HISTORY HAPPENING: SUMMER, KABUL AND KATHARINE

The structure of the academic year makes summer the strangest of seasons, with a first month in which one is too exhausted to properly think just when a little bit of time for writing nonstop materializes, a second month when one is supposed to forget about all matters academic but cannot really do that, and a third month which marks a new beginning more than January does. That was a long sentence, but much happens indeed between 21 June and 21 September every year academically speaking. For this particular blog, this post is, besides, a moment of reckoning and closure since it concludes the yearly volume I publish as a .pdf in the digital repository of my university. Believe it or not, this will be volume number eleven. And, yes, I’m planning to continue writing, though part of my energy is flagging because the world really is in a terrible state, much more so if you’re a woman. It is hard not to fall into a dark mood these days, and I don’t think I will be able to escape depression today. I don’t mean personal depression but this general feeling that we, human beings, are not doing well at all.

To begin with, as I write hurricane Ida is devastating Louisiana on the same date when fifteen years ago hurricane Katrina almost erased New Orleans. Ida, we are being told, appears to be the most powerful hurricane in 150 years but one thing we know now is that while hurricanes used to be a product of the forces of nature in the past, they are now the bastard children of manmade climate change, too. Something very similar can be said about pandemics, with Covid-19 being proof of the excesses we go on committing in our dealings with animals. As if its murderous effects were not enough, eighteen months after the onset of the crisis in Wuhan, the scientists have now confirmed that we are on the brink of certain extinction because of the brutal climate change patterns, unless we do something urgently—which we will not do. I had high hopes that Covid-19 would change how people behave, turning us into more prudent and solidary community members. Yet the images these days of thousands of drunk youths acting like barbarians in the streets of Barcelona once the curfew has been lifted shows that something fundamental is wrong. No matter how few they are, these people and the anti-vaxxers, and the virus negationists—and the greedy pharmas and obtuse governments—reveal that as a species we are suicidal. Expecting the species to alter the path of climate change when we are unable to protect our fellow human beings from a deadly virus is almost preposterous. This is not who we are.

Add to this the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and the resurgence of ISIS in Afghanistan. I must confess that I have been avoiding the more detailed reports coming from that corner of the world and just paying attention basically to the headlines, cowardly trying to bury my head in the sand to pretend that the end of the Afghan War is not connected to my world. Of course, the sudden imprisonment of all Afghan women under sharia law affects all of us, the women that constitute 51% of the Homo Sapiens species but that live as a helpless minority. The fall of Kabul is not at all comparable to the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the Communists, which has so often been commented on this summer. In the end, and unlike what the domino doctrine behind the Vietnam War preached, Communism did not conquer the world after 1975. My deep worry is that in contrast other countries will follow the patriarchal dictatorship now established in Kabul, with not only Afghan women’s rights being lost but those of all women. You need not be a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale to understand that the future might quickly become worse than the past. On the other hand, both Syria (now forgotten in the news) and Afghanistan make me think of how the worst excesses can happen in daylight and in the face of the international press without anyone being able to stop them. It took a mighty alliance to stop Hitler’s army of darkness in 1945 but the UN and NATO have been unable to stop the far less powerful Taliban in a catastrophic failure of nerve (and, let’s say it, of military know-how) that will have terrible consequences for women, LGTBIQ+ persons, and non-patriarchal men all over the world. Terrorism will join forces with Covid-19 and climate change to make human life on Earth even worse than it already is.

