Bitch. Moan. Whine. I certainly do a lot of that. Always have. The complaining probably started around the time my mother first pulled away her nipple. These days, though, there just seems to be more to “bitch, moan and whine” about; from the cumulative fallout of the unending pandemic, the new normal of war in Europe and the aftermath of Brexit and the Trump presidency to the burnout and sense of deflation I experience in my line of work as a newly promoted ‘Senior Lecturer’ whose recent and long-fought-for £8 a week pay increase feels more like a slap in the face than a patronising pat on the back for services rendered, albeit not without bitching.
Quit whining about that last one, you might well say; indeed, I try to remind myself that it is nothing compared to what others are suffering, possibly of necessity in the silence that does not necessarily translate into acquiescence. Seeing things in proportion – which is proper, according to some – or putting them into the perspective that, by definition, depends on your angle, tends to be more difficult when you feel ever more keenly that everything is related rather than being relative by default. When you are living in that fragile ecosystem of despair that some might deride as egocentricity, anything is apt to become everything, and it can weigh you down something awful.
“Bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and whine.” That is hardly a comprehensive, let alone compassionate, assessment of the voicing of dissatisfaction by your contemporaries, however motivated. It is a derision and dismissal of criticism as selfish, pointless and downright destructive. As the quotation marks indicate, that does not reflect my general views on disaffection.
In fact, those words – “Bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and whine” – were uttered in the 1980s by Clarence Thomas, now a US Supreme Court Justice. And they were voiced not in response to finicky folks rolling their eyes at just about anything – the kind of ‘why me’ injustices of our everyday – but to civil rights leaders who, in their rejection of the status quo, aim to address actual, momentous and seemingly insoluble inequalities.
“Bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and whine.” It is not the first time I am using those words as a title for a bit of commentary on things as I see them. The archaic and tone-deaf 2022 rulings of the United States Supreme Court regarding gun laws and abortion, the consequences they will have, and the precedent set by the decision to overthrow Roe v. Wade brought to mind my initial response to the nomination of Thomas – by President George H. W. Bush – to the Supreme Court.
The year was 1991, my first full year of living abroad after moving from Cologne, Germany to New York City. Deciding not to return to the dreaded fatherland after another prolonged visit to the metropolis I had been visiting pretty much annually since the mid 1980s, I embarked, grandiloquently speaking, on a liberal arts degree at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) – eventually disembarking, in 2004, with a PhD and a plane ticket to the UK, where I now reside and teach.
Back then, I could – and did – rely on the financial support of gay friends a generation my senior, while taking on whatever jobs I could get on the side, whether that meant cleaning apartments, caring for elderly residents in their Upper East Side homes, or being a dogwalker for actress Viveca Lindfors, whose confidence had been shaken by a slashing incident in 1990.
Back in the days when the shoulder pads were about to be discarded in favor of commodified grunge, I clung to the former like a make-believe Atlas, anxious as I was about everything from my immigration status to the Gulf War, the rise of nationalism, escalating racial tensions and the AIDS crisis, sexually inactive though I, a gay male in his twenties, was during the early to mid-1990s due to a lack of self-confidence and an uneasiness about the obligations to and motivations of those who supported me.
“… you are a worry-wart and see disaster lurking around the corner,” one of my professors at BMCC wrote in her comments on an essay assignment. She was right, which is precisely why I could not heed her advice to “stop worrying and enjoy what is happening now!” My writing assignments, for English classes in particular, often encouraged critical engagement with that evolving and not altogether joyful now.
It was Joe Distler, who, an online search tells me, is now teaching English in Paris but was – and still is – better known for running with the bulls in Pamplona, tasked me and my fellow students with commenting on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. I took the assignment by the proverbial horns; and here, in part, is what I had to say:
It is very hard to find a good judge, let alone a successor to the legendary Thurgood Marshall. However, when President Bush announced that he had found “the best person” for the job, it became obvious that the nomination was nothing but a political coup rather than a moral decision.
