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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.

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.

A Message for Men Who Feel Compelled to Say Something About Sex Abuse

In Politics on December 8, 2017 at 12:11 pm

I will begin this with a personal revelation. This is hard. It should be hard. It requires me to take as honest a look as I can at my own past and my relationships with women. I offer this as neither explanation nor excuse, but only as background.
I grew up in the 50s and came of age in the 60s. I could see, even as a young teenager, that my male friends and acquaintances were treating the girls in their lives abominably. I could see the destructiveness of cultural stereotypes and norms that asserted the superiority and dominance of men over women. I have always thought of myself as a feminist.
I was also a young man who was shy and awkward around women, who was trying to grow up in a culture that sent me a lot of harmful messages about what a man was supposed to be and what I should expect of women. Like most other young men I was stupid about such things. My early experiences with the opposite sex involved awkward and embarrassing attempts at physical intimacy, including some groping and what I’m certain now was at the very least unenthusiastic making out. I felt afraid, unattractive, undesirable, powerless and desperate.
By the time I was in my twenties, I was in a marriage that was already on a self-destructive path. In my thirties I became a college professor, and a leading figure in local theater, and I suddenly discovered that there were women who found me attractive and wanted to have sex with me. I had affairs. All the affairs were consensual and initiated by the women, so I was able to dismiss the element of power. I compartmentalized. I allowed myself to think that the attraction was based on my charm, my intellect, on all sorts of personal qualities other than the fact that I held a position of power and status. I never asked the question of whether any of these women would have found me attractive just for myself if circumstances were different.
Throughout this period of my life I was, again without seeing it, a bully and a tyrant, selfish and insulated in my struggle to become something like the man my culture had put in my head. And all the while, because I supported women’s rights and argued for women’s issues and talked about how badly women were treated, I was convinced that I was a feminist and an ally.
So how can I now claim any credible standing to speak about what women need?
As more and more men in positions of public power and influence are being accused of inappropriate behavior towards women, everyone seems to be talking about the problems associated with powerful men and sex.
Can we back up a moment here and acknowledge that when we are discussing relationships between men and women the phrase “powerful men” is redundant? In America (anywhere, really, but let’s stick with our own culture for the moment) there has always been a power imbalance between men and women; and that imbalance has always been to the advantage and benefit of men. This isn’t simply about outing and punishing public figures in the movie industry, or politics, or the news media. That will quickly get tiresome for some, overwhelming for many, and eventually fade into the fog of the 24/7 news cycle that shapes our current experiences.
If you have grown up in America, you have been daily bombarded with messages about men, women, and power. For men, power has always been attractive and expected. For women, power has always been unnatural and dangerous to the social order.
Men have always been told that power over women is essential to being a real man. If a man can’t demonstrate his power over a woman we have a large lexicon of emasculating and feminizing insults with which to attack him. If a woman demonstrates power over a man, that same lexicon has words that de-humanize and de-feminize her, and make her ugly.
If you are an American male who has reached puberty, you have been raised in a culture which has encouraged and rewarded this kind of power-imbalance behavior. Most have never committed rape or the grosser forms of harassment, but all have taken advantage of the privileges associated with being male in our culture, and hurt women in the process.
If you are an American female of any age, you have experienced an often overt, sometimes subtle, but constant stream of messages about yielding power to men, regardless of the consequent injuries to yourself. You have also been taught that sexual power is the only power you naturally have over men, but that using that power is forbidden. If you have sex with a man, regardless of the circumstances, any negative consequences are your own fault. At the same time, if a man doesn’t want to have sex with you it is also your fault, and you need to do more so that some man will want to have sex with you.
This double bind is why women spend billions of dollars every year to conform to a male-normative ideal of attractiveness, to wear carefully crafted make-up, to dress provocatively, to learn how to be what the masculine culture tells them they should be, often through the voices of other women; only to be told that they have only themselves to blame if a man is unable to control himself around them. If you are a woman in America, it is likely that you continue to follow at least some of the cultural rules that give men power over you.
If you are, like me, a progressive American male; if you consider yourself an ally, an advocate, a feminist; if you have been making or are about to make some statement about those powerful men now being brought to accountability for their actions, I suggest you stay quiet for a moment and check in with yourself about two important considerations.
Before I pay much attention to your declarations or praise you for your positions, I want to hear you explain the following:
In what ways have you, as a product of this culture, as a man who has been given the power and privilege of being male, taken advantage of that power and privilege in your life; and how has that hurt any woman or women?
I’m not asking if you have ever raped someone, or abused a partner, or even if you were once a serial groper. If any of those are true you should probably just deal with them and shut up about other people’s bad behavior. I’m asking when was the last time you laughed at something that contributed in some way to the culture’s misogynistic and demeaning attitudes toward women, like a “dumb blonde” joke. Was there ever a time in your life when you had lots of reasons with which you could defend misogynistic pornography or coercive prostitution that caters to male fantasies about women and sex; such as lofty arguments about how every sexual interaction is an exchange for value of some kind, or how there’s nothing inherently wrong with people choosing to have sex on film for other people to get pleasure from? Have you ever assumed that the fact you had sex with a woman is evidence that she freely consented to that sex, regardless of the circumstances? How carefully and honestly have you looked at your relationships with women – personally, socially, professionally, romantically – and understood the role that cultural norms of maleness and femaleness have played in those relationships?
Why do you feel compelled to make your statement now?
It is, of course almost always a good thing to make a statement in support of an important movement or action. I’m not questioning whether something needs to be said or whether men ought to be saying something. But I think that we need to be clear about our motives. So much of what men have historically said about their support for women, their admiration for them, what’s good for them, and how we want to help them has turned out to be self-serving for men and hurtful for women that I think we at least want to be honest about how we see our purpose in this. There is little reason for women to trust what we say and we need to make an effort to earn that trust. What do you want? If you’re a politician or public figure, for example, are you concerned that your silence implies that you don’t support women in this struggle? What other commitments are you making with this statement to actually work toward change? How does this statement square with other positions you have held in the past and how will it inform your behavior henceforward? If you are not a public figure, but feel the need for a public statement, what role do you see for yourself in the struggle to change the culture and bring women fully into their rightful place as human beings and members of society? Why should your opinion be considered valuable or important?
After you’ve addressed these questions, wait a moment longer. Let women speak. Let them say what they think about your answers, perhaps give them the opportunity to ask for your input or give you permission to speak. Address their concerns, rather than assume you know what they want or need from you. Be careful that you aren’t mansplaining or talking over, or interrupting.
When I was younger I was a feminist because I knew that it was right. Now I’m a feminist because I can begin to see where I was wrong. I’m not a feminist in spite of my past or out of guilt about my past. I’m a feminist because looking at my past has helped me to see that the struggle is not just a women’s struggle, it is also mine. Men cannot fix this for women. We can, however, follow their lead and become part of fixing it for us all.

