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I’m a Democratic Socialist – but I repeat myself; Voting as a Socialist Act

In PeaceAble, Politics, Uncategorized on August 8, 2018 at 12:16 pm

In all societies, power moves upward, from the masses of people who individually hold little power to the powerful few who collect and hoard whatever power they can extract from the many.
The core misunderstanding a great many people have about socialism is that it is simply an economic system in which money is redistributed from the wealthy to the poor. But money is just one form of power, and socialism more broadly is a philosophical system that advocates for the redistribution of all forms of power from those who hoard it to those who need to use it for their survival, as a way to guarantee a more equitable distribution of resources.
Every time a democracy holds an election, it is a deliberate act of redistributing power.
When a voter enters the polling both, he brings with him all his power. When he chooses a candidate and casts a vote he gives a small amount of his power to the candidate. That power, combined with the power contained by all those who vote for the candidate becomes the candidate’s power. If the candidate loses the election she can use that collected power as credibility to continue to argue for the policies she supports (and for which people supported her). If she wins the election she can apply the collected power to directly seek to influence policy in her elective position.
It’s important to note that the power the elected official has collected through votes does not obligate her to use that power exactly as the individual voters might have hoped. Each voter is only transferring a small amount of power, and individual voters may have different and conflicting ideas and needs. And, just as spending a few bucks at your favorite store does not give you any ability to tell the store owner how to spend his money, your individual vote doesn’t give you any special power to control the actions of the elected official. When you voted, however, you didn’t give up all your power, only a small piece of it, and that piece will be coming back to you at the next election.
Also, you still retain significant power once you realize that it isn’t about you, but about all of us. You gave your power to a candidate during an election, now you can give it to a cause, a movement, or an idea. Every time you contribute to an organization working for something you believe in, you use your power. Every time you choose to shop at a particular business or to withhold your patronage, you use your power. Every time you get into a discussion with your friends and acquaintances about something happening in the world and find your own mind or someone else’s changing, even a bit, you have used your power. Every time you step up in defense of those who cannot defend themselves, to speak for those whose voices are not being heard, you use your power. If there is a blue wave in November, it won’t just be because a lot of people used their power at the polls, but because a lot of people have been using their power all along in both large and small ways.
Power, like every valuable thing, isn’t dependent on exactly how much one has of it, but how that compares to what others have. You are only as power rich as others are power poor. The powerful few do not, of course, want to give up their power. They will hoard whatever they can of it. Voter suppression is theft of power. Voter apathy is the squandering of power. Fewer people voting means there are fewer people to convince that they should give a candidate their power. If a party sees that a minority of voters agree with them on the issues, but can control which people don’t vote they can make it more likely that those who do vote will be those who will give them power. And if significant numbers of people voluntarily don’t vote, the party or candidate that wins assumes these non-voter’s power as well. It’s like a power tax. If you don’t vote for anything, then it’s assumed that you support those who won. After all, if you didn’t support them, you would have voted against them.
Polls show over and over again that when it comes to some of the most important and most party-line divisive issues this country is facing, issues like abortion and women’s health, income and wealth inequity, gun laws and regulation, health care, Social Security and Medicare, the social safety net, there is significant agreement about what needs to be done, if not how to do it. So, if the people who have been elected aren’t doing those things, then we need to exert our power to elect those who will.
Power is interchangeable, too. Those with a significant amount of one kind of power can use it to acquire and protect other forms power. Thus, political power can provide access to wealth and vice-versa. Someone like David Koch or Sheldon Adelson or, to be fair, George Soros, can exert enormous power all by himself, but the rest of us have to organize, we have to work together, we have to find common ground and common purpose.
We have to vote. Every time. No exceptions.
And we have to stay involved. All the time. In between elections, not just every two or four years, not just about who is going to be President, but who is going to sit on our school boards or decide our zoning or whether the town needs a new pickup truck or some new textbooks.
Doing that doesn’t start after the parties have decided who their candidates are going to be. It doesn’t start by deciding that your only choice is the lesser of two evils. It starts when you understand that you have power and that you are unconsciously giving away that power every day; and you decide to stop doing that.
If this is to be a government of, by, and for the people, then the people have to be involved. Those who represent us are spending our collective power. It is up to us, then, to keep letting them know how we want that power spent, and give our power to those who will listen.

The Learned Hypocrisy of Being Human

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble, Uncategorized on July 30, 2018 at 10:44 am

