Posts Tagged ‘civil rights’

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Best of 2013

2013.December.31

I am by no means an exhaustive consumer of media, but this year had some gems that I feel compelled share. Simply put, this list comprises things I experienced that helped me grow & love better in 2013. No rank or order is implied; “Honorable Mentions” are older but were new to me in 2013.

Favorite Concept: “self-othering”
To self-other is to claim narratives of the powerless for oneself with little or no authentic claim to such levels of powerlessness. Examples might include the concept of “reverse racism”, equating being “broke” with actual poverty, exoticism, framing “language police” as equally oppressive to the use of offensive terminology, borrowing from an unfinished struggle to promote a contemporary one (e.g., “gay is the new black”), and the claim that polyamory is a queer and/or oppressed status — but most instances are actually far more subtle. By its privileged nature, self-othering is far more pernicious in educated, hetero, white, cismen [friendly wave]; it is not usually a conscious co-option, which makes it difficult to recognize in oneself, but I suspect anyone who examines zir own social power will struggle with it at some point. Perhaps even those with very little social privilege could benefit from remembering that actual physical and societal oppression feels different for every person and every circumstance. This concept needs to be contemplated and discussed widely, so we might all better catch ourselves exercising the power of naming and the privilege of inclusion; try not to water it down too fast, Internet.
Honorable Mention: Intersectionality
The Grand Unified Theory of social activism, where those deconstructing sexism, racism, classism, and countless other systemic power disparities compare notes. In a few more years, the Internet may relegate it just another dialectal buzzword, but for now it has teeth as a thoughtful and dynamic post-social-justice outlook.

Favorite Discussion Piece: Orange Is the New Black
I cannot say I exactly love this show, but I absolutely love to watch and participation in its deconstruction. I dare anyone to read White Chick Behind Bars and not feel personally challenged somewhere. Some friends have begun to shy away from discussing OITNB publicly because the critiques made them feel like bad (white) people, but to let call-out critiques of such a complicated, try-hard show brand it irredeemable would be just as short-sighted as to review it purely for cinematographic and storytelling qualities. In these discussions, there is the opportunity to examine where poetic license and politics collide, to ask which is making us feel uncomfortable this week (and whether it was the show’s intent), and to celebrate the heretofore overlooked perspectives now receiving thoughtful screen time. Until perfect art comes along, let us continue to be motivated by imperfect art that keeps us talking, introduces us to new situations, and makes us check our assumptions about what a titty-shot really conveys.

Favorite Blogger: Ferrett Steinmetz
I discovered Ferrett shortly before his earth-shaking Dear Daughter: I Hope You Have Some Fucking Awesome Sex went viral, but he’s been posting all over for a while. In Ferrett, I found a rare straight guy who could not only educate but inspire me: atypically male, relatable, passionately self-aware, sex-positive, polyamorous (but kind of relaxed about it), thoughtful about the creative process, AND prolific. Every time I approached one of his posts expecting a mere oasis from the kind of entitlement narratives that poison me against my fellow white guys, Ferrett transports me levels beyond by finishing thoughts I hadn’t even started yet. His approach is to excise common misperception from reality with quick, deft text grounded in everyday experience — and he owns it when he messes up! The man writes about anything without wasting a word; I can trust that if I don’t find a particular post profound, SOMEONE ELSE WILL. Not that I’m saying you should idolize him (or anyone else).

Favorite Music: Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady
A late arrival in my year; I was slow to pick up this album because I was afraid it couldn’t live up to my first impressions of the hottest android-impersonator in music, but I was wrong. So very wrong. I’m just starting to dig into the mythos she’s created and the funked out fusion she’s worked into the tracks, but I know this album will be getting a lot of play in 2014.
Honorable Mention (album): Black Snake Moan Soundtrack
I could spend the rest of my life debating where the movie sits on the line between “problematic” and “irredeemable”, but its highest point was the filmmakers’ engrossing love letter to Delta blues.
Honorable Mention (song): Lupe Fiasco (with Guy Sebastian), “Battle Scars
The conscious rapper dropped this crossover hit — questioning the battle-like nature of relationship discord — and went platinum. Yes. This.

