Notes from the Pause By Laurie Stone
When we could still go out, we didn’t shut down anything.
On November 9, 2016, I thought we should stop what we were doing. Shut it down. Dogs should not go on with their doggy life, except actual dogs could go on being dogs. I thought we should stage a general strike against the thing that had happened, and lots of people on social media agreed, and we didn’t shut down anything. For three-plus years we have felt nauseous and dizzy, and we have loathed existence for continuing as if nothing mattered. People called the thing President Trump. The words president and Trump were nails in the head. There was only one subject: our passivity, and it was boring because no one had anything insightful to say about it. All other subjects were irrelevant, and we stopped thinking well. Our thinking was under a cloud. We probably could have stopped the thing that had happened, but people weren’t ready. I don’t know why. Let’s let it go.
The virus was a relief.
The virus was a different destructive thing to think about. It had no intentions. It didn’t produce our passivity. It wasn’t even alive. It ushered in the great pause in which we saw we didn’t miss the torpor we had been living in, and we tried not to get sick and die.
I was supposed to write something about women and Covid-19.
On May 25th, George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old Black man, was murdered while handcuffed and prone on a Minneapolis street by white police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes with the force of his two hundred pounds, while Floyd begged for his life, knowing he was being suffocated. Why this instance of racist brutality ended the torpor when stacks of racist killings and harms at borders and detention camps and on urban streets did not end the torpor is not knowable, and it doesn’t matter because the origin of a thing does not determine its course. The great resistance was launched just when it was most dangerous for people to gather, and something about the danger fed the excitement of moving into public space with other bodies you can smell and on whose skin you can see light fall. You need libido to overcome torpor.
Inside the torpor, people used the words safe spaces and privilege a lot. When people talked about wanting a safe space, they weren’t thinking about the threat of murder by police that people of color, for example, are subject to just by being visible. They were saying something like, Don’t do or say things that are going to stir emotions in me I don’t want to feel. To have emotionally safe space means you are going to cancel out a lot of stuff other people do, and you are going to badger them for disturbing you. You are going to deaccession them, and remove them from circulation, and mark them as unfit for consumption not only by you but everyone. This approach became popular because people like to say what is best for other people. This is a reason dogs are preferable to people. They don’t have any idea what is best for you.
Some objects indeed have no place in public space— not because they add or detract from emotionally safe space but because they celebrate racism and sexism— such as monuments to the Confederacy and the statue removed from Central Park in 2018 of J. Marion Sims, known as “the father of gynecology,” who experimented on enslaved women.
In the place we live now, the place of a pandemic with so far no vaccine or effective treatment, combined with urgent and growing street protests under the banner of Black Lives Matter, combined with militarized police forces maiming and in some cases killing protesters, combined with a terrified president who summoned the National Guard to threaten and physically harm peacefully assembled citizens, combined with a pending election that feels to many people in danger of not occurring, combined with the possibility of civil war because Trump won’t leave office if voted out, the concept of emotionally safe space sounds like the punch line of a joke from a forgotten culture.
Just before the outbreak, we bought a house with dead-parent money no one else wanted because it had a serial-killer vibe, in the sense that dusty objects were tumbled in corners and the back yard had been used as a dump.
I was watering lettuce plants the other day when I found myself thinking about how the word privilege has replaced the words freedom and justice in the public conversation about social inequities. I started to think about privilege as a form of biological determinism. I think about biological determinism a lot because double standards—whereby X can and Y can’t—are propped up by the notion that people are born a certain way that inscribes their fate. They are born damned by their skin color, or sex, or erotic propensities, etc., or they are born saved (white, male, straight, able-bodied, etc.)—receiving all the goods of life and entitled to tell the rest of humanity what’s wrong with them.
When you are at the bottom, it’s fun as payback to hurl the word privilege around like a bucket of ice water to shut people up. It reverses the power dynamic of privilege, so that people with less social and economic clout have more moral authority to call the privileged corrupt. Lots of people with race and gender privilege are corrupt. Are they ineluctably corrupt? Some people say yes—male privilege makes you ineluctably sexist and white privilege ineluctably racist. In this view, there’s no escaping your classification at birth. What you can do about your privilege if you are white or male or straight, etc., is go from not seeing it to seeing it and feeling bad, although you still have it. You have it if you don’t know you have it, and you have it if you do know you have it.
If privilege is something you can’t scrape off, in what tangible ways does emphasizing this help people with less privilege? Do people with less privilege want more privilege or something else?
I think people who’ve had the short end of things want freedom and justice. They want personal freedom to live by their desires. They want social justice in the courts, fair access to jobs and housing, equal access to education and medical care. They want a world where the body you are born with and the culture that body was raised in do not create ipso facto advantage or disadvantage. They want to circulate in public space without being killed.
Speaking of women.