To be human is to live in contradiction.
Perfect consistency is impossible for us. We think too much; we feel too much; we believe too much. We invented philosophy and science, and art, and morality. And every time we think that these have given us an answer that is final, that is absolute, that we can rely on, that is true, the world changes and we change and the answers have to change as well.
But change is hard, so we cling as long as possible to the old truths, accepting only what in our pain and our grief and our fear we can no longer deny; and contorting ourselves to make everything fit. We shake our heads in disbelief at our own contradictions, and label others’ inconsistencies as hypocrisy.
But it’s really just all of us being human.
I just read something that asked the question, “How could we go so abruptly from Barack Obama to Donald Trump?” How could the same country elect an erudite, scholarly, compassionate and thoughtful leader, then replace him with a crude, anti-intellectual, self-aggrandizing, impulsive one? Which of these very opposite men really represents who we are?
The answer is, of course, that they both do.
We have evolved into creatures who deal with the natural conflicts and dangers of the world by contriving to make them more contentious and more dangerous. There are real solutions to the real problems of the world. There are more than sufficient resources. But we allow our worst traits, our basest instincts, our superstitions and prejudices and fear to rule us; we hoard our resources instead of using them, we reject comprehensive solutions to complex problems in favor of simplistic analyses and short-sighted solutions. We proclaim our desire for peace and understanding, we pray for the relief of suffering and ask why we can’t all just get along; but we refuse to do what is necessary to achieve those things. If we can’t see a way to fix something right now, for all time, without any sacrifice or compromise on our part, we tell ourselves that no solution exists at all.
We are simultaneously all that is good in the world and all that is evil. And every choice we make is a choice to turn in the direction of one or the other. Our moral compass is broken and we have lost our ability to find our way in the wilderness.
We are polarized because we have made a choice to declare ourselves only half of who we are, and to further assert that our chosen half of this bifurcated self is the only acceptable truth, the only reality.
The contradictions remain, of course, but rather than acknowledge them and try to understand how they make us whole, we either deny them or tie ourselves in knots trying to fit them into the incomplete self we cling to.
We do not live linear lives. Our stories are told first in stream of consciousness, and we try to understand who we are by rewriting the stories until they make sense; but each story needs to make sense on its own as well as finding a place in the whole anthology of our lives, and we need to forget so much to make that happen.
I am a man and a male. How can I change the normative misogyny and chauvinism of the culture unless I can acknowledge that it lives within me? I can’t remove it from my experience, from the teachings that shaped me. It’s there. It always will be. But when I allow myself to see it I am better able to see my way forward; so that there may come a time when we will have raised a generation that never learned it in the first place. I’m not a feminist because I have never seen the feminine as less, but because I have, and I am working to change that in me as well as in the society.
I come most directly from pink-skinned European ancestors. How can I change the normative xenophobia and racism of the culture unless I acknowledge that I carry within me the same learned fear of the other, of the different, that I wish to change? I don’t seek racial justice and equality because I have never felt afraid, but because I have, and I’m working to change that in me as well as in the society.
I am cisgender and heterosexual. How can I change the normative homophobia of the culture unless I acknowledge that I have feared and felt shamed by the feminine in myself, that I have questioned my own capacity for intimacy, both emotional and physical, with both women and men? I don’t fight for the humanity of those who are homosexual, or bisexual, or transgendered, or gender non-conforming, or to allow everyone to love whomever they love because I was never told that my feminine was weakness and abomination, but because I was; and I’m trying to change that in myself as well in the society.
If we are going to tell our stories authentically and honestly and make it possible for others to do the same, then we cannot forget, cannot leave out, the parts that make us contradictory, inconsistent, and even sometimes hypocritical.
There is no high road or low road; there is only the path we have walked thus far, with its hills and valleys, its twists and turns and detours, its dark passages and glorious vistas; for there is no way forward except from where we are right now.

What’s Holding You Back?

In PeaceAble, Politics on June 22, 2018 at 10:57 am

During the last election, there were people who said that if Donald Trump was elected they would leave the country. Others said that if Hillary Clinton was elected they would leave. Of course, very few of them intended to leave and even fewer made any effort to go.
Why would they? How would the election of either candidate have affected the comfort and privilege of their lives sufficiently to cause them to give any of it up.
So, I am going to ask you to step back from the current reality of your life for a moment and try to imagine a different life. How bad would things have to be for you?
What level of poverty or oppression would you have to endure?
How much would you need to fear for your own life or the lives of your children?
What level of violence on the part of criminals or your own government would cause you to flee?
Now imagine that you are a resident of Florida and the only place you could get to where you might be safe is Canada. But you can no longer just put your passport in your pocket and drive there, passing a charming border guard with a slight French accent who tells you to have a nice day and enjoy your visit. Instead, you have to save up, out of your meager salary, giving up some of the essentials of day-to-day survival, six months’ or a year’s salary or income in order to pay a smuggler to get you across the entire continent and over the border in secret.
And imagine that the smuggler might be just as dangerous, just as likely to rob or rape or kill you as any of the gangs or government thugs you are fleeing. Imagine that it means you will likely suffer extremes of heat or cold, of hunger, of lack of shelter, of illness; and there will be no relief or assistance. Imagine that the journey means risking your life.
Finally, imagine that you have heard that when you get to the border you will be treated as a dangerous criminal rather than as a refugee. You may be arrested and your children taken away by force or deception, and you might never see them again nor know what fate you have brought them to. You may be sent home, to the place you have fled, into the clutches of your worst fears, your ugliest nightmares.
Now go back to the questions we began with. Knowing these things, how much worse, how much more dangerous, more oppressed, more unbearable would your life have to be to get you on the move?
Our government would have you believe that cages are summer camp; that it is a simple matter of law and these people are, by definition, criminals; that the issue is not their humanity, not what they have suffered; they would have you believe that we are the real victims here, that we must protect ourselves from the other.
If compassion for the human beings at our border, and disgust or outrage at the way our government is treating them is not enough; then perhaps you need to move to empathy. Put yourself, just for a moment, into their lives. Step away from the assumptions and expectations of your current reality and imagine one that would lead you to do what they have done.
And while you’re at it, step back from your assumptions and expectations of the rights and privileges of our constitutional government and imagine that you have become the Jew in pre-war Germany. Imagine that we have seen the rise of a fascist, dictatorial, white-nationalist government. And imagine, because you must, that we are almost there. What do you imagine you will be able and willing to do about that?

Media and Murder: Why “fixing” violence in popular entertainment won’t stop mass shootings, but we may want to do it anyway.

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble, Politics on February 28, 2018 at 12:39 pm

 

In the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting there has been a new round of discussions about how to prevent such tragedies.  And one of the ideas being pressed by people who really don’t want to talk about things like gun control is the old claim that we need to do something about violent video games and movies.

 

The available evidence, however suggests two seemingly contradictory ideas: first, violence in video games and movies (or any other media) does not cause people to commit mass murder; second, we should nonetheless work to reduce the amount of graphic violence in entertainment media.

