Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

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Deactivation

2014.May.31

One of my proudest accomplishments was waiting to take Physics in high school until my Senior year. My classmates in the smart-kid classes all loaded up on Math and Science as Juniors so they could have more off periods their last year of high school, but I decided I had enough on my plate. Sure enough, most of my classmates burned out while I coasted along as I always had. I recommended this plan to an upcoming Sophomore and she went on to be Valedictorian of her class (and even made a point of thanking me).

Activism and understanding have shifted much of the narrative above in my mind (for example, I’m pretty frustrated by the way smart-kid tracks marginalize “average” students academically and “honors” students socially), yet I retain my pride because of my capacity to choose an unusual path and avoid burnout. The topic has come up often for me: I scraped by on cheap food in college because I knew a job would be more than I could handle; the nonprofit for which I worked in D.C. advocated sabbaticals and self-care as a part of every activist’s strategy; I even skimped my hours early on during political campaigns because I knew I’d be working plenty of overtime by the end and getting paid the same.

If perspective is my superpower, avoiding burnout is one of its fringe benefits (like Magneto being able to “fly” by lining his boots with metal).

Becoming a caregiver has changed everything I thought I knew about myself, though. For the first time in my life, I am responsible for another human being, but unlike my child-rearing peers, I am watching a delightful human being recede into an infant. And unlike my activist friends, who have campaigns and victories and defeats and weekends and vacations (whether or not they use them), I have a crushing amount of stability. You see, when your “work” includes watching someone die very slowly, the good days are ambivalent at best. Bad days are the days where there’s something to do, something to clean, some goal to achieve; if you fuck up, if you learn something new, if you wear yourself out, you at least have somewhere to direct your angst: guilt, action, emotion. Good days have a heartache all their own because nothing happens; every day they don’t get worse is another day you have to wonder and wait and stand ready, because some day they will. Bad days may be exhausting for the body and the mind, but good days are exhausting for the spirit.

It’s hard to be an honest, earnest optimist when your life is lived amid the therapeutic fibs of Alzheimer’s, but it’s even harder when you have a lot of time and self-awareness to navel-gaze over the whole thing. It’s really rather insidious, because there’s rarely a clear turning point, never a conscious decision in the matter: “This is going to be a good spring, so I shall take up pottery and get out of the house more;” “That new neuropathy treatment is going to frustrate and exhaust us, best to minimize my diversions and focus on extra sleep.” If I’d been a little more conscious of what was to come, I totally could have accommodated the ups and downs better, but I wasn’t, and I almost always feel like I’m using my time poorly: “He’s feeling rotten and I’m not available enough because I’m dealing with a dozen outside stressors!” “He’s feeling great and I’m sitting around twiddling my existential thumbs!”

Having perspective as a superpower makes me kind of dependent on all the little things that came with that superpower; what do I become when I lose that power in the most important aspect of my life?

Apparently, this is what happens… Anxiety, stress, restlessness, frustration…

It’s starting to sound like burnout.

Except I can’t burn out.

I CAN’T.

What I can do, though, is check and recheck the other aspects of my life and shift my choices in directions I might have thought too extreme before. I have been anticipating this process all along, I just assumed it would be bad days that would bring the big changes to the fore. Last year I made the painful choice to leave a community I’d helped build, but that decision was helped along by internal strife and gut-wrenching loss. Stubborn as I am, I usually have to actually land on the “Day of Reckoning” space before I do much reckoning…

Last week, my heart was captured by the discussions blossoming around #notallmen/#yesallwomen. The more I read, the more I wanted to say something of my own, to pick up that last little bit where other sympathetic cismen seemed to trail off. I wanted to confess my male sins and start a movement encouraging other men to do the same. I drafted something eloquent and meaningful, tagged in a loved one who blogs to keep me accountable, and…

…and nothing. I had the time, I had the energy, I had the passion, but I just couldn’t get it done. The more I guilted myself to finish, the more I knew I wouldn’t. A couple of tangential conversations came up on Facebook, but I left each feeling unreasonably drained. Actually, that’s been happening a lot lately, on a lot of activist-y topics…

I just don’t know if I’ve got it in me any longer. I’ve been seeing activism as my supposed respite from caregiving, but that’s a lot of worry to welcome.

I believe in personal change AND I believe in global change, but if I have to let go of one I must let go of the will to influence others. I will unpack my privilege and live kindly by example and be available for those who come to me with questions, but the devotional part, the pro-active part, the ACTIVIST part of me may be too big to feed.

Which is not to say I won’t have it in me again; the time has simply come to remind myself I have a choice, and I will always choose caregiving over activism. He needs me and I need me, and as long as I have me, I can always come back to this when my caregiving days are over.

I asked my friends (on Facebook) whether they’d hate me if I took the month of June off from activism; I got very supportive responses, including, “if you burn out, don’t take time off, and don’t return to it, you would end up losing a lot more time in the long run,” and “the struggle will be there when you get back!”

Part of me feels guilty for even thinking about it: there goes another person of privilege dropping out when the going gets tough, leaving the people who don’t have a choice in the matter… but activism is and will always be a part of me; it’s just that who I am is kind of broken right now. Everything in my life is shrinking, but that which is too small to see is not necessarily too small to exist. Right now, this is the one thing I might be able to live without (or, more accurately, at a much smaller intensity… geez, how on Earth am I going to do that?), and I owe it to this other human being — to whom I have committed my life — to try. He wants me at my best. He deserves me at my best.

I do have dozens of friends who are working hard yet; some of these even credit me for their level of understanding or involvement, so maybe I get partial credit. I mean, hell, I have been known to say the best move for a white cisdude in activism is to shut up and let someone else talk, so maybe I should spin this as just activism 2.0…

The truth is, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll come back at the end of June with a fresh perspective on how I can balance being a caregiver and a passionate agitator. Maybe I won’t “come back” at all, just continue to live out my values, to self-examine, and to support other people doing great things in private. Probably, the answer lies somewhere in between. But I need to let it be whatever it will be, and I hope my friends, loved ones, and (dare I say?) allies will understand.

