Monday, February 1, 2016

Berkeley has its art museum back again: BAMPFA opens

The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) has opened in its new building, throwing a staged set of parties for donors, members, and the community at large. I visited for the first time on Saturday. Regular hours commence on Wednesday Feb 3rd -- regular hours are Wed-Sun 11am to 9 pm.

The expansive main gallery and the two film theaters promise a wealth of future visits that might even make up for the disappointment at losing the brutalist and endlessly compelling Mario Ciampi sprawl of BAMPFA's first home, of some 35 years.

Some bonus news: Babette, the café that was itself a destination at the old museum, has made the trek downtown with BAMPFA. It opens for business on Wednesday. At right, a view from the café balcony down into the museum's main gallery space.

Here's an excerpt of what SF Chronicle architecture critic has to say last week about the building in New home elevates BAMPFA status:
The shell of metallic scales is supple and soft, if not as crisply tailored as when first conceived. In morning sun the creased folds glisten; after dark, the trees along Oxford Street cast delicate shadows on the long panels. Rather than the dour tone of the copper-clad De Young Museum in San Francisco (not that there’s anything wrong with that), the streamlined tub has a cordial air.

As for the cantilever above Center Street, the red glow from the interior walls that was played up in renderings is barely discernible. Still, the outward gesture serves as a symbolic marquee above the lone public entry, while the corridor within the tail offers views into the galleries and gathering spaces below.

What you see is an interlocked, easily navigated realm far different from the choreographed ascension that offered one path through the 1970 museum. The corridor has two large entrances into the main gallery, where printing presses once churned beneath a saw-toothed roof that allows light in from the north. But first there’s a casual space dubbed the forum that cascades down, long wood stairs doubling as benches designed with an eye to events but also as a path leading to subterranean galleries.

At the end of the corridor, you face the belly of the beast — the rounded underside of the 232-seat main theater, the silvery metal skin continued inside as smooth gray stucco panels. The void between old and new serves as the theater atrium and is accented by a tall pointed glass wall facing the campus; there’s also glass that allows you to look down at the film archive’s library.

These visual connections are voyeuristic in the best sense. They’re also a nod to the communal air of the original museum, the way that the interior let you be part of something larger, an ever-changing show.
Here are three stunning pieces from the museum's inaugural show, "Architecture of Life," curated by museum director Larry Rinder:



Portrait of My Father, Stephan Kaltenbach


4 Brushstrokes over Figure, Hyun-Sook Song


Solitary, semi-social mapping of ESO-510 613 connected with intergalactic dusty by one Nephila clavipes -- one week -- and three Cyrtophora citricola -- three weeks, Tomás Saraceno

The image of one of four collaborations between Tomás Saraceno and some spiders doesn't come close to doing his haunting installation justice. Any one of the three pieces pictured is worth a visit to downtown Berkeley.



BAMPFA is one short block from the Downtown Berkeley BART station. Don't just come for the museum: take a walk on the campus, have dinner, taken in a play or a musical performance, and don't forget to circumnavigate the building in the evening to admire the shadow play on BAMPFA's metallic skin.




Related posts on One Finger Typing:
The Berkeley Art Museum is Dead - Long Live the Berkeley Art Museum!
Barry McGee mid-career survey at UC Berkeley art museum
Looking East at the SF Asian Art Museum: cultural appropriation or radical empathy?
Meet the Fishers

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

San Francisco Bay Area bridge blockades in fact and fiction

Yesterday afternoon, on the day the United States honors the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and in the name of #ReclaimMLK and #BlackLivesMatter, the Black queer liberation collective Black.Seed blockaded the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Brooke Anderson's album of photographs on Facebook tells the story eloquently.

As always in this socially-mediated century, the action's supporters and its naysayers are duking it out online. In my view that's not nearly as interesting as what the Black.Seed Collective has to say in its own words. An excerpt:
For the second year in a row, the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) put out a call for 96 Hours of Direct Action to reclaim Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s radical legacy and take a stand against anti-Black racism and terrorism. In a courageous display of solidarity and the spirit of MLK, Black.Seed, a Black, queer liberation collective, has shut down the Bay Bridge as a show of resistance to a system that continues to oppress Black, Queer, Brown, Indigenous and other marginalized people throughout the Bay Area.

