What’s now is now in Watertown

Just yesterday, my brother introduced me to one of Frank Sinatra’s later and lesser known albums, one that met with mixed reviews from critics and poor sales. Released in 1970, Watertown was one of Sinatra’s last gasps, a concept album that was innovative but perhaps not in the right way at the right time. As this guy perceptibly says, “Watertown comes housed in a sad, dull little brown etching of a desolate hicksville train station, and resembles a no-budget private-pressing or lo-fi folk album more than it does a work by the world’s most successful male vocalist. Brave stuff.” Watertown is poignant because of the point it marked in Sinatra’s career and in his life — no longer a young, glamorous JFK Democrat, Frank was becoming an old, somewhat washed up Nixon/Reagan … Democrat.

And yet, in spite or because of where Sinatra was in celebrity and in life, the album is beautiful and has drawn wonderful write-ups from various corners of the Internet (“If ever I’m asked why I think hipsters are wankers, Watertown is exhibit one…the album Watertown resembles most in this respect is Macarthur Park, Jimmy Webb’s suite of songs for the similarly-limited Richard Harris”).

It tells the story of a man whose wife has left him and their children in Watertown, NY. He laments her loss and recalls her fondly, wistfully, and without ill will. We’re not sure why she left, though there are allusions to an affair and her desire to break from domesticity. Some have suggested that she has in fact died, and that our narrator is experiencing the denial of a truly broken man, waiting in vain for her to return to the Watertown station on a train. Whatever the true intent, it is an album that ought to be rescued from semi-obscurity. So I’ll take a stab right now:

Duke’s problem with women, real or make believe?

Writer Caitlin Flanagan has a somewhat controversial article on the Atlantic about the Karen Owen Duke Powerpoint controversy, months after it happened and then faded quickly from the news. Flanagan’s article has several flaws: there is virtually no reporting (e.g. “But it’s not at all hard to believe that Owen had only three friends in college.” Why not try to find this out?); Owen, is used as more representative of college women today than she probably is statistically (Flanagan’s defense of this is, at least implicitly, embodied by this line: “[I]t’s a university whose thoughtful students are overshadowed by its voraciously self-centered ones.”); and Flanagan’s own past is speckled with some disingenuousness (she wrote a book that champions her inner housewife, than came out blazing against all of the supposed Democratic attacks she sustained for it, all the while acting as if a book written about this subject could be apolitical. And  in actuality, she is a working woman who had a nanny).

Nonetheless, much of what she says rings true:

For all the attention Owen has received as a boundary-breaking, sexually empowered new woman, there has been almost no discussion of the fact that the kind of sex she most enjoyed was rough to the point of brutalizing.

[S]he seems to have been willing to do absolutely anything to please the men, which often meant hanging out with their boorish roommates until it was her time to perform.

These louts [the guys Owen hooked up with] did not operate on the fringes of polite society at the university, but existed—were lionized—at its epicenter.

If what we are seeing in Karen Owen is the realization of female sexual power, then we must at least admit that the first pancake off the griddle is a bit of a flop. What rotten luck that the first true daughter of sex-positive feminism would have an erotic proclivity for serving every kind of male need, no matter how mundane or humiliating, that she would so eagerly turn herself from sex mate to soccer mom, depending on what was wanted from her.

I think in part because of these uncomfortable truths, the article elicits a whole lot of objections — that it is unfair because Owen is not representative of most women, that the real Duke is unrecognizable from what Flanagan describes (though Flanagan is mostly describing it from Owen’s recorded sexual encounters), or that Owen is a person with agency and not a victim — how Flanagan portrays her.

But let’s remember that before Flanagan’s article, some feminists were congratulating Owen for being empowered, because she was aping what men do. (It should be said that other feminists also feel very uncomfortable about it). So whether or not Owen represents women, her situation is certainly a flashpoint that raises questions about feminism and male power. And I think, much more than Jezebel’s congratulations, Flanagan’s hypothesis about why Owen made the Powerpoint rings true:

But in the sheer amount of anecdotal detail, and in particular in her relentless descriptions of the anatomical shortcomings of various partners, she reveals that the thesis is motivated by the same force that has prompted women through the ages to describe with savage precision their liaisons with men who discarded them: revenge.

A feminist Owen defender’s rejoinder might be, well, why can guys do what Owen does and not have people question their motives, but once a woman does it, she is questioned? My answer: let’s question guys’ motives. Let’s wonder why some guys as much as some women (by all means, not the majority, but certainly enough) see women as merely sexual creatures who are not worthy of respect. And let’s wonder why women go along with this. Let’s raise what it all means psychologically, because I think it is both very interesting and very psychologically-driven.

As to the criticism from Duke students and alumni that Flanagan is painting the school with a broad and inaccurate brush, I bet everyone, especially Duke students, know what Flanagan is talking about and is being frankly disingenuous by pretending not to.

For instance, Flanagan refers to the “the predictable angry letter to the school newspaper about the episode, written by a group of ‘female Greek leaders on campus’” after the Owen incident. The same things used to happen at my alma mater, Northwestern after embarrassing sorority or fraternity (usually fraternity) incidents. Greek leaders would write in scolding the reporting of the incident and describing in their defense philanthropic endeavors and high grade point averages, as if (1) good deeds and scholarship are the reasons people join Greek houses and (2) that participating in social service and earning high marks renders criticism of crude acts beyond the pale.

Having gone to a school similar to Duke in many ways, I recognize Owen’s social milieu — one of weeknights that begin with binge drinking at the campus dive bar or a frat house and that can end in drunken hook-ups — even though it wasn’t my social milieu.

As to the criticism of the media coverage: there is more coverage of the Duke lacrosse team incident and Owen’s Powerpoint than there is of say, the engineering school or the black student groups on campus because the media writes about what is news. It is news when people who are the face of a campus that values athletics, who often enough went to excellent high schools, and who are poised to be future leaders in society so crudely debase others. I imagine most people know these people do not represent all of Duke.

As I said, I went to a university that has many similarities to Duke — a variegated student body, but one in which athletes — and to an even greater extent — Greeks, have a pretty prominent campus role, lots of binge drinking (probably, that is most colleges), and a lot of other things going on that have nothing to do with drinking and Greeks and sexual exploits.

But the fact is, many do, and they stand out, because they often set the tone. The loudest, crudest people, in voice or behavior, tend to dominate, and so that is why the media focuses on them. They, not the quietly studious, have a much greater influence, one which people should have every reason to want to address.This slice of Duke stands out precisely because our default expectation of of an elite university is of great athletics and academic programs.

It is not wrong for adults to drink, or party, or have protected sex with semi-strangers. What is wrong is when these activities legitimize a social order that undercuts advancements women or minorities or others have made, and I believe that is what makes Owen’s story uncomfortable to read about.

Let Tucson be a wake-up call

Americans, myself included, have long taken the civil peace of this country for granted, though not lacking in reasons to think otherwise. But, after hearing about the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others at a public event in Tucson, Az., it is hardly surprising many of us immediately thought of the violence fomented by the Tea Party movement, right-wing talk radio and TV hosts, and certain politicians. Whether or not the suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, is himself a Tea Partier, or was anti-immigrant or anti-health care reform, let this shooting be a wake-up call to the seriousness with which we should interpret the violence that has been encouraged within right-wing political movements and by some of its leaders. Some will say that leaders of a movement cannot be blamed for the act of a lone member. I might agree with that if those leaders are actively condemning and discouraging calls for violence coming from their ranks. But it is pretty clear they haven’t been. Now is their chance, not that I hold out much hope.


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