In His Own Words
In His Own Words
“Like all people my age I find the passage of time so startling,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says with a quiet smile. The 70-year-old remains the highest points-scorer in the history of the NBA and, having won six championships and been picked for a record 19 All-Star Games, he is often compared with Michael Jordan when the greatest basketball players of all time are listed. Yet no one in American sport today can match Kareem’s political and cultural impact over 50 years.
In the 90 minutes since he knocked on my hotel room door in Los Angeles, Abdul-Jabbar has recounted a dizzying personal history which stretches from conducting his first-ever interview with Martin Luther King in Harlem, when he was just 17, to receiving a hand-written insult from Donald Trump in 2015. We move from Colin Kaepernick calling him last week to the moment when, aged 20, Kareem was the youngest man invited to the Cleveland Summit – as the leading black athletes in 1967 gathered to meet Muhammad Ali to decide whether they would support him after he had been stripped of his world title and banned from boxing for rejecting the draft during the Vietnam War.
Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who has been shut out of the NFL for his refusal to stand for the US national anthem, is engaged in a different struggle. But, after being banished unofficially from football for going down on a bended knee in protest against racism and police brutality, Kaepernick has one of his staunchest allies in Abdul-Jabbar.
At the Cleveland Summit Abdul-Jabbar was called Lew Alcindor, for he had not converted to Islam then, and he became one of Ali’s ardent supporters. When Ali convinced his fellow athletes he was right to stand against the US government, the young basketball star knew he needed to make his more reticent voice heard. He has stayed true to that conviction ever since.
“We’re talking about 50 years since the Cleveland Summit, wow,” Abdul-Jabbar exclaims. “We were tense about what we were going to do and Ali was the opposite. He said: ‘We’ve got to fight this in court and I’m going to start a speaking tour.’ Ali had figured out what he had to do in order to make the dollars – while fighting the case was essential to his identity. Bill Russell [the great Boston Celtics player] said: ‘I’ve got no concerns about Ali. It’s the rest of us I’m worried about.’ Ali had such conviction but he was cracking jokes and asking us if we were going to be as dumb as Wilt Chamberlain [another basketball great who played for the Philadelphia 76ers]. Wilt wanted to box Ali. Oh my God.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s face creases with laughter before he becomes more serious again. “Black Americans wanted to protect Ali because he spoke for us when we had no voice. When he said: ‘Ain’t no Viet Cong ever called me the N-word’, we figured that one out real quick. Ali was a winner and people supported him because of his class as a human being. But some of the things we fought against then are still happening. Each generation faces these same old problems.”
The previous evening, when I had sat next to Abdul-Jabbar at the Los Angeles Press Club awards, the past echoed again. Abdul-Jabbar received two prizes – the Legend Award and Columnist of the Year for his work in the Hollywood Reporter. Other award winners included Tippi Hedren, who starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, The Birds, and the New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey who broke the Harvey Weinstein story two months ago. As if to prove that the past can be played over and over again in a contemporary loop, we saw footage of Hedren saying how she would not accept the sexual bullying of Hitchcock in the 1960s just before Kantor and Twohey described how they earned the trust of women who had been abused by Weinstein.
Abdul-Jabbar explained quietly to me how much of an ordeal he found such occasions. He was happiest talking about John Coltrane or Sherlock Holmes, James Baldwin or Bruce Lee, but people kept coming over to ask for a selfie or a book to be signed while, all evening, comic references were made to his height. Abdul-Jabbar is 7ft 2in and he looked two feet taller than Hedren on the red carpet.
The following morning, as he stretches out his long legs, I tell Kareem how I winced each time another wise-crack was made about his height. “I can tell you I was six-foot-two, aged 12, when the questions started,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “‘How’s the weather up there?’ I should write down all the things people said when affected by my height. One of the funniest was at an airport and this little boy of five looked at my feet in amazement. I said: ‘Hey, how you’re doing?’ He just said: ‘You must be very old – because you’ve got very big shoes.’ For him the older you were, the bigger your shoes. That’s the best I’ve heard.”
In his simple but often beautiful and profound new book, Becoming Kareem, Abdul-Jabbar writes poignantly: “My skin made me a symbol, my height made me a target.”
Race has been the primary issue which Abdul-Jabbar has confronted every day. In another absorbing Abdul-Jabbar book published this year, Coach Wooden and Me, he celebrates his friendship with the man who helped him win an unprecedented three NCAA championship titles with UCLA. They lost only two games in his three years on campus as UCLA established themselves as the greatest team in the history of college basketball and Wooden, a white midwesterner, and Kareem, a black kid from New York, forged a bond that lasted a half-century. Yet, amid their shared morality and decency, race remained an unresolved issue between them.
Wooden was mortified when a little old lady stared up at the teenage Kareem and said: “I’ve never seen a nigger that tall.” Even though he would later say that he learnt more about man’s inhumanity to man by witnessing all his protégé endured over the years, Wooden’s memory of that encounter softened the woman’s racial insult by saying that she had called Kareem “a big black freak.”
