I’m a writer focused on feminism, politics, philanthropy, and culture. I've written for The Atlantic, The Nation, The Daily Beast, The American Prospect, Salon, and many more places. I've lamented the decline of American Girl Dolls, fought with Alan Dershowitz over free speech on college campuses, broken a story about the eviction of an artist collective in Bushwick, and documented the ongoing meme-ification of Hillary Clinton. My work has been picked up by The New York Times, New York Magazine, Jezebel, The Hairpin, and Buzzfeed, among others.
I am currently developing two book-length projects, one on the disconnect between feminism as a brand versus feminism as a political movement, the other on the influence of philanthropy on the division between public and private financing of the social good. The latter topic is the focus of my graduate research towards a Ph.D. in political science.
Alongside my academic and journalism careers, I have eight years of experience as a major gifts fundraising consultant, campaign director, and political organizer. I’ve also done extensive copywriting for fundraising and marketing purposes. Additionally, creating Hey Girl Happy Hannukah (the Jewish-holiday-themed Ryan Gosling photoblog) is among my proudest accomplishments to date.
You can find me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter (@justaschill) or email me at amybessschiller [at] gmail [dot] com.
Happy birthday to Michel Foucault and Feli Kuti, our two great theorists of discipline, violence, bodies and resistance.
A Sharply Worded Silence - Yom Kippur 5775
Even in my Rilke devotion, I still find exquisite poems like this one from Louise Gluck. Circular journeys, presence, music, timelessness, seeking a glimmer of home - I cannot imagine a better one for heading into Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur.
"Let me tell you something, said the old woman.
We were sitting, facing each other,
in the park at ___, a city famous for its wooden toys.
At the time, I had run away from a sad love affair,
and as a kind of penance or self punishment, I was working
at a factory, carving by hand the tiny hands and feet.
The park was my consolation, particularly in the quiet hours
after sunset, when it was often abandoned.
But on this evening, when I entered what was called the Contessa’s Garden,
I saw that someone had preceded me. It strikes me now
I could have gone ahead, but I had been
set on this destination; all day I had been thinking of the cherry trees
with which the glade was planted, whose time of blossoming had nearly ended.
We sat in silence. Dusk was falling,
and with it came a feeling of enclosure
as in a train cabin.
When I was young, she said, I liked walking the garden path at twilight
and if the path was long enough I would see the moon rise.
That for me was the great pleasure: not sex, not food, not worldly amusement.
I preferred the moon’s rising, and sometimes I would hear,
at the same moment, the sublime notes of the final ensemble
of The Marriage of Figaro. Where did the music come from?
I never knew.
I would find myself at my front door, staring at it,
barely able to make out, in darkness, the glittering knob.
It was, she said, a great discovery, albeit my real life.
But certain nights, she said, the moon was barely visible
and the music never started. A night of pure discouragement.
And still the next night I would begin again, and often all would be well.
I could think of nothing to say. This story, so pointless as I write it out,
was in fact interrupted at every stage by trance-like pauses
and prolonged intermissions, so that by this time night had started.
Ah the capacious night, the night
so eager to accommodate strange perceptions. I felt that some important thing
was about to be entrusted to me, as a torch is passed
from one hand to another in a relay.
My sincere apologies, she said.
I had mistaken you for one of my friends.
And she gestured toward the statues we sat among,
heroic men, self-sacrificing saintly women
holding granite babies to their breasts,
Not changeable, she said, like human beings.
I gave up on them, she said
But I never lost my taste for circular voyages.
Correct me if I’m wrong.
Above our heads, the cherry blossoms had begun
to loosen in the night sky, or maybe the stars were drifting,
drifting and drifting and falling apart, and where they landed
new worlds would form.
Soon afterward I returned to my native city
and was reunited with my former lover.
And yet increasingly my mind returned to this incident,
studying it from all perspectives, each year more intensely convinced,
despite the absence of evidence, that it contained some secret.
I concluded finally that whatever message there might have been
was not contained in speech — so, I realized, my mother used to speak to me.
Her sharply worded silences cautioning me and chastising me.—
and it seemed to me I had not only returned to my lover
but was not returning to Contessa’s Garden
in which the cherry trees were still blooming
like a pilgrim seeking expiation and forgiveness,
so I assumed there would be, at some point,
a door with a glittering knob
but when this would happen and where I had no idea.”
Zosia Mamet’s Muffins and Neoliberalism
Sure, I’ll put on the broken record: you’re so close, Zosia, and you play the only character on GIRLS that I actually like, so I would love to be buds. You’re totally right that we should not have to be superwomen and do everything. But have you wondered “why” exactly so many women are so hard-core ambitious? It’s because if we don’t achieve then we have no resources or bargaining power when we want to downsize our life ambitions. If we’re not superstar employees then forget about any kind of parental leave, or money to afford child care, or reserves for the future in case of health or other emergency - so taking a break to start that cafe in Vermont is a super-risky move. That’s what’s up with leaning in. It’s a coping mechanism for a harsh and abhorrently unsupportive economic structure. Please get out of the trap that this is a catfight. This is a women-on-neoliberalism-issue. Let’s discuss in person sometime - you can make muffins, I’ll spot your coffee.
