Tag Archives: loss

Wisdom From Harvey Fierstein

Sometimes, you stumble across wisdom in the least predictable places. 

Time Magazine recently had an interview with gay icon Harvey Fierstein,. The interview was triggered by the publication of Fierstein’s memoir, titled “I Was Better Last Night.” As you might expect from a writer known for his wit, the interview elicited some funny responses; for example, asked what had prompted him to write the memoir–what circumstances had led him to consider doing so–Fierstein replied, 

First, you arrange for a global pandemic. You clean your desk of all other garbage; then you look around the house for other things to do. I made five quilts. I walked the dog. And then the next thing—the only thing—I could possibly come up with, besides cleaning the refrigerator, which is nothing anybody ever wants to do, was to write my memoir.

The interview covered a number of more serious topics, several focused on Fierstein’s long history of activism on behalf of gay rights. But it was the following exchange that made me stop and reread both the question (in bold) and the answer.

You wrote about rehearsals for the Torch Song Trilogy, and a scene specifically where Estelle Getty took issue with a line from her character, when she tells her son, “It gets better.” She’s talking specifically about grief, but that phrase has become such a rallying cry for the LGBTQ community more broadly—and maybe too generally—in recent years. Do you think that’s been the case?

Whatever you survive becomes a triumph, right? And I think time, you know, does make things better. Does it bring somebody back to life? No. But makes it easier to take that breath without that incredible pain underneath. Do things get better politically just because time passes? No. You actually have to do the work. One thing that people don’t understand, and I don’t understand why they don’t understand, is that you can’t go backwards. Nothing goes backwards! If you want to go backwards in time, you’re just kidding yourself. Especially these days when you see this ‘Make America Great Again’ idiocy; I look at those people and what I see are these walking skeletons. Dead people. They’re not looking to the future, and if you’re not looking to the future you’re not alive. You are saying, I am no longer a force in the world. I am just a memory. And that’s no way to live.

This exchange highlighted the under-appreciated connection between the pain of loss and the utter uselessness of trying to reverse that loss. Reading it made me (marginally) more understanding of the people trying so desperately to return the country and the world to an earlier time that existed in their (very selective) memories.

Most of us who have reached a “certain age” have experienced the grief that comes when loved ones or friends of longstanding die, and we have no choice but to come to terms with the hole in our lives that results. Three years ago, I lost my best friend of 50 years, and Fierstein is exactly right when he says that “it gets better” is limited to the dulling of the pain, not its absence. 

He is definitely right when he points out what should be obvious: you can’t go back.

No matter how much you grieve–about a personal loss, about the disappearance of a social environment in which you felt comfortable–your grief, nostalgia and yearning won’t reverse what has happened. If you aren’t working on accepting changes you cannot undo, Fierstein is exactly right: you aren’t really living.

Reading the interview reminded me of my grandfather’s favorite saying: denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.

When people are unwilling to accept reality–when they are in denial–they are surrendering an important, even essential part of what makes us human. Acceptance doesn’t mean you don’t feel the pain of loss; that pain also makes us human. It does mean that–as Fierstein eloquently framed it–if you’re not looking to the future, if you’re not engaging with your environment as it actually exists and making decisions about how you will continue that engagement, you aren’t truly alive.

Fierstein’s observation made me think of that famous line from the movie “The Sixth Sense,” where the young boy says “I see dead people.” 

So does Fierstein. So do I. A lot of them.



It’s All About Status…

In 2017, Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute, published The End of White Christian America. He presented copious evidence that demographic change was eroding the hegemony of the White Protestant males who had exercised social–and often, legal– dominance since the founding of the United States. He also provided evidence that awareness of their impending loss of status explained  most of their political hysteria.

Last week, New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall revisited the issue of status, or more accurately, fear of its loss.

More and more, politics determine which groups are favored and which are denigrated.

Roughly speaking, Trump and the Republican Party have fought to enhance the status of white Christians and white people without college degrees: the white working and middle class. Biden and the Democrats have fought to elevate the standing of previously marginalized groups: women, minorities, the L.G.B.T.Q. community and others.

The ferocity of this politicized status competition can be seen in the anger of white non-college voters over their disparagement by liberal elites, the attempt to flip traditional hierarchies and the emergence of identity politics on both sides of the chasm.

Researchers have begun studying what we have come to recognize as one of the most powerful motivations of human behavior. That research tells us that perceptions of diminished status is a source of rage on both the left and right. Add American divisions over economic insecurity, geography and values, and that rage only deepens.

Status is different from resources and power, although possession of those assets certainly contributes to it. It is based on cultural beliefs rather than material wealth or position.

Edsall quoted a Stanford professor who studies the subject.

Status has always been part of American politics, but right now a variety of social changes have threatened the status of working class and rural whites who used to feel they had a secure, middle status position in American society — not the glitzy top, but respectable, ‘Main Street’ core of America. The reduction of working-class wages and job security, growing demographic diversity, and increasing urbanization of the population have greatly undercut that sense and fueled political reaction.

People convinced that their status is low tend to gravitate to “anti-establishment” and radical candidates on both the Left and Right. Those fearing loss of status are different. One Harvard researcher explains that people  drawn to right-wing populist positions and politicians, such as Trump, usually “sit several rungs up the socioeconomic ladder in terms of their income or occupation.”

My conjecture is that it is people in this kind of social position who are most susceptible to what Barbara Ehrenreich called a “fear of falling” — namely, anxiety, in the face of an economic or cultural shock, that they might fall further down the social ladder,” a phenomenon often described as “last place aversion.

Apparently, the more socially marginalized people are, the more likely they are to feel alienated from the country’s political system — and the more likely they are to support  radical parties.

Radical politicians on the left evoke the virtues of working people, whereas those on the right emphasize themes of national greatness, which have special appeal for people who rely on claims to national membership for a social status they otherwise lack. The “take back control” and “make America great again” slogans of the Brexit and Trump campaigns were perfectly pitched for such purposes.

Other researchers emphasize that populism and fear of losing status are not the same thing. Populist movements stress group cohesion and equality; dominance, they point out, leads to self-promotion and support for steep hierarchies. That said, the research confirms that it is almost exclusively right-wing political actors who actively campaign on the status issue. 

The research confirms that it is fear of losing status, not actual status, that is the key political motivator.

I was particularly struck by this observation from a researcher at Duke:

Those who cannot adopt or compete in the dominant status order — closely associated with the acquisition of knowledge and the mastery of complex cultural performances — make opposition to this order a badge of pride and recognition. 

Dismissing journalists as “enemies of the people,” denying the reality of climate change, and refusing to wear masks and engage in social distancing are all part and parcel of this opposition to “elitists.” 

Edsall’s column has much more detail on the research. It explains a lot of America’s current polarization. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us what we can or should do about it.