Today, January 18th,  Black.Seed has shut down the west-bound span of Bay Bridge. Cars are blocking lanes and individuals are chained across lanes to demand investment in the wellbeing of Black people. [...]

Over the last few years, we have seen San Francisco and Oakland destroyed by police murders, rising housing costs, rapid gentrification, and apathetic city officials. Last year, we saw dozens of police murders throughout the Bay Area; since June of 2015 in Oakland alone there have been eight Black men murdered by police.

Today Black.Seed celebrates and honors the radical legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Historically, our people have had to take drastic and dramatic measures to highlight the systemic abuses that harm our communities. 51 years ago, those who came before us participated in direct action in Selma, Alabama, to speak out against the harms of racism and oppression. It is this very spirit of resistance that flows through our lives and actions, in the Black Out Friday, Black Brunches, and highway shutdowns of today.
Powerful.

The first bridge blockade I participated in myself was the Golden Gate Bridge blockade of 31 Jan 1989, organized by Stop AIDS Now Or Else and documented in a shamelessly unapologetic YouTube video created by my longtime friend and comrade Arl Nadel:



We got the same flavor of pushback that Black.Seed is now parrying (eloquently, IMHO) by motorists "inconvenienced" by stopped traffic. Our friends and comrades were dying of AIDS in 1989, a disease whose existence then-barely-former president Ronald Reagan did not even acknowledge publicly until tens of thousands had already died of the disease. For us then, as for Black.Seed who must endure and mourn "police murders, rising housing costs, rapid gentrification, and apathetic city officials," disrupted commutes didn't move the scales much. Does that raises your hackles? I'd like to suggest you watch the video linked above before jumping to conclusions.

There have been many other bridge protests. For example: the Bay Bridge was blocked in 1991, at the start of the first Gulf war; and the Golden Gate Bridge was shut down in 2002 at the start of the second. In 2003, on the one year anniversary of GWB's Iraq war, there were multiple attempts to shut down the Bay Bridge on a day when the whole of San Francisco was gridlocked by protest, but activists were thwarted that time.

The bridge blockade in which I immersed myself most deeply is the one that forms a centerpiece of my novel Consequence. I lived with the planning, choreography, messaging, and dramatic events of that blockade, set in April 2004, for a fair few years (the novel was published this past September). The issue that sparked that fictional blockade -- well, here, I'll quote Doug Peacock, real-life model for Edward Abbey’s George Washington Hayduke in The Monkey Wrench Gang, because he hits the bullseye --
The villain of Consequence happens to be genetic engineering but it could have been any current social or environmental issue. The premise, absolutely believable today, is that life on the planet is threatened and that battle waged by this novel’s characters will make a difference. And why not?

And why not, indeed?

Kudos and more power to the Black.Seed collective and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Acting up, fighting back: AIDS activism in the '80s and '90s
Sticking your neck out
Activist fiction: it's about engagement, not about The Issue
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books



Thanks to Brooke Anderson for permission to include a photograph from her album of photographs from yesterday's Black.Seed collective protest in this post; and to Arl Nadel, again, for her excellent compilation of footage and images from the 1989 Stop AIDS Now or Else shutdown of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Seasons blur as El Niño starts in on California

I live in Berkeley, California, and over the years have posted a lot of photos taken of my neighbors' front yards. Most often I've photographed the yards on Fulton Street, a residential street running north/south between my neighborhood and the southwest corner of the UC Berkeley campus (it's on my "walk to work" and "walk downtown" path).

Over the last week we've had some drier days and some wetter days as the rains associated with  El Niño have begun. The new year, the pewter-gray skies, and the softened light has reawakened my attention to the plant life of local front yards, and to the odd blurring of seasons that January rains after four years of drought have brought on. So I thought I'd share some of what caught my eye this past week or so...

Here's Fulton Street, looking north. Doesn't seem so remarkable in a wide-angle view, does it?


Much of the neighborhood does look like winter, or the Bay Area's snow-free version of the season at any rate.






But there are more seasonally ambiguous tableaux as well.





Blackberries and pears hanging on from summer and fall, respectively:



And then there are the jarring glimpses of early spring ...



... none more jarring than the early-blooming magnolia trees.