Abdul-Jabbar nods. “He would never see a little grey-haired lady using such language. When it doesn’t affect your life it’s hard for you to see. Men don’t understand what attractive women go through. We don’t get on a bus and have somebody squeeze our breast. We have no idea how bad it can be. For people to understand your predicament you’ve got to figure out how to convey that reality. It takes time.”
Abdul-Jabbar made his first high-profile statement against the predicament of all African Americans when, in 1968, he boycotted the Olympic Games in Mexico. After race riots in Newark and Detroit, and the assassination of King in April 1968, he knew he could not represent his country. “Dr Harry Edwards [the civil rights activist] helped me realise how much power I had. The Olympics are a great event but what happened overwhelmed any patriotism. I had to make a stand. I wanted the country to live up to the words of the founding fathers – and make sure they applied to people of colour and to women. I was trying to hold America to that standard.”
The athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos took another path of protest. They competed in the Olympic 200m in Mexico and, after they had won gold and bronze, raised their gloved fists in a black power salute on the podium. “I was glad somebody with some political consciousness had gone to Mexico,” Abdul-Jabbar says, “so I was very supportive of them.”
Does Kaepernick’s situation mirror those same issues? “Yeah. The whole issue of equal treatment under the law is still being worked out here because for so long our political and legal culture has denied black Americans equal treatment. But I was surprised Kaepernick had that awareness. It made me think: ‘I wonder how many other NFL athletes are also aware?’ From there it has bloomed. This generation has a very good idea on how to confront racism. I talked to Colin a couple of days ago on the phone and I’m really proud of him. He’s filed an issue with the Players Association about the owners colluding to keep him from working. That’s the best legal approach to it. I hope he prevails.”
Over dinner the night before, he intimated that Kaepernick knew he would never play in the NFL again. “We didn’t get that deep into it,” he says now, “but he has an idea that is what’s going down. But he’s moved on. He hadn’t prepared for this but he coped with different twists and turns. Some of the owners in the NFL are sympathetic, some aren’t. It’s gone back and forth. But he appreciates the fact that kids in high school have taken an interest. So he got something done and this generation’s athletes are now more aware of civil rights.”
Kaepernick has been voted GQ’s Citizen of the Year, the runner-up in Time magazine’s Person of the Year and this week he received Sports Illustrated’s Muhammad Ali Legacy Award. Considering the way Kaepernick “has never wavered in his commitment”, Abdul-Jabbar writes in Sports Illustrated that: “I have never been prouder to be an American … On November 30, it was reported that 40 NFL players and league officials had reached an agreement for the league to provide approximately $90m between now and 2023 for activism endeavors important to African American communities. Clearly, this is the result of Colin’s one-knee revolution and of the many players and coaches he inspired to join him. That is some serious impact … Were my old friend [Ali] still alive, I know he would be proud that Colin is continuing this tradition of being a selfless warrior for social justice.”
In my hotel room, Abdul-Jabbar is more specific in linking tragedy and a deepening social conscience. “I don’t know how anybody could not be moved by some of the things we’ve seen. Remember the footage of [12-year-old] Tamir Rice getting killed [in Cleveland [in 2014]. The car stops and the cop stands up and executes Tamir Rice. It took two seconds. It’s so unbelievably brutal you have to do something about it.
“LeBron James and other guys in the NBA all had something to say about such crimes [James and leading players wore I Can’t Breathe T-shirts in December 2014 to protest against the police killing of Eric Garner, another black man]. They weren’t talking as athletes. They were talking as parents because that could have been their kid.”
If the NFL appears to have actively ended Kaepernick’s career, what does Abdul-Jabbar feel about the NBA’s politics? “The NBA has been wonderful. I came into the NBA and went to Milwaukee [where he won his first championship before winning five more with the LA Lakers]. Milwaukee had the first black general manager in professional sports [Wayne Embry in 1972]. And the NBA’s outreach for coaches, general managers and women has been exemplary. The NBA has been on the edge of change. I was hoping the NFL might do the same because some of the owners were taking the knee. But they’re making an example of Colin. It’s not right. Let him go out there and succeed or fail on the field like any other great athlete.”
Abdul-Jabbar smiles shyly when I ask him about his first interview – with Martin Luther King 53 years ago. “As a journalist I started out interviewing Dr King. Whoa! By that point , Dr King was a serious icon and I was thrilled he gave me a really good earnest answer. Moments like that affect your life. But my first real experience of being drawn into the civil rights movement came when I read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.”
Has he seen I Am Not Your Negro – Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary of Baldwin? “It’s wonderful. I saw it two weeks after the Trump election. It was medicine for my soul. It made me think of how bad things were for James Baldwin. But remember him speaking at Cambridge [University] and the reception he got? Oh man, amazing! I kept telling people: ‘Trump is an asshole but go and see this film. Trump doesn’t matter because we’ve got work to do.’”
