Monday, January 15, 2018


1. people vs. principles

I’ve been thinking a lot about ideological vs. relational ways of moving through the world. Bear with me. I was raised to put the former on a pedestal, and in my unpublished novel (one of them...), the protagonist takes a stand against foreign adoption and risks her relationship with her partner. I still think it’s a good novel, but I’m no longer interested in critiquing foreign adoption in any kind of definitive way, and I now give hard side-eye to people who stand on principle at the expense of their loved ones.

For many years, AK’s mom—a Catholic-raised Mexican-American woman who currently attends an evangelical Christian church—wasn’t really down with AK being gay. Because the bible and all that. But in practice, she always accepted AK and, later, me. I came to understand that while her ideological world is homophobic, she’s relational by nature. Ideology may close borders or open them; relationality (spell check tells me this isn’t a word) usually opens them.

The best kind of Oscar-bait is the kind that deserves an Oscar.
But seeing The Post made me check my semi-newfound anti-ideological stance. It also renewed my faith in humanity and America. Meryl Streep plays Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, who in 1971 must decide whether to publish information from the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret study revealing that the U.S. has long known the futility of the Vietnam War. The study was commissioned by Robert McNamara, a close friend of Graham’s. Publishing its contents will destroy him.

The movie could have portrayed McNamara as a cowardly Nixon yes-man or a hawk who didn’t care about American or Vietnamese lives. Instead it depicts him as I think he was—a tortured soul who did not know how to climb out of what he helped create. As such, we see how hard it is for Kay Graham to betray him. They speak about what she must do with kindness and honesty, in the way of old friends who have both lived through tragedy.

2. in praise of discomfort

She’s able to take this stand and risk her company and her family’s legacy in part because she’s already an outsider—a woman who doesn’t fit in with Washington society wives or in the boardroom. Streep and Spielberg portray her discomfort by depicting her always adjusting her clothing and bumping into furniture. It’s not slapstick; it’s subtle and human and awkward.

The '70s: when even rich people wore polyester?
Needless to say, a movie about journalists telling the truth while fighting a corrupt, punitive president is rather timely. And while Kay Graham is the clear protagonist, a big part of what I loved was the film’s portrait of teamwork. It takes a village of publishers, editors, reporters, whistle-blowers, interns, typesetters, spouses and ambivalent politicians to stop a war. 

I saw the movie Sunday afternoon, by myself, because AK had seen it and liked it so much she wanted to talk about it with me. (Seeing a movie in a nearly empty theater with a soft pretzel and a Coke Zero in my hand was pure introvert luxury.) I told her afterward that one of my big takeaways was that you can come from privilege and still be a  good person. AK suffers through a lot of my class-and-race guilt, and I think it buoyed her to hear me say this.

Katharine Graham, in a talk with her grown daughter that made me tear up, acknowledges that she inherited her position from her father via her husband. She loved both of them deeply and doesn’t want to run the company into the ground. But as a woman living through the 1960s and ‘70s, she doesn’t occupy the same world that they did. She can’t adhere to the same principles and allegiances they might have. Her job is not to banish her privilege, but to leverage it.

Taking down Nixon is a great team-building exercise.
This might sound silly, because I’m hardly a publishing heiress, but I really related to the push and pull she feels. My parents were so good to me, and I want to honor them in so many ways, but I don’t share my dad’s politics. His financial help has made it more comfortable for me to work low-paying nonprofit jobs over the years, and when I pour my energy into things he either doesn’t value or actively disagrees with (this includes everything from voting Democrat to paying to have my car washed), it feels like a small betrayal. Lucky for me, he is a good compartmentalizer and genuinely doesn’t hold these things against me. But I can never be a true rebel who forsakes where I came from, any more than I could be one of the many Manhattan Beach kids I grew up with, who seem to live slightly updated versions of their parents’ lives, sometimes in their parents’ houses. I feel like Kay Graham, who gives dinner parties even as she sides with the long-haired protesters in the streets, and who looks a little uncomfortable doing all of it.

I’ll end this MLK Day post (which, granted, was all about a white woman) with a quote from Bayard Rustin, an MLK associate who as a queer man knew a thing or two about straddling worlds, and who perhaps knew the strength in this: “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.”


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