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.

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.

PRESIDENTIAL LIMBO: How low can he go?

In Politics on June 30, 2017 at 8:59 am

“Limbo” has two common meanings. One is a game in which people try to wriggle under a bar that is gradually lowered until even the best players can no longer go any lower. The last player to get under is the winner. The other is a state of existence between Heaven and Hell where lost souls get to contemplate their sins in the hope of salvation and the fear of eternal damnation.
Both meanings apply to the current President and his government.
It seems as though every time the President sends out another tweet, issues a new proclamation, makes a public speech, engages with a foreign government, or agrees to an interview there are subsequent cries that he has reached a new low, that the bar is already subterranean and still he surpasses himself.
This is the game of Presidential limbo, and it would seem that President Trump has no rivals.
But remember the second half of the meaning. The one who goes lowest wins. This is the current state and direction of politics (and much of the rest of life) in the United States of America. The one who goes lowest wins. The President’s race to below the bottom is not the cause of this phenomenon, but he is its current chief beneficiary. The lower he goes, the more his supporters see him as winning. And this applies to Congress as well. The harder the people’s representatives work to benefit the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor, the disadvantaged, the powerless and the needy; the more they use dirty tricks, draconian laws, gerrymandering, denial of demonstrable reality, and legal gymnastics in their quest to establish, in the words of Karl Rove, a permanent majority; and the more they proclaim moral certainties they are already violating; the more they win.
One result is that we have become a nation in limbo, applying the second meaning. We are spending precious time focusing our collective energies following the President’s ever more remarkable contortions as he wriggles his way lower, and not paying enough attention to the real damage being done. We are having to contemplate our collective sins and decide whether we will follow him down or strive to raise the bar again. We are lost souls, torn by a lack of agreement as to which way is Heaven and which Hell. There may be some consensus forming, the President’s approval ratings are at or approaching historic lows as he does, but there are still formidable forces working to drive us lower and far too many citizens who either are willing to go to hell, or don’t believe that’s where we’re headed.
We have, of course, been living in fear for a long time. Making us afraid makes us controllable. The people who tell us we should be afraid also tell us that only they can save us from the fear they are creating.
Uncertainty is a necessary element of our system of government. The greatest enemy of democracy is complacency. The moment we think we have won is the moment we stop paying attention to those who are already planning to beat us the next time. We cannot and should not ever assume that what we have achieved will always be. And some of what has been achieved needs to be undone. Rigid, moralistic, self-satisfied certainty is the second enemy of democracy.
So, here we are; playing limbo in limbo. Trying to see how low it can go risks getting our heads stuck in the sand. It is time to stop playing the game. It is time to set our sights higher and move upward out of this limbo. Good and evil aren’t places, they’re directions; and the farther you go in either direction, the harder it is to turn around and the longer the journey back. And while it is tempting, when one is rolling downhill to just let go and keep rolling, because the climb back up gets ever more daunting; turning around and making the climb is what we need to do.