I can only assume this is D Brat’s victory song after beating Eric Cantor.
So, is Beyonce a Terrorist?
As someone with a women’s studies degree who has created a Beyonce-themed Passover meme, I am pleased to provide my expert analysis regarding renowned feminist bell hooks calling the singer a “terrorist.”
Spoiler alert: I do agree the Beyonce is a form of terrorist. And I think bell hooks is wrong.
Backing up, this incident during a conversation with Janet Mock, Shola Lynch and Marci Blackman entitled "Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body." The topic on the table was Beyoncé’s recent Time magazine cover where she is anointed the “most powerful person in the world.” For the record, if we are measuring soft power, then yeah, the woman who not only popularized the “visual album” concept but did so in a revolutionary secret album release that crushed sales records, and in turn generated months of discussion about race, gender, sexuality, power, art and commerce - I’d say that’s pretty powerful right there.
hooks disagrees. Her take is that a woman displaying her body and sexuality for money is a tool of the music industry and complicit in the promotion of unattainable beauty ideals: "from my deconstructive point of view… she’s colluding in the construction of herself as a slave … it’s not a liberatory image."
As Roxane Gay puts it, “[hooks] assumes the worst of people and the best of the oppressive patriarchy.”
If we’re talking about female sexuality, then yes, hooks is making a counterproductive point. But instead of reiterating arguments about the political significance of performing sexuality, hooks could have opened up a crucial conversation here, about how Beyonce cheerleads for not only gender norms but economic norms, namely, capitalist competition and work ethic.
When I saw the headline about this incident, I hoped it would be just this interesting. If you’re determined to provoke by using the word “terrorist,” don’t apply it towards flaunting one’s beauty and reinforcing standards of ***flawless - ness. It’s so tired. How are we STILL just talking about aesthetics and representation and feelings when there is serious MONEY and IMPERIAL VIOLENCE on the line?
If you really want to use the term ‘terrorist’ in describing Beyonce, you could make a compelling argument. You could say, Beyonce sells a fake vision of feminist triumph - that girls run the world - that pre-empts a more radical urgency in fighting for changes that would truly allow women to sustain themselves and flourish in all of their pursuits. You could easily say she is a cooler, blacker Sheryl Sandberg, celebrating capitalism’s opportunities for those able and willing to work nonstop (from childhood, like her?), teaching that domination over others is a goal worth striving for. Heck, B is one of the spokespeople for #BanBossy, a Sandberg-driven campaign that has many quite disappointed that the answer to women’s economic advancement is not, say, universal child care or parental leave, but instead just acting like a bigger asshole for more money - a message that in fact you would be well within your rights to locate in Beyonce lyrics.
You could point to Beyonce’s $50 million endorsement deal with Pepsi, arguing that multinational beverage corporations are already forcing the privatization of water supplies in the developing world, and to align oneself with this company is to be a terrorist.
For me, I believe a work of art that illustrates full black female subjectivity is a worthy contribution to the world. I also believe Beyonce has chosen to commodify herself and has done so with great skill and panache. She’s a terrorist in the way that we’re all terrorists - we cause harm to other people far away to preserve the lifestyle that we’re committed to. She happens to have the biggest mic at the moment and is using it to drape violent economics in the language of feminism - just like many other white feminists. You wanna call that terrorism, ok, let’s have that conversation.
In other words: If you’re gonna hate, don’t hate her because she’s beautiful. Hate her because she’s a capitalist.
In which I agree with the president of the American Enterprise Institute.
The skylight. The first million. The mezuzah. I have a repertoire of stories from my rewarding career in fundraising, each reliving a moment where money, history, sacrifice, and trust met in that happy equilibrium we call a “gift.” Some of them revolve around a special naming opportunity, some were the first major gift from a family just starting to unfurl the full wingspan of their prosperity. All of these moments followed months of soul-searching, cold numbers warmed by evocative memories, tough questions softening into dreams for the future.
When I read Arthur C. Brooks’ guest op-ed in the New York Times, “Why Fundraising Is Fun,” I found myself smiling in agreement with his depiction of the fundraiser’s craft. He and I share a love of “the real magic of fund-raising”:
It creates meaning…fund-raisers facilitate an alchemy of virtue: They empower those with financial resources to convert the dross of their money into the gold of a better society.
I know what it’s like to tear up when someone makes a special gift, the way that gesture validates months of hustle. But that sentimental magic masks the real trick Brooks is playing, which is shifting the domain of social change away from political conflict and into the non-profit sector, where the wealthy enjoy a home field advantage.
Brooks is no monkish scrabbler, eking out a budget for a soup kitchen or domestic violence shelter. He’s the president of the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank devoted to, basically, the right of wealthy people being able to make, retain, and spend their money however they see fit. No surprise, then, that he emphasizes the psychological benefits that rich people’s generosity affords to themselves.
Charitable giving improves what psychologists call “self-efficacy,” one’s belief that one is capable of handling a situation and bringing about a desired outcome. When people give their time or money to a cause they believe in, they become problem solvers. Problem solvers are happier than bystanders and victims of circumstance.