During my first year at college, my English was fairly limited, which resulted in arguments that were polemic rather than complex. I am not sure whether it was a lack of grasp on the language that made me choose the word “coup” when I might have meant “stunt”; but, historically speaking, “coup” also refers to an “act of touching an armed enemy in battle as a deed of bravery, or an act of first touching an item of the enemy’s in order to claim it.” Well, that puts a different spin on the matter – a reading I certainly did intend. “Clearly,” my essay continues,
there was need for an African-American as a replacement, to avoid racial tensions and to eliminate criticism from the Democrats, who might gain from any miscalculation in the upcoming elections in 1992. Thomas makes a very promising judge for the Bush administration for he is black but white at heart. He opposes the civil rights movement and is one member of the new generation of black conservatives who believe that they do not have to be Democrats because they are black.
The “black-but-white-at-heart” remark shows the limitations of my reasoning; but the line that follows expresses my misgivings about ambitious individuals who advance their careers by aligning themselves with their oppressors or, put less contentiously, with those who seek to absorb rather than embrace them. The next remarks, finger-wagging though they are, express my dismay at the socio-economic inequality and the resulting anger and violence I experienced in New York City during the recession:
In times of economic decline and social decay, US policy becomes increasingly reactionary. Maybe Nietzsche was right when he asserted that a society, especially a democratic society, produces and supports mediocrity rather than excellence. This could be one reason for the decline of the American Empire.
“In his mediocrity, Clarence Thomas is indeed the perfect puppet for the Bush administration,” I opined. “His ideas about “natural law,” abortion and religion are often vague, contradictory and sometimes even obscure.” Well, there is nothing vague or obscure about Thomas’s views these days. Little did I know then just how formidable and pernicious the man I called a Republican “puppet” would become.
“Only the Liberals strongly oppose Thomas’s nomination,” I wrote,
and they sought a way to “stop” him. They came up with Anita Hill. At this point it is very hard to tell whether this was merely a liberal counter attack, fabrications of a frustrated Feminist or a case of revenge. It was a pitiful showcase, in any event.
Now as then I am wary of methods employed to make the spectre of ideology manifest in a spectacle of politics, resulting in witch hunts by any other name. “The trial could have stopped Thomas,” I allowed, “but it is questionable whether his replacement would have been a ‘better’ choice because,” I argued rather vaguely in the passive voice, “certain ideas about the position and influence of the judge of the Supreme Court are being held that do no longer allow liberal thinking.”
That certainly holds true now: Supreme Court Justices are political animals expected to perform at the pleasure – apparently in perpetuity– not of the public but of the President responsible for their appointment.
“The liberal ideas and ideals,” I concluded, “are lost when a black person becomes – once again – a servant to a society that still fails to see beyond matters of complexion but rather remains stereotypical in the complex matter of social defects.”
All systems are defective; society is in need – and by and large capable – of improvement. Now, for the first time in US American history, the Supreme Court is taking away a right it had previously granted, thereby actively promoting the recrudescence of inequality. That should – but probably won’t – concern everyone whose rights may likewise be at stake, including those who insist on the right to bear arms without acknowledging that this does not mean the right to bear any kind of firearm unimagined by those who granted that right.
What we are witnessing in the US is history in the unmaking. In the face of such a threat to democracy, we must not stop the advocacy that reactionary folks might decry as opportunities to “bitch, moan and whine.” Those cries of outrage and anguish may well be the response to having been stripped of the right to bodily autonomy, to privacy and adequate health care at the very moment when challenging decisions need to be made about life and death – the cries of women who may now be forced to take matters into hands less equipped to carry out procedures that not simply take lives but that save them as well.
As the words repeated in Thomas’s outburst of “Bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and whine” remind us, what is threatened here – and perceived to be threatening – is gender equality and diversity in a world still largely made in the image of the heterosexual male. Take no rights granted for granted.