 

The idea that video games or movies are to blame seems to surface only when the killer is a teenager or very young adult.  The average age of U.S. mass shooters, however, is 35.  And, although the average age of video game users is around 31, the largest number (29%) of users are under 18; but that percentage is not significantly higher than 18-35 (27%) or 50+ (26%).  In addition, only 20% of video games are “shooter” games, and as video game sales have increased significantly, violent crime rates have remained steady or shown decreases.  And even in individual cases, there has never been any clear link between the actions of any mass shooter and his consumption of violent media.  In other words, there is no evidence that suggests the use of violent video games or watching violence in films or on TV has any causative relationship to mass shootings.

 

Most media studies seem to suggest that entertainment reflects popular attitudes and serves to reinforce them, but does not directly cause them. Think of it this way: if you are going to make a movie or design a game that will appeal to as large a segment of the population as possible, you won’t try to change what they want, you will try to discover what they already want and give them more of it.  In other words, people aren’t expressing themselves violently because popular entertainment is violent; popular entertainment is violent because people are expressing themselves that way.  And there are a great many social and cultural factors involved in that. 

 

It has long been observed that movies, in particular, reflect the times in which they are made.  During World War II, for example, Hollywood made a lot of movies showing the heroism of our fighting forces, the evils of our enemies, and the courage of Americans on the home front.  Following the Vietnam conflict, an unpopular war, there were a lot of films that showed the horrors of war, the physical and psychological effects of war on both troops and the general populace.  When Ronald Reagan was elected and the country seemed to be shifting back in a more conservative direction, we saw more movies about the cold war and home-town heroes rising up to defend against Soviet invasion, and movies that revised the Vietnam narrative and the idea of the super-soldier.  As things improved and the cold war ended, film began to reflect more positively on human relationships.  But since 9/11 amid renewed fears of terrorism and attack, we have seen a great many more movies about superheroes and the military, with ever increasing amounts of violence.  When people are afraid, Hollywood gives them superheroes of all kinds.

 

But there is in that realization cause for concern.  If the violence of our entertainments is a reflection of who we are, is this who we want to be?  And what is the danger in that?

 

One lesson of the women’s movement and its attempts to deal with misogyny in American culture has been that media is extremely important in the reinforcement of cultural norms, and that culture changes much more slowly than social awareness or changes in law or individual behavior.  Much has changed with respect to the role of women in the workplace, but events of the last two years have shown that the culturally normative idea that women exist subservient to the power and fantasies and physical needs of men remains firmly in place.  And just as the cultural norms cling to archaic views of men and women, it also clings to normative fantasies about the military, American exceptionalism, white supremacy, and violence as a solution to problems of violence.

 

American culture continues to tell us two things of relevance here.  First, it tells white, heterosexual, Christian, American males that they have reason to be afraid, primarily of the “other.”  And, second, it continues to try to frame the solutions to that fear in fantasies of superheroes and militaristic violence, weapons of enormous destruction, and personal heroism.  Notice, as something of an aside, that greater awareness of the ubiquity of violence against women has coincided with an increase in the number of movies involving female superheroes, females in the military, and female characters equal to men in their capacity for violence.  Our culture, as reflected in our popular entertainment, values the capacity for violence as a measure of our ability to respond to our fears.

 

The graphic and excessive violence of popular media shows us, in other words, that we have a much deeper problem of violence embedded in The American culture, and we need to address that.  So, what can we do?  How do we change the culture?

 

Media in America are profit driven.  They respond to what media consumers tell them they want.  If we tell them, through our purchase of video games, our attendance at movies, our TV habits, that we want more militarism, more police action, more superheroes, more personal heroism, more graphic depictions of more violent responses to conflict, more reinforcement of our fears about those who are different from us; then that is what  we will get, and we can expect that there will be more and more incidents of people trying to solve their problems by taking large, extremely deadly weapons to places where they can kill as many people as possible.  There is no reason, except the public’s appetite for it, that superhero films, or vigilante films, or action video games need to show scenes of extremely graphic, extremely destructive violence.  If the public were to decide, in large enough numbers, that they no longer want to be told that the solution to violence is more and greater violence; if they were to stop paying good money to go to the latest big-budget superhero blockbuster; if they were to not go out to get the latest version of Grand Theft Auto; then the media would stop making those things.

 

But that’s a hard thing to do.  Most of the people I know really love the latest dark manifestations of Marvel fantasy characters.  They like a good action movie with lots of enormous guns being fired, lots of big explosions going off, and lots of hugely muscled heroes killing lots of ugly, despicable villains.  And real cultural change would require us to give some of that up.  We would have to dial it down.  We would have to start playing games that require more nuanced solutions, we would have to start patronizing films, even superhero and military films, that require less graphic on-screen violence to arrive at a climax.

 

It is a myth that watching violence purges us of violent feelings.  Do you leave a violent game or a violent movie thinking, “wow, that’s great; now I don’t feel like I need to do that in real life,” or do you leave thinking, “I am so energized, so pumped up, that I think I could (or wish I could) be a hero like that in real life”? 

 

There is no single solution to the problem of violence and the increase in the kind of mass murder we have witnessed in Parkland, in Las Vegas, and in so many other of our schools, our malls, our concert venues, our churches and our public spaces.  We need a comprehensive approach that combines a variety of strategies.  Most of those strategies are well known, but cannot work in isolation from one another.  Certainly, passing a lot of new laws and regulations about violence in entertainment won’t make a huge difference by itself.  But all of these things can make a difference if we begin to take a hard look at how our culture, through it’s entertainment, its other public media, its politics and its policies, reinforces the idea that our problems can be solved by more and greater violence.

 

As consumers of public media and popular entertainment we can change the culture if we have the will to do it.  It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy, but long term effective solutions rarely are.  What ideas about violence are you helping to reinforce by how you spend your entertainment dollar and your leisure time?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Could It Happen Here?