Favorite Movie: Gravity
Another item I feared couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. I was left breathless the first time I saw the two-minute trailer, and the movie theater experience was basically 90 minutes of the same. I won’t say it’s the best story ever (and I really think I would have liked Robert Downey, Jr., to have kept the part that eventually went to George Clooney), but its telling is gripping and its visual achievements should do to space what Jurassic Park did to dinosaurs: raise the bar to impossible heights and dare every movie that follows to choose between pitiful homage or pointless improvisation. Along the way, it instilled for me a dread of what happens down here on Earth should our skies ever receive such a disaster.
Honorable Mention: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Another visual spectacle, Beasts is carried by a six-year-old thriving in Southern myth-making — and yet I can’t watch it without cross-referencing myth-like places and people I’ve known. The stories from behind the scenes are just as breathtaking.

Favorite Parody: Pretty much anything riffing on Blurred Lines
The horror of the original song/video/message isn’t the kind of thing you can rectify with academic deconstruction or even conscious indignation — you need a good genderfucking parody or two.

Favorite Reads: Parenting on the Internet
Perhaps even more than Ferrett’s piece above, this piece showed how parenting can provoke individuals to look within for change. The RenegadeMama sees the greatness in her son’s gentle nature and, going against her won inclinations, decides to let it stand. It’s impossible to encapsulate its brilliance without lifting swaths of text (which you should go read for yourself), but I can say this: it made me appreciate parents and parenting a little more, and it even fostered forgiveness for the ways my own family had tried to socialize me against my gentler inclinations. That’s powerful wordsmithing right there.
Honorable Mention: Cat’s Cradle
My lover put this book in my hands and told me to read it; she is wise, and there will be celebratory tattoos. The legacy of a dead scientist draws a listless writer to a banana republic with an outlaw religion and a captivating woman. Sardonic wisdom and global change ensue.

Favorite Introspection: Defining Allies and Their Role
I should note that this conversation is far from over, so rather than trying to encapsulate it how about I share a tiny sample and you go join the conversation yourself?
Growing Up Online: Why & How I Care About the Comments
8 Ways Not To Be An Ally — A Non-Comprehensive List
For Whites (Like Me): On White Kids
Holy Gender Politics, Batman! How a D.C. Punk’s Music Video Sparked an Identity Controversy
Honorable Mention: Call-Out Culture
Another unfinished debate, is “calling out” the Internet’s greatest act of justice, a stalled strategy that’s keeping allies from necessary reflection, or flat-out liberal bullying? Is anger and vitriol on another person’s behalf ever justified, even helpful? What are our assumptions about people who call out? about people who don’t? Is there something better they could be doing? Reply hazy, try again.

Favorite Polyamory Topic: All Good Right?
Alan from Poly in the Media shares a few thoughts from himself and several other long-time poly writers on the assumptions that can slip into nonmonogamy and how rapid growth of the identity has made it harder to check such foundational misunderstandings.

Favorite Cracked Article: 5 Mind-blowing Facts Nobody Told You About Guns
Just read it; you won’t be disappointed.

There! You get ten. But here’s one to grow on, my favorite piece that I’ve written this year. Feel free to add it to your Best of list!

How Dyadism Ruind the Best Moment at SexTalk

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Dear Boy Scouts:

2013.February.1

My name is Jeffrey Lawson and from 1987-1992, I wore the uniforms of a Scout, from Bobcat to Tenderfoot (I even completed my requirements for Second Class, but after I stopped attending). I am writing to request that you do what is honorable, helpful, and morally straight: reverse the BSA’s policies barring gay and atheist members. This sort of exclusion hurts boys and it hurts Scouting.

I would like to be able to say I am a good man because of Scouting, but the truth is I never fit in very well there. I was more of a bookish, indoor kid; without Scouting, I could have avoided learning how to swing a hammer, fold a flag, or make something with my own hands. I wasn’t really into all the father-son stuff, either (since I never knew my own father and my stepdad and I were never close); without scouting, I might never have seen what healthy fatherly relationships could look like. I grew up in a house of apathists and never had much use for Christianity; because of Scouts, I had to learn how to sit quietly and respectfully when other people prayed and recognize how important faith could be to others.

And since I’m being honest with you, I’ll tell you that the prospect of gays in our troop created a pretty uncomfortable setting. In fact, it made me quite uncomfortable, because some of the other kids thought I was gay; while I was never Mr. Popular at school, I got teased, called “faggot” or “gaywad”, and otherwise harrassed more in the Boy Scouts than anywhere else in my life. I also got into two of my only three fights ever (outside of those with my brother, of course) at Scout meetings. As a Scout, I learned about stealing and lying, I learned to run from my mistakes, and I learned to do what was popular over what was right because that’s what my peers were teaching.