Try to educate young persons in the middle of all this for the future. My project-oriented subject for this year is a semestral course on women in current pop music, an idea intended to cheer us up which now sounds to me a bit irrelevant. Of course, you never know these days what is really relevant—Leo Messi’s torrent of tears in his farewell press conference in Barcelona seemed to be very relevant to the state of masculinity these days but perhaps what is more relevant is how quickly we saw him smiling once the torrent of millions from Paris Saint-Germain fell on his lap. But I digress. The Taliban have forbidden all music in Afghanistan, having already executed key figures such as folk singer Fawad Andarabi. Discussing in this context the empowerment of women through their musical careers is chilling. Even the most trivial wannabe star takes on an enormous importance as a figure of anti-patriarchal dissent in ways I had never considered when designing the course. On the other hand, I very much suspect that once we listen to what current Anglophone female stars do say in their songs, we will grow more sceptical about their empowerment. As we are learning in Kabul—and not so far in local social media—we women are always one step away from being silenced no matter how vocal we may be. My intention in any case is to share with my students the pleasure of hearing women sing loudly and beautifully, as so many do. I was going to write ‘for as long as we can’ but perhaps that’s self-defeating.

Perhaps because of the constant threat of being cancelled by patriarchy, in this summer of apocalyptic proportions I have found much comfort in the memoirs of Katharine Graham, the woman who owned and ran The Washington Post for decades. As a young person I was a fan of TV series Lou Grant (1977-1982), the spin-off of popular sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) starring Ed Asner, the excellent actor who died yesterday (he was also the voice of grumpy Carl Fredricksen in Up!). Journalist Grant’s boss in the fictional Los Angeles Tribune was the formidable Margaret Jones Pynchon (played by Nancy Marchand), a composite character, Wikipedia informs, merging “real-life newspaper executives Dorothy Chandler of the Los Angeles Times and Katharine Graham of The Washington Post”. Later, I came across Graham herself as played by Meryl Streep in Steven Spielberg’s undervalued The Post (2017), on the crisis caused when the Nixon administration tried to ban all US papers from publishing the Pentagon Papers leaked by whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg. In Graham’s memoirs, Pulitzer-award winning volume Personal History (1997), this episode looms large, but the lesson on how to protect the freedom of the press she offers is nothing compared to her teachings about how marginal women were in journalism when she was suddenly empowered.

Basically, Graham’s patriarchal father Eugene Meyer could never see his daughter as his heir in The Post and so he chose his son-in-law Phil Graham to play that role. While Katharine lived the busy life of the upper-class wife, mother and society hostess, Phil went the downward spiral, plagued by thoughts that he had not succeeded because of his merits but for being his wife’s husband. Unable to deal with his own male chauvinism, Phil took his life, which left a shocked Katharine at the helm of The Post when she least expected it, aged 46. Her memoirs are often painful to read for the constant insecurity she shows at all times, even when she was one of the most powerful women on Earth. The elderly Katharine (she published the memoirs four years before her death in 2001, aged 84) narrates her life not as a woman who was a feminist from the start but as a woman who discovered feminism once she was empowered and who is appalled at her own naivete as a younger woman. It could not be otherwise given her background and the times. Tellingly, Katharine inherited The Post in 1963, the year when Betty Friedan jump-started second-wave feminism with The Feminine Mystique. Graham’s many comments about being the only woman in her professional circle (and how this constricted the socializing habits of her male peers, spoiling their sexist pleasures) remind us of how lonely a figure she was only sixty years ago. Many things have changed but tell that to the female journalists now fleeing Afghanistan (or trapped there).

Kabul and Katharine have taught me this summer, in short, that if living one’s life as a woman is complicated enough, being subjected to the patriarchal forces of history makes any illusion of personal control naïve and even dangerous. Frankly, I do not know where we are going as human beings, which is why I am sure I will find much comfort in going back to teaching Victorian Literature, since Victorians had a clear sense of progress, including the women who invented first-wave feminism. There was a moment in the 1990s when it seemed Homo Sapiens might have a chance to establish a truly enlightened multicultural global culture but that was revealed to be a false impression generated by the interests of multinational corporations, gleefully celebrating the end of Communism. Then came 9/11, the tragic wake-up call to the real nature of (in)human civilization whose twentieth anniversary will happen in a couple of weeks. Since then, we seem unable as a collectivity to find a new solid horizon, a sense of the future, a project for us and our planet. I would not mind so much for myself, but I have young people to educate, most of them women, and I am just wondering out loud how to do it with enthusiasm and hope for their future. I’m listening if you have any ideas.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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