In PeaceAble, Politics on February 19, 2018 at 11:40 am

After yet another mass shooting like that in Parkland, Florida, last week, there are always the same responses. But I’m not talking about the calls for banning certain guns or the calls to arm even more people; I’m not talking about the thoughts and prayers; and I’m not talking about those who want more locks and scanners and cameras and armed security guards; though I will show a connection in a bit.
I’m talking about the “how could it happen here” response.
Why are people always so surprised that the same violence that has happened in so many other places is possible where they live?
The reason is simple. We need to believe that all kinds of bad things happen to other people, and (as the President suggested in his first reaction to the shooting) that the victims share some responsibility for what happened. There must be something different, we tell ourselves, about those people or those places where these things occur.
The reality, unfortunately, is that the difference more and more seems to be only that it hasn’t happened here . . . yet.
But the response is an indication of several problems with how we approach serious issues and tragic events.
First, it is an expression of unconscious assumptions of privilege and specialness. It suggests that there are places where we might expect such things to happen, even believe that it is acceptable for them to happen there. People are currently harking back to the Columbine shootings of 1999, but that was not the first time there had been a shooting in an American school. In fact, in January 1989, a lone gunman using an AK-47 killed five children and wounded 29 in Stockton, California. From 1992-1999 there were more than two hundred homicides in school shootings in the U.S.

What changed with Columbine was the erroneous perception that those sorts of things only happened in cities like New York or Chicago, and mainly among groups of non-white, poor populations. Columbine brought it into a middle class community in middle America. The other thing that happened was that the television age caught up with the shootings. Columbine was an instance of children shooting children, there was no obvious cause or reason for it, and the news media, reinforced by the rise of twenty-four hour cable news, ran with the story.
Second, it suggests that there is some way to isolate or protect ourselves from the things that are happening to others. After Columbine, schools started installing metal detectors in schools. Since then, we have seen the imposition a host of security protocols, installation of a variety electronic devices, and the introduction of both armed and unarmed security and police. But the number of incidents, the number of deaths per incident, and the deadliness of the weapons have all increased. What we have not seen is any real attempt to understand why these things happen or to deal with the real problems. We need to understand that turning our schools into prisons and fortresses or arming ourselves to the teeth won’t stop the carnage.
Third, the response suggests that there is some moment in time, some singular incident, that will finally mobilize us to do something, anything, to prevent these things; though there is no consensus as to what that might be. While I commend the actions of Parkland students to organize a national walk-out, to call out the NRA and politicians who offer platitudes instead of solutions, I have difficulty hoping that these actions will prove ultimately effective in making the Parkland students, as expressed by student Emma Gonzalez, remembered as the last students to die in a mass shooting at a school. If Columbine led only to more security and no long-term solutions, if Sandy Hook didn’t lead to lasting change, why should this? As long as people believe that it won’t happen here, and only do what they think will protect themselves, lasting change won’t happen. Until every community, especially those that have not yet suffered such a tragedy, can come out in forced to demand change, it won’t happen. Until people stop waiting for it to happen to them before they demand change, it won’t happen.
It isn’t unreasonable for people to be shocked when events hit close to home. We have been far too accustomed since at least the 1950’s duck-and-cover drills to living in fear. Far too much of our national life is lived in fear, far too many of our national policies are motivated by fear, and far too much of what we are sold by both politicians and corporations is based on fear. Part of the shock of these events is not that we thought we were safe, but that we feared we weren’t; and our fears have been realized. But to find our way to effective solutions to the things that divide us, that make us afraid, that move so many to violence we need to be fearless. We need to dare to stand up and stand out, to take to the streets, to make our voices heard. And we must do this before it affects us directly, before we become directly victims. We need to understand that we are all already victims. Our society is already a victim, our democracy is already a victim, our way of life is already a victim. And we must stand up to the forces that tell us to be quiet.
Instead of asking ourselves, “How could this happen here, to us?”, we should be asking ourselves, “How do we keep it from happening anywhere, to anybody?” But the answer to that question will require a whole lot more than just banning a few weapons or building some new defenses.

