This is a story that starts with hair, and ends with hair. Sort of. A woman’s story. Hair is important to us. But it’s really about freedom of speech.
“I’m thinking of dyeing my hair again,” I remember saying to my husband. He had mentioned once that he liked me blonde. About fifteen years ago, I’d started with “what the hell” highlights but rapidly escalated to blondaholism. I’d been in recovery for a few years now.
“For professional reasons,” I said quickly. Not to suggest that I was bowing to the male gaze, Goddess forbid.
His reaction wasn’t what I expected. He looked puzzled.
“Why?” he asked. “People respect you if you have grey hair.”
“Have you been in America? Oh, that’s funny. I thought you had lived here for the past seven years.”
I could hear the anger in my voice, but it wasn’t directed at him, and, to his credit, he realized it. Did I mention that my husband is African? Kenyan, to be precise. Older people are listened to in Kenya, because they know stuff. Here, not so much. In fact, quite the opposite. I’d always been rock and roll, but I was in my fifties and he’d watched me struggle, not quite believing that doors were suddenly slamming in my face.
This conversation came back to me recently when a hairdresser who had started a little magazine told me why she was killing a story about the safari business that my husband and I run. It didn’t have anything to do with how we operate: we donate one percent of our pre-tax revenues to environmental causes and we’ve supported women’s groups and schools in Africa for nearly a decade.
It was, if her email was to be believed, because I was old-fashioned. I didn’t know how to use social media correctly. To be more specific, I was ironic. As a young writer, I’d been compared to Hunter S. Thompson, known for his caustic wit and hyperbole. In the 1990s, I wrote a book considered part of the canon of environmental writing, Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement, launching a rather minor celebrity as the bad girl of environmental writing, an outlier in a genre usually considered a bit too earnest.
But I’d grown serious, backing off from full-time journalism to write a novel, a character study of a young West African army lieutenant facing difficult moral choices as his country totters into state failure. (If this sounds like a wake-up call to America’s current predicament, you just may be onto something.) Along the way, I met my husband, taught a pan-African group of students in Dakar, Senegal, and, yes, started a safari company.
These experiences left me impatient with identity politics. When I returned to live in the U.S., I was shocked by how vicious the debate had become, and how pointless. I imagined the .01 percent enjoying the hell out of watching the Left form its usual circular firing squad, arguing over word choices while hedge funds kept raking in the cash. I believe America’s own tribal divisions are largely responsible for the crazy situation we now find ourselves in.
This attitude got me in trouble. Last winter, I was slogging through winter in New York City, taking care of my dying mother. I was stressed out and, frankly, explosively angry at Medicare cutbacks that made it impossible for my mother to receive the care she needed.
Late one night, I dashed off a cranky tweet. A friend from high school had retweeted something from a guy in Brooklyn named Joshua Foust. The idea was good, but I thought the point would have won more support if he had left out the word “privilege.”
Let me be clear, as our departing, much-mourned president says. I’ve written articles about intersectionality and structural racism. More than that, I have lived it. My husband is not a rich man’s son. He didn’t grow up in Nairobi or attend high-priced schools. In fact, he went to school hungry more than once. I won’t go into more detail because I respect his privacy. It wasn’t an easy life, and still isn’t. We’ve worked like hell to make sure my stepsons thrive, but I remember feeling almost faint with grief and frustration when I was on a boat with the boys and blond tourist kids from England. Just by looking at them, I could tell the British kids had the advantages of wealth: museum trips, sports teams, great libraries, and most importantly, access to first-rate health care and good schools.
Privileges are extras — and they cost money. If good schools and good health care are privileges, will my husband and I be able to afford them? I’m not so sure. But that’s the direction American has turned, becoming a country where basic services are privatized.
White privilege and male privilege are important academic concepts but they are easily misunderstood. Out in the real world, the word privilege is divisive. You’re making people feel bad for something they can’t help. In this case, being born white. But it doesn’t matter if it’s shaming someone for being white, black, male, female, gay, transexual or Serbo-Croation, does it? You shouldn’t do this to anyone. There are other ways to make your point.
As many journalists will admit privately, the people who brandish this word tend to be, well, privileged themselves. Social justice warriors whose arguments are sloppy, as if jargon substitutes for logic.
So here’s what happened. On a cold rainy night in New York, I tweeted, crankily, in response to Foust’s retweeted tweet: “Can’t we just expunge the word privilege from our vocabularies? It’s becoming the n-word for white people.”
I hadn’t realized that Foust was a public figure of sorts, a journalist and self-appointed intelligence analyst who calls himself “an irascible Tweeter” — and I had pissed him off. He responded, people paid attention, and carpet-bombing is too mild a word for what ensued. I was a racist. Stupid. So-and-so was going to come get me and teach me a lesson. Another called the magazine I work for and told them to fire me.