In 2015, after Abdul-Jabbar wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post, condemning Trump’s attempts to bully the press, the future president sent him a scrawled note: “Kareem – now I know why the press always treated you so badly. They couldn’t stand you. The fact is you don’t have a clue about life and what has to be done to make America great again.”
Abdul-Jabbar smiles when I say that schoolyard taunt is a long way from the oratory of King or Malcolm X. “If you judge yourself by your enemies I’m doing great. Trump’s not going to change. He knows he is where he is because of his appeal to racism and xenophobia. The people that want to divide the country are in his camp. They want to go back to the 18th century.
“Trump wants to move us back to 1952 but he’s not Eisenhower – who was the type of Republican that cared about the whole nation. Even George Bush Sr and George W Bush’s idea of fellow citizens did not exclude people of colour. George W’s cabinet looked like America. It had Condoleezza Rice and the Mexican American gentleman who was the attorney general [Alberto Gonzales] and Colin Powell. Women had important positions in his administration. Even though I did not like his policies, he wasn’t exclusionary.
“Look what’s going on with Trump in Alabama [where the president supports Roy Moore in the state senate election despite his favoured candidate being accused of multiple sexual assaults of under-age girls]. You have a guy like him but he’s going to vote the way you want politically. That’s more important than what he’s accused of? People with that frightening viewpoint are still fighting a civil war. They have to be contained.”
Does he fear that Trump might win a second term? “I don’t think he can, but the rest of us had better organise and vote in 2020. I hope people stop him ruining our nation.”
Abdul-Jabbar also worries that college sport remains as exploitative as ever. “It’s a business and the coaches, the NCAA and universities make a lot of money and the athletes get exploited. They make billions of dollars for the whole system and don’t get any. I’m not saying they have to be wealthy but I think they should get a share of the incredible amount they generate.”
In Coach Wooden and Me, he writes of how, in the 1960s, he was famous at UCLA but dead broke. “Yeah. No cash. It’s ridiculous. Basketball and football fund everything. College sports do not function on the revenue from water polo or track and field or gymnastics. It’s all down to basketball and football. The athletes at Northwestern tried to organise a union and that’s how college athletes have to think. They need to unionise. If they can organise they can get a piece of the pie because they are the show.”
The legendary Michael Jordan never showed the social conscience of Abdul-Jabbar and other rare NBA activists like Craig Hodges. But Abdul-Jabbar is conciliatory towards Jordan and his commercially-driven contemporaries. “I was glad they became interested in being successful businessmen because their financial power makes a difference. I just felt they should leave a little room to help the causes they knew needed their help. But Jordan has come around. He gave some money to the NAACP for legal funds, thank goodness.”
Abdul-Jabbar defines himself as a writer now. As he reflects on his LA Press Club awards he says: “To be honoured by other writers is incredible. I’m a neophyte. I’m a rookie.”
He grins when I say he’s not doing not too badly for a rookie who has written 13 books, including novels about Mycoft Holmes – brother of Sherlock. “Yeah, but I still feel new to it and to get that recognition was wonderful. I was very flattered that the BBC came to interview me about Mycroft because the British are very protective of their culture. Arthur Conan Doyle is beyond an icon. So I was like, ‘Wow, maybe I am doing OK.’ When I was [an NBA] rookie somebody gave me a complete compilation of Doyle’s stories. I went from there.
“People were amazed because I always used to be reading before a game – whether it was Sherlock Holmes or Malcolm X, John Le Carré or James Baldwin. But that was one of the luxuries of being a professional athlete. You get lots of time to read. My team-mates did not read to the same extent but I’m a historian and some of the guys had big holes in their knowledge of black history. So I was the librarian for the team.”
I tell Abdul-Jabbar about my upcoming interview with Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics – and how the 21-year-old has the same thirst for reading and knowledge. While enthusiastic about the possibility of meeting Brown when the Celtics next visit LA, Abdul-Jabbar makes a wistful observation of a young sportsman’s intellectual curiosity. “He’s going to be lonely. Most of the guys are like: ‘Where are we going to party in this town? Where are the babes?’ So the fact that he has such broader interests is remarkable and wonderful.”
Abdul-Jabbar acknowledges that his own bookish nature and self-consciousness about his height, combined with a fierce sense of injustice, made him appear surly and aloof as a player. It also meant he was never offered the head-coach job he desired. “They didn’t think I could communicate and they didn’t take the time to get to know me. But I didn’t make it easy for them so some of that falls in my lap – absolutely. But it’s different now. People stop me in the street and want to talk about my articles. It’s amazing.”
Most of all, in his eighth decade, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar “loves to lose myself in my imagination. It’s a wonderful place to go when you’re old and creaky like me. I see myself working at this pace [writing at least a book a year] but it’s not like I have the hounds at my heels. Since my career ended I’ve been able to have friends and family. My new granddaughter will be three this month. She’s my very first [grandchild]. So my life has expanded in wonderful ways. But, still, we all have so much work to do. The work is a long way from being done.”
