“Fight Club” for women?

I finally watched Fight Club a few weeks ago. My review? An underwhelming “so what?” At the most basic level, it is easy to buy into the notion of challenging and/or rejecting the consumerist culture. Being liberated from the shackles of supposed need is an alluring daydream as I sit in front of a computer forty hours a week, drinking lattes, and making enough to buy the key on-trend items that identify me as belonging in a sea of other well-educated, city-dwelling, East coast, middle class 20-somethings. See that Marc Jacobs [insert Longchamps’ Le Pliage for a related sub-group] bag as I sit here tapping away on my iPhone? Oh, yes, I belong. I am one of them. I am one of you, so all is well with me.

I belong, so I dream of breaking out of the confines belonging imposes. But what if I refuse to make that tradeoff anymore? Enter Fight Club. Or Office Space. Or any of the other movies that tap so well into the vein of discomfort running through the shallow monotony of the modern middle class existence. Guy gets tired of his Ikea clad, TPS report producing existence and says, “no more.” Guy reverts to more “primitive” existence of fighting, manual labor, picking up women, etc.

And they are, for the most part, all guys, these cult hero, fight “The Man” types. Which brings me back around to my initial, “so what?” Sure, I can appreciate it for its theatrical entertainment value, but it is interesting that there is no obvious female corollary there.

What would it even look like? Reverting to the “primitive” days before white-collar office work would look like…what? I would venture to say nothing resembling a daydream for most women like me. Even if one eliminates the oft-cited “sex sells” mentality, which is a handmaiden to consumerist culture and feeds into the objectification of women generally and the idealization of a certain type or look of woman more particularly, one is left with another culture in which the situation isn’t much better.

Any way you slice it, the female experience does not lend itself to the same sort of escapist fantasies. I would suggest the opportunities my generation has make modern life the closest thing to a fantasy paradigm one can imagine, which does not make for a very entertaining movie or an encouraging commentary on the models society has and continues to envision for women.

A love letter to DC

I have always loved DC for a variety of reasons. My standard line is that it has all the culture and amenities of a big city while preserving  the charm of a small town. It’s pretty, clean, walkable, open…all in all, a lovely place to live and work. When I travel elsewhere, I am always happy to return.

While visiting New York for a wedding this past weekend, I think I stumbled upon what really draws me to DC. As usual, I was struck by how different cocktail conversation is outside of the beltway. Imagine, discussions not dominated by one’s career and politics. That, I would venture to say, is something we all notice when we leave this little city. That superficial detail also says a lot about the kind of people who populate this city versus most any other.

Around this time of year, with an election approaching, it’s almost too easy to see the “bad” of American politics today. The polarized, partisan, soundbyte driven, self-interested culture of the beast is on full display. One can nearly understand why vast swaths of the population are completely turned off by the whole process to the point of not participating at all.

Nearly, but not quite. Being here in the heart of it all affords one a unique view of the other side of the coin. It is the lament of anyone interested in this little system of government we have that the aforementioned characterization of its current state is quite true. However, as a resident of DC who works in that arena (doesn’t everyone who lives here?), I am struck by the people I meet on a daily basis. The overwhelming desire to do good is everywhere. Sure, the endless networking circuit can seemingly wring a lot of the purity out of one’s motivations in the drive to get ahead, but the core is still there. Most everyone I know works for organizations trying to bring about some vision of “improvement.” While we don’t always agree on the logic and method of getting there, there is a common sincerity, passion, and commitment to doing good that has motivated so many thousands of people to move to this itinerant city, which makes it truly unique.

The next time you find yourself rehashing the political drama of the day at a happy hour, consider how lucky we are to be surrounded by an entire community of people who know about what is going on in the world and endeavor, in one way or another, to play a part in it.