I was busy, and mostly I ignored it. Sometimes, though, usually at night, after my rounds of the nursing home and doctors’ offices, I found myself checking Twitter. I responded now and then, trying to explain myself. A few women, African-American women, told me they understood. “You should have said it that way in the first place,” one messaged me.
Yeah, I messaged back, I should have.
That exchange would have been a grace note, a nice ending. But things were about to get worse. Much worse.
A guy in L.A. messaged me. He seemed sympathetic. “Do you regret saying it?” he asked me.
“Of course I do,” I messaged back.
We chatted a bit, but after a while I wondered where this was going. I told him that if he was writing a story, he could call me for an interview and we could observe the rules of journalism.
“I don’t think it rises to the level of a story,” he replied.
“Good,” I wrote. “I don’t either.”
I answered a few more questions, until I started talking about some of the issues I’ve raised here. He accused me of putting myself above him, or sounding too intellectual. Something like that.
The guy had lied. He was writing a story. The headline? “Susan Zakin Does Not Regret….”
This was the opposite of what I had said. When I wrote to him, asking him to correct it, he unleashed a torrent of abuse, telling me that my kind of journalism was dead. Twitter was the future. Anything you write, even in a private message, is fair game. Even if you didn’t write it, apparently.
Fast forward eighteen months. My mother is dead. I’m slowly coming out of shock. I haven’t dealt with the Twitter thing, except to close my account.
I haven’t written anything in months. I wonder, is this what people mean when they talk about being “silenced”? It’s not so bad. I restrict my Facebook page to friends, and think about what I might do for the rest of my life. I’d always been a writer.
But I keep reading. I read about Lionel Shriver, author of the dystopian novel The Mandibles, who made headlines not for her novel’s important message but for the outcry that followed her appearance at a literary festival. Shriver wore a sombrero, referring to an incident at Bowdoin College, where a tequila-themed party had turned into a controversy over cultural appropriation. Fears of such a backlash poses a danger to literature, Shriver said.
The festival organizers removed her speech from their website. They posted responses from two writers who disagreed with her. The incident got press worldwide. The ideas in Shriver’s novel, a well-crafted cautionary tale of technology and runaway corporate control? Lost amid the shouting.
After months later, someone I knew slightly, a former Village Voice writer and feminist named Laurie Stone, had her appearance on a college radio station cancelled after she refused to accede to demands not to mention a line in her short story where a non-Muslim female character talks about perceiving the hijab as a threat to her own safety. This was fiction, mind you. A fictional character saying this.
I was mulling things over, but still out of the game when I ran into my literary agent at the local food co-op. Thinking aloud, she told me that my novel was already a hard sell: a political book set in Africa. This guy’s hit piece on me could be the dealbreaker.
The whole point of my novel was that we need to stop “othering” Africa and Africans, and that the failed states we decry could become our own. For thirty-five years, I’d comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable as a muckraking reporter, columnist, and essayist. I have always been known for my integrity. It was as if the digital world had created an alternate reality and the “real” world, the world of work and life, of hiking and friendship, of writing fiction and doing the dishes, had simply disappeared, probably into The Matrix. Could this stupid tweet really ruin my entire career?
I wasn’t quite ready to find out. Instead of writing, I dabbled. I helped out a hairdresser who had started a little magazine devoted to “green” beauty. It wasn’t hard to be helpful. She was bright but a high school dropout. The magazine had great visuals but she didn’t have the money to pay professional writers. I corrected sentence structure, helped her write a bio, and tried to teach her the fundamentals of journalism and storytelling. She cut my hair. It was a temporary arrangement but pleasant.
A few months later, she wanted to run a piece about my safari company. With the help of a friend who had worked at Conde Nast Traveler, I put one together for her. But as she was getting ready to run the article, she emailed me. “Have you seen this?” she wrote, including a link to the abusive guy’s story. She wasn’t sure about running the article about our business anymore.
“I get that irony was your amo (sic) back in the day,” she wrote. “You’re right it doesn’t translate well in social media, or emails and texts really. I just need clarity and transparency for whom I’m representing within my brand. So I need to address these things that make me uncomfortable.It sounds like you know your limitations and like I said because the web in all its shapes and forms is essentially about connecting, voicing opinions and a branding and marketing tool, it creates or recreates your own brand.”
The web in all its shapes and forms is “a branding and marketing tool”? That’s all? It’s not a way to connect the world, to raise money for good causes, to educate kids and inform adults? I told her she was right: she shouldn’t run the story. I doubted there would be blowback, but if there was, she didn’t have the journalism background to deal with it properly. She wouldn’t defend me. She might make things worse.