The Nonlinear Narrative: A Rhetoric of Donald Trump’s Mind

In Politics on February 21, 2017 at 10:28 am

 

Here’s what you need to realize about Donald Trump’s speaking style; and why it is both revealing and dangerous.

All of us experience reality in a non-linear way.

Each new thought, each new response to the constant barrage of stimuli is disconnected from the last thought or response until we make the connection intellectually.  Because the universe is not selective, we have to be.  We cannot respond equally to every new stimulus because there is simply too much information coming into contact with our senses all the time.  So we filter out some information, paying attention to whatever our brain in the moment considers most important.  Every stimulus except the one we have chosen to focus on is noise. 

What happens next is that we make a higher level selection that allows us to string certain stimuli together into a coherent, linear experience.  In effect, we create a story that allows us to understand and create meaning out of the experience.  The longer we can continue to string together stimuli in this way, the more coherent our experience becomes and the better able we are to articulate that experience.  Often, however, the rapid pace of life keeps us from focusing very long on any one string, any one story, while we are having the experience.  As a result, we have to create the narrative of our experience through memory at a later time.  We sort through all the stimuli, select those that seem connected, create meaning, and develop a linear narrative that expresses that meaning.  When we can’t do that, or choose not to, the result is stream of consciousness, non-sequitur, incoherence and inarticulateness.

That’s where Donald Trump lives.  He is unable or unwilling to string his thoughts together in a selective, coherent, linear narrative in order to articulate a specific complex meaning.  It would be one thing if this were simply a fault in the moment; that is, if his initial thought process was chaotic and disorganized.  That’s simply the way it is for most of us.  We need to focus, perhaps take some time with our experiences and thoughts, and find the most reasonable narrative to help us understand and express our experiences.  The problem, however, arises when we can’t make those connections in the moment and can’t or won’t do it later, either.  The mind just leaps from thought to thought, unable to maintain a linear narrative for more than a few moments. There is one advantage to this rhetorical style: it allows us to see how Trump’s mind works.

It’s easy to interpret his ravings as simply ego, but it is actually a little more complicated than that.  Everyone has ego needs.  We all want a degree of validation of our self-identity, and ego gratification.  But we also have more and less dominant needs that inform that validation.  Some of us focus a significant amount of our ego on altruism; we get ego satisfaction from doing things for others.  Some focus on intellectual validation; we want others to see that we know things, are learned.  Some of us focus on material things; we are constantly telling people about our possessions. 

Trump seems to focus mostly on his social needs; he is constantly referencing what other people have told him, especially about himself.  He wants us to know how many people voted for him, how many of these people or those love him.  He wants us to know that when he claims something is true, it’s because other people, the best people, smart people, have told him they are true.  And it doesn’t really matter who, exactly, these people are, there just has to be a lot of them.

Trump references everything back to himself, of course, but it isn’t simply self-importance.  He simply has no other useful reference points for his experiences, so when he drifts off topic to talk about himself, he is making the only logical connection he can find between his otherwise random thoughts.  Instead of arranging things according to the usual linear logic, Trump creates something more like a thought web, with himself at the center and all things connected through himself.  When you listen to him speak, you can follow what is happening by looking for the rhetorical linkages back to himself.

This rhetorical style is tolerable, though certainly frustrating, in your quirky relative who thinks himself a raconteur, but actually just rambles interminably without ever finishing any particular story.  In the President, however, it is dangerous.

That’s because it means that those who recognize this rhetorical trait can use it to manipulate and control him. If you want him to believe something or act in particular way, you merely need to give him a narrative that connects the parts of the argument you want him to follow back through his self-reference.  The argument doesn’t have to make any kind of logical sense whatsoever on its own.  It only needs to make sense in the filter of that self-reference. 

It also means that you are most likely to be successful if you can make your voice the last one he hears before he has to make his decision.  Because he doesn’t develop a coherent narrative, he has no way of reviewing that narrative later to understand or even accurately remember his own process.  He only knows what his final decision was; and since it was his decision he cannot question or change it.  He can, however, be led to make a new, even contradictory, decision by the next person who can make the appropriate connections through his self-reference between the old decision and the new.

Moreover, the President cannot respond effectively to sudden or unanticipated changes; that is, think on his feet. We can see this in his press encounters and Twitter rants, where he either cycles the unexpected through his self-reference or falls back on tried and true attack lines or dominance strategies.