My private philosophy for personal change has for years has been, “Do what you can. When that gets easy, do a little more.” I guess there’s a corollary… “If it’s too much, do a little less.”

Go get ‘em, yall. I’ll be along when I can be.

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I Beg of You

2013.November.2

Ganked with permission@Anti_Intellect was talking to his people, so with his permission I decided to translate his message to people who share my identifiers:

Dear White folks: Stop undervaluing Black folks, whether it is thinking they are uniquely evil or uniquely good.

Dear men: Stop undervaluing women, whether it is thinking they are uniquely evil or uniquely fragile.

Dear hetero people: Stop undervaluing LGBT* people, whether it is thinking they are uniquely evil or uniquely good at decorating.

Dear cis people: Stop undervaluing trans* people, whether it is thinking they are uniquely evil or uniquely rare.

Dear liberals: Stop overvaluing Republicans/conservatives/Tea Partiers, whether it is thinking they are uniquely evil or uniquely powerful.

Dear Southern people: Stop undervaluing the complicated nature of history and science. Just stop.

Dear polyamorous people: Stop overvaluing monogamous people, whether it is thinking they are uniquely evil or uniquely calm.

Dear people raised working class: Stop overvaluing rich people, whether it is thinking they are uniquely evil or uniquely good. And stop planning and voting as if you’ll be one any day now.

Dear people who are financially stable: Stop overvaluing poor people, whether it is thinking they are uniquely evil or uniquely poignant in fiction. Their lives are real and it could happen to anyone.

Dear educated people: Stop undervaluing people without degrees, whether it is that they are uniquely evil or uniquely in control of their circumstances.

Dear non-religious people: Stop overvaluing religious people, whether it is thinking they are uniquely hateful, uniquely hypocritical, or uniquely unified.

Dear human people: Stop mis-valuing everyone who seems different from you, whether it is that they are uniquely evil, uniquely good, uniquely enlightened, or any more bizarre than yourself. We’ve all got too much work to do on ourselves to be worrying about everybody else.

Oh yeah, and stop mis-valuing yourself too. A small change will accomplish more than any big guilt-trip.

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How Dyadism Ruined the Best Moment at SexTalk

2013.February.12

Two weeks ago, Southwestern University hosted its annual Brown Symposium in Georgetown, Texas

– wait, let me highlight why this is interesting:

Last week, the oldest university in Texas hosted a symposium on sex, specifically how we communicate about sex.

And with a little help at home, I was able to attend. “SexTalk: A Symposium with Benefits,” was the most-attended Brown Symposium in memory, and the one most attended by Southwestern students. As easy as it would be to snark about how topics like “Discoveries of Inter-relationships in the Circumpolar North” or “The Music of Olivier Messiaen” should have been equally crowd-pleasing, I prefer to reflect on why this event was such a remarkable draw, for students and visitors alike. And that list starts with Dan Savage.

For the two of you who don’t already know (and even that’s probably inflating my readership a bit), Dan Savage is the nationally syndicated columnist behind Savage Love, a bawdy verbal romp that debuted with Seattle’s weekly, The Stranger, over twenty years ago. From the beginning, the column has centered on hetero people writing in for sex and relationship advice from Dan Savage, who dispenses information and insults with a wink and a “fuck you” toward the stereotype of the sassy gay friend. Along the way, he has sprinkled in political, queer, and non-monogamous content: he coined the term “monogamish” to describe committed partnerships that include threesomes or other sanctioned dalliances and even leads Google searches with readers’ namesake for former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum.

Many members of the audience were already fans of the column (as well as the podcast, which one friend has described as the only podcast she could listen to due to its superior production values). You know someone has attained iconic status when it feels awkward to only say the person’s first or last name. “Dan” sounds like a person, “Savage” sounds like a witness in a newspaper article, but “Dan Savage” is an entity. If you already knew about Dan Savage coming in, there’s a good chance his Q&A with a nervous SU graduate would only have confirmed what you already believed, good or bad (and depending on how far back you’d been reading). He took the stage second, after a sexologist/Unitarian Universalist minister‘s presentation on reconciling faith and sexuality, and framed himself as a gay nobody who just happened to become a champion of healthy sex and decision-making for all people. Savage Love, as he describes it, is written in the tone of a group of buddies who are sitting around being drunk and honest with one other (adding that his increasingly frequent appearances as commentator in mainstream news outlets are far less casual).

After the strained opener, the audience was invited to ask questions. They mostly furthered earlier topics (griping about our decidedly sex-negative governor, Rick Perry, for example). Then for the penultimate question, Eli took the mic.

(I should explain here that I know Eli… sort of… in that way that the Internet and huddled interdependence can make it difficult for sex-positive activists to NOT vaguely know one another in this state. I believe we were briefly Facebook friends due to some Austin project that never quite took off. If memory serves — and it may not — Eli identifies as genderqueer, but will accept “trans man” if a label is absolutely necessary; to be safe, I’ll tell this story using Eli’s conveniently short name instead of pronouns.)

Eli was the first questioner to be nervous, but also the first to ask anything controversial. In a rambly, somewhat accusatory tone, Eli braved the room to ask Dan Savage about certain patterns of insensitivity. The points were familiar to anyone who’s already seen sex-positive folks roll their eyes over Dan Savage: transphobia, bi-erasure, and general prejudice against queer identities that are far removed from his own (for the record, Dan Savage is a white, married cismale, quasi-monogamous, and the toppy-er partner). Dan Savage had briefly touched on this reputation already, but Eli’s question was far from moot; Eli even cited an earlier crack about a young lesbian having a Justin Bieber poster on her wall as an example of his disregard for effeminate men.

Dan Savage’s response was more rambly than I would have expected, but still calm and respectful toward Eli. He welcomed the concern and reiterated that Savage Love has the tone of a drunk group of friends at the root of its coarseness and its slang, but also its honesty. (Personally, I think Dan Savage’s detractors might be less critical if this were stated in the column’s header, but I’m sure there would be other drawbacks.) He talked a little about how much things have changed for him and the column over its life, but without many specifics. He rambled about his love of effeminate men (such as his husband), which got a lot of laughs but sounded just a little like, “My best friend is black, so I can’t be racist.”