ROBIN D.G. KELLEY
Racial Capitalism and
Why Does It Matter?
Talk by Robin D. G. Kelley on “What is Racial Capitalism and Why Does It Matter?” recorded November 7, 2017 at Kane Hall, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Sponsored by the UW Simpson Center for the Humanities.
Blurred Lines is not an easy read. Its title seems designed to provoke attention—of any kind. (When I mentioned the title of the book I was reading to two coworkers, both of whom are sexual violence specialists, they immediately recoiled.) Grigoriadis interviews both survivors and students accused of assault—the latter a choice for which she’s received criticism—as well as a bevy of other sources, including campus sexual violence consultants, families of accused boys, fraternity brothers, sorority sisters, and student activists from Syracuse to Wesleyan.
Grigoriadis has a keen eye as a journalist, and her tone can be unflinching and unsparing. It can also feel, at times, out of touch: her audience is the parents of college-aged students as much as it is millennials themselves. One of the recurring cast of characters in Blurred Lines is a sorority sister at Syracuse who calls herself the “Blackout Blonde” and blames sexual misadventures on tequila and not a misunderstanding of consent; another is noted activist-artist Emma Sulkowicz, Columbia University’s “mattress girl,” whose story frames the book.
A self-proclaimed feminist, Grigoriadis’s politics inflect her writing with a second-wave, anti-porn bent. Blurred Lines struggles with a generational divide, portraying and confronting a generation of young feminists much more inclined than Grigoriadis is to call certain acts, which historically might have just been classified as bothersome, sexual assault. And indeed, it is this generational divide over what exactly constitutes sexual violence—and what should be done about it—that is one of the central questions of the book. Yet for those seeking prescriptivism, Grigoriadis is careful, giving all arguments a degree of nuance so level-headed as to be frustrating.
I found myself alternately engaged and annoyed by Grigoriadis’s text, as rigorously researched and nuanced as it is. It seems that in this era, we crave strong calls to action and a vision of the future as we wish it to be, not studious depictions of the messy reality in which we currently live. Yet it’s only by understanding our own reality—and the complexities within it—that we might begin to conceive of an effective way forward. Though both-sides journalism can feel morally corrupt, especially in this political climate, in the case of Blurred Lines it is both painful and crucial: How can we address campus sexual assault without considering its causes?
Ultimately, Grigoriadis brings up questions around the nature of truth, the failures of communication, and the duty and our collective responsibility to believe each other and to right what has been wronged. Grigoriadis and I corresponded in October about Title IX, believing women, the importance of early consent education, and the distinction between personal and political choice.
—Larissa Pham for Guernica
Guernica: How are you feeling about the current debate around Title IX? What was it like to write this book, as decisions around campus rape and Title IX escalated so abruptly (Donald Trump’s election, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s appointment) right before its publication? Did you have to make any changes or last-minute decisions?
Vanessa Grigoriadis: I don’t feel great about America’s debate about Title IX right now. Much of the quibbling centers on whether Obama’s 2011 federal guidance about campus courts was fair, or whether it robbed accused students of their “due process.” To me, this relentless focus on courts is wrong for two reasons. First, only a teeny-tiny fraction of students are accused each year of sexual assault and interact with a campus court. Second, focusing on the punishment piece of this issue (though, as Americans, we do love punishment) means we aren’t concentrating on exactly what we want to make out of this moment of social progress. Because even though Betsy DeVos has decided to blow up the current campus courts in favor of protecting accused boys—making sure they receive “due process”—it is, culturally, a moment of progress (Weinstein’s unmasking, the Shitty Media Men list, #metoo).
I think the better question is: How do we want sexual mores to shift, and what will that do for the American experience of both consensual and nonconsensual sex?
To take up your second question, yes, producing a book on a dramatically shifting topic was very stressful! Like many of us, I assumed Hillary’s victory was certain. I planned my book to end on the high note of overturning the patriarchy with the election of the first female president. On election night, when it became clear she might lose, I was in the middle of turning a first draft into a proper manuscript. This turn of events is bad for the country, but this is also really bad for my book. Yes. I thought that.
After a week or two, I finally stopped fretting and tried to think of Trump’s election as an opportunity. I didn’t shift my thesis but I added some lines, in the book’s introduction, to my description of the progressive awakening that has happened in this country over the last five years (“Trump’s presidency is a macroaggression”). I wanted Trump to be a specter from the book’s outset.
I also reported and wrote an entirely new chapter about the war over college sexual assault in DC for the end of the book. Once Trump announced that Betsy DeVos was going to be his Education Secretary—a few months before I finished the manuscript—I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen. He was going to overturn as much of what Obama did, and the attendant social progress, as he could.
In that chapter, I tell the story of the way that a conservative-leaning coalition banded together to fight Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill’s codification of Obama’s 2011 rules. The spark was Rolling Stone’s discredited 2014 story on UVA. The fraternities in that story banded together with some other frats shortly after the piece was debunked, and hired Trent Lott as their lobbyist. They formed a united front on this issue with conservatives, moms of accused boys, and libertarian attorneys and tried to get legislation that would change Obama’s rules through Congress a year or so later. They couldn’t do it. But of course with Trump’s election, these fortunes were reversed. This is the coalition now in charge of the sexual assault issue.