Why feminism shouldn’t rest just yet

During the campaign, there was a lot of talk about an Obama victory marking the emergence of a “post-racial” moment in our society. I don’t know to what extent that is actually true, but I have definitely always considered myself to live in what one might call a “post-gender” society. That is to say, my existence as a female doesn’t really inform my view of myself or my view of the world. Little girls did the same things little boys did, we were treated the same in school, and being raised by a single mother enforced the idea that there is nothing for which a woman *needs* a man. In short, being female is neither a plus nor a minus in determining my life experience, it’s an irrelevant fact that simply means I wear heels instead of loafers around the office.

Women’s issues have never really been of interest to me. A female college professor of mine who focused on governance studies and political parties in the Middle East lamented the fact that when she conducted field research people often assumed she was there to talk about the conditions of women in the region. In short, just because we’re women doesn’t mean we have a natural affinity for this subject. In part, I think this springs from the “post-gender” society idea. Discussing things relative to women’s equality is like discussing whether grass is green or the sky is blue — in short, settled issues.

Last week, I was browsing in the library and happened upon a recent issue of the journal Security Studies. The issue focused on the (almost entirely nonexistant) contribution/integration of feminist theory with international affairs. Really fascinating stuff and if you work in the field of foreign affairs, I would definitely recommend taking a look. Women make up half of the world and yet are barely present in our formulation of grand theoretical strategies through which to engage with the world. Maybe because, throughout large parts of the world, women themselves are barely visible.

Enter this Sunday’s NYT magazine — “Why Women’s Rights are the Cause of Our Time.” I must confess I actually like reading the magazine on Sunday as opposed to Wednesday when the early edition is posted online but I made an exception this time for the feature story, “The Women’s Crusade.”

The piece is adapted from a forthcoming book, which I am now eagerly awaiting. It’s shocking, heartbreaking, infuriating, and really makes one think. More than just outlining the prevalence of spousal abuse, sex trafficking, rape as a weapon in conflict zones, discouragement of educating girls, etc., it looks at what that means in real terms for global development and the economic and geopolitical opportunities inherent in addressing the global plight of women.

In short, if foreign aid, public diplomacy, and our overall attempts at global engagement are to be successful, improving conditions for women must be a core focus and not a feel-good talking point backed up by nothing in terms of execution. I applaud Secretary of State Clinton’s recent focus on this issue, though it will be interesting to see how that commitment is born out in policy,  and I think all of us who work in foreign affairs really need to take a look at how we conceptualize the role of women no matter what our particular concentration might be.

Snapshot 1

18th Street is quite charming in the morning. The street is empty but for a few other people walking to the office and those cleaning the streets from the previous night’s revelry and the sun glints off the eclectically colorful buildings.

There’s a small, concave patch of sidewalk at the top of stairs leading down to a basement level restaurant that sits between two other stairways leading to establishments on the second floor. Every morning, for the past two weeks, there has been a man sleeping in that little nook off the main sidewalk area. In the morning, he’s positioned facing downtown — the Monument just off in the distance with the sun rising by its side. In the evening, he’s facing uptown. But for the switch, I would have given serious consideration to that fact that he might have passed out dead there that first day I saw him.

Every day. For two weeks. And who knows how many days, weeks, months, years before.

The Claustrophobia of Convenience

The year-and-a-half I’ve resided in DC proper has been my first experience with small town living. That probably sounds odd given that it’s a big city filled with lots of people. For perspective, I lived in ten different towns before I turned twelve. After settling in the place I call home – Annapolis – I lived a very suburban life. We drove everywhere. There were three different grocery stores that were equidistant, several convenience stores, all sorts of shopping plazas, etc. Then I commuted to college, traveled all over the state and the east coast for various extracurricular activities, and went to a school the size of a small city so it was easy to go an entire day not seeing a familiar face. For the most part, the friends I spent time with lived in Baltimore, Silver Spring, or at least the other side of town. When I started dating, none of the guys ever lived in my own town. In short, I was out and about and on the go all the time.  