Now, from this point forward, I must apologize for having an even fuzzier memory than usual, but two separate phenomena were taking shape. Positive debate has been on my mind a lot (and it’s no secret I’m skeptical of confrontational structures and dependent upon a minimal amount of affirmation in my activism), so I chose to focus not on the discussion between Eli and Dan Savage, but on the audience’s reaction to it.

We were in a large auditorium, with several hundred people on the floor and plenty more up on a balcony I couldn’t see over. Eli stood in a side aisle, about three-quarters back from the stage; most of the audience had to turn around to see Eli and did so politely at first. When Eli began to speak again, though, much of the crowd bristled.

Eli pressed further, a little more steady this time, saying something about hostility and dismissal toward trans issues. I felt that Eli’s concerns were better stated, but that the audience was less interested; either the crowd of Dan Savage fans felt Eli had already been rebuffed by Dan Savage’s mere awesomeness, or maybe Eli’s point was hitting too close to home. By the time Eli’s two or three sentences were complete, only a handful of people were still looking directly at Eli, and this is where I bristled. The vast majority of the audience had faced forward, literally turning their backs on Eli: half were looking toward Dan Savage on stage (many incredulous, as if to say “Can you believe this person? Don’t they know who you are?” and others just kind of staring blankly), and the rest looked at their feet, their notebooks, anywhere but back at Eli.

Dan Savage, too, got more articulate in his next response, especially regarding his treatment of trans issues. He assured the audience that over the more than two decades of the column, he has learned and grown with the help of critical readers. He also pointed out that he’s never relied solely on his own opinion and frequently brings in experts to check his work or even do it for him; sometimes they disagree with him, but he prints the full exchange anyway. He pointed out that he was tagging in Buck Angel and Kate Bornstein to comment on trans topics 15 years ago, long before anyone else had ever heard of them.

By this point, I think most of the audience members considered Dan Savage to have “won”, and there seemed to be more than a couple of smug smiles facing the front of the room. I detected that Eli and Eli’s allies (few in number, but easy to spot because they were still looking at Eli) were listening intently, and that some of their agitation had melted away. Unfortunately, everyone else was just waiting for the discomfort to pass like an argument over family dinner.

Dan Savage continued that, as an advice columnist, he must work with the questions he receives and that he sometimes eliminates relevant letters because they include language he knows will be too offensive. However, he emphasized, there are not always polite terms for sexual acts and identities that are bold and controversial to the mainstream. Using existing slang gives Dan Savage the freedom to talk to people where they live; as he eliminates slang from inclusion, he must sometimes also eliminate the perfectly reasonable discussions that could come from that slang. The direct consequence of this is that people who don’t know how to write about trans issues consciously enough to be included don’t get included at all, and fewer trans discussions take place than in the past.

In the end, Dan Savage and Eli agreed that Eli could write in and encourage others to do the same. Now this wasn’t a perfect answer, but it was a good answer, and Eli and Eli’s allies were both heard and attentive; maybe I’m being idealistic here, but it seemed like the exchange closed on a mutually respectful note. I felt some of Dan’s answers were a tiny bit derailing, but then I also wondered if Eli might be spoiling for a fight instead of a discussion. I felt like neither was as articulate as they could have been, but they were both being honest and human and, despite the tension in the room, respectful. Most of the audience missed this moment of subtle peace, particularly those who had already decided Dan Savage had “won” (which he hadn’t). That the conversation ended so well was, to me, a testament to their both wanting not to win, but to find a stronger path forward. Everyone who was still paying attention really seemed to come together during this final point; unfortunately, that portion comprised only a fraction of the total audience. It served as a demonstration of how much tone matters and a reminder of how few of us have the courage to sit through awkward, non-competitive conversations — even when they take us someplace better.

I love this kind of dialogue just for existing. I guess it’s fitting that in the time since the Symposium, I’ve been mulling over this piece, by a prominent advocate for marriage equality who managed to befriend Dan Cathy of hate-nugget fame. Like the discussion between Dan Savage and Eli at Southwestern, it is a bit unfocused and inkblotty, allowing readers to reinforce preconceived notions about the parties involved. But agree or disagree, I don’t see a lot of credit going to people who stand up before their allies and say, “Hey, maybe we need a new perspective.”

Now, I’m not a journalist (repeat after me: “Blogging is not journalism.”), but if I were, I would have followed up the Dan Savage/Eli story with research. I would have talked to Eli over the lunch break or in a subsequent interview to find out whether Eli was happy with the exchange. I would have reached out to Dan Savage for comment. I would have obtained a video of the discussion so I could parse out every word. Perhaps I would have looked for other examples of hero worship getting in the way of good discussion or activists whose messages and methods weren’t always in obvious accordance. But I’m just a part-time writer on a nearly quixotic search for better questions and better communication.

It invigorates me to see people discuss an issue beyond some ideological “victory”, but three quarters of the room at Southwestern had no interest in such matters. When I found not so much as a tweet about the exchange, I started wondering if  there might be some conflict avoidance inherent in red-state progressivism. Since many of us (especially allies with little-to-no queer identity) band together in little bubbles, face-to-face activism is both rare and optional. It’s primarily online or in groups. We don’t have to change anyone’s minds, just sit safely at home, secure in the knowledge that we are right.

We tell one another boogeyman stories about how unsafe we are in this state, but we are given a lot of choices and we don’t choose what is difficult or unpopular nearly as often as we’d like to think. We tell ourselves it’s braver to leave what we know and go to liberal oases (Austin, Seattle, DC…) than to stay and live openly as peace-loving, radically inclusive, judgment-defeating neighbors and citizens. How many of us would call out a stranger for saying something offensive or untrue? How many of us leverage our privilege to challenge others where they live? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with making choices to avoid conflict (I’ve made them myself), I just don’t want us to fool ourselves. Engaging the issues is not the same as engaging a person, and I suspect that’s a flaw in the system that everyone is happy to ignore. I want to out that this freedom to choose is a privilege, and that quietly choosing between pre-drawn sides reinforces not only the powers that be, but the structures that cycle that powers without transformation. Change still happens, but it is slow. Can we say we know for certain that participating in a movement is easier and more effective than engaging in dialogue with those who disagree with our worldview until we’ve actually tried? Can we say for sure that there even is a movement if we don’t all take such action?