Thanks as always to Berkeley's many dedicated front-yard gardeners!



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
21 reasons it's not nearly so bad as it could be
April showers brought May flowers
Flowery front yards in Berkeley


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Author interview on Eco-fiction site

I was pleased to be asked (in response to a pitch I made in early October) for an interview with Mary Woodbury, founder and creator of Eco-Fiction.com, a site that tracks and explores fiction with environmental themes -- with an emphasis on cli-fi (fiction to do with climate change). Mary also founded a Google+ community, Ecology in Literature and the Arts, which is "devoted to the discussion of nature writing, fiction, and arts," and is a rich source of links to articles, interviews, books,and films. The Google+ community is how I first found Eco-fiction.

Yesterday, my interview with Mary went live on the Eco-fiction site: Interview with Steve Masover, Author of Consequence. I can't say I have a favorite question in the interview -- they're all good ... but here's a question that I was especially glad to answer:
Mary: Your short fiction, prior to Consequence, has been published in various literary magazines and you have helped to write a screenplay. These works appear to contain messages that call for social or environmental justice. Has a reader ever responded with a changed viewpoint, and how do you think fiction is a good conduit for relaying such concerns?

Steve: One of the most rewarding responses I’ve had to Consequence so far was from a student with whom I’ve been working on climate change issues at UC Berkeley. He told me that relationships between the activists portrayed in my novel helped him understand the importance of building friendship and support among people engaged in activist work: it’s not just about the issue, it’s also about the community. In the spring semester he wants to translate his insights into a more conscious, sustainable, and effective approach to environmental justice work on our campus. Another deeply appreciated response came from the wife of a fellow writer, who had the idea before reading Consequence that San Francisco activists could be written off as idealistic hippie burn-outs. I was moved–not to mention relieved–to learn that through my novel her attitude changed, having gained a more nuanced understanding of people who engage in progressive activism.

Non-fiction is key to laying out information and argument, which is certainly fundamental to pursuit of social and environmental justice, and to changing people’s views. But information is powerless against an impermeable mind and a closed heart. Honest fiction grounded in the real world is a way to convey information and perspective past barriers people erect against ideas they have dismissed, or ideas they are afraid to consider or feel. Empathy is the bridge past those barriers, and empathy is fiction’s strongest suit.
Visit the Eco-fiction site if you'd like to check out the full interview. And maybe look around a bit: there's plenty more to catch a reader's eye.



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Paris, the Pleistocene, and finding the grit to grapple with climate change
Pre-apocalyptic fiction: staving off catastrophe
Activist fiction: it's about engagement, not about The Issue
Sticking your neck out

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Looking East at the SF Asian Art Museum: cultural appropriation or radical empathy?

If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area and looking for a great museum visit over the holidays, you won't do better than to visit the Asian Art Museum's current main-floor exhibition: Looking East: How Japan Inspired Monet, Van Gogh, and Other Western Artists. I visited the weekend before Christmas and found the art beautiful, the influences between East and West thought-provoking, and the curator's notes enlightening without being overbearing.

Entering the exhibit, the first piece a visitor encounters is a simple and iconic emblem of Japanese painting and culture: a vase blooming with cherry blossoms.


Looking closer, the piece is even finer that it seems at first glance: the blossoms are not all of one type, in fact they are a veritable botanical catalog, with the names of the different flowers inscribed in fine calligraphy, like delicate, semantically rich insects resting on exemplary petals:


Perhaps the clearest correspondence laid out by the curators between Japanese influence and European painting was a series of woodblock prints by Utagawa Hiroshige and corresponding copies painted by Vincent Van Gogh. Here's one such pair, the Japanese original on the left:


Depicting stylistic influence was the real treasure of the show (as opposed to 'mere evidence' of engagement implicit in copied or reworked images). A recurring trope was European works that echoed Japanese wood block styles, such as this woodblock depiction of an eagle by Isoda Koryusai and Otto Eckmann's woodcut of three herons:



Influence traveled eastward and westward in the work of Yoshida Hiroshi. According to the curator's note on a print depicting El Capitan in California's Yosemite National Park: "Yoshida's composition is somewhat Western in feel, in its suggestion of a straightforward recession in to space through the valley leading to the enormous rock face; but the use of pure colors and the lack of modeling lend the print an equally Japanese sensibility."