Guernica: I was impressed by the breadth of your references to pop culture narratives about college. How do you see pop culture influencing campus behavior and campus politics today? Do you think it’s truly affecting the way students practice activism, too?
Vanessa Grigoriadis: Thanks! I’m a staunch believer in the effect of pop culture—including advertising and the internet—on the young. Pop culture in its narrowest sense (mass-produced film, TV, and music) either truly reflects what’s up in youth culture, or it reflects what youth-filled focus groups have told marketing companies that they want to consume. This type of media puts forth a set of morals, standards, and rules that consumers then consciously or unconsciously enact in their own lives.
I don’t think we get the degree to which technological mediums like Snapchat and Instagram are also changing our relationships. I think we will learn down the line that they have created profound changes in our social and sexual lives.
In terms of activism, the Trump-era transformation of news into entertainment has had a deep effect on the way that collegiate politics are perceived. Campuses are a main flashpoint of the post-2016 culture wars about free speech, racism, and elite privilege. That’s undeniable.
In my book, I also chronicle the way a collegiate activist network, radiating from Yale around 2012, formed a shockingly effective organization to combat sexual assault. The ability of these activists to network and organize online is part of what allowed their ideas to spread far and wide. Namely, a refusal of shame about sexual assault and the prioritization of speaking your mind while using your real name—instead of a pseudonym given to you by a journalist. Those ideas were soon taken up by Lena Dunham, Lady Gaga, and Kesha. And now, with Harvey Weinstein’s unmasking, they’ve spread to the top of Hollywood.
An interesting reversal is happening right now. The college women who kicked all this off have been superseded in the mainstream media by celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. And now a new group of college women—the ones in college now—are looking at Paltrow and Jolie as models for the appropriate way of dealing with sexual predators.
Guernica: You refer to your own politics throughout the book, noting how times have changed and observing how today’s generation of campus feminists operate under different ideologies than your own. To write about something is itself a political act, and some might argue that “neutrality” is also a conservative position. How did you navigate both a sense of journalistic objectivity—which is a remarked-upon characteristic of this book—and the politics inherent to writing about such a complicated subject?
Vanessa Grigoriadis: As a journalist, I try to be as fact-based and objective as possible, though I’m also aware that objectivity is an illusion. This way of moving through the world is what separates journalists from activists. But I also had a hard time squaring what I wanted to say narratively in the book with what I wanted to say politically. I would rather have told a simple narrative of victims’ fortitude. But I could not discount some of the stories I heard from accused boys. Some of the evidence that they showed me was persuasive. They were innocent, if not by the letter of the campus rules then by their spirit. The reason that these boys have gotten so much mainstream support—I’m referring to the many newspaper editorial boards who have taken their sides—is because journalists are reading the documents from their campus court cases and agreeing that something has gone terribly wrong.
These boys’ evidence made me think some bad actors may exist on campus. Some students may be accusing boys when the boys shouldn’t be accused. The other explanation for the evidence is that students may genuinely feel violated by a sexual act when a violation may not actually have occurred. I became very interested in this idea.
Guernica: Yes, this is a key part of the debate around how universities can handle sexual assault, and it’s certainly an arena where DeVos has been focusing a lot of attention in her efforts to roll back Title IX protections. But as you note, it seems that there’s clearly a population of students who have felt violated by a sexual act when a violation may not have occurred. That’s a problem for universities, who are arbitrating the outcomes of these complaints.
But how can we consider the fact that these students do feel violated, and they do feel wronged, and they do seek support? What options might they have? Where do you see this dynamic—not necessarily violations, even under a lighter burden of proof—fitting into the conversation about sexual assault on campus? How can we address this really sizable portion of students and their needs?
Vanessa Grigoriadis: If I had the answer to this question, I would have a bajillion dollars. That’s approximately how much universities are paying the administrators and educational specialists and consultants and lawyers advising them on exactly this point. I don’t have an answer beyond a) we need deeper sex ed and sex re-education in our K-12 schools; b) as tempting as it is to agree that if someone feels there was a violation, there was a violation, we should keep in mind that utopian ideas like that—and it is somewhat utopian—can lead to a vast backlash. On an individual level, I don’t have a problem with an individual feeling, and saying, that someone else has violated them. Have at it. The complication arises when punishment becomes involved.
Regarding punishment, we’ve learned from the downfall of Weinstein and other famous men not only that times have changed, but also that ostracism is an efficient tool. It reminds me of the tradition of bathroom lists of sexual assaulters at Brown beginning in 1990. Back then the administrators called the students who wrote them “magic marker terrorists” and threatened them with expulsion if caught. Now a Shitty Media Men list can dominate the news for days as HR departments across the coasts hastily assess their employees and their liability.