When we approach any discussion looking for an automatic winner and loser, the question I have to ask is, “Why?” My theory: conflict avoidance so pervasive that we lose the ability to see dialogues at all, that we eventually only see debates. Better to be part of an unpopular throng than standing alone somewhere in the crossfire, I guess.

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It’s Not Impossible, It’s Just Texas

2013.January.25

WHAT

Last week, I reached out for something vague with a flurry of spontaneous tweets. I tried to make it poetic, and thoughtful, and concise, but the failed purpose was to articulate something missing in my activist/ish life and hope my friends and allies could point me in the right direction. Responses were mostly negative on the helpful scale, to the extent that responses like “I don’t know what you’re talking about” and simple cyber-hugs were graded at the high end of an sharp curve.

There were five posts in quick succession, plus an epilogue and a disgruntled follow-up, all posted to my Twitter (where my smattering of activist followers seemed to be inactive that day). The tweets then cross-posted to my private Facebook, where I had hoped to reach the several dozen friends who currently or have previously worked for nonprofit organizations, political campaigns, and other professional realms of activism (or at least the dozens more who advocate as volunteers, organizers, and educators on their own time) with one simple query:

“Where my idealists at?”

This was not the first time I had attempted the approach of, “Ask the Internet and it will come.” Except I wasn’t asking the whole Internet; I wasn’t even asking all 500 of my Facebook friends. Even omitting the various filters for me and Twitter, my posts could still only reach whatever friends happened to check their Facebook feeds around the time I posted. Activists or not, few of my friends (or anyone on Facebook) optimize Facebook’s feed options (subjecting them to a lot of irrelevant noise and shortening attention spans further), so even if they wanted to see it, who knows if they would have? If someone was busy at work that day, or sick, or forgot the phone they use to log in, or just needed a break from digital socializing on THAT DAY, there was little chance they would see it.

My approach was essentially aiming a shotgun at a hummingbird. Through a wall. And the hummingbird may or may not have been there in the first place.

It should surprise no one, then, that the tweets were ignored and the Facebook posts received the following array of responses: 7 “Likes”, 5 vaguely cynical comments, 4 vaguely sympathetic comments, 2 playful threats about my artistic license with grammar, 2 admissions that someone didn’t understand what I was after, 1 vaguely relevant joke, and 1 itemized derailment of the entire series (which helped trigger my disgruntled follow-up, 4 sympathetic comments, and conversations with both the grammarian and the derailer). Of these, the “I don’t understand” comments were actually the most helpful, because I realized that I couldn’t explain my posts any better — and that was the problem.

The posts failed to reach anyone who could recognize and answer the question I was trying to ask. Even I didn’t know what I sought, so how could I know if I was going about it the right way? Strangely (or perhaps not so strangely), even the most upsetting of these comments led to productive discussion and reconsideration, to the extent that I’m finally able to articulate what it is I seek and why it has been so difficult. From the angst of failure, a better question came to me: not “Where are the idealists?” but “Why am I so desperate to find them?”

WHERE

When I left my “First Real Job” in D.C., it was to return home. Texas is decidedly conservative, in politics and in culture — and these days pretty in-your-face about it (part of why I left in the first place). Yet there’s a camaraderie that comes easily here as outcasts band together in a hostile environment; it facilitates a simpler acceptance of other people, and I’d found myself missing that. While my time in D.C. had been professionally rewarding, it had also been incredibly lonely. Living closer to the mainstream, I somehow felt further away from finding community or chosen family (outside of working hours) than I’d felt in Texas. As my life drifted closer to “normal”, I came to feel ever-more conspicuous about the differences that remained; back home, outcasts had always been outcasts, whatever differences they carried.

So I came back. The politics is still just as bad (probably worse), but I’ve found my community and my chosen family amid the outliers. The more uniform the culture here becomes, the easier it gets to identify, support, and ally with others who defy convention (and it doesn’t matter whether they defy it a little or a lot). It may be compared to a spirit of revolution, but I find it much subtler: for revolution, the first priority is to subvert the power system in place using any help you can get; you’re not yet worried about what power structure might replace it and therefor you don’t really screen your camarades (“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and all that). Here, we’re just banding together and doing what we can to survive, all the while educating ourselves and others on how the dominant narrative is not our only option.

In a relatively free society (and whine as we might, we participate in one of the free-est societies ever, even in Texas), if you can be diplomatic with folks who perpetuate the dominant culture but also successful at convening with those who don’t, you can sustain a pretty nice little desert oasis. I can pick my battles according to what I want to do (because it can’t all get done); I can take a break whenever I need (because victory is never as close as burnout); I can even be rebellious and popular at the same time!

The choice to remain a(n ideological) minority does carry drawbacks, of course. The political bell curve places my most “hippie-ish” peers somewhere in the neighborhood of California Republicans. Bias and scorn seep out from most every news source; outside of Austin, there’s hardly such a thing as a secondary political narrative (and Sam Houston forbid you should ever try to find a middle ground on any issue other than the two conveniently polarized “sides”.) Eventually, you lose the ability to keep political and social culture out of any conversation with your friend-allies, and then you have little else to draw from for civil discourse amid family and neighbors who do support the dominant narrative. When you  find sympathetic stories, any anecdote from Texas is far more likely to anger or depress you than to give you strength or hope. It’s enough to make anyone jaded, really.

Or, increasingly I fear, it’s enough to make EVERYONE jaded.

WHO

There are a lot of us fighting the good fights down here in our own little ways: computer programmers who raise LGBT awareness by living out and proud, single moms whose households incorporate deep environmental awareness, elder-care-givers who network casual activists to one another and wax philosophic about underlying truths discovered along the way. OK, you got me, that last one is me.