My favorite piece in the show was a painting by Camille Pissaro, Morning sunlight on the snow, in which (according to the curator's note) "artistic devices and Pissaro's overall sensitivity to seasonal effects may have been informed by his decades-long exposure to Japanese prints." My less-educated opinion: gorgeous. My crude photograph doesn't begin to do Pissaro justice.


You can't think long on this show wihtout acknowledging that the influence Japanese art exerted on late-nineteenth century European artists (Japonisme) could be critiqued as cultural appropriation. Perhaps it's only because I've lived for a long time with the idea that European impressionists developed their aesthetics in light of exposure to Japanese culture and cultural artifacts, but I found it difficult to discern, in the Looking East show, malevolence or disrespect on the part of the European artists represented in the exhibition. To me it looked as though the Europeans were excited and moved by modes of representation that were then new to them.

I was primed to be thinking of the show I'd just seen at the Asian Art Museum when I attended a literary event two days later -- Starhawk's launch party for her new novel, City of Refuge. In response to a question about how she works out issues of cultural appropriation in the richly imagined, multicultural future of The Fifth Sacred Thing and City of Refuge (its sequel, available starting next week), Starhawk gave an answer I liked a great deal -- though I can only paraphrase it roughly here:

In populating the California she imagines in her speculatively fictional future, Starhawk was unequivocal in her wish to immerse herself and her readers in a world broader than the categories in which she herself fits (white, Jewish, Wiccan, middle-aged, female). She wanted to write a world with people of color in it, and men, and people of diverse ages and sexualities. That is the world she inhabits today here in the Bay Area, and to narrow it would have rendered her fictional world dull (a goal to which very, very few writers cling). Moreover, Starhawk explained the care she takes when she writes about people who live in categories she doesn't: she shows her work to readers whose actual lives are refracted through her diverse characters, in order to receive early, honest, and corrective feedback should she slip into inappropriately narrow, flat, confining, or stereotypical depiction of those characters.

The author who asked Starhawk about cultural appropriation the other night was Kate Raphael (whose Murder Under the Bridge was released last month). I corresponded with Kate in early November when she was preparing to post on the topic of  writing characters unlike one's self (her resultant piece: Writing Down: Cultural Appropriation and the Fiction Writer's Dilemma). What I had to say last month in our correspondence on the topic (a bit of which Kate quoted in her post on the Killzone Blog) was that writing about anyone other than one’s self is an act of radical empathy. I would say that presuming to have a sufficient grasp of anyone else’s inner life to portray it in fiction is wondrously empathetic. How else to explain an author's portrayal of a mind outside her or his own? Yes, people do categorize experience in buckets labeled “sex” and “race” and “nationality” and “religion.” And, yes, those categorizations do hold water to a degree. Nonetheless. The entire edifice of writing, communication, and even relationships is built on a presumption that empathy happens, and can bridge the gulf between one lived experience and another.

Ideas, metaphor, behavior, language -- and constellations of ideas, metaphor, behavior, and language that we call "culture" -- has never been static. Humans have always evolved in the cradle (sometimes in the crucible) of relationships between individuals and groups. This does not deny the truth that regard of another culture can be shallow (even to the point of kitsch), or that shallow regard of culture can be a demeaning element of an asymmetrical, power-based relationship -- such as a colonial relationship. But to proceed irrevocably from that possibility to the assumption that all intercultural regard and exchange is transactional and oppressive is, at bottom, an argument for solipsism.

To my way of thinking and seeing, the European painters on display in the exhibition I visited last week, deeply influenced by their Japanese peers in the late 19th century, were not appropriating culture so much as engaging in acts of empathy. Work that emerged from that cross-pollination remains vibrant and exciting well over a century later.

Looking East is on exhibit at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum until 7 February 2016.


Related posts on One Finger Typing:
The Berkeley Art Museum is Dead - Long Live the Berkeley Art Museum!
Teju Cole's Open City: protagonist as open book or guarded guide?
Tinkering: on bookstore serendipity and novels that show what it is to be alive
The Mauritshuis visits San Francisco
Eureka! Boy led horse to San Francisco's de Young Museum!