It seems strange to me now that I don’t have more positive things to say about Scouting after it was such a big part of my life, but then it was all I had for a while. My mom was a workaholic, especially in those years. The Troop 12 Scout Hut was only three blocks from our house, and it was the only activity my parents could afford (and only barely… I dreamed of how $100 at the Scout Store in Arlington could make me a better camper). One to three nights a week (and one weekend a month) were reserved for Scouting because it was what I did.

The most positive thing I can say about Scouting was that it showed me a wider range of people than I would otherwise have known: cheesy over-active dads who were friendly to all, older men with low voices who could command our attention with their story cadence, older scouts who wanted everyone to participate proudly, kids with more than us who could earn a swimming merit badge in their own back yards, kids with less who dropped out before they ever bought uniforms. None were perfect, but none were all bad either. It was a place where bullying ran rampant, yet I still had to work alongside those bullies and they alongside me. We got along, sometimes even well, so I always felt like an unpopular Scout was still a Scout.

I’ve never understood why the BSA doesn’t share this experience with every child in America. There is a need for exercise and hands-on, intergenerational learning. There is a need for thoughtful values and outdoor exploration. There is a need for storytelling and camaraderie (even if it is sometimes forced). There is a need for everything that the Boy Scouts stand for, but it will not take root beyond Scouting if it cannot first get a better hold within Scouting. The weaknesses that existed when I was a Scout are even worse now because the Scouts have taken sides with bullies instead of letting every boy find his own way.

Twenty years on, I prefer the romantic company of women to men (well, I could say more, but I doubt you’re ready for the gender & sexual fluidity merit badge quite yet) and I still shake my head at some of the things my peers got away with back then. I wish I could tell you that everything I experienced as a Scout was a positive, nurturing experience, but a Scout is honest and the truth is less simple. I have come to see Scouting is an opportunity, not a guarantee. Scouting opens doors that are otherwise unavailable to new experiences and new people, but it is up to the individual Scout to embrace the opportunity. Sometimes they go well, sometimes they do not, but at least Scouts get the chance. Now the BSA needs to embrace the opportunity to practice their inclusive, patient, collaborative ideals a little bit better and stop looking for excuses to exclude people. I’m pretty sure I served with some gay Scouts, and they were not the ones who hurt me. I’m pretty sure I served with some atheist Scouts, and they never tried to recruit me. We all tried to live and let live; once in a while, we even succeeded, and those were very good days.

Scouting deserves more good days, don’t you think?

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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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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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Creating Change Tangent 1: Microcosms

2010.March.7

[This is actually my third entry on Creating Change, but the second entry was far more personal than political and I did not share it as widely.]

Are our desires microcosms for the politics, or are politics a macrocosm for our desires?

While exploring my own fear of desire in my last writing, I wandered into a ramble about gender dynamics for those of us who are mostly hetero, sympathetic to feminism, and complete chickenshit. I briefly broached the subject of how bad I am at approaching someone pursuant to dating, but I left out something equally important: I’m just as bad at turning someone down.

Fortunately, I am rarely approached by women or men, so it’s not a problem I have to deal with often–but it is a problem I should be happy to have. I love it when a woman makes the first move–I consider myself a feminist and a coward in this regard. And as for men… well, my desire is rather undeveloped there–not so much new as untested–and it might help to have someone else leading… But since I get most of my desires met by women, it’s just easier to focus on them, isn’t it?

Ah, the slippery slope of polysexuality

No wonder some queer communities are getting frustrated with the rise in “pansexual” events. It may be more okay for people to acknowledge and indulge their same-sex curiosities these days than in the past, but it’s still a hell of a lot easier to just focus on the stronger and/or more socially acceptable end of the spectrum, so many people (and I include myself in this) do. Instead of liberating queer and queer-friendly spaces that build bridges through sexy fun, pansexual events are increasingly flagging into a realm for self-segregation. These spaces can quickly become mostly hetero-normative, overrun with heteroflexible girls giggling their way through same-sex exhibitionism, the boyfriends they’ll be fucking later–in private–standing as far from the other dudes as possible, and a handful of late-coming queers standing around the edges, awkwardly looking for the real action. [I've been following a deep conversation on this topic on FetLife, but if anyone knows of another forum that doesn't require a login, I hope you'll share a link with me.]

This encroachment hinges strongly with the complicated struggle between queer communities (yes, there are more than one!) over the prominence of sexual liberation within the political movement for equal rights. My interest in promoting politically-charged sexual freedom has long made me feel isolated in hetero communities (even before my self-identification began to shift). As long as you’re not hurting someone (yes, I mean minors, animals, and people who have not given you clear consent), I don’t see why anything should be out of the realm of negotiation.