I’ve been keeping my eye on a certain elder in my life for the majority of the seven years I’ve been back here, but it’s only been a full-time arrangement for about 14 months. At this point in his progression, I spend a scattered couple of hours a day helping him with food, doctor appointments, medications, tech support, and socializing, and 20+ hours a day keeping myself occupied while listening for one of those needs to arise (you can find out more at #badideacare, though #occupyFree could also be clever). I spend a lot of time at or near my computer, and the tone of my day is often set by fellow Texans; our communal strength and reliance upon one another is sustained largely online because we are pretty spread out by geography, logistics, and focus. When Texas liberals and/or nonconformists have a bad day (which is often), there’s a good chance I hear about it early and often. My mood can, and does, often suffer. (Because I care, dammit! :P )

Most of this circumstance is not really new. What I have learned over the past fourteen months is that when I reach out, when I ask for something positive from my network of amateur activists, the vast majority of responses I get will be cynical, snarky, pedantic, derailing — in a word, counterproductive. I probably spend as much attention on how we work as on what we’re working toward, so every time an ally approaches an issue with sarcasm, aggressiveness, smugness, or general misanthropy, my bright optimism clouds just a little more.

I can’t call out a single incident or a single person for this, because it is more subtle and erosive than that. The hardest part of running this treadmill isn’t the lost political battles, it’s the lost rhetorical battles. Most of the negative comments I get — from my own allies, remember — don’t stop at foiling my grasps at positivity, they often imply that I am foolish for even asking. The brand of idealism I hold is not only so much rejected as a personal choice, it is regarded as downright impossible.

WHY

I might share their bleak outlook if I had not seen otherwise in D.C. The organization where I worked shut its doors in 2006 due to unrelated — but equally painful — realities, yet even during lean times that small org was a hub of positivity whose network stretched nationwide and beyond.

Before I was care-giving full time, I could still travel a couple times a year and (re-)connect with folks in Austin, Colorado, California, or D.C., drawing strength from the great works and great attitudes I found. Activists in more liberal regions (even those who are no more professional activists than the elder for whom I care) get stronger support from their communities, maintain larger professional networks, have more educational resources available, and are more likely operate with the luxury of designated workspaces that (however difficult it may be) can be left at work once in a while. These opportunities bring with them a greater capacity for all things positive and effective, which can then be shared with organizations and individuals who are less centrally located — if they can manage to connect. This was, in fact, a mission of the D.C. project where I dedicated most of my time. We would identify, celebrate, and support effective community leaders, then gather them to foster collaboration while a group of academics attempted to glean big lessons on leadership from their efforts. Along the way, smaller networks became connected to one another, and a larger movement toward social justice became feasible.

The org where I worked encouraged straightforward values for advocacy organizations via an acronym, THE RAMP: Transparency, Hope, Exchange, Respect, Affirmation, Modeling, Pragmatism. We talked about our values, we swapped insights with others, and we made sure positivity was part of our movement. All around us were other organizations — other networks — who were just as positive, just as supportive, whose lights shone just as bright. They spent more time talking about what they could do than what they couldn’t. They spent more time building each other up than tearing anyone down for being imperfect allies (or even opponents). They never let one another feel isolated.

Those networks demonstrated many things beyond the plausibility of an affirming approach, but the most important to me were these:

  • The power inherent in language and art rests in a clear message to a clear audience, not grammatical perfection. (See also.)
  • There is an ongoing exodus of non-conservatives to the U.S. coasts and it is reinforcing the red-state/blue-state polarization we decry.
  • In order to make a difference to a place, one must be grounded there.
  • No changemaker works alone.

These are, in fact, the other reasons I came back to Texas seven years ago. I cannot be cynical because I’ve seen positive activism done well, and I believe it can be done here (and not just in Austin).

HOW

My old org is gone, and that old network has changed over time, but I have come to believe that successful relationships depend on impact rather than longevity. About half of my colleagues from that time have left activism but continue to live out their values and positivity in new careers; the other half are still at it, building and connecting and shining away with awesome projects in liberal hubs and conscious, supportive families at home. Alas, those same careers and families usually keep them away from Facebook, and since they still maintain their local support networks, they have less at stake in maintaining strong ties with me than I do with them. I’ve been looking for positive connections to augment or replace them.

I haven’t been calling for all the idealists, I’ve been calling for my idealists: those whose work to become more inclusive and more positive never quite ends. I need to bring conscious positivity back into my life, and I’d like to acquire the skills to help others do the same. I need the positive news and clever toolkits and erudite inspiration — not just some cat meme or Mary Engelbreit aphorism, but accurate insights from people who know it because they’ve done it. I’m not looking to swing the pendulum to another extreme; I just want to connect with folks who find hope in their activism as often as not. (I’d surely settle for a third of the time… maybe a quarter.) And for now, just because I’m difficult (and nearly quixotic), I need to be able to do this pretty much entirely online (yes, the same realm that brought you trolling and such sentimental acronyms as “DIAF”).

I could use any help that’s available. I want to connect with part-time activists who believe in affirmative approaches, especially in Texas and especially online, even if you’re no more sure how to do it than I am. I also welcome recommendations for positive outlets on Twitter or Facebook (I have a couple of groups there myself), educational resources on community building, amateur-friendly activists networks, and anyone who might know something about fostering a positive workspace for non-professionals. What else is out there?

I’d like to think I’ve continued to practice the values of THE RAMP in my efforts here, but Affirmation is by far the most elusive and the hardest to pay forward: I simply do not know how. I just need some reassurance that my values (both political and rhetorical) have a place in this state — that I have a place in this state — before the illusions of isolation and hopelessness become too strong.

Addendum: I swear I didn’t plan this, but as I’m posting this, two notable sex-positive conferences are scheduled for this weekend in my two backyards (online and off). Some of my favorite activists are gathering in Atlanta for Creating Change, an annual conference of queer activism; my participation in CC10 was the most affirming weekend I’ve had since returning to Texas. Then on Monday, some of my favorite people have arranged a day off for me so I can attend a Brown Symposium on sex-positivity (near Austin, of course). I can’t think of a better moment to ask again, “Where my idealists at?”. Both events should be thoroughly tweeted, so follow the conversations at #CC13, #creatingchange, #BrownSym2013, and #sextalkinTX. If sex-positivity isn’t your thing, watch this space and I’ll let you know what else I find as I find it.