The danger in this, of course, is that we can neither understand nor predict his actions based on his prior choices or his current rhetoric.  The chaos of his mind leads to chaos, inconsistency, unpredictability, and lack of trust.  This chaos is especially dangerous when applied to decisions affecting domestic policy or international relationships.

For this reason, we need to pay less attention to his rhetoric, which becomes a distraction, and more attention to the rhetoric of those he has appointed as advisors and members of his administration.  We have to assume that his positions and policies will reflect not his reasoning, not his narrative, but those of people like Steve Bannon.  Whoever has his ear at any moment will create the narrative that informs the policy.

Normalization and the Norm

In PeaceAble, Politics on December 14, 2016 at 10:28 am

There seems to be some confusion out there about what we mean when we use the word “normalize,” and how that is related to the word “normal.” Allow me to clarify.

When we talk about normalizing a particular behavior or idea, we are not saying that the person exhibiting that behavior or expressing that idea is not “normal” in the common sense of that word. We aren’t, for example, saying that the person is deranged, or intellectually deficient, or pathological. Some might actually think those things, but that is a different discussion and I would appreciate it if you did not engage in that here.

We are, rather, using the word “normal” as the adjective form of the word “norm.” A norm is a behavior or idea that our culture or society tells us, in both subtle and more obvious ways, we should expect from each other. We are trained from early on to regard these things as “the way it is.” Now norms are not necessarily the most common or most acceptable or most likely behaviors or ideas, which is what the word normal usually suggests. For instance, American culture has, for its entire history, been dominated by the behaviors and ideas of straight (at least openly), male, Puritan/Christian (at least publicly), powerful warrior men. In other words, the straight, white, Puritan/Christian, powerful male warrior is the norm. And we are socialized to view the world from that perspective.

Now, there are, in fact, more women than men in the population; there are far more people among us more who have no more than modest power, and we are quickly discovering that LGBTQ+ people are much more numerous than we have been told and the non-white population may soon outnumber the white population. And any one time, the number of people who are veterans or serving in the armed forces is less than 15% of the population.  But that only states the demographics, not the norm. The norm remains primarily straight, white, Puritan/Christian, warrior men of power (especially economic). And that means, that despite our attempts to change things, the perspectives arising from that norm continue to pervade the society.

Distrust, bigotry, discrimination and disenfranchisement of people who do not represent that norm is “normal.” Misogyny, racism, homophobia, and the Christianization of society are “normal.” The dis-education and miseducation of those not part of the norm is “normal.” Using the very genuine fears of the working class, minorities, and women to divide the masses of people and thus more easily rule over them is “normal.” The idea that success is to be defined in terms of wealth is “normal.” The idea that everyone has the same opportunities to achieve that mythological thing we call the “American Dream” is “normal.” The idea that problems can be best resolved through force is “normal.”

Now we have tried over the years to change some of those things, but progress is always slow and still fragile, as the recent election demonstrates. The things we do to create greater equality for all, to promote justice and protect the rights of those who have less power to protect them for themselves,  and to seek more peaceable solutions to our problems, are called “normalization,” or “normative behaviors.” That is, they are things we do to create new norms that better reflect our diversity, our stated American ideals, our rights, privileges and responsibilities as members of society. But our social behaviors, our laws, our public images of ourselves in the media and our demographics all change more quickly than our norms do.

So electing a non-white President did not change the norm of whiteness as the perspective through which we see things. The Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, Roe-v-Wade, and the striking down of laws that would require the teaching of “Intelligent Design” in public school science classes, for a few examples, did not usher in a new secular norm. Women still have less access to power, non-whites and non-Christians are still marginalized, and it is still “normal” to proclaim one’s patriotism while waving the flag of a nation that went to war against the United States, and lost. We still think that the more firepower we have, the safer we are.

When we try to normalize something, we are trying to create it as a norm. We are saying that this behavior or this idea is to be expected, that it defines us as a society and a culture, that this is now the perspective from which we will evaluate and express our public and official actions.

So, what we are really seeing around us now is not the normalization of bigotry, of white supremacy, of male dominance and privilege in the affairs of the nation; we are seeing an attempt by that “normal” perspective to roll back the normalization of those things that threaten it. It is not the normalization of racism that threatens us, it is the de-normalization of diversity. It is not the normalization of misogyny, it is the de-normalization of the idea that the feminine is in all ways the equal of the masculine. It is not the normalization of xenophobia or homophobia or religious prejudice, it is the de-normalization of acceptance, tolerance, and cooperation. It is an attempt to say that who we are becomig is not who we are; an attempt to say that who we are is embodied in the worst of who we have been all along.

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