Then I moved to DC. My office (old and new one, for that matter) is about a mile from my apartment and nearly all of my life takes place within that one little mile. Almost all the bars and restaurants I frequent are on the walk home, I go to the same grocery store week in and week out, when I need something at an odd hour I go to the convenience store on my block, five coworkers and a couple friends live within a three block radius and I bump into them often, and the three guys I’ve had more than a passing fascination with in the last year and a half are all there too — one works on my block and the other two live within a few blocks along the route I often run. I rarely go to other parts of the city because I’m still not a huge fan of the extra time one has to allot for public transit and, truth be told, I can find most things I need and want right here (such is the convenience of my tiny slice of real estate).

The same things, the same places, the same people, the same memories — in short my entire life at the moment — is on top of me all of the time and I’m constantly bumping into it. It’s like living in the smallest town I’ve ever known and, though it certainly has its benefits and one can’t argue against the convenience, I’m not sure I’ll ever fully adjust.

An offer you can’t refuse

Around the beginning of the year, I was on the verge of accepting a job offer for a position that paid significantly more than what I was making at the time. Money was not the only reason I was leaving but finding out that little fact made it more appealing. Ultimately, I decided to stay in my current position for an even higher counteroffer. In this transaction, I fully learned the important lesson that one has to really manage the brand/commodity that is one’s labor and that anything is negotiable given the right circumstances.

Even though we’re told to negotiate salary, sometimes it can be intimidating (especially in this job market). I’m pretty sure this is a prime reason there is still a male vs. female pay gap. Shouldn’t one be happy just to have an offer? Won’t they just pick someone else if you ask for “too much?” No. It’s business, not a favor. They evaluate the relative costs and benefits of their decisions and so should you. It will always be in their interest to try to undervalue what you bring to the table and it’s incumbent upon you, assuming you don’t want to settle, to be sound in your own assessment of the situation. What does this mean? Research, know what else is out there in your field, and sell what makes you unique (to sell it convincingly means you actually have to believe in it, by the by).

Flash forward six months. Those who know me in real life know I am currently in the process of changing jobs. The first thing I noticed when I read the advertisement for my new position (beyond the fact that it was exactly what I wanted and I had to have it) was that the salary was lower than my goal. Not letting a small detail like that stop me, I applied anyway. When I went in for my initial interview, salary requirement was one of the questions on the application paperwork. I put my number, which was outside of the high end of theirs. The HR person noticed this and pointed it out to me. I demurred and said we would see how the process unfolded. Long story short, four rounds of interviews later, I accepted the position at my original request.

Unfortunately, all of us normal worker bees don’t have agents to handle these delicate details for us. In the hiring process, you are the only one looking out for you. If you don’t ask for what you want/need you probably aren’t going to get it. The moral of my little story: Don’t miss out because you didn’t ask. Yes, even in this market.

Thoughts on Iran, part II

What we are witnessing in Iran right now is nothing short of revolutionary. Protests are larger than they have been since 1979, there are deep chasms emerging within the clerical establishment that has ruled the country for three decades, and people are quite literally risking (and, seemingly by the dozen, giving) their lives to claim what they feel has been taken from them. This is not necessarily to say it will all culminate in a revolution or even a change in the election results. As one of the most interesting analyses I have read of the Islamic Revolution, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran,  reminds anyone when looking at protest movements it’s a fool’s errand to try to predict the outcome of events once a certain level of chaos and upheaval has been reached. Nevertheless, it is a historic moment in the life of the Iranian state.

The Iranian government itself obviously recognizes this. Initial attempts to bunker down and ride it out (cut off all methods of communication that could be used to organize, issue multiple statements hailing the fairness and accuracy of the results, staging a “victory” rally, and thwarting the ability of foreign media to move around and report) were a spectacular failure. Taking a new tact of limited appeasement, the Supreme Leader reversed his own (twice stated) judgment that nothing improper or irregular happened and has opened the door for a partial recount. It would not be inaccurate to call this a stunning development. In general, the clerical leadership, while holding the real power in the country, stays behind the scenes. Khamenei is not one to seek out the spotlight, least of all to reverse his own publicly stated position on the crisis of this magnitude, which will probably define his tenure. One can reasonably interpret this shift as a nod to the gravity of the threat the regime perceives.  