If you haven’t gotten your fill of female-suffering porn (mainly girl-on-girl torture) that is the substance of the TV version of The Handmaid’s Tale, April brought you Mrs. America (FX), a nine-episode series centered on Phyllis Schlafly. Who? Schlafly was a profoundly uninteresting, dime-a-dozen misogynist living in bad faith who, in the 1970s, led mainly white Southern women in a campaign to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. Gloria Steinem told an interviewer for The Guardian that Schlafly didn’t change a single vote in the final defeat. Gloria, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, and other feminists are depicted in the show, but the sum of their screen time barely equals the footage about Schlafly. The feminists are shown squabbling and struggling to learn party politics, as if their defeat was owing to their incompetence. In a reality I participated in, they did everything they could to rethink the world. It’s crazy to blame women for the hatred of women.
Did women in the early second wave movement need to learn from each other about class and race and sexuality and everything else up for grabs? We did. But that’s not the point. The point is that feminists didn’t lose what they never had to begin with. The point was and remains that hatred of women is more powerful, better funded, more experienced, meaner, more bitter, more vicious, and more lunatic than opposition to it. Misogyny is also loaded with women recruited to preserve the same and the safe. No one gains status in the world by promoting the rights of women.
I need to say something about the Karen thing flying around. It’s difficult to swat back at it because it’s pretty funny. A Karen is not only blond and white and a soccer mom, she’s an antivaxxer! She’s dumb as a stump. And yes, such humans exist. But for fuck’s sake the Karen-ing is also a way to beat up women as the most wickedly clueless racists in the heap, while, in reality, all the stupidity of all the Karens in the world doesn’t come close to the homicidal destruction wrought by one Donald. I say this including the 911 call made by Amy Cooper in Central Park against bird-watcher Christian Cooper, who captured her on videotape. The issue here was Amy Cooper’s racism, not her femaleness, but they got lumped together in coverage of the incident as if they were part and parcel of each other, as if she was more despicable because she was female. She expressed her white supremacy, absolutely, but the hatred she stirred is like the daily reminders we hear that 47 percent of white women voted for Trump with no mention that 62 percent of white men voted for him. Because men are being men and well, you know, everyone expects them to be despicable? Karen-ing, like Becky-ing, goes viral because it’s fun to hate women. You can’t disappoint anyone with misogyny except feminists.
Wherever I find myself, I want to hold your hand, you own me, I would do anything for you, I will buy you a drink if there is an After.
I remember riding in the back of a van. The image just came to me. I was seated beside a guy who was handsome, an actor maybe, uncertain of his future, very handsome and kind in some sense I cannot put my finger on. It’s very late, maybe three in the morning, and the other waiters are sleeping. They are dead tired, and the handsome man and I are touching each other slowly in the rhythm of the ride and kissing. We have worked a party in Westchester or maybe further away, and I don’t know why this happens. I’m fifty-four. He’s thirtysomething, and the sadness of catering floats around us. It floats around the guests, too, the sense of a social occasion no one really wants to be at, and the kissing quiets something and arouses something, not just desire, something soft and inexplicable, and I know why I am remembering this in Covid time.
Last night I learned a friend had died in Rome. I had coffee with her a year ago in Soho, at a fancy place with good biscotti. She told me she had received a diagnosis that made walking difficult. She didn’t know how long she would live. A few years ago, the man I live with and I visited her in Rome, climbing steps to get to her house, up and up we went, only to find more stairs. I have been thinking about blood. The idea that the people we are related to are closer to us than the people we meet along the way in life. I mention blood because I think it’s a story made up to sell tribes and clans to people, because tribes and clans serve the interests of I don’t know who, but still it’s a story I don’t believe. The people I have known who are not blood and whom I have loved: oh my god, so much more significant to me, really, if you add up the numbers.
Capitalism is the opiate of the masses.
Protest in the streets is everything for upending the thing that has happened to us. The pandemic is in only its early stage. It will take years to run its course, if that’s possible. Advising any kind of reopening of society for the sake of commerce without the guarantee of social distancing and masks is a death lottery backed by zero science. In the US, at least, guaranteeing social distancing and masks is unenforceable. A government that cared about its population would pay people to stay home instead of making them choose between feeding themselves and their families and risking infection or spreading a virulent disease. To deter the resistance, the police at demonstrations are often unmasked and, at least at present, refusing to process the people they arrest in a timely fashion in order to make social distancing impossible for them. The calculation will fail to stop the wave of resistance, and people will have a harder time avoiding contagion and passing it along. We will vote. We will be a force with a large, communal drive, and safety will not be available. It has taken all this time for so many people to say stop, this has to stop, we will not stop saying this has to stop.
Laurie Stone is author most recently of Everything is Personal, Notes on Now, about which Masha Gessen recently wrote in The New Yorker, “The title of the book references one of the central arguments of 1960s feminism, from which Stone hails intellectually: “The personal is political.” It also describes our current predicament—everything that is not personal has vanished—and suggests a way of thinking sharply, imaginatively, beautifully, from right here.” Her 2019 essays about the MeToo movement and Valerie Solanas originally published in the Women’s Review of Books feature prominently in the collection.