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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.

SUPERMAN NEEDS LEX LUTHOR: The Problem with Superheroes

In PeaceAble, Politics on December 9, 2016 at 12:34 pm

Another superhero movie, another blockbuster. America seems to really love its costumed crusaders for truth, justice and the American way. Of course, in this case the American way would seem to be to hope a superhero comes along to take care of the problem. The superhero myth is a powerful one, but there are at least five serious problems with it.

  1. They don’t really exist. So we have to create them.

Okay, by the time most of us have reached the tween years we are fully aware that Superman and Spiderman and Batman and the rest are just comic book stories. But that doesn’t keep us from wishing they did exist; perhaps even wishing that we could be bitten by a radioactive spider, or have a lot of cool, clever gadgets to hang on our belts and make us invincible. Since neither of those things are ever going to happen, we look for substitutes for our superheroes: soldiers, explorers, inventors, policemen and firefighters, of course; but also politicians, celebrities, sports figures, the equally mythological American cowboy, and whatever larger-than-life personality has currently captured our attention. For some people, even their religious figures are cast as superheroes to be called upon in times of crisis.

And in the absence of a clear superhero, individuals may rise up and try to claim the title. The politician will present himself as the only one who can solve all the problems, vanquish all the enemies; and he doesn’t even need to say how it will be done, only convince us that he, and he alone, can do it. The NRA tells us that there are superheroes among us, good guys with guns, who are our only defense against whatever new evil may suddenly threaten us.

  1. Superheroes require supervillains.

Just as superheroes don’t really exist, neither do supervillains. When we create superheroes, or they create themselves for us, there arises a simultaneous need to create supervillains to justify the superheroes. Our supervillains can be individuals, such as Hitler; or a nation, such as Russia; or vague entities, such as multinational corporations and international cabals and the illuminati; or whole groups of people who can be quickly identified by some simple, single characteristic, like Muslims, or liberals/conservatives, or the Black Lives Matter Movement; or corrupt police, or the KKK, and so on. They can even be the more difficult problems in our society, te ones that have no easy answer, like poverty, disease, bigotry and violence. One thing is certain, though. Our supervillains will always be a characteristic of the “others,” those scary people who are not like us, and are scary precisely because they are not like us. We are encouraged to see the other as supervillain by default. And once the supervillain has been identified, we rally behind the superhero to demand their destruction.

 

  1. Superheroes and supervillains tend to inhabit a dark and dangerous world, and the problems and the solutions are nearly always about the exercise of power rather than the exercise of intelligence.

I remember the superheroes of my youth as generally clean, morally unambiguous figures. The people they served were a lot like me, ordinary folk who lived quiet, uneventful lives until some supervillain came along and created a disaster that only the superhero could resolve. But the fact is that superheroes were always vigilantes. They operated outside the constraints of law. The police both allowed and encouraged them, cooperated with them, but it was clear that the superhero could do what the normal authorities either could not or were not allowed to do. But even with that, the superheroes seemed to respect their own powers; they rarely killed an adversary, and almost never killed on purpose.

As time went on, however, things took a darker turn. Gotham City became an increasingly dirty, depraved, and crime-ridden environment; and Batman’s character and costume got darker along with it. But even with the greater moral ambiguity that suggests, there was no moral ambiguity about the need for the hero to win; and to win by whatever means necessary; and those means became increasing violent and deadly, as did the supervillains. What was once the need for a superhero to defeat the occasional supervillain – and extraordinary event that interrupted the normal flow of the average citizen’s life – became a constant need for superheroes to fight back against the constant threat of powerful and deadly supervillains in a darkly dangerous world of evil.

But in such a world the supervillains can never be actually defeated. If they could, then the superhero would be out of a job. The villains have to be so powerful that all we can do is hold them at bay for a while, and make sure that our superheroes are well armed for the battle that, if it isn’t happening right here and now, will surely come. And if we defeat one supervillain, there will be a ready supply of others. Eternal vigilance is necessary in a world where the problems cannot actually ever be finally resolved. Fear ceases to be the natural response to extraordinary events, and becomes the constant condition of our lives.

In places like Ferguson or Standing Rock and Malheur we are told that the end justifies the means, but it is always the people with the guns who, we are told, are standing up against the supervillain others who must be defeated or life as we know it will surely be destroyed. As long as we know who is the hero and who the villain, then the hero must win. But we express our shock and surprise when someone decides that he must be the superhero and shoots up a nightclub full of homosexuals or a church full of black people; or blows up an abortion clinic; because he didn’t see a superhero doing enough to rid the world of these supervillains and took on the job himself.