To some extent, I imagine it was the marginalization of gay communities in the past that encouraged their members to explore and embrace less standard forms of sexual expression–for that alone, even french vanilla heteros should be donating to LGBT causes in droves. Once you’ve created a safe, comfortable niche outside the mainstream, why not expand it? But now that conservatives have successfully re-framed the political focal point to the very specific and contentious notion of gay marriage, gay communities are facing an identity crisis. Social moderates and even many liberals are quite comfortable lobbying for gay votes with promises that gays will be able to marry! Some day. Or at least, um, unite civilly. You know, as long as they talk about love, but never sex. And leave the trans people at home. And there’s only two at a time.

To be sure, there are people in the gay community who are just as monogamous and vanilla and gender-normative as your grandparents on their fiftieth wedding anniversary (if they made it that long before death or the degradation of the institution of marriage got to them first)–and it’s a positive thing that the rest of the country is seeing that these people exist. But there are fears that if this group gets what it wants politically without bringing along at least some broader notion of sexual liberation, the rest of the communities will end up with an even further uphill struggle for visibility, respect, and political power.

A couple years ago in D.C., activists in other campaigns were promoting the notion of a broader “human rights initiative” to promote progress for all people by shifting our attitudes on what it inherently means to be human (I’ll give away the ending in as few words as possible: participatory self-articulation). Right now, most movements for political equality are fighting a war of attrition for the members of that one group to gain exceptional acceptance: “We’re okay. We’re just like you, except that one thing. We’ve been contributing for generations, you just weren’t ready to acknowledge it. Let us prove that the one thing doesn’t really matter any more and then you can let us in!” And the unspoken oath of assimilation, “We promise to be just as discriminating as the last group.” I think class is the most obvious example (volumes have been written about how the bourgeois and the elite trade places over political cycles without class values really shifting much), but there are also resonant patterns in race, education, immigration, partisanship–pretty much any demographic box any politician might ask you to check.

Fighting for the right to assimilate, no matter how staunch one’s terms (even fighting for gay marriage carries with it expectations for some adjustment to hetero-normative laws on discrimination, obscenity, and sex practices), is not the same thing as promoting a human rights initiative. The former benefits only the people explicitly implicated, and can actually create new forms of discrimination against those who complicate the assimilation. Those who blur the lines that are comfortably overcome are vulnerable to exile after assimilation. For example, while Black Americans have made huge strides in legal and cultural acceptance since the Civil Rights Era, Black/White bi-racial people are still often overlooked or treated differently by both communities, since they don’t fit into either side of the resultant racial truce. Similarly, while queer communities have yet to attain such a “truce”, they are at great risk of leaving behind bisexual people (who could “pass” more easily, but at the cost of having their identity even more debated and allegiance more questioned by both poles), to say nothing of trans and other gender-non-conforming (GNC) people.

Envision the eventual orientation truce treaty as an assimilation waiting area; a sign that reads “Mainstream acceptance through this door!” hovers over two lines: a fast-track if you’re hetero, a slower-but-still moving line for gays and lesbians. Do bisexuals have to choose to get in? Do they have to pretend to be one or the other? For how long? And people who are uncomfortable with their external sex–if and when they can get into the gender acceptance waiting area, will they be able to change lines between “male” and “female” as they transition? Will they be welcomed in the line they choose? Will they forever have to sacrifice any of the joys of androgyny or genderfluidity?

The human rights initiative necessarily leave no one behind. You teach yourself and others how to support the right of every individual to define zirself. Instead of pulling individuals or small groups out of the margins, you focus on shifting the margins–the paradigms behind their marginalization– that put them there in the first place.

It is easy to sell out our allies by working for exceptional acceptance instead of striving toward a paradigm shift. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but between my politics and my desire, I know that I am much more likely to sell out my desires. Values, left inactive, amount to hypocrisy, while desires, left inactive, are supposed to be a sign of responsibility and even respectability. That’s why so few American politicians can survive a sex scandal. We’re not supposed to respect someone whose desires aren’t in complete check at all times, no matter how many times we ourselves have succumbed to less than ideal temptations.

Vanilla, heterosexual, monogamous, love-driven desire focused on people you already know may just be more respectable, but when you pick the fastest line out of convenience, you will miss meeting the interesting people on the other side. You miss the fuller experience of knowing yourself, of having your desires understood, fulfilled, and, yes, respected by others, and of creating new paths where others might follow while defining the most important label of all.