A year or so ago, a prominent reporter on the sexual assault beat and I had a conversation about punishment. We agreed that the campus courts are sort of fucked up, and also that victims don’t like going through them. And they rarely feel that punishments are severe enough, even when punishments include expulsion. So if justice isn’t served, why even go that way? The reporter and I agreed that social ostracism seemed like the best choice for many of the victims we’d met, particularly those without physical evidence (and thus likely to be badly served by courts). Name and shame.
Guernica: What do you think of these evolving ideas and definitions around what constitutes assault or violence, as well as what constitutes consent, within the larger context of this issue? At times, it feels as though you think some of the survivors are “going too far” with their accusations. But what if that’s really how they feel? Does it matter? Or what else should we expect from young people?
Vanessa Grigoriadis: Well, let’s start off by accepting that colleges are a unique space in our culture. They’re a temporary constellation of humans, like a workplace. And the rules about sexual assault and harassment in a workplace are narrow rules. They’re stricter than what’s considered criminal on a city street. By this logic, the same rules should exist at universities too.
At the same time, students at residential universities often live together and spend time on activities that aren’t connected with the university. Then, should the university’s rules about sexual consent extend to students’ private lives?
In my book, I argue that these narrow rules should extend to students’ private lives no matter what or where they happen to be conducting those lives. The logic is that sexual assault is a form of discrimination and denies the victim an equal education. The point of university life is to get that diploma and nothing should stand in the way.
I’m not sure Betsy DeVos agrees with this. It’s possible that down the line American universities will only be responsible for monitoring the sexual violence that happens in libraries and food courts and forget dorms, apartments, and parties. (DeVos isn’t saying this now, but her compatriots—presidents of Christian universities—have made this argument).
But if we agree that universities need to monitor sexual violence in various locations, and that they will require students to hew to a narrower set of rules than the wider world, how do we deal with putting these ideas into the brains of teenagers who have been schooled in the disgusting gender norms of our American culture for the previous eighteen years? This is the essential conundrum. Can we teach these relatively young dogs new tricks?
I believe that we can. But I also believe that upending ingrained ideas about what assault is (a gun to the head, a stranger, a parking lot) and what consent looks like (a woman who gives a no really means yes) is very messy. And part of the messiness is some students—and yes, usually these are liberal students—over-determining the definition of assault. Why have Harvey Weinstein’s victims won, and campus victims, in the post-DeVos era, essentially lost, in both the court of public opinion and on a policy level? Weinstein is a monster. And what campus victims are talking about has a lot more gray in it—many more complexities.
Guernica: It feels painful—and familiar—to read about students getting too drunk, in the hopes of lowering others’ inhibitions but also their own. To me, it reminds me of incidents where I’ve numbed myself with alcohol to avoid feeling the shame around doing something I wanted but didn’t want to ask for—that Syracuse good girl phenomenon. You’re also a supporter of enthusiastic consent. Do you think it’s possible that we could also work on eradicating rape culture by teaching about healthier narratives around sex?
Vanessa Grigoriadis: Yes! I agree with this one hundred percent. We need new cultural scripts. Women don’t say what we want, and we don’t say what we don’t want. Unless we’re reacting to a stranger, we generally aren’t great at turning down someone’s advance. And there are great guys out there who are confused about how to act and numb themselves with alcohol because of their own insecurities. I truly believe that. These are early, formative experiences, and thus important ones that shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s clear from the number of college students who are loudly telling us that they are unhappy or violated by their sexual experiences that new rules are required.
Guernica: One of the central questions of this book is about communication—where it fails and how that affects young people.
Vanessa Grigoriadis: I make a strong case for poor sexual communication as the root cause of some assaults. I say some assaults because we know, as well, that there are dyed-in-wool, compulsive predators like Weinstein on campuses too. But there are guys we can reach here. Once again, I’d like to be optimistic in the way that we look at this problem. Let’s reach the students who will abide by a “yes means yes” standard and reeducate them to use it. And as more and more of them use it, others will adopt it too. We’re on our way to a new social norm and that’s a beautiful thing.
Guernica: I keep returning to a line in your concluding chapter: “My heart wanted to believe almost everyone.” If more than one truth can be true—which is how it feels sometimes, and maybe that’s the most important word, “feels”—what is our duty to each other? How do you think we ought to navigate this territory of truth-telling or truth-finding?
Vanessa Grigoriadis: After studying dozens of sexual assault cases, it is clear to me that the “he said/she said” aspect is a big part of what makes them fraught. Many experts agree with this. But that same fraught nature is reflected in both legal standards of consent and philosophical theories of consent.
Here are two ways of thinking of consent. First, consent may be what a reasonable person would define as consent. The definition of consent is held in the eye of some idealized beholder.
Often, in my reading of these cases, I believe that accused boys argue that by the “reasonable person” standard they didn’t do anything wrong. Yet these victims’ argument—that even if there is no evidence that they were violated, their word should be believed—is also persuasive.