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Paris, the Pleistocene, and finding the grit to grapple with climate change

The U.N.F.C.C.C.'s 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris concluded last week with an agreement among 195 countries that climate change is a problem and that it must be solved. Parties to the agreement agreed they might agree in a future meeting to commit sufficiently to the problem's solution to actually solve it, but they aren't committing themselves yet. The 195 nations agree that the solutions they've been discussing aren't adequate to the existential vastness of the problem, but that they'll try harder. In the future.

I believe the Paris agreement (of which the above tongue-in-cheek summary is only that) is about as good as anyone with their feet on the ground could have expected. After all, this was a negotiation that could only succeed by satisfying representatives of nearly two hundred sovereign nations.

Depending on who else you ask, the Paris agreement is universal and ambitious (Al Gore in The Guardian: may have signaled an end to the fossil fuel era); the beginning of the beginning (the NY Times editorial board: Now comes the hard part); a fraud (James Hansen in The Guardian: no action, just promises); or a vast left-wing conspiracy (blowhard and outlier Cal Thomas of Fox News: In my opinion, belief in "climate change" is on a par with childhood faith in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy).

During the COP21 conference in Paris, I stayed put here in California and read a slim volume of what you might call speculative non-fiction: In the Shadow of the Sabertooth: Global Warming, the Origins of the First Americans, and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene. The book was written by Doug Peacock, the indomitable author of Grizzly Years and the late Edward Abbey's real-life model for George Washington Hayduke III of The Monkey Wrench Gang.

In this latest of his calls from the wild, Peacock considers evidence of the multiple routes that might have opened the unglaciated heart of North America to humans some 12-14,000 years ago, during a prior period of titanic climate shifts ... a period in which "35 genera of mostly-large animals suddenly disappear from the earth." Filling out the thin material evidence of human culture from this pre-historical period, the author and "renegade naturalist" calls on his own decades of experience in wilderness environments, and encounters with wild predators on both sides of the Bering Strait, to imagine human life during a time of massive shifts in climate, terrain, food resources, and bioscape.

Why this exercise, and why now? In Peacock's own words:
We sense big changes are coming but for now life is good. Yet the threat is real. The precise problem seems to be that modern humans have difficulty perceiving their own true long-term self-interests; we don't quite see the evolving threat to our survival as a civilization or a species. There's no Pleistocene lion lurking in the gulch. But beyond the false invulnerability of our clever technology and the insulation of our material comfort, here prowls the beast of our time.

[...] The central issue of my generation is the human perpetrated wound we have inflicted against the life-support systems of the earth, whose collective injuries are increasingly visible today as climate change. Should humans push through another population bottleneck, we will drag down much of the wild earth and almost all the large animals with us. And that's the rub: not that it's unfair, which it is, but whether people can thrive without the habitats in which our human intelligence evolved, that gave rise to that bend of mind we call consciousness?
Homo sapiens evolved in wilderness landscapes that are in part still with us; can we hope to endure when that homeland vanishes?
The argument laid out by In the Shadow of the Sabertooth... supposes that it's already too late, that humans have acted and will act too slowly and tentatively to throttle back the effects of the Anthropocene sufficiently to save human civilization as we know it; and considers how humankind might survive a radically unwelcome reconfiguration of our planet.
It has been my purpose in exploring the earliest colonization of the Americas -- a story constructed of interpreted scientific investigations and reconstructed tales of adventure -- to ask questions that appear relevant to the 21st century -- an effort to draw the Pleistocene past into the present day climate change at every appropriate twist in the trail.

I believe in the value of wilderness and it is that wildness which bridges these two worlds. The greatest wilderness ever glimpsed by humans was the uninhabited Americas at the time of first entry into the New World. We are all children of the Pleistocene: Will we dare face the hot future with the ballast of those pilgrims who charged out of the Ice Age?
Peacock projects a future that, should it come to pass, will validate James Hansen's furious disappointment with the recently-concluded talks in Paris. I am temperamentally inclined to foresee that dark future myself. But at the same time I would like to believe -- and I think there is still some ground for believing -- that we remain, today, on a cusp that might yet tip Earth toward a less-decimated future.

And I believe that while there's hope, there's obligation to act to realize it.