“Me.”

I contend it is a disservice to any authentic movement to be anything less. Is this not integral to the activist’s credo to “Be the change you want to see in the world?”

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Did I Bury the Lead?

2009.February.28

In my earlier entry about Birmingham, I skimmed over an important detail that I would like to revisit: the moment I cried.

It was in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, in the second room after the film introduction. There were tall glass panels, free-standing like a small crowd in a wide room with high ceilings. Each panel had been laser-etched with full-bodied portraits: people of various ages and races in uniforms for several vocations or lifestyles. It was very idealistic, with everyone smiling and comfortable with his or her panel standing alongside another panel with someone of another color and background – probably bordering on cheesy, but I responded well, I was all smiles, just like the etching of the little black girl carrying her lunchbox and dressed for school.

After meandering through the twenty or so panels, I emerged on the other side of the room to see a large wood and glass cabinet set in stark contrast to the rest of the room. Inside hung a full set of Klan robes, alongside a small, rope-bound cross, ready for burning.

How could they include this? I asked myself. How could they put this on display? How dare they?

Instantly, the answer poured from my face – hot, painful tears that shamed me and shamed my passivity through the earlier exhibits. I had to walk away, lean against a wall, so that my uncontrollable sobs would not disrupt the experience of others. I have never shied away from crying except when there was an audience, and an audience of strangers who were likely having a very different experience only made me more ashamed, simultaneously of my tears and of their lack of them. I didn’t even know why I was crying!

A young Black man came up to me and put a hand on my shoulder. He reminded me that we had come a long way and offered me a hug. My companion came over and stood with me until I was ready to move on. We went at separate paces, and I’m afraid I wasn’t there when her composure was later lost over the choice parents faced between getting their children a better education and saving their lives. The rest of the exhibits were very vivid, very informative, but I worked through them, taking notes and scuttling closer to the gift shop.

It wasn’t until after we had left that I was able to piece together the thoughts that had set me off. There were plenty of violent events covered in the museum, there were artifacts and scenes painted all-too vividly, and there were moving biographies and tributes to heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, but none of these had stirred the guttural sadness that the robes had. What had overcome my jaded, learned, untouchable stance of observation? My reflections led me to think about context. Perhaps it’s a sign that I’m too liberal, but I can understand (though not justify) the actions of an individual. Every individual has stories, and relationships, and complicating factors that can lead to a single instance of bad judgment or even divert them permanently toward a life of violence and antipathy.

What bothered me about the robes was their power of community. Such power does not come overnight, and it doesn’t come without permission. The acts of the Ku Klux Klan were accepted and congratulated by Whites throughout the South as a backlash against those events we now celebrate as “progress”. Then there’s all the half-assers… for every community that actively embraced the Klan, how many more were there who passively supported it, tolerated it, or kept their discomfort to themselves? Yes, I can wrap my brain around just about any action committed by an individual in a particular circumstance, but I have no ability (or desire) to comprehend broad, successful movements of hatred and violence.

Believe it or not, it is just such communities whom I wish to describe in my upcoming book. But I’m not ready to say too much about that here.

Why did I not tell this story when I first blogged about my day in Birmingham? Well, for one thing, I was blogging closer to real-time then, and I was not yet ready to write about the incident or to share it with an audience. But for another, I was not yet sure at that time of the tone I wanted for this blog. That tone has come to me in subsequent entries, as I have decided to focus this journal on my politics through travels and my travels through politics. I cannot write the political without writing the personal, and vice-versa. They resonnate, and it’s these points of resonnance that always interest me most.

Thanks for reading.

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Why Not Discuss?

2009.February.5

It was going to be hard to top Inauguration Day, so Wednesday had us playing tourist. It was my first trip to Atlanta.

Ostensibly, this trip was about research as much as seeing sights, but I was shy more than once about approaching strangers for their insights on race and class. A peculiar incident on this day was a conversation with the owner and a regular patron at a gentrification coffee shop. The owner was a middle-aged White man, the patron a Black man in his late twenties or early thirties, and the two had already been talking about insurance or something-or-other. The older man invited his friend to dinner; he began talking to us as the younger man gathered his belongings. After a few pleasantries, I told them I was doing research for a book on race and class (I was not more specific, though I my topic is actually much more focused). They laughed and wished me good luck. They recommended checking out some other places in Georgia, which I jotted down, but the conversation waned quickly and they left. I’m sure either of them would have been able to offer some interesting perspective, but I held back the particulars that might have grabbed their attention and proven I wasn’t some clueless, over-reaching young fool (well at least not completely).