These victims are often using a different theory of consent—the feminist theory of consent. This says that even if a victim behaves in a way from which a reasonable person could construe her as having consented, she didn’t consent unless she consented in her head. She didn’t have to express that lack of consent.
You have interests on both sides that are extraordinarily important and pressing (the boys don’t want to be kicked out of school; the victims need justice). How do you balance these interests? Everybody wants a standard of consent and a theory of consent that balances them. But the conceptual categories are hard to mix.
Guernica: In the conclusion, you also write: “I recognize believing [Sulkowicz] is a personal choice, and a political one too.” This statement surprised me somewhat, given how carefully you’ve handled the question of believing anyone. What does it mean that it’s a political choice? How does that affect the way you’ve brought up questions surrounding the utility of unerringly believing survivors?
Vanessa Grigoriadis: OK, this is a tough question.
I’m clear in this book that I come from a progressive background. My mom founded the first all women’s gallery in Soho in 1972. My dad was a progressive and a professor. I went to Wesleyan. But I tried to write this book with the perspective of a Gen-Xer—one who has not been exposed to all of those progressive ideas about sexual assault—in mind. The book is panoptic and tries to be as non-judgmental about the characters who have been swept up into this mess as possible. And it’s true that a dangerous combination of certainty and ignorance often shows up around sex and consent on campus. People on all sides of the issue have such strong feelings about it that they’re blinded to the facts.
The book is supposed to hold readers’ hands as they make the transition from a mainstream perspective on this subject—I believe most women, because I’d be an asshole not to, but at the same time I kind of think if the guys aren’t using guns women shouldn’t be calling it rape—to a progressive position. Thereby, although I note that I cannot as a journalist say that many of these cases are without flaws, I want to end up in a specific place. Believe women first. I think this is very important. We must believe women first, and if the evidence truly stacks against them—in a significant way, not just a minor way—then revise our position. I did not want readers to go away from the book thinking that I did not extend this courtesy to Emma herself, since her story forms the frame for the book. Emma’s story is not without flaws, but it does not have major flaws. And thus I chose to believe her. Politically, also, if we do not believe women we are not going to get anywhere on this subject. This is my greatest fear at the moment: that what happened with Rolling Stone’s UVA story could happen again. That story undermined the movement. In our victim-blaming culture, the progress made by the victims of Weinstein and Toback and O’Reilly will be undone in a flash if one of those victims is revealed as a liar. America loves a good story about rape. But it loves a story about fake rape and lying women much, much more.
How do you reach a broad cross-section of potential police recruits? With an entertaining video that features a broad cross-section of police spokespeople.
Ogilvy did just that for New Zealand Police, and saw a surge of surge of new applicants.
The point of the campaign was to attract more diversity to the New Zealand Police ranks, forming a team that better represents and understands all the communities of New Zealand. And so, the video has tons of diversity, too—featuring 70 real officers and a constantly changing point of view.
This ads drove a 898 percent increase in web traffic to newcops.co.nz on the day of launch, Ogilvy says, and a 615 percent increase in profiles created by potential new police in the first week. Notable, there was a “huge increase” in interest from Asian, Pacific and Maori potential recruits, Ogilvy adds.
The video also impressed law enforcement around the world, including Police Chief Mark Walsh of the Hampshire Police in the U.K. and San Diego Police Department Chief Shelley Zimmerman:
Agency: Ogilvy & Mather, New Zealand
Client: New Zealand Police.
Deputy Chief Executive: Karen Jones
Strategic Communications Manager: Jane Archibald
Senior Marketing Advisor: Helen Flannery
Media Support: Garry Boles
Executive Creative Director: Regan Grafton
Group Creative Director: Lisa Fedyszyn
Group Creative Director: Jonathan McMahon
Art Director: Sam Henderson
Copywriter: Kent Briggs
Design Director: Danny Carlsen
Design, Creative Director: Nathan Chambers
Design Producer: Dave Preece
Head of Operations: Siobhan Burke
Agency Film Producer: Rachel Stewart
Agency Film Producer: Steen Bech
Executive Director: Wendy Schrijvers
Account Director: Christina Opferkuch
Planning Director: Ben Fielding
Group Media Director: Denelle Joyce
Digital Media Manager: Nick Pickering
Media Manager: Stephen May
Production Company: The Sweet Shop
Director: Damien Shatford
Executive Producer: Ben Dailey
Managing Director: Fiona King
DOP: Andrew Stroud
DA: Alistair MacDonald
Senior Editor: Ben Marshall
Head of Post Production: Martin Spencer
Colourist: Dave Gibson
Sound: Liquid Studios
Executive Producer: Tamara O’Neill
Head Composer: Peter van der Fluit
Senior Sound Engineer: Craig Matuschka
Tim Nudd – @nudd is creative editor of Adweek and editor of AdFreak, its daily blog. He oversees all of Adweek’s creative coverage and is co-host of its weekly podcast, Yeah, That’s Probably an Ad.