This happened right before the inauguration. As the prospect of a Trump presidency loomed, it all started to make sense. There’s a double standard. Some people are rewarded for over-the-top remarks that illustrate a point. Donald Trump for starters. Even women on the Right are afforded the privilege (yes, that word again) of shooting off their mouths. Ann Coulter, anyone?
Perhaps blonde wouldn’t have been such a bad idea.
Except for Samantha Bee — bless her — America is not fond of women who use hyperbole and satire to confront us with uncomfortable truths. Especially older women. Poet Anne Carson ends her book Glass, Irony and God with an abstruse essay called “The Gender of Sound” in which she writes about the Greek poet Alkaois, who described “an otherworldly echo” of women uttering “a particular kind of shriek, the ololyga…a ritual shout peculiar to females.” The shriek is uttered at climactic moments in ritual practice, such as when a victim’s throat is slashed — or in childbirth.
I’m not big on shrieking. I don’t vote my gender. I’m a Bernie girl all the way, and I wasn’t a fan of Hillary Clinton until the Republican convention scared the hell out of me and I Was With Her. But Carson makes a profound point. During the campaign, I often found Hillary Clinton’s speech too careful, too “managed.” But now I feel her pain. Americans are hungry for “truth” but is it truth they are after, or the appearance of truth? I still find it astounding that Howard Dean’s shout of victory destroyed his chance at a presidential run. We’ll remember “the Scream” long after we have forgotten Dean’s name.
You can’t handle the truth, I want to say. But it’s more complicated than that. We want the truth but many of us can no longer distinguish between truth and truth’s facsimile. Some of us prefer a lie dressed up with one shocking fact. Donald Trump says what people often think (“Meryl Streep is kinda overrated, isn’t she?”) but don’t have the guts to speak aloud. It’s so verboten in our over-managed political discourse that it’s almost a relief.
I know all about this. This is how I earned my living. I was a smartass New York kid who went west, did her homework, got it right, and laid it on the line, saying all the things those polite Birkenstock-wearing folks were too afraid to speak aloud. Being an asshole was my job, but I did it for the good guys: environmentalists, poor people, endangered critters.
I can do something else with my life. Really. I always hated the public aspects of my job. I can write books that never get published and stick them in a drawer so my stepkids find them after I’m dead. But do we really want to cede the ground of attention-grabbing, in-your-face speech to right-wing males and the obligatory blondes chosen to appeal to their demographic? That’s worked well, so far, hasn’t it?
Do I regret that tweet? I do. I appreciate the good people who engaged with me and really listened as I explained where I was coming from, and gave me a chance to listen to them. Do I cavil at the word “privilege”? Yes, but perhaps not as much. Still, I believe we must choose rhetoric that is aspirational. Bernie Sanders was a master at this; his TV ads were so good they made me cry. But Bernie won’t live forever. It is time for us to stop the tribalisation of American politics, now, right now, before it does more harm. Ten years ago, if you had asked about the effects of tribalism on elections, I would have pointed to a corrupt African president-for-life.
Now? Donald Trump and the most corrupt cabinet in American history.
I fear for us. I fear for myself, my stepsons, my husband. I fear for America and for Americans. Even after this disastrous election, too many of us are still obsessed with appearances.
In my darker moments this winter, I wasn’t sure if I belonged in the media, or in publishing. But I’m still here, and so are many of my colleagues. As journalists, we know something the hairdresser doesn’t know. It isn’t about us. It’s about what we have to say. We’ve been doing this a long time. We know some things. That’s why we have gray hair. Respect us, motherfuckers.
But, hey, I’m human. I’m down one hairdresser, but as it turned out, that doesn’t matter much, either. After an inspiring photo session in a bar with a gorgeous young woman who is passionate about the environment and wanted to model for our safari company’s political action pledge, I strode into my bathroom with a scissors and went to town on my bangs. They don’t look half bad, even with the gray.
Then I called my husband, who’s in Kenya setting up some new safaris for us. I apologized for being mean. I told him he’d been right all along.
And P.S. Joshua Foust closed his Twitter account, too, because of trolls.
It’s been five years since Patti Smith declared New York dead to the demimonde, so in a high-rent district in Manhattan it is surprising to run across a store with grotesquely ugly things that one couldn’t possibly imagine even the mistress of the most thuggish Russian mafiosi buying. Yet there they were, row upon row of vomitous carved ivory Buddhas, horses, castles, and, of course, elephants, some labeled mammoth teeth (not) on 57th between 5th and 6th.