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Voting and IDs Get Stricter: This Just Happened

2012.May.9

I took the elder for whom I care to get his driver’s license converted to a plain photo ID. His drivers license expired a couple of months ago (when I was still getting the hang of my new level of responsibility). I checked the DPS website, prepared the form, and brought both his expired license and birth certificate with me, just in case.

The office was busier than I had expected for mid-afternoon on a weekday, a lot of working people and more than a couple of folks traveling in multi-generational packs (whether because kids needed watching or because an elder relative needed assistance) but I got him to sit down while I stood in line. Several people were sent to fill out forms, but a couple were sent home for more documentation. I didn’t think anything of it. As we approached our turn at the check-in counter, I called him over to stand with me and the woman behind the desk invited us to skip the line when she was his fragile movement. I told her what we needed and she reached for a page she had at the desk. “He needs two documents verifying his residence, and then we’ll get that taken care of.” She knew this would be a challenge, because she didn’t even bother to ask whether we had his expired drivers license or any of the pre-existing requirements. She said the change just went into effect Monday. I tried to think whether we could pull enough documents from his wallet and the glove compartment, but no; we had to go home and come back.

I’m frustrated because this restriction seems to be cynical, unnecessary “protection” against fraud that is far from profligate in this state. Voter ID has been on the agenda for several election cycles, but it took the class of 2010 to make it happen. This change, which reinforces the disenfranchisement by making an ID more difficult to get, was passed in 2009 by a less extreme Lege. And isn’t it suspicious that a law passed nearly 2 years ago wasn’t implemented until election season 2012?

I’m frustrated that, news junkie that I can be, I haven’t heard a word about this change on local TV news, on local radio, or just in passing conversation. Maybe I haven’t been paying a lot of attention, but this seems like a story that should be repeated early and often. I worry that folks who wait until the last minute to do something important will get left in the cold. I worry that this will slow the participation of folks who move to our state or move within it (and I know from experience that the working class is highly mobile in this state).

I’ve gone back to the website and seen the offset gray box that alludes to the change, but it hardly strikes me as obvious; I actually would have noticed it better if they’d added it to the existing list. The good news is that, as a full-time caregiver of a fairly mobile senior (and forty-plus-year resident of the same house) , it’s not really any big deal for me to return to the office tomorrow with all the necessary documents. But we’re outliers; of the half-dozen people who left in the half hour I was there, how many took off work? skipped lunch? used up what little flexibility they have in their schedule this week/month? Even among those who can work it out again, how many are going to bother to do so?

How are we not turning voting into a luxury in this state?

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Challenges to Slutwalk

2012.April.22

[I am currently consulting the organizers of Dallas Slutwalk 2012; the following is began as a response to a question about the challenges Slutwalks have faced.]

At our first organizer’s meeting, I shared some articles on criticisms from last year. I’d be happy to share links (I posted a few on the page), but they can be summarized thusly:

  1. Language: the choice to embrace “slut” is dividing feminists as to whether the Slutwalks subvert or reinforce sexist language. Moreover, it has conflated participants who (sometimes unknowingly) represent two purposes: denouncing victim-blaming through satire and proclaiming sexual autonomy in earnest.
  2. Race: the Slutwalks have largely been seen as an enterprise by white women; efforts at outreach to communities of color have frequently ignored the history of sexualized marginalization against women of color, who, accordingly, have a different relationship with the word “slut”.
  3. Message: owing in no small part to the idiosyncrasies above, the media has largely failed to convey an accurate or clear message of the Slutwalks, instead choosing to focus on these controversies or simply the spectacle of the events.

My personal goal for this year’s walk is to make sure more attention is paid to these challenges before and during the walk, as well as to encourage and help organize follow-up events that will allow supporters to dig deeper into all issues raised.

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Dallas Slutwalk: 1 Year Later

2012.March.28

In April of 2011, Dallas was one of the first major cities to hold its own slutwalk after a Toronto official warned young women not to dress like a “slut” if they didn’t want to be raped. Dozens of cities around the world joined the movement in ensuing months, but where is that movement now?

A lot has happened in the last 11 months. Some say there is a “war on women”. Rush Limbaugh is losing sponsors but gaining listeners after calling a young law student a slut for defending public support for birth control before Congress. Texas is sacrificing federal funding for women’s healthcare over abortion policies.

There have been victories for sex-positivity also: figures as diametrically opposed as Dan Savage and Newt Gingrich are getting people talking about monogamy, open relationships, and the boundaries of commitment. Innovations and careful marketing are bringing condoms and sex toys further out of the shadows. Even school districts in the most sex-negative parts of the country are abandoning abstinence-only programs for more comprehensive sex ed.

In the aftermath of last year’s event, we also had to recognize two very different tracks of slut-walkers: those who wanted to oppose the victim-blaming mentality that sparked the very first SlutWalk, and a subset who also self-identified as sluts (or their allies) and wanted to question whether sluthood itself had to be a bad thing. It was hard, it was complicated, and a lot of good conversations started but didn’t get very far.

Let’s pick up the conversation where we left off. Is it time for another SlutWalk? Or is there another way to gather up the momentum from last year and propel sexuality forward? Is there a way we can reconcile the two tracks or must we choose one to move forward?

We’re looking for supporters of last year’s SlutWalk and other local activists to come together and talk about these issues. We have to move fast: the anniversary is April 23rd, and April is also Sexual Assault Awareness Month. We’d like to have a face-to-face discussion very soon and decide what the next step will be in time to commemorate last year’s walk.

Last year, Dallas Slutwalk was organized from scratch by one determined woman who is currently wrapped up in the joys of new motherhood. I’ve volunteered to help her get some folks together for a conversation about how best to follow-up last year’s successful walk, at which point I’d love to hand it off to a group of dedicated women who can take it places I can’t.

To get involved in the planning and especially the pondering, please join us on Facebook or Meetup, help us figure out a time and place, and plan to bring a friend.

