary does not correlate with being able to take care of your kids?

Excuse me #5: Buried lead. The real story here is not about mothers "choosing" not to work. It's about the ongoing inhumanity of many workplaces whose workaholic cultures are hostile to both men and women. Americans work anywhere from six to nine weeks a year longer than most Europeans. And many "high powered" jobs like corporate attorney are lethally boring and stressful to both genders.

But, you know, when the real story is about capitalism run amok, it's commonplace to turn it into a story about a human failing, in this case the failure of feminists. So let's be clear about who has really failed mothers, including the privileged ones in this article. First: Congress and successive presidential administrations. For decades, the federal government has refused to provide a quality national daycare system, decent maternity and paternity leaves, or after-school programs. Second: much, though not all, of corporate America and the preposterous workaholic culture it fosters.

Mothers of America, it's time to talk back and refute insulting post-feminist propaganda.

When the Media Worm Turns

Ah, this is the life. To be on vacation near the ocean, sunning on the beach by day, and, by night, hearing Hardball's Chris Matthews, of all people, repeatedly liken Bush to Ted Baxter, the obtuse anchorman on the old "Mary Tyler Moore Show." As I eat fried calamari and striped bass, I get to see Matthews, hardly a friend of progressives, hammer Team Bush over their serial lying about weapons of mass destruction and yellowcake. Was Bush such a clueless puppet, sputters Matthews, that he simply read whatever Cheney or Rumsfeld put in front of him and told him to sell to the nation? Why, I must be in Margaritaville.

Since Team Bush came to power, those of us lucky enough to have the time and money to go on vacation have tried to escape from, or forget, however briefly, the totalitarian and imperialistic schemes of our in-house American Taliban. Nonetheless, it was difficult to shake the sense of doom unleashed by the forces of darkness, and some of us spent previous vacations looking longingly at maps of Canada, fantasizing about where to move. A supine media reinforced our sense that we were exiles in our own land.

But this summer, the worm is turning. The inside story of how and why so many in the press have finally begun to ask hard questions remains to be told. But cracks in the edifice are everywhere. And while, understandably, we on the left are prone to seeing the political glass as always half empty -- or less -- it is summer, things are falling apart for Team Bush, and we need to appreciate that, for now, the glass is starting to look half full.

As the days pass, my vacation gets better all the time. First off, Jamie McIntyre of CNN, clearly weary of denials and evasions, reads the dictionary definition of "guerrilla war" out loud at a Rumsfeld press conference to drive home the point that whatever the administration says, our troops are, in fact, engulfed by a guerrilla war. I can barely believe my eyes when, after a day of sun and surf, I turn on ABC News to see Jeffrey Kofman's now infamous interviews with soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division in Fallujah who had been told three times they were going home, only to have their reprieve rescinded. "If Donald Rumsfeld were sitting here ... what would you say to him," Kofman asks. "I don't know if I can really say that on camera," responds one soldier. Another was more forceful, "I'd ask him for his resignation." I nearly drop the tequila -- is ABC really airing this? Even better, "Good Morning America" replays the interviews the next morning.

The next night, when ABC News learns that the army might discipline those soldiers who spoke out, the network airs portions of the interviews yet again, and then puts on some of the soldiers' middle-America, young blonde wives who demand to know why their husbands suddenly have no free speech rights. Then, cut to adorable African-American kids holding up signs asking when their daddies are coming home. Peter Jennings closes the segment by quoting a commanding officer who said, "We are in Iraq to defend democracy, not to practice it." Jennings gives a slight but telling grimace.

In this same week I can read, on the beach, the Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt write about the "Fog of Deceit" and demand an investigation into Team Bush's "pervasive pattern of exaggeration and distortion." Next I can turn to the Boston Globe's truly brilliant op-ed piece by James Carroll ironically titled "Bush's War Against Evil" that makes clear how all-out campaigns to allegedly purge the world of evil have always deeply corrupted the crusaders, leading to "the most ignoble deeds." He asks whether "ridding of the world of evil," as Bush promised, justifies torture, the killing of children, the "launching of dubious wars," and the "militarization of civil society." Of Bush, Carroll writes, "there is nothing at the core of this man but visceral meanness." After that, I can flip through a Time magazine whose cover shows Bush giving the State of the Union address under a huge headline reading "Untruth & Consequences."

Even the latest Harry Potter book takes on the consequences of creeping totalitarianism. Harry and Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, insist that the Dark Lord Voldemort is back, and is recruiting followers to his evil cause. But the Ministry of Magic, in total denial, refuses to believe this, and sends a "high inquisitor" to the school to silence dissent, suppress certain kinds of knowledge, and identify and punish traitors. The official newspaper, the Daily Prophet, toes the Ministry of Magic line until its deceptions can no longer stand scrutiny. Millions of kids, through the book, feel the infuriating injustices of autocracy. And in theaters, the movie "Seabiscuit" sneaks in paeans to FDR and the importance of government social welfare programs in between dramatic horse races.

Yes, the Dark Lord is still president. Ann Coulter's book is still on the bestseller list. But maybe in the wake of Jayson Blair's plagiarisms, the Private Lynch fictions, Bush's inadvertent admission of how highly he regards the lives of Iraqis (and even our own troops) by daring Iraqis to "bring 'em on," and the mounting evidence of repeated bald-faced lying, the press and others in the media will rediscover that portion of the body known as a spine. I know one thing -- along with millions of others I'm having a much better summer this year than those hunkered down in the "beloved ranch" in Crawford.

Margaritas, anyone?

Susan Douglas is a columnist with with In These Times.

The Face of Post-Feminist Patriarchy

Any feminist, female or male, who has seen ABC�s The Bachelor was repulsed. For those who have missed this fine media offering, a carefully selected lunk of a guy -- in the most recent case, Aaron -- is presented with a harem of 25 also carefully selected young women, all slim, all conventionally pretty and most blonde.

After sampling all the wares, he rejects them one by one until he has chosen the one he likes best. It�s not unlike a 4-H competition of prize heifers, except the women weigh less and get to go to fancy resorts. Nor is it unlike the inspections in 19th-century slave pens, except that the women are mostly white, privileged and, I�m sorry to report, there of their own free will.

Women who railed against the sexism of the Miss America pageant, TV detective shows and Mr. Clean commercials in the early �70s must not believe what they are seeing. Feminism aside, the notion that anyone would select the person they�re going to marry in six weeks of fantasy dates in hot tubs televised to millions of people is creepy.

Nothing from the real world that binds people together or makes them fight like Rottweilers -- religion, politics, money, racial attitudes, child-rearing practices, whether you squeeze the toothpaste from the end or the middle -- is allowed to enter this fantasy world. Human relationships are depoliticized here, reinforcing the notion that women and marriage are, and should be, outside the realm of citizenship and civic culture.

Worst of all, the show has been a smash among young women. The demographic group most prized by advertisers, women ages 18 to 34, have made The Bachelor a huge hit and prompted worries about the survival of its competition over on NBC, The West Wing. From dawn till dusk, ABC�s chat room has been abuzz with postings from avid fans. So, as a crotchety, 50-something feminist, I want to know what the hell has happened to this generation of young women?

Of course, as soon as I ask that, an admonition I have always raised nags at me: If young women en masse are embracing a media offering, then we need to figure out why. Just as Madonna in her boy-toy phase and the Spice Girls with their Wonder-Bras and mini-skirts spoke to millions of girls and young women about what has come to be called �girl power,� The Bachelor�s popularity tells us something about post-feminism and how young women experience their situations within, yes -- I�ll use the word -- patriarchy.

So I turned to an invaluable source, my teen-age daughter and her friends. My daughter loves the show, and loathes watching it with me, because my stream of invective makes it hard for her to follow what�s going on. But here�s what I hear these girls saying: They know the show is sexist. (They naively counter that since ABC is going to run The Bachelorette in the winter, the network isn�t sexist.) Many of them do not find Aaron -- an amiable, tall, sandy-haired guy with not much light behind his eyes -- all that desirable.

But for them, the show is not about Aaron, it�s about the 25 young women. Female viewers see an array of personas, identifying with some and rejecting others, as they calibrate what kind of woman succeeds in a world where appearance and personality still powerfully determine a woman�s fate. Helene, the one Aaron finally chose, was enormously popular with young women -- the chat room confirms this -- because she was cast as �the smart one.� Confident, with a sense of humor, Helene was also not overly adulatory of The Man, unlike some of the other contestants. My daughter and her friends did not like the contestants who were wimpy and needy, air-headed, manipulative, untrustworthy, backstabbing or bitchy.

The show, in essence, offers highly normative female �types� into which most women allegedly fall and ropes viewers into damning certain behaviors while applauding others. Thus girls are urged to place themselves on a post-feminist scale of femininity to determine how far they have to go to please men without losing all shreds of their own identity and dignity. In the process, young women calibrate, for better and for worse, what kind of female traits are most likely to ensure success in a male-dominated world.

But Aaron is being judged, too. The show is a metaphor for the persistence -- dare I say, desirability -- of patriarchy, but in post-feminist clothing. With all of Aaron�s faux soul-searching about people needing to be honest and sensitive and not wanting to hurt any woman�s feelings, he embodies the lie that patriarchy ain�t so bad now because it has been humanized by women.

Viewers tuned in to see if he would confirm girls� worst suspicions that men (and, by extension, a patriarchal system) go for superficial qualities and women who stay in their place -- or whether he would embody the new and improved sensitive-new-age-guy patriarchy, the kind that supposedly �gets it.� His choice of Helene confirms the latter.

Now it is true that many young women loathe this show and find it completely degrading to women. But millions don�t. They flock to The Bachelor in part because they want to participate in a process that reinforces what kinds of femininity ensure survival, and what kinds do not, in a world still run by men. In so doing, they become complicit in perpetuating an ethic from the �50s: that women be judged first and foremost by their bodies, faces and personality traits, rather than their brains, integrity, courage, talents or, heaven forbid, political convictions.

The End of The Illusion

Awash in bathos. That�s what the media promise to be before, during and after the anniversary of 9/11: Tom Brokaw reliving the day with air traffic controllers. John Walsh of America�s Most Wanted(now host of his own talk show) at Ground Zero with relatives of the victims. Flight 93 widow Lisa Beamer ... well, everywhere, from the Today Show to Good Morning America to Larry King Live.

As always, in the construction of collective memory, certain images and interpretive frameworks will be reiterated and magnified. Others will be tinier than a bat squeak. (For example, as of this writing, I do not know of plans for a retrospective documentary of the past year produced and hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union.) But if progressives could get an hour or two on TV, what interpretive frameworks might we put forward as we think about what has happened here since last September?

I think one of the most important, and chilling, developments of the past year has been the Bush administration�s unashamed embrace of neoliberalism, the term lefty academics in particular use to describe the American political system of at least the past 50 years. Neoliberalism refers to a government that has all the requisite trappings of a democracy� legislatures, public campaigns, national conventions, elections�but is really a highly unrepresentative government by elites for elites.

Since most Americans don�t want to admit out loud that they live in a plutocracy, successful politicians have, until now, worked hard to keep up an illusion. Bill Clinton was a master at this: His moving rhetoric about the needs of children, or affirmative action, or the crisis in health care, all masked his administration�s all-too-frequent cultivation of conservatives and capitulation to business interests.

But Bush, Cheney and Ashcroft don�t care about maintaining the illusion, and have decided they don�t need the trappings of democracy. After all, that�s how they won the presidency. If you review the last year, you will see a carefully calibrated process to achieve a real paradigm shift in gaining American acceptance of the less candy-coated aspects of neoliberal politics.

Because 9/11 allowed Bush to become a �wartime president,� and wars are always a time of impinged democracy, this has been an especially propitious 12-month period in which to convince the country to acquiesce to autocracy. The campaign has had several important phases: undermine civil liberties (and see if anyone cares), insist on a highly arrogant foreign policy (and see if anyone cares), stonewall about administration officials� highly profitable adventures in the corporate Eden of the pre-Enron days (and see if anyone cares), and then substitute a series of �leaks� for public debate about whether the president should, on his own, declare war against Iraq (and see if anyone cares).

Step by step, they�ve used the �all war, all the time� version of the presidency to push people to the next level of consent, relying on coercion when necessary. It helps, of course, that the opposition party is a bunch of spineless weenies.

The USA Patriot Act was the first crucial move. But we know this year�s depressing history: the detaining of thousands of Muslims and Arabs, often for months, without charges; the proposal of a national ID system; the Justice Department plan to fingerprint and track immigrants; the expansion of the FBI�s ability (which we now learn doesn�t even have e-mail!) to spy on religious and political groups; the undermining and evading of the Freedom of Information Act; and, everyone�s favorite, the National Neighborhood Watch program (in which your TIPS on the weird guy down the street will go directly to America�s Most Wanted.)

While the TIPS program has been widely ridiculed, it has helped deflect attention away from the other serial assaults on democracy. And once people have said �uncle� to increased power and secrecy among law enforcement and the federal government, why should they blanch when the president says that people should certainly be �allowed� (his word) to debate the merits of a war with Iraq�but that, in the end, he�ll decide on his own what to do.

Given how effectively this administration has naturalized top-down power, is it a surprise that Al Gore�I mean, Al Gore�has been accused of running too populist a campaign in 2000?

Looking back at the last year from this perspective would indeed be bracing. It would also be denounced as unpatriotic. So you won�t hear any of this coming from Lisa Beamer or any of the other icons of 9/11. In fact, the anniversary, through an avalanche of patriotic symbols that celebrate the image but not the substance of democracy, will only advance the surrender to neoliberalism, Bush-style.

Manufacturing Postfeminism

I�m sitting here, in one hand Vogue�s April edition called �The Shape Issue,� featuring Angelina Jolie (�Rebel with a Cause,� we�re told) on the cover, and in the other Time�s April 15 issue devoted to the question of �Babies vs. Career.� (Time promises to offer women �The harsh facts about fertility.�) Thirty years after the height of the women�s movement, here we are: Vogue tells us �How to Change Your Shape from Head to Toe� and Time warns us that if we get settled in a career first and then try to have kids, we are doomed to childlessness. And I�m sitting here thinking: This is it. This is postfeminism in action.

In October 1982, when the New York Times Magazine featured an article titled �Voices From the Post-Feminist Generation,� a term was coined, and ever since the women of America have heard, ceaselessly, that we are, and forevermore will be, in a postfeminist age.

What the hell is postfeminism, anyway? I would think it would refer to a time when complete gender equality has been achieved. That hasn�t happened, of course, but we (especially young women) are supposed to think it has. Postfeminism, as a term, suggests that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism, but that feminism is now irrelevant and even undesirable because it has made millions of women unhappy, unfeminine, childless, lonely, and bitter, prompting them to fill their closets with combat boots and really bad India print skirts.

But to perpetuate this �common sense� about feminism and postfeminism requires the weekly and monthly manufacturing of consent. Postfeminism is, in fact, an ongoing engineering process promoted most vigorously by the right, but aided and abetted all along the way by the corporate media. Postfeminism is crucial to the corporate media because they rely on advertising.

If millions of women stopped and said, �Hey, I don�t think I need lipstick, Lestoil, Oil of Olay, Victoria�s Secret boulder holders, Diet Coke, L�Oreal or Ultra Slim-Fast anymore,� that would lead to a serious advertising revenue shortfall. So the media must continue to manufacture postfeminism as the common sense way to understand women�s current place in American society. This April we got an excellent snapshot of how this process works.

Vogue�s first-ever �Shape Issue celebrates the female form in all its glorious variety.� These varieties include tall, short, curvy, pregnant and thin. Except that they are all size two (the �curvy� model, a socialite, is a size eight to 10). Even the pregnant model, who is nineteen, and would rather �flaunt my belly than hide it,� is a size two.

The letter from the editor acknowledges that �we receive countless letters attacking the models for the way they look. �Too skinny� is the usual complaint.� But then she huffs about a �simple truth�: �To be slim and fit is healthier than to be seriously overweight and out of shape.� Well, that settles that. Our choices as women are anorexic versus blimp.

It is Vogue�s job (and the job of countless other women�s magazines) to remind women that their most important task is to police the boundaries of their bodies. This regulation, we are reminded, requires considerable time, mental energy and attention. Crucial to Vogue�s strategy is to acknowledge women�s quite legitimate charges that the magazine promotes an unattainable and, in fact, unhealthy body image. Vogue then asserts that such charges are false and wrong, and that the true progressive position for women (because it�s healthy�don�t you love it?) is to embrace hyper-thinness as a body ideal. Postfeminism in action: reconfigure anti-feminism as feminism.

In �Making Time for a Baby,� Time�s point is clear: women who pursue a career first and postpone having children too long will end up barren and miserable. In the past 20 years, the print screams, there has been a �100% rise in childless women ages 40-44.� (No detailed interviews here with women who are happily kid-free.)

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of the book Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, on which the article is based, argues for structural changes in the workplace to make family life and work more compatible. But the emphasis in Time�and this is also absolutely central to postfeminism�is the notion that whatever challenges women face in juggling work and family are their individual struggles, to be conquered through good planning, smart choices, and an upbeat outlook.

We hear about the deep, �private sorrow� of childlessness for some professional women. But there is no comparative data here about how countries like Denmark or the Netherlands, just to pick two, through admittedly high taxes, provide all kinds of support services to mothers and, in fact, make it not just possible but customary for women to work and have kids. (How does one year�s paid maternity leave sound, girls?)

But postfeminism also rests on the notion that neither the government nor corporate America can or should offer any support to parents for the common good of raising the next generation. So the next time you see yet another media text telling women to shut up, look pretty, go on a diet, abandon your career and other aspirations, have more babies and have them young, remember that you are witnessing just the latest assembly-line products of that huge and highly successful industry, Postfeminism Inc.

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