I stopped, stunned by both their ugliness and obvious illegality. Except for antiquities, the sale of ivory has been banned in the U.S. for years, and this kitsch was clearly contraband scraped from the poaching that is threatening to make Africa’s forest elephants extinct within the next decade. Yet there they were, magnificent animals turned into cheap tourist crap that can be hawked with impunity until stricter regulations from the Obama administration kick in later this year.
There’s rarely good news on the environment: tidal waves threaten to engulf half the planet, the other half is turning to desert, summer bee stings and honey are soon to be quaint memories along with human life itself, according to the latest news on the Sixth Great Extinction. But last Friday, a dozen blocks away in Times Square, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ran a ton of confiscated ivory through a rock crusher and it was good. Yes, it was a “media event” but I truly believe, cynic though I am after covering the environment through the grimness of the past decades, that the authorities have learned a few things and they are – finally – doing it right.
The question of elephants is as complex as extinction itself, involving global trade, war, peace, government corruption, poverty, overpopulation. Despite this rat’s nest of human failings, governments and conservationists, through trial and grievous error, have found an approach that may actually work: 1. stop the demand with a slick, energetic PR campaign using celebrities to make killing endangered animals uncool in China, 2. stop trafficking by stepping up enforcement in East Africa ports, and 3. stop the killing on the ground.
Stopping the killing on the ground was the old way of doing things. You could call it going medieval on the poacher’s asses – but “going colonial” would be more accurate. Twenty-five years ago, the Kenyan conservationist Richard Leakey temporarily halted poaching by turning his country’s wildlife agency into a paramilitary force. A lot of poachers died; one every four days, by most estimates.
It was a Band-Aid, as outdated as the mortifying Do-They-Know-It’s-Christmas song that has become a bad joke among hip Africans, and it fell off. Going after poor black guys with guns is like picking off the drug dealer on the corner in The Wire; the real players are international. The market for ivory is the fourth-largest illicit trade in the world, after drugs, human trafficking, and arms. And the long-term threat is both mundane and unmanageable: population growth. There are just too many people living in the bush where elephants used to roam free. Too many people all over the world, in fact.
But even twenty-five years ago, there were ways to make it work. While Kenya was shooting poachers, countries like Namibia and South Africa were building a thriving trade in wildlife products, gaining support in local communities for wild animals that had formerly been considered threats or nuisances. Even today, with poaching at record levels, elephants in those countries are faring better.
To be fair, Leakey didn’t have much choice: under pressure from Western animal rights groups Kenya had banned hunting in the 1970s, along with any trade whatsoever in products made from wild animals. This made it impossible to earn enough money from wildlife for community conservation, plus it alienated native Kenyans whose traditions included hunting. When it came to saving elephants, Kenya became an aid junkie – and the results were about what you’d expect. The animals disappeared. They just went.
Richard Leakey, recently appointed chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service, his third stint with the agency, has stepped up his game. So have other people in Kenya. The Northern Rangelands Trust is working with communities in high-poaching areas, convincing elders to crack down on young men seduced by the cash they make by killing animals.
It’s a start. But the real chokehold has to be the global market. Unfortunately, American politicians have injected politics into a cause that should be valued on its own merits. In the U.S., politicians and conservationists, including Hillary Clinton, are selling elephant protection as part of the war on terror, claiming that groups like Somalia’s Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram in Nigeria are funded by the illegal ivory trade. But people in Africa say that the real movers in the trade are the criminal gangs, a dozen or more, who dominate the ivory trade worldwide.
The opportunism of the American foreign policy establishment is cynical and unfortunate, but it doesn’t have to be fatal. A change is gonna come, or it sure looks that way, and the forces are bigger than any one politician, whether it’s Hillary or Kenya’s Leakey. As China becomes an industrial power, minds are changing. Three-quarters of people polled in Hong Kong, a major entrepôt for the ivory trade, want to outlaw the sale of ivory. More than half support an outright ban.
It’s important that we get it right this time. It may be our last chance. But the debate over ivory has always been complicated. The usual chorus of free market contrarians say events like last Friday’s ivory crush will raise the price of ivory as speculators stock up, anticipating a shortage. These arguments, plausible decades ago, sound worn and dated. Ivory isn’t like dope. Ivory doesn’t get you high: money does.
If there’s no demand, the elephants will stop dying. Or at least, they’ll stop dying quite so fast. Who knows? There might still be hope that elephants will survive as a species just long enough to outlive the inevitable crash of civilization itself.
Culture changes. The days of CBGB are gone. The grotesque shop on 57th Street will close, or be closed by the authorities. Bad taste is timeless – now that’s a law of nature – but if we are lucky and smart and very, very quick, the ivory trade will be strangled by history. It’s a reminder that human progress, while it may pale in comparison to our follies, isn’t entirely mythical.