That's the theme at the core of my own recently-published novel, Consequence, which I am honored to report made Doug Peacock's reading list earlier this year. I was further honored to hear from the author of In the Shadow of the Sabertooth that, in his judgment, we are writing on the same page, as it were. Doug Peacock on Consequence, circa last month:
Here is a carefully crafted book about the necessity, and danger, of taking personal action in the 21st century. “History,” writes Chris Kalman, the protagonist of Consequence, “will be determined by those who act,” and that war today is for nothing less than Life on Earth—an ambitious undertaking. 
The book’s own cast live in an activist collective—a rarity these days except perhaps, as set, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Steve Masover’s characters ooze humanity; their daily conversations are filled with Dostoyevskian struggles, often wrapped around the morality of civil disobedience and violence. Yet these portraits are finely drawn, never caricature. Consequence swims in an abundance of precise technical detail—much like Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. This thriller is not nearly as esoteric as it might sound: what keeps you turning pages is Masover’s decency toward his characters and their story. The communal life is neither precious nor romanticized. 
The villain of Consequence happens to be genetic engineering but it could have been any current social or environmental issue. The premise, absolutely believable today, is that life on the planet is threatened and that battle waged by this novel’s characters will make a difference. And why not? Our world can snap on a single violent moment folded into the approaching horrors of global warming. 
This is a human story shot in the ass with ideas. 
“If  we allow life on Earth to be destroyed by human negligence,” writes Kalman, “morally the human race will have failed.”
This month's climate agreement is a shot over the bow of the twenty-first century. If Paris was anything real -- anything more than a conclave of yammering, impotent diplomats -- it is the beginning of a monumentally difficult journey, dwarfed only by the draconian horror humankind will face should we fail to embark upon and complete it. As the Editorial Board of the NY Times put it:
The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, described the agreement as a “historical turning point.” Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, called it a “monumental success for the planet and its people.” Whether it turns out to be either of those things depends largely on what the individual signatories are willing to put into it. This is an agreement built firmly on science, but also on the hope that the enthusiasm generated in Paris will translate into concrete measures across the globe that will, in fact, prevent the worst consequences of climate change.

Let's keep life on Earth from being destroyed by human negligence, shall we?



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Northern California mobilizes for climate action as Paris talks near
Pope Francis' environmental encyclical in four core themes
Asking the wrong questions about GMOs for disinformation and profit
The fossil fuel industry and the free sump that is our atmosphere: Zing!


Thanks to John Englart (Takver) for his image Shoes in Place de la Republique - Climate of Peace #climat2paix, via Flickr under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Suffragette: a film in which the gloves should have come off, but didn't

I saw the film Suffragette over the long weekend, drawn in by its billing as a story about the rank and file of women who struggled for the right to vote in early 20th century England.

Though a great deal more was at stake and actively contested by women in that period, I anticipated the film would focus narrowly on women's suffrage. When I bought my ticket I thought I'd be okay with that. After all, one movie can only illuminate so much history.

What I didn't anticipate was the opacity of the protagonist's shift from resigned (one can't say "satisfied") laundress to radicalized suffragette. As the film was written/released, Maud Watts (played with sympathy and subtlety by Carey Mulligan) seemed to be carried along by accidents of circumstance as she became first a witness to Parliament, then a mailbox-bomber, and then unwillingly separated from her child. These accidents of circumstance do seem to add up to her motivation to radicalize, but only when glued together by the viewer's inference and projection. There's little to indicate what sense Maud Watts made of her own world, or why she made the choices -- hard choices -- she did.

I would have liked the film to delve deeper than accidents of circumstance. On reflection, I think that it was precisely the narrowness of political focus that prevented a deeper portrayal of the film's protagonist.

So what else was at stake for women in the 1910s besides the vote?