 

  1. Buying into the superhero culture interferes with the search for real solutions to systemic problems.

Why do we need spend time and money and our moral energy on finding reasonable and long-lasting solutions to problems if we can hold out hope for a superhero with a simple plan to swoop in and take care of it? What use is diplomacy if we believe that Captain America still exists somewhere and now has a nuclear weapon or a fleet of drones? Why do we need to rely on the justice system, the courts and the lawyers, when we have so many policemen with guns and tasers and billy clubs; and the presumption that their actions are justified? Why do we need to have our lives disrupted by protesters who want things we don’t want, when we have the National Guard with water cannons and dogs and rubber bullets and sometimes real bullets? And why do we have to put up with a government that sometimes does things that we don’t want them to do when we have our own guns?

Why do we need to really think about things like why we are ill or what is causing the stress in our lives, or how we might solve those problems, when we have a pharmaceutical industry always working on new superhero drugs to fix us? Why do we need to accept or tolerate our neighbors who are not like us, when that man over there is telling us that our problems are their fault, they are the supervillains, and he has the final solution? And why should we care how he does it as long as it’s done?

 

  1. The superhero culture prepares us to accept demagogues, war, a police state, and restrictions on our freedom by convincing us that we are individually and collectively weak and need to be saved.

We have been and are continuing to be acculturated to believe that all our problems are enormous; every conflict is a crisis; we are incapable of doing what needs to be done; .and we must therefore find a superhero to lead us, to fight for us, to keep us safe. But such leaders may be motivated to keep us only as safe as will keep us in fear that the superhero may go away and leave us defenseless.

When the planes brought down the World Trade Center, we told ourselves that it had united us as Americans, that it had restored our faith in or collective ability to come together at times of great tragedy. But we quickly looked for the supervillains, and for superheroes to lead us. And we chose as our heroes, those who would tell us who the villains were, and promise to defeat them. Then, with each new villain brought to what we were told was justice, more rose up, until the supervillain became an entire race, an entire religion, and anyone we could tell ourselves was one of them.

Whenever something begins to change and those changes make us uncomfortable, we are told that that discomfort is fear, that fear is a sign that we are under attack, and there will be someone – a politician or a priest or a pundit – who will tell us who the supervillains are, and offer to be our hero. They will describe dark conspiracies in terms of war and destruction. The crisis is present and we are in danger and only the tools of war will save us. Don’t try to understand, never compromise, do not discuss, never seek the peaceable solution. Anything but the destruction of the other, the supervillain, is weakness that will surely mean the end of us.

The thing is, it’s all a fantasy. But it is important to understand that it is a fantasy in which we participate with both our ignorance and our complicity. We do not question the fantasy and so we never learn the truth of the illusion. And we are unwilling to make ourselves uncomfortable, to face our problems together, to know the other, to confront our fears with reason. We don’t really want to deal with it all.

This isn’t the media’s fault or the politicians’ fault or religion’s fault. It’s not strictly the fault of the wealthy or the white or the male; though the culture gives them special place and therefore special responsibility. The media does not create the culture, but it reflects what we already accept as real and normal, and thereby reinforces and encourages the illusion. And the politician or the priest or the talk radio celebrity are there because we put them there.

Cultural truths do not change until we become uncomfortable enough with them to stop buying what the culture is selling us. Superheroes and supervillains will be with us until we can see that they are not real, they are not normal, and they are not the solution. When we come to the realization that we are stronger when we are not afraid of each other; that we can do this together, that we don’t need to send our superheroes destroy each other, and when we realize that far too many of our superheroes do not live among us, but rule over us; and that we may very well be the supervillains of choice tomorrow; then we can put away the fantasy and begin the real work.

NORMAL AND VALIDATED; AND THAT’S THE PROBLEM.

In PeaceAble, Politics on November 22, 2016 at 10:08 am

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign did not validate or normalize racism, xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, white supremacy or the violence, both verbal and physical, that so many people are afflicted with. What the campaign did was to show us just how normal and validated those things are and how little progress we’ve made in changing that.

Norms are a function of the dominant culture, and the culture always changes a lot more slowly than any era’s current attitudes might suggest. We have been riding the pendulum swings of cultural attitudes for a very long time without actually changing that much of the culture itself. There is one simple reason for this: the dominant cultural group, the normative identity of the culture, has not changed. We have tried to bring change from outside that group rather than from within. We tend to see social change as something that has to be done to or in spite of the dominant group, rather than something they have to do.