Uncle War and Sister Peace

In PeaceAble on September 22, 2017 at 7:18 am

Yesterday, September 21, was the International Day of Peace. Did you know that? Did you care? We’ve had one every year since 1981, but I’m not surprised if you missed it.
Why is it that we have such a hard time not just celebrating the ideal of a peaceful world, but even acknowledging it? I think there are two basic reasons.
First, when we talk about Peace we really have no idea what we are collectively talking about. War is clear. There’s an enemy, there are battles, there is clear and sometimes horrifying sacrifice, there is victory or defeat, and we have simple and uncomplicated ways to identify the heroes and villains.
And in this age of seemingly endless War, most often for vague political reasons seeking ill-defined and often highly deceptive goals, we are getting to know War as an old friend, as that troublesome relative who sits at the table and says outrageous things, farts and burps, flails his arms about, spills food and wine on the Persian carpet, and breaks the good china. Nobody really likes him, most hate to see him show up for the holidays, but he’s family so what are you going to do? Besides, we can all wait until he goes home, drunk and swaggering from his excesses, and congratulate ourselves on how well we handled him.
But Peace is the “Lost Child” in this dysfunctional collection of humankind called the family of nations. Peace sits quietly in the corner during all the chaos and says, “don’t worry about me, I’m all right.” We love Peace, but don’t expect much of her, really. Once in a while, a few of us will go over and encourage her.
“You have real potential, Peace; we want you to do well; someday you will spread your white dove wings and fly; and we will all be so proud of you when that happens. What’s that? What did you say in your soft, nonconfrontational voice? You’d like a little actual help from the rest of us? Don’t be silly. Isn’t it enough that we tell you all the time how wonderful you are? Don’t you see that proclaiming how much we love you every Christmas is helping? Now stop whining and come sit with us while we deal with Uncle War and praise your brother’s noble sacrifice of the last pork chop.”
Then War finally goes home and we all go out in the front yard and celebrate with explosions and flags and songs about our bravery and sacrifice. We give each other medals and accolades and mourn the loss of Grandma’s heirloom vase and Brother’s one good shirt.
I have, elsewhere in these essays, described some of what I think Peace would, or in my opinion should, look like. But what answer would you give? If the world were to achieve something called Peace, what would it look like? How would it work? And, importantly, what would it require of you?
The second reason is that we have no working vocabulary for Peace. No way to celebrate the work of Peace. And our collective response to the International Day of Peace is illustrative of that. The day passed and there were no big parades down Main Street, with bands playing “Give Peace a Chance.” There were no elaborate, nationally televised award ceremonies; indeed, no idea to whom we should give awards for Peace. We have no way to collectively understand, never mind celebrate, the sacrifices of the peacemakers among us.
Where are the markers, the obelisks inscribed with names, the statues that celebrate the peacemakers? What are their names? What did they suffer in their quest for a more peaceful world? Where is the memorial for Rachel Corrie? Don’t know who that was? You see the problem, then. What were the names of the students who defied the tanks in Tiananmen Square? When was the last time you flew your flags or had a barbecue or wore a special bracelet in honor of those who rode the buses, those who were attacked with water cannons and dogs and nightsticks, those who were killed and buried in remote fields or lynched from very public trees in the struggle for civil rights? Beyond Martin Luther King or Gandhi, how many names of peacemakers – global, national, or local do you know? Which of the young men and women in your community have served in the Peace Corps?
You see the problem.
We all claim to hate War, but we keep inviting him to dinner, feeding him, encouraging him by our attention and our willingness do what he asks. We feed War’s ego and think ourselves heroes for it.
We all claim to love Peace, but we let her sit alone in the corner and wait her turn to speak, but to please not speak too loudly or too much. Can’t she see that we are exhausted from dealing with Uncle War? Can’t she respect the fact that we can’t deal with her right now because we have to prepare for War’s next visit? What does she want of us? Peace is so selfish.
I suppose we could ask her to help us clean up the mess left by War, but she’d probably just spend the whole time reminding us that we don’t actually have to invite him back, that maybe we could all work together so that we could find the courage to tell him he’s not wanted.
We want to hate War, but we can see very clearly what it is and what we get from it. And we tell ourselves we can give it up anytime we want. No, really, we could. Really. We want to love Peace, but don’t understand her. What does she really have to offer to replace War? What exactly is it that she does, anyway? We know that the greasy, disgusting casserole and the special home-brew that War brings to every gathering are killing us: but we aren’t quite sure we’d like the taste of that healthy dish Peace keeps trying to serve. It looks kind of bland, or perhaps it’s just that it has all those weird, exotic spices and herbs that we are hesitant to try. Maybe getting healthier wouldn’t be as much fun as what we’re doing now.
So that is our dilemma. Or perhaps it is more of a paradox. We certainly don’t want to go so far as to call it a hypocrisy. Do we?