Indeed, philanthropy does underscore a donors’ sense of efficacy. For starters, the baseline power dynamic favors donors at every step of the process. But the practice of philanthropy to aggressively reshape established institutions is a more recent extension of Brooks’ vaunted self-efficacy. One need only look at the flood of spending by the Walton family on alternatives to public school education. This past weekend, the New York Times documented their influence on the education field as a whole, using charter schools as launchpads for an agenda to undermine teachers’ unions and the public nature of schooling.
We shouldn’t be surprised by such “efficacy.” If you’ve built and sustained the Wal-Mart empire – complete with squashing unionization efforts, squeezing suppliers, undermining competitors, depressing wages, denying health benefits to employees, and flouting employment discrimination laws – I’m not that concerned with your empowerment to solve what you perceive to be problems, by whatever means you see fit.
So color me equally unsurprised that the president of AEI celebrates philanthropy as a way to encourage deference to these self-actualized elites. Yet his manipulation runs deeper still. According to Brooks, philanthropy takes the “dross” of money and transforms it into noble action. But what if you lack wealth to begin with, and have only action at your disposal?
…with millions of 501(c)(3)s and houses of worship nationwide, no one needs to wait on the sidelines and hope that politicians will marshal government power in service of their priorities.
Again, unsurprising that the head of the AEI views the expansion of government as an increase in passive dependency, Q.E.D. Brooks’ chutzpah is in the assumption that politics takes place away from citizens, who remain “on the sidelines.”
Forget voting, lobbying, organizing (you know, stuff anyone can do). Donating to and fundraising for 501(c)(3)s are the real proactive forms of creating a better world. Despite his paeans to virtue, the only people transcending the shackles of money are the people with so much of it to spare. Brooks doesn’t want philanthropy to help us transcend money. He wants it to be so glorified that we forget the other levers of power at our disposal - winding up with that old conservative bugaboo, a cycle of dependency. For all his talk about self-efficacy, Brooks is completely in favor of dependency on the whims and self-satisfaction of the elite. Ta-da! It’s feudalism!
If this isn’t the REALEST THO
America Is Becoming Jurassic Park, says New York Times and me
Say it with me, kids: Jurassic Park teaches us suspicion towards scientific research funded exclusively by the superrich.
As I’m sure you recall, JP’s sole funder was John Hammond, the billionaire CEO of a bioengineering company, acting out of a combination of noble inquiry and totally misguided ego. I’m not necessarily equating oceanic research vessels with an island dystopia overtaken by murderous T-Rexes, although Ray Dalio “lending his mega-yacht to hunts for the giant squid” does have sequel potential.
The larger issue at hand is the opposing trajectories of public versus private financing for scientific research, as reported in this weekend’s New York Times. The piece, “Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science,” examines the context of how and why more private money is flowing into scientific research. Refreshingly, it also explores the downsides of private support, and therefore private control, having a larger role in fields that are intended to support the social good.
The reporter, William J. Broad, manages to do something I’ve found challenging in the past: explain skepticism about philanthropy writ large, not just charity integrity and effectiveness. Conceptually, there’s a clear contrast between publicly-funded basic research, wherein projects are chosen based on urgent health problems and most at-risk populations, and privately-funded research, which is often more specialized based on the aims of the individual donors. In racial terms this means prioritizing research into melanoma versus sickle-cell anemia. Sometimes the comparisons are even more whimsical: A $35 M telescope to map the cosmos, as funding for basic research at the National Institute of Health and elsewhere was cut by nearly 25% in the past year.
Science requires a lot of up-front spending, while its benefits may result in saving lives rather than recouping dollars. There are dozens of ways to conclude the headline, “Billionaires With Big Ideas Privatizing American [BLANK],” but scientific research is the perfect microcosm in which to examine the public-private funding tensions.
Any critique of philanthropy’s influence on the public good has a lot of threads, which can be broken out from the Times piece itself:
- We have no idea how much money is being spent or where it goes
- Philanthropy is ultimately no match for government support
- On the other hand, if you’re looking to gut government spending, now you have an excuse
- Elite donors support elite institutions, which may already be flush with cash
- Scientists have to spend time becoming major gift officers
Then there are the critiques that don’t get as much play in the piece, but still play critical roles:
- What’s the opportunity cost of forfeiting billions in tax revenue to loopholes and deductions, only to have it channeled into philanthropy at the donors’ discretion?
- How does philanthropy reinforce the power of private wealth-holders to influence public policy?
Most interesting to me is when Broad writes of “philanthropy in the age of the new economy “ and “its individualistic, entrepreneurial creed,” with donors who pride themselves on taking risks the government will not consider.
Philanthropy taking on a larger role in scientific research should complement, not undermine or even compensate, for publicly-funded research. When we talk not just about the amount of money and its direction but the allegedly superior research methods allowed by privately funding, using terms like individual, entrepreneurial, and impatient,” we reinforce the idea that ultimately, private capital is more effective at curing social ills than the government. That’s a dangerous corner to round – lurking on the other side are the raging velociraptors of capitalism, looking for any opportunity to expand their power, no matter how cute their just-hatched babies are.