In America, the dominant cultural group, the normative identity, and therefore what has to change, is straight, white, Christian, capitalist, warrior men.

How does our culture genuinely work for peace, genuinely counter the argument that the way to deal with our enemies is to destroy them utterly when our language is full of the metaphors of war and violence, when so many of sports and games are microcosmic wars, when our entertainments are so predominantly about superheroes defeating supervillains in dark Gothams full of despicable characters?

How do we become a less violent society when men with guns who take over and trash public property are treated as heroes, while peaceful Native Americans protesting the actions of a private corporation are maced and beaten and arrested? The mythological westerner embodied by fictional characters such as Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger and John Wayne and (in anti-hero guise) the vigilante loners portrayed by Clint Eastwood is alive and well as a cultural norm.

How do we work toward economic and social equity when our culture portrays desirability, success and power as the unfettered accumulation of individual wealth beyond what any one person actually needs; and calls those who have less than that losers, weaklings, and takers? How can we make the best use of our resources when everyone hates to pay taxes because they focus only on what they don’t want to spend “their” taxes on rather than working for the things they do want; without recognizing that they aren’t paying nearly enough in taxes to cover any of it all by themselves. How do we learn to share the resources in a culture that teaches us that whatever someone else gets is stolen from us?

How do we overcome racism, sexism, homophobia and all kinds of bigotry and become a truly vibrant diverse society as long as there are so many accomplishments that have to be identified by hyphenated qualifiers because they are the accomplishments of the “others:” the first woman this, the first African-American that, the first Hindu-American other thing, the first openly gay American whatever?

The veneration of the Confederate battle flag and the Confederacy it represents has been normalized and validated since the Civil War ended, and we have only just recently begun the task of trying to remove it from the norm.

The truth is that all those things that the Trump campaign brought out of the woodwork are us. They are the norm.

We have tried for more than a hundred and fifty years to overcome the abomination of slavery, to create cultural and social equality for women; and yet our first non-white President greeted with an unending onslaught of racism, hatred and obstruction; and a female Presidential candidate was vilified for things that were never questioned when the candidates were male, and her opponent was elected despite his appalling treatment of women.

Hatred, fear and distrust of immigrants is as normal as apple pie.

Despite the enormous gains that our LGBTQ+ citizens have made with respect to public acceptance and specific issues such as marriage equality, we can see just how fragile those gains might still be. Heterosexuality is not just the norm, it’s a virulent, defensive, self-righteous norm.

Despite the fact that the U.S. Constitution expressly forbids the establishment of a national religion, the broad and very diverse Christian religion is seen as normative. We often find it necessary, even in situations where it can have no relevance whatsoever, to announce that someone is Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu; or worse yet, a “self-described” something, like Deist or Atheist, or Agnostic, or the new category of “Non-Affiliated.”

So how do we change this? We either have to convince white, heterosexual, Christian, capitalist, warrior men to change because it is in their interest to do so; or we have to take the power of cultural normalizing away from them. We do that by changing our participation in the things that are keeping the norms in place. What are you buying for Christmas ane what is your holiday greeting? What movies are you watching, what TV shows? Do you forgive them their violent or sexist content because they are “well-written” or have “outstanding acting?” When you are watching sports, do you hope for the brawl, the injury; do you want to see the star quarterback on the other team not just sacked, but knocked completely out of the game? Do you think that professional wrestling is family entertainment that you want to bring your 9-year-old to? Do you still laugh at jokes about dumb blondes, do you think the recent rash of memes featuring a grotesque Mexican caricature are great fun? Do you talk about “the war on” things you want to defend, and do you celebrate warriors as heroes but don’t think very often of the heroism of peacemakers?

Keep in mind that something can be the norm of a culture long past the time that it actually represents anything more than a minority of a society’s citizens. A norm is not the reality of things, it is the yardstick by which we measure what is different and who is the other. As long as we say to ourselves at any level “that’s just the way it is,” or fail to recognize that our own otherness is the result of our seeing some norm that is not us or some different other that does not share some norm of ours, then we will tinker at the edges of the culture.

Now I should note that the culture is never going to change to suit all of us or any one of us completely. There will always be norms and there will always be exceptions to those norms. That may be the most important normative idea of all.

The Zero Sum Politics of Scarcity Consciousness

In PeaceAble, Politics on November 9, 2016 at 10:27 am

As I reflect on the reasons People are giving for electing Donald trump to the Presidency, a single theme emerges.