The Joy of Bigotry and Violence

In PeaceAble, Politics on August 30, 2017 at 10:59 am

A young blond, blue-eyed white man at the Charlottesville alt-right rally was asked why he was there. He responded that he was not, himself, a white supremacist, he was just having some fun. Running around shouting about white power was fun. He thought of himself as a “rebel,” and that was fun.
Setting aside for the moment the generally accepted truism that our actions speak louder than our words; that whether or not he sees himself as a white supremacist, he is at least someone who is willing to stand in solidarity with them, shout their slogans, support them as they wave their flags; I would like, for just a moment to take him at his word. I will allow him his truth. I’m sure he’s worked it all through in his own mind. He isn’t “political,” he supports “free speech,” he has a few friends who are black, he works with black people at his job and has no problem with them, and so on. I would like to focus instead on his other point, that he was there because he thought it would be fun.
And I have to say he had a point, though I doubt that it is a point he knew he was making.
American culture has always had a fondness for fun at the expense of the other. There has always been the sense that picking on the weak and the different is “just a bit of fun.” It is the larger context of “boys will be boys.”
Especially when you are part of the cultural norm, part of the group of the white, male, straight, Christian norm, then you have been encouraged to have fun that is based in debasement, dehumanization and mockery of the others. We have lots of jokes about “Mexicans,” about Chinese, about Muslims, about Jews, about “dumb blondes,” about the handicapped, about homosexuals, and so on. How many jokes do we have in which the central character is considered funny precisely and simply because he is a white, heterosexual, middle class, Christian, American male?
Laughing at those who are different from the norm is a time-honored tradition. We use such humor to reinforce the norms themselves. Making fun of the others reassures us of our own inherent superiority. We tell ourselves through our humor that we have nothing to fear, because the other is less powerful, more ridiculous, even less human, not to be taken too seriously. Why should we fear those we have the power to mock?
And our humor is becoming more violent, both in language and in content. There seems to be a general sense that something is funnier if it contains a slur or a vulgarity. More and more of our humor is “in your face” humor. We can use humor not just to mock the other, we can use it to attack him. Humor can be a weapon.
None of this is new, of course. None of us, I would suggest, can remember a time when these things weren’t true. Our culture has told us what to laugh at, and we have laughed. Do you want to see where a society’s biases lie, want to know how they treat those who deviate from the norm? Look at its humor.
American culture also has a fondness for violence, or the possibility of violence, as fun. Americans consider professional wrestling to be family entertainment, and WWE trademarked toys are marketed to even very young children. Americans go to hockey games hoping there will be a bloody fight or two. We spend enormous amounts of money watching boxers and MMA fighters beat each other up. We go to NASCAR events with at least a small twinge of excitement at the possibility of a spectacular crash. Football, one of our most popular national sports, is seen as a metaphor (and a psychological substitute) for war. We don’t really want anyone seriously hurt or killed, but the possibility adds to the thrill we get from the sense of danger. The injuries, both short and long term, suffered by our sports heroes are accepted as part of the sport, and by extension, necessary to the fun.
Look at how our media, television, films, popular literature, the graphic novel, have all turned terribly dark and violent. Take a quick look at all the “cop” shows, with less and less thoughtful policing, and more and more tough talk and violence, both in the crime and in the response to it. Look at all the superhero movies; the war movies; the large, loud, impossibly destructive weapons; the mass destruction; the explosions and gun fights and bloodbaths of all kinds depending on your choice of fantasy. Look at the most popular fantasy video franchises, in which anyone can take on the persona of a superhuman hero, or villain, and can slaughter hordes upon hordes of whatever enemy they choose.
It has also been argued, of course, that the violence of our entertainment is the reason for so much violence in real life. Of course we have children shooting children, we are told, look at what they see on television, listen to their music, play their video games. But our entertainment has developed as a consequence of what we have wanted, of what we found entertaining. The entertainment hasn’t made us violent, we have made the entertainment violent.
We tell ourselves that these outlets are good for us. When we play a violent or dangerous sport, or when we watch others play it, we’re purging our natural violent impulses, we’re making ourselves less personally violent in some way. It’s purgative, a release, a way to express our darker desires. But violent sports and societal violence have coexisted and supported each other for as long as history has been recording human activity. How do you really feel when you leave a violent sports event or a violent movie; are you feeling purged, or are you feeling enervated, like you’re ready for anything?  When will all this substitution and purgation finally get it out of our collective system?
When we tell a joke that contains a lot of vulgar language or uses a bigoted slur, we tell ourselves that we are being “politically incorrect,” that we are somehow making things less bigoted or less violent by turning things into a joke. But does a joke about a Muslim having sex with his goat really make you feel closer to his culture in a positive way?  This humor has been with us and part of us for centuries. Is it making things better, yet?
A culture expresses what is normal in many ways. Our culture is constantly telling us that bigotry and violence are literally normal. But cultures can change. They change slowly, but they do change. And the change happens not when we embrace the norms and act them out, but when we begin to reject the norms as they are, reject the normalization of bigotry and violence, of white supremacy, of misogyny, of the dehumanization and hatred of the “other,” and begin to speak up loudly and consistently for a new normal. There is some value in laughing at, rather than with, the things we would change. And there are times when we have failed to find other ways to solve our problems and violence enters in. But like all the tools we are given to change our lives, these things have to be handled responsibly, with care, or they become more destructive than transformative.
If you really want to change the culture, end the violence, end the hatred; stop having so much fun with it.

Why I’m a Pacifist

In PeaceAble on August 26, 2017 at 3:55 pm

Nobody WANTS war! Nobody LIKES war!
Well, except for SOME people. And are you so certain you’re not one of them?
When I was in my twenties, I had a habit of congratulating myself on how I dealt with the violence of my temper. I was slow to reach the point of losing my temper, and I had a strict rule against striking out at people. There were times when I would have had enough frustration, fear, grief or other forms of anger so that I would punch a hole in a wall, kick something, break something; but I told myself that these were inanimate objects, just material things, at least I wasn’t hurting anyone.
What I did not know at the time was that you don’t have to hit someone to hurt them with your violence. I didn’t understand that the potential or threat of violence is already violence. To be in the presence of violence is to be hurt by it.
I have spent a considerable part of the past forty to forty-five years learning about my anger and trying to become more sensitive to the impact it has and has had on those I love, and on my friends and acquaintances. And as part of a culture in which violent solutions to problems is often encouraged and even celebrated, a culture whose language has far more ways to create metaphors of war and violence than of peace and non-violence, I have become aware of the part, however small, my own violence has contributed to that culture.
I feel as though America is at a point where we can collectively, culturally, choose to continue down the road of violence as a solution, or we can begin to mature toward a more peaceable way of life. The path of peace is not an easy one, or without danger, but I don’t know how the human race survives if we do not take it.
Even during my most violent periods, I considered myself a pacifist. Even now I can appreciate that there have been times when violence and war have become unavoidable, even necessary. But that inevitability, that necessity is always a failure. War and violence are always a failure to find other solutions to our differences and our conflicts. No matter how noble or moral we believe our goals to be, war itself is neither noble nor moral.
Whenever I have tried to talk about my pacifism, about the need to resist the temptation to answer violence with violence, someone will ask something like, “Do you really think we could have stopped Hitler by being nice to him?”
No. But pacifism isn’t about being nice, it’s about finding ways to solve problems before they escalate to the point of war. The problem is in knowing when to start. How can we learn to recognize the danger before violence or war becomes the answer?
Pick a starting point, any starting point.
I remember, studying history, how easily the books divided things up. There were eras, and periods, and decades. There were significant events, and seminal moments, and turning points. And there would be a brief discussion of causes that usually served as a transition between one significant something and the next, but the focus was on whatever the next chapter title was about, whatever point the timeline had reached. We were expected to understand the great sweep of history as we might follow the plot in War and Peace.
We would examine the years between wars and look for connections, discuss causation, but always stayed in the line of the narrative.
Life isn’t like that, though. It doesn’t really follow any linear plot, no matter how many subplots or expository passages we might insert. The progress of life is messy; and without a sense — genuine understanding is not possible without a much deeper analysis of the scope of western civilization than most people who are not dedicated historians can manage – without at least a common sense that the second Iraq war, and the current problems in Yemen and Syria and Afghanistan and North Korea and the Sudan, to name just a few, are connected to things like the invasion of the Goths and Visigoths into ancient Europe, to the Crusades, to Columbus’ decision to sail out in search of an ocean route to India, to the decimation of the First Nations of the Continent, and so on to the violence in Charlottesville, how do we begin to understand the place to which violence and war have brought us?
And how do we change that trajectory?
Perhaps we can start with the personal. It is a commonly understood concept in human behavior that things often don’t become clear or important to us until we can make them personal, connect them to things that are integral to ourselves.
That’s why I began by talking about my own violence. I can look now at the great sweep of my life (and I am only just about 70) and I can see how it is manifested today in my relationships with my children, my extended family, my friendships and my communities. I don’t always like what I see. Each violent act, each hole in a wall, was part of that.
In the same way, each time we answer our anger, our grief, our frustration, our need not to be hurt any longer with violence in any of its multitudinous forms, we help create the next necessity of violence. Each time we fail to denounce violence even when it seems to accomplish ends we yearn for; each time we use the language of war and violence to describe our reality; each time we allow ourselves to believe that there is no other way, that the “enemy” cannot be defeated, the problem cannot be solved, the conflict cannot be managed without violence; we set up the conditions of grief and anger and hatred that are the building blocks of the next violence, the next war.
There are those that say we have already reached a point of the necessity of endless war. The President still proposes that we can bomb and kill our way to the end of terrorism. We can’t. Neither can we solve the problems of ignorance and crime and poverty and all their associate evils by going to war against them.
I still get angry. I still have fantasies of violence and the defeat of the other. But I have, I hope for the rest of my life, learned to stop and step back from the brink, to eschew violence for acceptance, tolerance, empathy, and at least the outward trappings of peaceableness. It’s a journey, not a place.
Non-violence works, but we have to start sometime, somewhere. Let’s not wait until it is, once again, too late.