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A Revolution without Enmity

2011.September.29

The first step to a successful revolution is destroy all competing revolutionaries.
– Carolina in “Jehovah Made this Whole Joint for You” by The New Radicals

Lest you think I’m abandoning my non-violent stance, let me assure you the above quote is from a satirical song — though it only features a slight error. I might prefer, instead, “The first step to a successful revolution is destroy all revolutionary competition.” There’s a lot to be said for eliminating enemies from one’s life, but that doesn’t have to mean eliminating the people whom you consider enemies. If you can do so without bloodshed or “mysterious disappearances”, so much the better. Well, let me clarify with another song lyric:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

– “Imagine” by John Lennon

I hope we all know that John Lennon wasn’t encouraging unity through decimation of enemies (after all, Hero was still a few decades away…). Lennon wanted us to think about a world without any concept of enmity. Not non-violence, but post-violence. What constructs in our society would become obsolete if our institutions were no longer built around competing for resources and/or validation that “we” are right/best/most/etc.?

Yeah, and if a frog had wings, it wouldn’t bump its ass when it hopped. — Cassandra in Wayne’s World

The great thing about a rhetorical questions is rarely the answer to that question, but rather the tangents that it inspires. We will likely never know what a society without governments or religions would look like, but what steps could we take in that direction? Could we develop more cohesive economies? More tolerant governments? Less global conflict?

And the best question of all: If so, how?

There’s a brilliant piece in the New York Times this week that identifies a rising trend of such questions being asked of more and more countries. The article, by Nicholas Kulish, connects what began as the Arab Spring to ongoing protests and political actions from India to England and even Wall Street. Many of the protesters aren’t attached to specific demands or dogmas; they are questioning the structure of elected power itself and convening to develop better ideas. What I love most about Kulish’s article is that it highlights the vagueness of these demonstrations and frames it as potent, effective, maybe even a GOOD thing. (If I ramble too long about the article, you won’t click the link, so I’m moving on…)

Kulish goes on to trace the timing of current economic woes across the West back to the fall of Communism. For two decades, no construct has threatened Western lifestyles in quite the manner of a true nemesis like Communism. No matter how much the U.S. government and media alarm us with threats of terrorism, slow economic growth, global climate change, same-sex marriage, de-criminalized marijuana, a Black president, a female president, a conservative president, or progressive tax brackets, none of these horrors posits the same heft as an entire nation with a radically different way of life who is itching for an excuse to prove they’re right. (For the record, I’m not here to take sides in the Cold War, but to examine the lingering effects of its very structure.)

You want big news, you have to have big fights. A superhero needs a supervillain, and thanks to you we’ve got none left.
– Vic Weems, superhero publicist, in Mystery Men

What happens to a heroic superpowered entity with no supervillains to fight? Do they get bored and have to look for fights, puffing up weaker threats to match those of bygone scourges? Even if they do, there’s still a lot of free time leftover, an expensive secret lair collecting dust, and a reputation of power and goodness to maintain. Any hero who out-lives zir usefulness could easily turn up as pathetic as a rock star who out-lives their talent. No matter how good they are, without some goal, some target, some constant stimulus, can they ever be as good as they were?

Ideally, what superpowers should do is take that free time to look within, figure out how to make the good better in new ways — I don’t know, seek enlightenment or cure cancer or some crap like that. If they don’t find a new challenge, their internal idiosyncrasies will snowball until introspection becomes necessary — indeed, maybe this is what is happening today on Wall Street. But can you imagine Superman taking up yoga and bumming around Europe to find himself? Great superheros are structured to be defenders, but there is no need of defenders without conflict. They’re like weather vanes without wind, and much of our culture exists purely in relation (or is it retaliation?) to some other aspect of it. Our very government was founded on the concept of checks and balances because no individual or group could be trusted all the time. Our culture doesn’t know what to do without conflict, but it is our thirst for drama that necessitates each conflict measure greater than the last (even Beowulf leveled up!). Have you ever noticed how many action films focus on threats from WITHIN? After the Cold War, you couldn’t get a viable spy movie plot without some (usually former-Cold-War) operative going rogue. Action films went from being about the Iron Curtain to idle hands. Our culture is structured, for better and worse, toward the existence of good guys and bad guys and their inevitable clash.

Without equally potent bad guys, the U.S. and its allies seem destined to either become bad guys or lose their hero statuses altogether.

Do you know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world, to not know why you’re here.
– Elijah Price in Unbreakable, just before declaring himself a supervillain

Most people don’t choose to become supervillains, so could we stand to lose the hero status? Since we’re looking at comic book ideas anyway, let’s look at comic books literally. “Truth, justice, and the American way!” Superheroes are often stand-ins for government. They fill in governmental lapses to fight crime, rally patriotism, and keep life simple. But comic readers have known for decades that heroes cannot remain simple, steadfast, and unambiguous forever. For every supervillain-to-beat-all-supervillains, a good comic has to include a plot involving lost powers, a turncoat ally, or some devastating moral quandary. Create a character devoted to specific rules and those rules must eventually be challenged, subverted, nuanced. It’s just good drama. Eventually, however, unending drama gets so contrived that the comic makers themselves lose track and decide to start over.

I hope that America’s time of reinvention has come. At heart, I think we’ve got the right idea: our foundations are sound, and here the institution of democracy is not so much in question as is its execution. We’re a lazy democracy, so we need to either shape up or accept that our practices just aren’t going to match our ideals. Personally? I’d like to see some new ideas around democracy. Let’s try eliminating political parties, holding instant runoff elections, implementing a Fair Tax, or taxing campaign treasuries to pay for schools. I mean, if we can reboot such an institution as Superman, why not democracy?

We’ve won all the competitions. There’s no one left to prove our might to, so let’s get on with expanding our wisdom more enthusiastically and sharing our compassion more generously.

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Recommended Reading for January 17

2011.January.17

I know it’s too late to catch a parade or join a movement or anything too strenuous, but please take a moment to at least THINK about why today is a holiday, what it celebrates and signifies, and how we remember it. I found some of the most profound readings on Colorlines.com, of course:

Civil Rights historian Barbara Ransby on the legacy of compartmentalizing the message of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

White anti-racist Tim Wise reflects on the parts of King’s legacy that is often left behind

And if Michelle Chen’s reflections on peace activism are too long or liberal for your tastes, take instead fifteen minutes to review President Eisenhower’s farewell speech, which — fifty years ago today — encouraged balance between the federal and private economies, cautioned the nation against overindulgence, and birthed the prophetic phrase “military industrial complex”.