Saraba magazine is currently open to submissions to its issues 22: “Open,” 23: “Fake Truths,” and 24: “Viral.” The deadline for submissions is 31 December 2017. The magazine will be paying ₦10,000 (around $30) for accepted work.
For the 2018 issues of Saraba magazine, we ask prospective contributors to interpret the themes in singular, yet compelling ways. Submit unpublished writing that addresses any of our themes, indicating in your cover letter which issue(s) you would like to be considered for. The first two issues will be published online and in electronic format (PDF/ePub), and the third issue in print.
Please send us short fiction, narrative essays, literary journalism, poetry, illustrations, and photographs. No interviews except solicited.
Founded in 2009 by the Nigerians Emmanuel Iduma, author of the novel The Sound of Things to Come, and Dami Ajayi, author of the poetry collection A Woman’s Body Is a Country, the magazine recently launched its first print issue, “Transitions.”
Here is information on each issue.
Issue 22 – Open
We invite writers and artists to think beyond genre, and outside any one theme. What kind of writing and images would you send to us if we asked you to make work in the spirit of openness? Stripped of pretensions, how do you access your own vulnerability, yet share yourself in a way that isn’t maudlin?
We insist on open conversations about identity, humanity, gender, sexuality and religion. We are even open to reflections on uncertainty. An ability to acknowledge that the differing opinion of others do not threaten yours.
Issue 23 – Fake Truths
Is a well-told lie better than a thousand facts?
At no point in human civilization has the amount of information available exceeded the capacity to interrogate it in full. What has always seemed true is the inclination of many to tell compelling stories—homespun tales requiring no proof, sermons that derive their authority from uncanny events, and literature pulling the reader into a world where magic is in direct conversation with realism.
But there is work that is factual, and the ethical foundation on which journalism is built must not be shaken of its value. How do writers and artists, from Angola to Zimbabwe, take journalism as a starting point, building on stories reported in the news? How much conceit and imagination is required to do that? What is their responsibility to truth? Whose truth is it?
Issue 24 – Viral
For our second print issue, we take “virality” as a departure point, speculating on a word with a range of meanings—viral, virus, virulent—and a range of concerns—technology, public health, morality. Consider ideas and narratives around quantity, multiplicity, population control, big data, meme-culture, etc.
Are people numbers?
Read Saraba‘s submission guidelines HERE.
Submit via Submittable HERE.
Deadline: Postmarked between October 1 –December 22, 2017.
Louise Louis / Emily F. Bourne Student Award, $250
Endowed under the wills of Louise Louis Whitbread and Ruth M. Bourne, this prize is awarded for the best unpublished poem by a student in grades 9 through 12 from the United States. Teachers or administrators may submit an unlimited number of their students’ poems, one submission per student.
• You can only submit one entry per student.
• A poem that has previously won a PSA Award cannot be re-submitted.
• No previously published work can be submitted.
• Translations are ineligible.
• Poems by more than one author will not be accepted.
• Entry should have one cover page and two collated copies of your poem.
The Cover Page
The cover page must include:
Email (if available)
Name of the Award
Title and First Line of first poem in submission
Your name should not appear anywhere else besides this cover sheet.
Cover Sheet Template: It’s not a requirement, but you might find it helpful to use our cover sheet template.
High school students may send single entries to the Louise Louis/Emily F. Bourne Student Poetry Award for the fee of $5.
High school teachers or administrators may submit an unlimited number of their students’ poems (one submission per student) for a $20 entry fee.
You do not need to be a member of the Poetry Society of America to submit to this award.
Checks should be made payable to the Poetry Society of America.
Poetry Society of America
Annual Award Submission
15 Gramercy Park
New York, NY 10003
Exposition Review is excited to announce that we’ll be opening submissions for our 2018 issue this Friday, September 15!
We accept fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and scripts for stage & screen, as well as visual art & comics. We also welcome experimental works and love hybrid forms! Submissions will be open through December 15, 2017.
The theme for this year is “Orbit.”
To be in orbit is to be in motion, set on a constant, circuitous course of action. It brings to mind celestial bodies and forces of nature, but we can see smaller orbits in our daily lives: the spheres we inhabit and the grooves we wear in the world around us. An orbit is the familiar: that which we seek to find and escape from.
There’s also an inherent tension in the idea that our path can be dictated by the gravitational pull of an other, whether that’s a planet, a person, or even an idea. It’s a force that draws you in and also keeps you at arm’s length: two entities circling each other with no end in sight.
And yet, an orbit holds the promise of being a part of something bigger than yourself, or of finding a new road to follow. There’s a sense of excitement and adventure—and that’s exactly what we want to see in your work.
We’re looking for stories about the distances we travel, even when we’re standing still. We want to read about the relationships and revolutions of the world and the people in it. Ultimately, we want narratives that are fully realized, pulling us deep into the universe you’ve created with your words and art.
We look forward to reading your submissions for Volume III: “Orbit.”
Before you put your work into our orbit, check out our submission page for specific guidelines and more details on our submission process. We accept all submissions via Submittable: