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Fri, May 30, 2014
by Janet Weil
“Does my sassiness upset you?” – Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)
This past week was punctuated, for me as for many people, by the news of two very different sorts of deaths. The natural passing away, at age 86, of author/performer/teacher Maya Angelou at home after a long life of many achievements; and the tragic horror of the murders (and suicide) of young students in Santa Barbara .
The news of Dr. Angelou’s death brought me a gentle sadness, along with memories of first reading “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” as a young woman, and gratitude for her example as a strong, ever-evolving woman.
The images and sounds of the post-mass-shooting coverage (I was away from TV and computer all weekend, so I missed this as breaking news) were both shocking and all too familiar. I felt a complex mix of disgust, horror, worry for an acquaintance getting her PhD at UC Santa Barbara, and a sort of enraged numbness. Again and again and again – how many of these atrocities will we as a country submit to before serious changes take place?
Catching up on #YesAllWomen on twitter, and then Rebecca Solnit’s insightful commentary on Democracy Now, I felt a measure of satisfaction that the woman-hatred foundational to this killing was finally being outed, analyzed, and protested; and that women’s voices were being heard as central to this narrative.
It all made me think of the hate mail that I have read, and at times responded to, at email@example.com since I first took on that responsibility in late 2007 (with some long breaks). At the time, CODEPINK in the SF Bay Area was involved in a long struggle to vigil daily in front of, and attempt to remove, the Marines Officer Recruiting Station near the University of California at Berkeley. As news of this campaign spread, hate mail flooded into the inbox, sometimes hundreds in a day, expressing fury over our daring to contest the public presence of a military recruiting office, defending the Marine Corps from our supposed “treachery” and objecting to us, politically active antiwar women, with obscene denunciations. Sometimes the emails included threats of physical assault, rape or even death.
I had never read such a stream of invective – I came to call it “The Spew” – and it was emotionally challenging, sometimes harrowing. My colleagues were also receiving hate mail and we were getting hate calls in the office as well. First thing in the morning, I always knew when CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin had been on Fox News because the hate mail would come pouring in again.
One of my responses was to add a message to the auto-reply that any emails containing obscenities would not be answered. A few guys wrote in objecting to THAT! Pretty quickly I created a routine: delete The Daily Spew, and focus on answering some of the emails, often from boys in high school or college, who wrote in genuinely concerned that we “hated” the Marine Corps, or couldn’t understand how we could be against a war “to protect Americans.” These I answered with all the patience I could muster, and sometimes had the satisfaction of receiving respectful, appreciative replies.
After some months, I began to regard The Spew in a different way: as a teaching. I recognized the absolute ineffectiveness of these emails, their unpersuasive, predictable emptiness. I also thought about my own uses of language when angry, and how examining this is central to peace work.
And more. I began to “hear” the emails as voices raised in a collective wail of frustration: “I’m so unhappy, so angry, so confused, so at the mercy of my own feelings – help me, listen to me, make it better!”
As the mother of a baby son, I had learned, through a haze of fatigue, how to respond to his wail and “make it better.” Much later in life, my son grown to adulthood, I recognized the same quality of unmet need in these abusive emails – but unlike an infant’s legitimate need for comfort, these demands from adolescents or adult men came from their unexamined sense of entitlement to use violent language, threat and projection against an unknown woman/women. They were outrageous. And pathetic.
And very related to the foreign policy of the United States after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 (themselves a grotesque display of male rage and futility on a mass scale). “We HAD to go to war… to strike back… to detain ‘enemy combatants’… to use torture to get information… to keep troops in the country…”
No, “we” did not need to do any of those things. That is the classic defense of the abuser: “she made me do it.” A tiny elite of neocons CHOSE to do those things, or to order others to commit those war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, for their own selfish reasons. The rest of us, with the noble exception of some individuals and groups, including I’m proud to say CODEPINK, mostly stood by, in a sort of anxious apathy, and let them do it – with our tax dollars, our young men and women, and our national reputation. The shame and waste of 2 long foreign wars has been immense, and added to those is the slower chronic horror of what Jeremy Scahill has named “dirty wars” of drone strikes and surveillance.
The hate mail slowed to a trickle, then died down almost completely. Now people write expressions of gratitude, of interest, of appreciation. A few men have written to info email this year to say that they’ve come to see that CODEPINK was right about the Iraq war, or sometimes other issues, and that they appreciate our persistence or integrity. These inspire me – because they show me that people, even those rigidly opposed to us years ago, can change their minds and hearts.
What can’t we change, if we keep walking toward a more peaceful world? What can’t we do together for justice? Who can we reach out to? Whose minds and hearts do we need to speak to? And how do I, do we, without sentimentality or unrealistic expectations, but with an open curiosity, communicate with those we disagree with or oppose?
As Maya Angelou would say – did say: “We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.
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