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10 Points Marginally Related to Universal Healthcare

2010.November.10

[Contributor Post by johncleonard]

#1) TARP isn’t going to cost the taxpayers a lot of money in the end. Almost all the money given out is getting paid back and all we’re going to end up being on the hook for as taxpayers is the administrative cost of the program. This is not the huge source of debt/spending that we’ve been led to believe.

#2) The stimulus spending isn’t a good idea. However, again, it’s not going to cost as much in the long-haul as we’ve been led to believe. Every job it saves is taxable income that the government doesn’t lose. No, it’s not going to be cost-effective in any measurable way, but a lot of the infrastructure projects that are able to go forward because of it are sorely needed. Who wants to have to wonder every time they cross a bridge whether it’s going to collapse before they can get to the other side? Things like that are savings that can’t be measured, and that’s exactly why some of these projects have never gotten off the ground — if you can’t show how it pays for itself, the people don’t want to pay for it.

#3) America can’t afford to NOT have some form of Universal Healthcare. The healthcare and insurance industries are slowly choking off the rest of the economy. Who cares if you make $200K a year if you pay $190K a year to your insurance/docs, and believe me, that’s where things are headed if these companies aren’t reigned in, and I mean tightly. Taxes are already a drop in the bucket compared to what a lot of people pay for insurance alone, let alone their out-of-pocket medical expenses. Even if we go with socialized medicine and everyone’s taxes double because of it, most of the middle-class will be far better off than they are today in their cost/benefit ratio (and the poor will be protected, as well).

#4) A lot of people like to say that healthcare reform is about the government being able to control the people. Personally, I don’t see a single industrialized country that uses it that way. I also don’t see where socialized medicine has negatively affected the economy in the U.K., France, Netherlands, any of the Scandinavian countries, or anywhere else, for that matter. Where socialism gets dangerous to the economy is when the government tries to control all means of production and to plan an economy without the flexibility to change when the times change. Even the most ambitious socialists in the U.S. don’t think we should take things in that direction — at least not if they’re smart; it’s a direction that’s been proven NOT to work.

#5) If we eliminated every bit of government spending outside of the military and defense budgets, we’d save a whopping 15% of the total expenditures of our government. Not a single one of these Tea Party or even the oldschool conservatives is going to suggest we cut defense or military spending, even if we weren’t involved in two “wars”.

#6) Eliminating the “War on Drugs” could pay for healthcare for every individual in the U.S.. The way the insurance companies drive up premiums is by using a divide and conquer strategy. Premiums are based off risk amortization on what’s called a “pool”. The smaller the pool, the fewer people there are to foot the bulk of the risk, and thus higher premiums. One option that’s far short of socialization is to force insurance companies to consider the entire population as the “risk pool” when they calculate premiums for ANYONE. Another option would be to outlaw for-profit healthcare providers (the logic for this is simple: people’s health is too valuable a resource for this country to trust it to people who aren’t concerned with care before profits).

#7) There is a whole lot of “fuck you, I’ve got mine” going around in the U.S. right now. People forget that there were people there when they were struggling to lend a helping hand, or that they received benefits or, with even more irony, forget that their Social Security and Medicare benefits come from the government already. People are not just uninformed, they are being willfully misinformed. It’s my opinion that someone (Rupert Murdoch for starters, and we can go on and on from there) should be held responsible for that. Journalism is an art where objectivity is sacrosanct, and the companies that try and turn a profit on “news” are all guilty of letting their “sales” get in the way of their integrity. MSNBC, FOX News, CNN, all of them. There are still good journalists out there, and when you find one, they’re usually hanging onto their jobs by the skin of their teeth. It’s very difficult in the current market for people with the sort of integrity that the title of “journalist” implies to keep both their integrity and their jobs. This is why we have things like the “March to Restore Sanity/Fear” — it was as much about drawing attention to the media twisting things, slanting things, and dividing the people so it’s easier for the corporations to remain in power (make no mistake, the corporations “own” the majority of senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle) as it was about any sort of partisan statement.

#8) Debt. Debt. Debt. Borrow your way to prosperity has been the American anthem for a long time now. It’s finally starting to bite us in the ass, and it’s going to be painful to work our way out of it. Does that mean we should sacrifice the future and security of the republic to do so? I think that would be a terrible mistake.

#9) The Free Market tautology. I hear a lot of people talking out there who think that the Market is some god-like force that can fix anything. God, however, is also a tautology. You’re free to believe in either, of course, but expecting the Market to solve something that it has already failed miserably to solve is (in my opinion) one of the truest marks of idiocy. In the U.S., the government has a track-record of stepping in and providing essential services that the market fails to provide — this is true of roads, police, fire, water, sewer, flood planning, food for the hungry, retirement, medical care for the elderly, medical care for small children, and many other areas as well. In the modern world, the health of the populace is as much a matter of infrastructure as roads, bridges, the power grid, fire and police protection, water, sewers, and so on and so forth. Like I’ve said elsewhere, Universal Healthcare should be looked at in the same way a sanitation law would be viewed. Sure, we wouldn’t need such things if everyone was honest, considerate, and rational, but that’s not the world we live in. Those aren’t the people that share it with us. We share this world with a lot of fuckwads that care a lot more about when they’re going to buy their next new Bugatti than whether or not they’re not trampling on someone else’s rights to do it.

#10) I want to see the U.S. spend as much on education as it does the military. Education is where all these problems started, and where they could all end if we as a people are committed to providing each other with an actual education, instead of providing a glorified babysitter that’s primarily designed to churn out complacent workers. We’ve seen where that leads, and now it’s time that we realize that our collective complacency is what’s put us in this position. It’s also what makes it difficult to face the actual work that would have to happen in order to accomplish this. But if we don’t, this country is going the way of the Romans, and we will have failed every Patriot that has ever given their life, their liberty, or their sanity for this nation.

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