They mention foreign workers taking our jobs; they make reference to variations on the drugged-up, slut of a lazy welfare mother having kids and asking us to support her with our taxes; the unemployed and homeless who want us to take care of them instead of getting a job; the immigrants who are coming here with their customs and religions that they want to force on us; the foreign terrorists disguised as refugees who won’t agree to keep their wars in their own countries instead of coming here to harm us.

Now, all of these things have long been shown by hard evidence to be false, but I it’s not my intention here to argue about them. Instead I want to point out something they have in common that is not often talked about.

They are each a variation on a theme of personal ownership and public scarcity; the idea that any acquisition or benefit or bit of power someone else gets takes something away from me. And if I can strongly identify with a group of people like myself we can declare ourselves collectively robbed.

“If a “foreign” worker comes here and gets a job, that job actually belongs to me or someone like me and has been stolen.” The same thing holds true for someone of a previously disadvantaged group; “Black people are taking white people’s jobs.” “Women in the workforce are taking jobs away from men.”

“If gay people are allowed to marry, then my marriage is less special, less uniquely blessed; so I have been robbed of that blessing.” And, corollary to that is the idea that if same-sex relationships are normal and acceptable, then the natural normality and specialness of my heterosexual relationship are diminished.

“If God can be worshipped in a multitude of ways and all those ways express valid and meaningful understandings of and relationships with God; then I am being robbed of the special righteousness of my relationship with God.” This is the “if everyone is right then no one is right” argument.

And the next step in this reasoning process is that if someone is taking something away from me then that is an attack on me.

“When people say ‘Happy Holidays” it diminishes the specialness of my “Merry Christmas,” so that’s an attack on Christianity itself.”

Now the problems with these arguments should be obvious, but let me state them as clearly as I can.

First, your sense of ownership and entitlement is based on a myth grounded in unacknowledged privilege. Put simply, you don’t own what you think you own. They are what Thom Hartmann calls the “commons.” This isn’t your country any more or less than it is mine and everyone else’s, and I want things for it that are different from what you want, but my desires are no less valid or important than yours.

They aren’t your taxes, they’re mine, too; and some of the things you don’t want to spend them on are things that I do want, and vice-versa.

You don’t own any job; and the fact that you now have to compete for it with people you used to be able to exclude from the pool takes nothing from you except a privilege that is not yours to claim in the first place.

You don’t own marriage or any other social or legal contract between people that does not include you.

And you certainly don’t own God; to think that your truth is the only possible one is arrogance and self-righteousness that is especially ironic in a religion that supposedly teaches you to be humble and leave the righteousness to that God.

Secondly, there is actually no scarcity of most of these things. There is more than enough of being an American for all of us and a great many more.

There is a limited number of jobs, but that’s not the fault of the people who have them. Economists argue that a certain percentage of people need to be unemployed at all times or the economy will suffer. (A side note here: The wealthy don’t invest or start businesses in order to create jobs. They do it to create more wealth for themselves and jobs are seen as a cost of business, not a reason for it.)

There is plenty of love and marriage and sex to go around, and each marriage is equally special for its participants. My marriage does not diminish yours any more than yours diminishes mine. And any of the benefits I may get from my marriage, such as health insurance, clear inheritance of property, lower taxes and so forth, do not reduce the availability of those benefits for you.

And if you can’t allow that there is plenty of God to go around, then the god you believe in is not as great as you claim. Why does it not make sense that a truly universal and all-powerful deity would speak to different groups of people in the ways that they will best understand? Isn’t that part of why you now accept religious texts that are written in English rather than learning to read them in Aramaic or Greek?

America has become a culture filled with people who don’t want to share, don’t play well with others, and act out, throwing a tantrum whenever they don’t get their way.

And that is really what the rise of Donald Trump has given voice to.

And it is a cultural trait that affects us all, because virtually all of our most important cultural traditions reinforce it. Ask yourself if, in fact, you have to actively decide, against your instincts, to reach out to people you’ve been taught to fear, to show compassion to people who make you uncomfortable, perhaps even disgust you. Ask yourself if, in fact, you have an inventory of things that you are protective of and hesitate to share. Be honest. And if you are the normative group of the culture, by which I mean white Christian heterosexual men, then do you not find yourself having to think about the things you do that challenge the norms and privileges associated with that?

This is why we all need allies. The truth is that we are all in this together. And we will either make it work together or destroy it together.

What Will We Do Tomorrow?

In PeaceAble, Politics on November 8, 2016 at 10:06 am

It’s election day in America. Now it begins.

What’s that you say? You thought this was the end of the election? Well every ending is also a beginning, and in America elections are always the end of one cycle of governance and the beginning of a new one.

It’s important to remember, also, that what happens on election day is in many ways less important than what starts to happen on the day after.

I am both hopeful and confident that Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States. Some of you reading this are hoping she will not. One of these hopes will be fulfilled tonight. So what will you do tomorrow.

Consider this: after the U.S. won our revolutionary war against England we had a major advantage in getting our new democracy to work the way the founders wanted it to. The people we defeated left. We didn’t have to figure out how to include the royalists and British sympathizers into our new republic. Anyone who didn’t want to be part of this country could simply go home to England.

But we nevertheless set up a system of government that would require us be inclusive of dissent. And to agree both that the people whom we do not elect would step aside and become the loyal opposition to those we do.

We are in danger of losing that. And if we do, we are in real trouble.

Too many people in this election cycle are talking about running away if their candidate loses, or even more frighteningly, taking up arms and preparing for revolution.

The first idea is just silly, really. First of all, it’s not all that easy to emigrate. It’s more complicated than just saying you’ve decided to be Swiss now. Other countries have the same kinds of requirements for citizenship that we have. It can be time-consuming, expensive, and sometimes unsuccessful. More importantly, politics around the world this year have shown us that there is no democratic country in the world where you can escape the need every once in a while to confront politics that dismay or even frighten you. There is no democracy in which you will not have to sometimes learn how to live with a government whose philosophy and policies you despise.

That’s how democracy works. Karl Rove once spoke of establishing a permanent Republican majority. He couldn’t do it. A few Democrats have suggested that Donald Trump’s candidacy might give them the opportunity to establish a permanent Democratic majority. I sincerely hope that they are wrong. I even hope that we can shake off the idea that an either/or Democratic/Republican majority is the only possibility.

The second idea is dangerous. Revolutions make enemies of us all. It has been 150 years since the Civil War and we still haven’t figured out how to deal with the people who lost and integrate them fully into the national identity. All movements, including the Neo-Nazis, the “Patriot Militias,” the Tea Party, the Black Lives matter movement and its often insensitive imitators, the Occupy movement, and the protesters at Black Rock are motivated by a desire to be heard above the noise, to have their needs and grievances addressed. They feel disenfranchised, marginalized and oppressed. They need to be heard.

That doesn’t mean that the country needs to give them everything they say they need, or even anything they need, depending on what they are asking for. But we have to include them, we have to validate their existence even if we need to vigorously oppose their ideas.

There are people I know who are planning to vote for Donald Trump. These are good people. Their votes are sometimes based on fear or anger or ignorance; sometimes their vote is based on one or two issues of importance to them, local issues, even personal issues, personal experiences. Often they simply have a different understanding than mine, a different moral compass; they are coming from a different place. I can both disagree with them and respect their choices.

I need to do that or I risk forgetting something important about a democracy: they aren’t going away, and sometimes they will win. And if they do win, I will want to be respected and included and listened to.

Democracies all over the world have elected demagogues and dictators who refused to give up power. Democracies have succumbed to revolutions or been undermined by insurgencies by those who have lost at the voting booth. It rarely ends well. It is hard enough to bring people together after an election in which everybody is invested in making it work. When we lose that, when we stop trusting the agreements that are inherent in our Constitution, we risk our democracy, our culture, our national identity, and our safety.

I am confident, as I said, that we will be looking at a President Hillary Clinton tomorrow, so let me address those who will vote for her. Use this as an opportunity to look inward. You believe, perhaps, that the Trump campaign has validated LGBTQ bigotry, sexism, xenophobia, jingoistic nationalism, racism, religious intolerance, and extremism of all kinds: and you are probably right. But please take time now to look inward. These are aspects of our culture that have infected us all. They are both symptom and cause. How have you worked to mitigate or eliminate their influence on your own life? How can you begin to work now to understand the fears and injuries that keep them in place for others. How can we address them in ways that recognize and validate those fears and injuries without validating the bigotry, or participating in the violence?

There is clearly a lot of work to be done in this country to move our culture away from the entrenched privilege of wealth, whiteness, and the masculine; there is a need to work toward the elimination of all kinds of bigotry and toward a diverse and vibrant and just society. None of that will be fully accomplished in the next four years or the next eight. It won’t proceed uninterrupted or unchallenged. There are powerful forces arrayed against it. But unless we recognize the need to engage with, include, try to understand, and address the needs of all our citizens, even the ones whose ideas we find hateful, it won’t happen at all.