NEVER FORGET! — The Fog of History and the Mutability of Memory

In PeaceAble, Politics on August 21, 2017 at 10:29 am

Never forget!
We mark the anniversaries on our calendars. We set up memorial and statues. We raise money. We write it down in the history books.
But we do forget.
We remember the dates and the events. We mark them as points on a timeline. It’s been fifty years since X, 100 years since Y, only 10 years since Z. It feels longer or shorter.
Doctoral dissertations are written to analyze them, put them into the larger context, explain them. These are the things that made a difference, that changed us. If it hadn’t happened, how would we be different, what would be better, or worse?
But still we forget. We remember the dates and the events, but forget what is most important. We remember the events and forget the history; remember the details and forget the human.
John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States was shot and killed, November 22, 1963, while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. John Connolly, the Texas Governor was also shot, but survived. A man named Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the murder, but was himself assassinated before he could stand trial, by a man named Jack Ruby. Ruby died in prison of a fatal disease he knew he had before he shot Oswald, and before he could stand trial. In the hours after the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy stood next to Lyndon Johnson as he became president. Was she still wearing the dress with her husband’s blood on it? I was sitting in a chemistry class in Holbrook, Massachusetts, when we got the word. The announcement was made. The President has been shot. Classes are dismissed. A friend and I walked home together, looking at the people passing in the street, and wondered who knew and who did not. In our inexpressible teenage fear and confusion and inability to really understand, we laughed at the absurdity of it all. The President was dead, everything was different, but we didn’t know how or why or what it would mean to us.
But these are things I know. I couldn’t tell you where my memories and my knowledge intersect. My memories are reconstructions from the details I know, but I couldn’t tell you if those are really the most important details or just the most vivid. By the time we got out of the sixties, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were both dead. The next twenty years saw a President resign, and two more Presidents shot. I know these things more than remember them.
We all forget.
I know that I do not remember World War Two. I don’t remember Hitler or the Nazis, Mussolini or the fascists, Hirohito or Pearl Harbor. I know about these things but do not remember them any more than I can remember the Alamo or the Maine.
We can, as we look at current events, look at the history books. We can read about the Holocaust and the concentration camps. There are still a few people alive who were there, who were old enough to know, but after seventy years, they are growing ever fewer. But what a few remaining individuals will remember, the culture will forget.
We can look at history, we can learn from history if we want, but history isn’t memory. History is a collection of stories told from other people’s perspective on still other people’s memories.
What we do remember is our own happiness, love, successes, passions, and gifts; we remember our fear, grief, pain, and anger. And we want to own those feelings. We don’t want to share them with anyone else, unless we can see something to gain from that sharing. And in remembering any of these things, in sharing them with others, we change the memories themselves, sometimes very subtly, sometimes deliberately and significantly.
I was taken by all the young faces among the Nazi groups. There is no point in trying to tell those young men about how we remember Hitler and Mussolini and their victims. There is no real point in trying to explain to young people waving Confederate flags what should be remembered about slavery and the Confederacy and the Civil War. They remember only their own feelings of victimhood and who the alt-right has told them are their oppressors. It is easy to believe a lie about the present when it is wrapped in a lie about the past; and you have memory only of the lie.
Memorials are by definition about memory, but they are also about the lies we tell ourselves as a society and a culture. So are museums. When someone put nooses on displays at the African-American Museum and on a tree at the Smithsonian, my first thought was, “were there none already there?” If you really wanted to erase the history of America in the 19th and 20th centuries, removing all trace of nooses would be a good place to start. If you want people to know that the past is prologue, that who we are today is still inextricably tied to who we were then, we need more memorials to nooses – and to those who were hanged for the crime of not being white enough. Memorials tell us what we are encouraged to remember. But every memorial, every museum exhibit should be checked to see what is being remembered and what is not. If we move Confederates’ memorials and statues of their leaders from the pubic square into museums, we aren’t erasing history, we aren’t erasing memory, but we may be able to put history into clearer context, memory into the stories we tell about the past.
In spite of the memorials, regardless of the history books, we will forget. We will forget – in the only sense of that that matters – the 9/11 attacks. Quickly, without thinking about it, what was the year? Did you hesitate, doubt yourself, get rattled by the challenge? That is what forgetting looks like. We have, for all intents and purposes, forgotten Pearl Harbor, forgotten the internment of the Japanese-Americans, forgotten what got us into the war in Europe (Pearl Harbor was about the Japanese, not the fascists). We have forgotten about the Cuban missile crisis, and when it is raised in discussions about the current situation with North Korea, we may struggle to see the relevance. Our memories of Columbine High Sc hool have faded to a vague knowledge that kids were shot by kids, and somehow heavy metal music was to blame. Those who weren’t there, on the ground, dealing with the reality of it, are already forgetting Sandy Hook. Memorials won’t stop this erasure of memory and history won’t revive it.
Perhaps we need to stop trying to memorialize things before we have done what we need to do to change what is. After the end of the Civil War, nothing was done to substantially change the cultural, social and economic realities that existed both as the cause of white bias and black slavery; or as the result of tearing down those institutions. After WWII, the world moved on, but the end of the war was not the end of Nazism, fascism, or hatred of Jews, Blacks, homosexuals, and all who were not white, western and self-rewarded with manifest destiny.
Pick an issue or an idea that is amplified by our current political and social polarization. You will find that at its heart is forgetfulness. “Giving” women the vote did not mean we forgot that they were supposed to be second. Electing a mixed-race man with an African American wife did not mean that we forgot that white men were supposed to be the superior race and therefore entitled to special privilege. Instead, we forgot that events change outward more quickly than they change culture; and culture, not any event, is how we express our collective memory of who we are supposed to be.
When people talk about “normalizing” white supremacy or misogyny or xenophobia or homophobia, or violence as a way of dealing with conflict, they are missing the point that those things were already normal. We never changed that, we just rather willfully forgot it.
People talk about the “teaching moment.” Perhaps the Trump Presidency can be such a moment, if we will let it. But who will do the teaching? And what will be taught? If history is any indication, we will fail to change what needs changing and eventually forget what most needs to be remembered.