I think it’s critical to understand the context in which this threat arises. The protesters are not calling for an end to the concept of an Islamic state — far from it, in fact. Just because elements of the opposition are seen as friendlier to the West, it doesn’t translate into a monolithic “Westernizing” force. And that is why it is potentially so dangerous to the stability of the status quo.

The leading faces speaking out — Mousavi, Rafsanjani, Montazeri — are figures who were among Khomeini’s inner circle in 1979. Montazeri, a Grand Ayatollah who was once seen as the successor to Khomeini, is of particular note. Think of it: a man who was once considered a probable successor to the founder of the Islamic Republic has now come out and said, in no uncertain terms, that the protesters are right and the government (including the clerical leadership) is wrong. No longer are we just questioning the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s presidency — rather, Khamenei himself and the institution he represents is called into question for abetting it. The most serious threats, it seems, are always from within and this is just one example of the fault lines developing within the clerical leadership that will reverberate for years to come regardless of how the current crisis is resolved. Once the “crisis of legitimacy” genie is out of the bottle, it’s impossible to get back in. People will always remember and internalize these events, coloring how they see every subsequent action by the government (much in the way the U.S. assisted coup in 1953 still hangs over U.S.-Iran relations).

Ultimately, despite everything that has transpired, I still think it’s a safer bet to assume the outcome of the election will stay as is. What does the U.S. do about this? Thus far, I think President Obama has it mostly correct. The Iranian nuclear program has attained a place of central importance in U.S. foreign policy. That leaves us with the need for a negotiating partner on the Iranian side. Although I’ve read some stirring and inspiring calls for the U.S. to be more critical of what is transpiring, including one written by a colleague/friend whom I respect a great deal, I simply can’t see how that is in anyone’s long-term interest. Three reasons why:

1) In matters of international affairs, one can’t choose one’s interlocutor. All things considered, it’s generally better for one to play the hand one is dealt than to try to interfere with the dealer. The U.S. has nothing to gain by crying foul here. The likely-to-continue President Ahmadinejad will use any and every statement to that effect as evidence of an American vendetta against him and as an excuse to avoid serious pressure for negotiations. Giving him yet more ammunition in this respect would be counterproductive.

2) Expressing strong support for Mousavi/the opposition would give pro-Ahmadinejad forces a great big brush with which to paint them as Western agents trying to undermine the Islamic Republic — in short, to obfuscate the true nature of the who and why behind what is taking place, playing into the idea of a U.S. backed “velvet revolution” much like the 1953 coup. Obama/America would become the face of the opposition, thereby making it much more difficult to organize the average person.

3) But isn’t America the great beacon of freedom? The shining city on the hill? The embodiment of the principles that infuse any movement based on a yearning for greater freedom and fairness? Then how — how – you ask can we sit here and do nothing to help (even when “help” is only strongly condemn the situation and call it what it is over and over again), and engage with Ahmadinejad going forward, while people are quite literally dying to have their votes counted? History has shown over and over again that real, lasting, change can’t be imposed; it has to come from within.

Maybe these events will snowball into something that fundamentally changes the character of Iranian leadership or maybe they will simply serve as another step taking them closer to that end. For now, I think it’s too fluid to tell with any certainty. The U.S. needs to let the Iranians sort things out and, ultimately, deal with the world as it is rather than as we would like to make it. This might mean dealing with a leader whom the entire thinking world can ascertain held onto his position through some combination of fraud, force, and lies.

With hundreds of thousands out on the streets of Iran, however, it’s too preliminary for the U.S. to throw its hat into that corner at this point. Just as we have nothing to gain by taking a hard line against Ahmadinejad’s supposed re-election, we have nothing to gain by overtly recognizing it at the moment either. President Obama and his team have been wise thus far in staking out a middle ground of observation rather than involvement, and one hopes they maintain that position until the landscape becomes clearer.

EDIT (June 17): Thank you to everyone who has clicked over here from the link by Andrew Sullivan this morning!