It's true that suffragists from Susan B. Anthony to Alice Paul to Emmeline Pankhurst had been fighting for women’s right to vote since the mid-nineteenth century. In that time there was also Margaret Sanger and the many women who insisted as Sanger did that women must determine for themselves whether and when to bear children. Elizabeth Gurley FlynnLucy Parsons, and "Mother" Jones organized the radical Industrial Workers of the World alongside Big Bill HaywoodEugene Debs, and others. Flynn went on to help found the American Civil Liberties Union in a period when antiwar protesters and other critics of the U.S. government were being muzzled, beaten, arrested, and -- in the case of anarchist icon Emma Goldman -- deported. Birth control, labor's struggle with capital, realization and preservation of political/civil liberties, the savage willingness of power and industry to engage in an arms race and slaughter millions in WWI (in order to further enrich and empower themselves): all these were boiling up or boiling over in the period in which Suffragette was set.

Here's Emma Goldman railing against the insufficiency of universal suffrage -- indeed against the insufficiency of government -- to truly liberate either women or men. In Anarchism and Other Essays (1917), the essay “Woman Suffrage” concluded:
She [woman] can give suffrage or the ballot no new quality, nor can she receive anything from it that will enhance her own quality. Her development, her freedom, her independence, must come from and through herself. [...] That is, by trying to learn the meaning and substance of life in all its complexities, by freeing herself from the fear of public opinion and public condemnation.  Only that, and not the ballot, will set woman free, will make her a force hitherto unknown in the world, a force for real love, for peace, for harmony; a force of divine fire, of life giving; a creator of free men and women.
By quoting Goldman I am not suggesting that the right of women to vote is beside the point. It is not at all beside the point, and in the early 20th century it meant at least as much as an emblem of women's full and free participation in all matters social and political as it did vis-à-vis electing school boards, mayors, governors, MPs, congresspersons, presidents, and all their varied ilk. The heart of Goldman's point was that voting would not of itself make women free, no more than voting had freed men from the power of capital, state violence, and repressive social constraints.

What I found missing from Suffragette was a context that placed women in the thick of social and political struggles beyond universal suffrage. The film did little to show domestic and labor relations as political issues in their own right, related to but distinct from a right to vote in elections. Yes, the protagonist in Suffragette was clearly and vividly constrained and oppressed at home, in her workplace, by police in the course of peaceful protest, and in the way her grievances were dismissed by the British government. The sole focus of political organizing, consciousness-raising, and demand in the film was, however, the right to vote. Yes, Suffragette gave an indirect nod to broader and deeper context when Maud Watts voiced her realization and then her insistence that "there's another way of living this life." But that nod neither traced nor animated the development of the protagonist's consciousness or participation in the suffragist movement within the context of a broad spectrum of political grievances or demands that were relevant to Maud and to all women in her period and circumstances.

When Maud spoke that line -- "there's another way of living this life" -- I immediately recalled one spoken by Laura Whitehorn in Sam Green's 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary film The Weather Underground. I had no trouble recalling the line because it takes on a key significance in my own recently-published novel, Consequence. Whitehorn was a member of Weather Underground and is currently a writer and activist in New York. Her lifelong work addressed or addresses Black and Puerto Rican liberation struggles, the Vietnam War, feminism, and AIDS/HIV. In Green's documentary, Whitehorn says:
"I definitely think that people never stop struggling, and never stop waiting for the moment when they can change the things that make their lives unlivable."
It's worth noticing that radical women have long stood at the forefront of struggle to change what makes life unlivable, to find "another way of living this life." There's not just one reason for that. There's a broad spectrum of reasons.

Today, as we witness the toxic waste dump identified in the media as the pool of 2016 G.O.P. candidates for U.S. President spew hateful lies in a reactionary bid to undermine women's independence and health, goading heavily-armed scumbags to heinous acts of terroristic violence -- well, it's crystal-clear that the broad spectrum of reasons women and their allies have to struggle for "another way of living this life" remains in play.

I'd say the film Suffragette's narrow focus on voting rights inhibits a viewer from fully understanding or empathizing with the range of issues, social relations, and constraints that led its fictional protagonist, Maud Watts, along the only path that would permit her to realize full humanity in the historical context to which she was born: that is, along a path of radicalized political engagement with a government and patriarchy that sought to deny her inalienable human rights.

Suffragette is worth seeing. I'm glad I saw it. But I wish the filmmakers had taken off their gloves, as I hope women and women's allies will do en masse today.



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Activist fiction: it's about engagement, not about The Issue
CONSEQUENCE has arrived
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books



Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the public domain image of Emma Goldman addressing a rally in Union Square (New York), 1916.