“It’s Just a Joke”: “Humor” as deflection and excuse.

In PeaceAble on June 24, 2017 at 9:47 am

I think that I can claim a sense of humor. I can’t imagine that those who know me would not acknowledge that I can be wry, sarcastic, outrageous, droll, slapstick, sometimes vulgar and perhaps even an above-average punster. But that doesn’t mean that I will find humor in everything you think is hilarious.
So, if I criticize a meme or take exception to a “joke” please do not respond by telling me it is just a joke or telling me that I need to get a sense of humor. And I will promise to continue not telling you those things if you criticize a “joke” of mine.
“It’s just a joke” is not an excuse for being offensive. “Lighten up” is not a defense of inappropriateness, pointlessness, or trolling. “Get a sense of humor” does not address actual issues raised by objections to humor or attempted humor or the harm they can cause.
Humor is one of the most telling aspects of the norms of a culture. We are either laughing at those things which are not “normal” or we are laughing at those things which are so normal as to be indicators of our common foibles or faults. And it is usually possible to tell the difference. When we laugh at the “other” we are doing something very different from when we laugh at ourselves.
I have recently been seeing a new emergence of “humor” based on prejudice, bias, and the kinds of racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia and downright meanness that we seriously need to marginalize, not re-normalize.
So, a few suggestions from the point of view of my sense of humor.

1. Any joke which is not funny unless you make the butt of the joke a “dumb blonde” (or any other hurtful stereotype) isn’t funny to begin with. Any joke that is funny already is made less funny by making the butt of the joke a “dumb blonde.”
2. Any joke that uses an outrageous caricature of a Mexican or an Arab or an Asian or a person of color any other race or nationality in order to mock their culture, their customs, or their pronunciation of words in a language which is not their first, is not funny.
3. Any joke that marginalizes or grossly distorts the reality of any culture, nationality, race or group of any kind is not funny.
4. Any joke based on belief in a conspiracy theory, a deliberate untruth, or a misleading and debunked claim is not funny.
5. Any joke based on shaming of any kind is not funny. Any joke that targets the fundamental humanity of any individual or group, that furthers destructive stereotypes or keeps us from seeing each other as equally deserving human beings is not funny.

What is funny?

1. Jokes that point out the human frailties we all share are funny.
2. Jokes told by those on the inside of a group about themselves are funny when they tell them (but not when outsiders do).
3. Jokes that speak truth to power are funny.
4. Jokes that play with our common language, both verbal and non-verbal, are funny.
5. Jokes that point out the absurdities of life or create their own absurd universe are funny.

There are, of course, occasional exceptions to these “rules.” But those can be accounted for by differences in where individuals see humor. I don’t really mind if you don’t find something as funny as I do. And long as you focus on what is or is not funny about it, I won’t mind if you tell me it isn’t funny. I might even, on reflection, find that I understand or even agree with your perspective. I have no problem apologizing for “humor” of my I own if it has hurt someone, however unintentionally.
The problem I see here is that humor is becoming a dodge, a way to be mean-spirited, bigoted, and even cruel without taking responsibility for it. “It was just a joke” is simply another way to say, “I didn’t mean it.” But that’s a cop-out. It’s a deflection, a way of making the other person the problem rather than the action itself. This is what bullies do, and “humor” is becoming a way of bullying.
I love a good joke. Humor is an art form, and like all art forms it exists along a scale from simple, vulgar humor to sophisticated, complex humor. And at every stop along that line we can all find something to relate to. And like all art forms it has its genres, its specialties, its in-jokes, and it’s avant-garde, so that not all of it is equally appreciated even by its greatest artists or most astute critics. But I value genuine humor enough to call it out when it becomes hurtful, when it reinforces the stereotypes and biases our culture would rather keep in place.

 

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