If we want to succeed, we need to lead. If we want things to change we have start with ourselves, if we want to end the divisiveness we need to stop dividing. If we want elections that aren’t predicated on hate, anger, fear-mongering, misinformation and disinformation, gossip and innuendo, then we have to stop buying into them.

In a democracy, voting isn’t the end, it’s the beginning. It’s not just whether you voted or how you voted, it’s what you do after the voting is over that really counts.

Of Big Dawgs and Bitches: The Hillary Identity

In Politics on July 28, 2016 at 11:40 pm

Hillary Clinton has an identity problem. After all of her decades in politics, after being First Lady of Arkansas and First lady of the United States, after being a U.S. Senator, after being the first female Secretary of State, after years of advocacy on a huge range of issues, even after being feted nationally after the first ever commencement speech by a graduating senior at Wellesley, during which she challenged a sitting U.S. Senator who was the guest of honor; people don’t really know her.

I think I may have figured out why.

Hillary Clinton grew up at a time when men who sought power, who had ego and ambition and drive to achieve great things were the Big Dawgs, an epithet often applied to her husband. Women who had the same attributes could never aspire to be anything more than Bitches.

And so they were.

Women like Hillary Clinton played the Big Dawgs’ game. They used whatever power they could get hold to carve out a place in a world that had been built by men to serve men. They married their way or slept their way, or bought their way; they said what was expected of them, they did what they had to in the public eye while they schemed and fought and lived and died in the shadow of men. And everyone who knew them knew that they were Bitches.

And here’s the thing. They knew it, too. And they were not only willing to be Bitches, they were proud of what they had accomplished. Think of one great feminine – or if you prefer, feminist – heroine who advanced the many causes of women in a male-dominant American culture who was not called a Bitch, not once, but many times. That was the price of standing up and standing out. You were a Bitch.

Think it’s changed? You’re not paying attention.

Nancy Pelosi is famous as a Bitch. Elizabeth Warren has been called a Bitch. That classy, elegant woman Michelle Obama has been called a Bitch for nothing more ambitious than suggesting that the nation should do more to ensure that even the poorest children should have access to good nutrition on a daily basis, and for doing it while being Black. Hillary Clinton has been a Bitch for most of her life. She has spent a lifetime building a career and a political destiny predicated on being the biggest, baddest Bitch in the room.

But times have changed. Having finally gotten to the point where she is poised to become the first woman ever to hold the office of President of the United States, she finds that people want her to be something else: a woman. After playing for more than four decades with the Big Dawgs, beating them at their own games, playing by their rules, she is told that she is disliked, not trusted, because she is too much of a Bitch. They want to see her softer side, her feminine side, whatever that means.

Male candidates parade their masculine. They are tough, strong, aggressive, they say what they are thinking, they bellow and belch and strut about with their cocks leading the way, and few ever ask if they could show a little softness, a little of their feminine side. They boast of their membership in the fraternity of Big Dawgs.

Maybe it’s time for the Bitches to rule. Stand up and shout it, “Damn right I’m a Bitch! And now is our time!”

But, in a tribute to the words of the old song, “I’ll never let you forget that I’m a woman.” Give Hillary a chance to be the woman – caring, nurturing, soft, feminine – that you want her to be. She can be all that and more. She always has been. Tell her, gently and respectfully, that you want more of her and she’ll do her best. But first acknowledge the value of her (and of all the Bitches who led the way before her) being a Bitch for so many years.

For the women of this country who need to believe that they may finally be taken seriously, that they may have a powerful voice, a seat at the table with the Big Dawgs (and not just any seat, but the one at the head of the table), who want to know that their place and their purpose and their value to society may never again be measured in comparison to the men they love, or the men they compete with; Hillary has a chance to give them that.

Enough with the Big Dawgs, barking and howling and strutting their stuff on all the stages of the world! If a woman is to finally be the President, let her be the biggest, baddest Bitch in the room. And let her bring in with her all that makes her a woman; because the feminine is what’s been missing for far too long.

That’s the challenge Hillary has to face now. She has shown that she can play with the Big Dawgs and beat them at their own game. Now she has to change the rules, make it her game, make it a woman’s game. If she can do that she could be a whole lot more than just the “first woman President.” She could be one of the great Presidents, no gender qualification needed.

 

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