Susan Zakin Does Not Regret…What She Regrets is Talking to an Unethical Pseudo-Journalist on Twitter
The Hunter S. Thompson of Environmental Writing Feels the Heat in the Age of Trump
This is a story that starts with hair. A woman’s story. Hair is important to us. But it’s actually about freedom of speech and how that gets mashed up in digital life.
“I’m thinking of dyeing my hair again,” I said to my husband a few years ago. He’d mentioned that he liked me blonde, rather off-handedly, and I didn’t want to suggest I was bowing to the male gaze, Goddess forbid, so I added: “For professional reasons.”
He looked puzzled.
“Why?” he asked. “People respect you if you have grey hair.”
Did I mention that my husband is African? Kenyan, to be precise. Older people are listened to in Kenya. They’re respected. Hell, they’re even considered attractive.
“Have you been in America?” I said acidly. “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. 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 slamming in my face. I knew he sympathized; he was just in default drive, working off his own cultural assumptions.
This conversation came back to me a few weeks ago when the owner of a little magazine, a hairdresser-turned-entrepreneur, told me she was killing a story about our safari business. It had nothing 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.
According to her email — she didn’t have the integrity to call me on the phone — it was because I was old-fashioned. I didn’t know how to use social media correctly. To be specific, I was ironic. I’d been compared to Hunter S. Thompson, known for his caustic wit and hyperbole. My first book, Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement, launched a minor celebrity for me as the bad girl of environmental writing, an outlier in a genre usually considered earnest and humorless.
But I’d backed off from 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 may be onto something.) I met my husband, taught at a university in Senegal, and, yes, started a safari company dedicated to conservation.
These experiences left me impatient with identity politics. You think you have problems? Talk to my female student from Niger, whose sister was sold into marriage to an old man at fourteen, repeatedly raped by him, and finally convinced her parents to let her move back home.
Back in the U.S., I was shocked by the viciousness of public speech. I imagined the .01 percent watching with amusement as the Left formed its usual circular firing squad, arguing over word choices while hedge funds raked in the cash. I came to believe that 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 were denying my mother 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-Croatian, 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. Did I feel guilt over the structural inequalities that had produced differences between myself and my husband? Of course. Had I done more than I should have to redress that imbalance, to his detriment and mine, and to the marriage’s? Yes, that, too.
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 made irascible. 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 a nonprofit literary magazine I work for and told them to fire me.
I was busy, and mostly I ignored it. Sometimes, though, 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 turned out to be a liar. He was working on 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 eight 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 and 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.
Talk about being silenced.
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 the 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 month or so into this sartorial-editorial exchange, she offered to publish 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 using the article, she said.
“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. 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 made me think of Kristallnacht 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. I was a smartass New York kid who went west, did her homework, and came right out with 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 the 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. Universal human rights works just fine, a big umbrella we can all shelter under. Bernie Sanders was a master at this kind of unifying rhetoric. 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.
Service is what keeps us going. 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.
P.S. Joshua Foust closed his Twitter account, too, because of trolls. The “journalist” in question got a job with the Hollywood Reporter. Oh, yeah. Our safari company is www.cowgirlsandpirates.com.