Saturday, August 20, 2005

On Activism and Small Towns

My summer is measured by the blog entries here. I started this blog to encourage me to write more and to get over my dread of putting my ideas in the public domain. While my steadfast obsession with psychopharmacology and gender is unwavering, the direction of this blog has shifted as I entered into a new phase of my life.

I received tenure last January, which, to those who have been through it is a deep sigh of relief. One of the many questions that people ask you after you've been through tenure is: "So, now what are you going to do with your life"? I mostly ignored this question, since I figured I would do exactly what I always do: research, write, publish articles, design new classes, participate in faculty seminars, travel to conferences, etc. In fact, I was thinking far more about how to get my book done during my sabbatical (which, unfortunately, will be only one semester!).

However, the blog has forced me to recognize that I have done something quite different with my life this summer. I have joined a church (Unitarian Universalism), formed a local NOW chapter, joined a friday group of beer lovers at a local pub, participated in the local farmer's market and, most importantly, met many new friends, who have nothing to do with my academic life.

The single force animating what I take to be a dramatic change in my existence in this tiny town is my commitment to feminism. Somehow, without any sort of "epiphany," I realized that I lived in this town. I own a house, I have a permanent job. Unless a big University in some city I treasure comes knocking on my door with a great offer, I will live her for the next 30 years. The only connection I have to this place is through the College, and that existence is rather surreal. I know that I am surrounded by a community of people who share my views--for the most part--about the world. I also find my colleagues to be fascinating, illuminating, and, well, let's face it, sort of disconnected from the world.

Many of us are hiding out in academia, it feels like a safe place to be in a world that is transfiguring into a sort of worst-case science fiction novel. If you read my local paper, and start drinking beers with locals--both of which I started to do this summer--you are struck by how foreign our views are.

Just to give you some ideas of what I mean: Early in the summer I met Uncle Ben, a retired 5th grade school teacher, who is also a 18th Century re-enactor. Uncle Ben is an unapologetic, unreconstructed Fox-News-loving, Rush-Limbaugh-inhaling Right Winger. The first time I met him, he told me that all the homeless people in the world are just plain lazy and unwilling to read the classified section and get a job.

Ben and I started having regular political conversations. Each week we both prepare for topics and we look forward to duking it out over micro-brewed beer. I like Ben. In fact, he is the sort of person you invite to your wedding and expect him to get up and make a delightful avuncular toast. Yesterday, Ben and some other folks of the Friday Beer group pledged to support the upcoming Chili Cook Off that our NOW chapter entered. However, Ben made it clear to me several times that he didn't want anyone to know he was coming since NOW was clearly a pack of man-hating women who snub any woman who might choose to raise children. I asked him why he believed this of NOW, since he was talking to the President and I had never said any of those things to him, nor behaved that way before. He assured me that he heard Gloria Steinem say that.

Another example of the "real world"--what Ben likes to call the "common sense" view that most people from my county have: I was sitting at the NOW table in the square today, when an older man walked up to our table and starting looking at the bumper stickers. We have one that reads: "The Last Time We Mixed Religion and Politics . . .People We're Burned at the Stake!" The man picked it up, laughed, and said, "yea, that was the good ole days. That was what BBQ's were all about." I am NOT making this up. He then asked me why we weren't starting a National Organization for Men. Luckily, he walked off without any further insult.

The Letters to the Editor of my paper contain countless letters of people who praise the gentility and likeability of Rick Santorum. I wrote an op-ed this summer about Santorum, sent it to the editor, and he wouldn't even respond to my inquiries (I published it somewhere else).

Here is the rub. Those of us who find the powers that be horrific, like I do, or, those of us who are outraged by abstinence-only education, intelligent design, privatization of social security, or the Fox Newsification of the world, better get out of the safety of the Ivory Tower quickly. And, once we do, like I have been doing all summer, be prepared to hear how you are "out of touch," "living in a bubble," "think you are so much smarter than everyone else," "man-hater," "secular humanist," or, the staple "Lib-errr--raaaalll." The pundits, the partisan media hacks, the conservative strategists have been working on your local community (if you live somewhere like me) and already packaged and sold you to everyone else.

What is the result? They don't listen to you---at first. They think they know your positions, your looney, wacky ideas, your "do-gooder" or "bleeding heart." But, they don't. And, if you sit and talk to people, like I have a lot this summer, you find out that they don't even really agree with the positions that they supposedly have.

We have our work cut out. And, I am starting to transition back into academic mode--syllabi, readings, meetings, and committee work. I am not sure how I will keep up this work in the community I am doing and continue to be a good teacher. But, I have to do it.

It's not fun work. In fact, its downright scary and demoralizing when you start to really see what you look like to those outside of our intellectual communities. I constantly panic that I am going to get hurt, or that my reputation will be maligned, or that I will be disowned by my neighbors. I am not even doing a tenth of the brave work that Cindy Sheehan is doing, and I am sacred.

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