I had to ask myself afterward why I had held back. Was I reluctant to engage the (presumably middle-class) latte culture before I had really talked to anyone from the working class, which is the actual focus of my book? Did I feel vulnerable because they already knew each other, or because race is always easier to talk about one-on-one? Was I unwilling to betray my background, for fear it would affect our discussion, or that I would subliminally let slip the crass notes I had been making about this very shop the night before? Or was I just settled into my tourist and cuddling mode and not willing to get out of it for people who obviously weren’t going to be around for long?

Yes, I think so.

Sights: World of Coca-Cola (yes, I know they’re an evil corporation but I’m a soda aficionado), the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site, and oh, technically we drove through Centennial Olympic Park.

Topics: “simulation mode” at spectator factories, the creepy extended version of “The Happiness Factory“, corporate indoctrination, potential subversion by advertising agencies, Pemberton/Candler/Woodruff, charging 5 cents for 50 years, omitted chemicals, bottling for GIs, New Coke, aluminum bottles, sampling everything (including Beverly), the absence of real Pibb, lack of water fountains around the sample room, corporate credit unions, the future Center for Civil and Human Rights, real estate around tourist attractions, the King Center’s two bookstores, respect, frozen fountains, reaching out to educate kids, entropy, Wormsloe Plantation, homeschooling, panhandling

Soundtrack: U2, Sinead O’Connor, Johnny Cash, Kimya Dawson

That night, we drove into our eastern-most destination: Savannah.

[ETA some topics]

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What, No Parade?

2009.January.20

Apparently, despite its prominence in the Civil Rights Movement, Birmingham doesn’t have a parade on Martin Luther King Day like Dallas and Fort Worth (each) do. Not that I didn’t enjoy sleeping in a bit longer, but I was a little disappointed… not unlike the fireworks in D.C. on Independence Day

But the day has been great. Much less driving and much more interaction (outside of truck stops) than yesterday.

Sights: Irondale Cafe, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (Remember that scene in Jerry Maguire where Cuba’s character goes on the talk show swearing the host can’t make him cry but is decisively proven wrong? Yeah, that was me today, except they were not happy tears…), and Dreamland Bar-B-Que. We also had a glimpse of the steel mills and a lot of old homes in various states of disrepair.

Topics: Surprising integration of Birmingham retail and service staffs, Buy Fresh Buy Local, whether landmarks really earn 100 on their health inspections, army tourists should definitely ask and tell, deep fried Coke sausage, graffiti as the urban Buddha Board, individual injustice vs. communal injustice, the  goal of idealists in a cyclical history, the hottest waitress in Birmingham, the ongoing destruction of girls’ schools in Pakistan, and the impact of Rick Warren on Obama’s coalition.

Soundtrack: Elvis Costello, David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, more Indigo Girls, Oldies radio

Now in Atlanta for a couple nights. 8.5 hours to inauguration

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Why Protest?

2008.November.17

I know a lot of people who attended Proposition 8 protests last weekend. Time will tell how effective they were, but I think it would be helpful to remember what could or could not be accomplished by them.

No protests outside of California (and arguably, not even there) were going to undo the initiative there, and certainly not directly. It’s not like the legislature can renege a public initiative based on out-of-state rally turnout. The first goal of protesters, I think, should be to show solidarity with Californian activists and encourage them for what will be a prolonged fight. Events like Saturday’s protests increase connections, brainstorming, and a sense of community, and you can be sure new plans emerged from the day.

Secondly, U.S. protesters may have been flexing their numbers in each locality, reminding their lawmakers that the issue is not dead and (depending on the state) either discouraging lawmakers from passing similar initiatives or standing in defiance of initiatives that had already passed. A distant third possibility I can’t overlook is the gathering of information. Information is just as important for political movements as it is for marketers and militaries; if and when nationwide action is needed, Saturday provided an excellent dry run AND sizable contact lists.

Compare this with the Iraq War protests in 2002 and 2003; the threat of an invasion of Iraq triggered the largest international protest ever, with one European city alone surpassing 3 million in attendance. The cities with the highest attendance were those participating in the invasion coalition and many supporting nations have reduced their participation since – but none pulled out immediately after the protests. As for the US, despite several huge rallies in Washington and other major US cities, the protests did not seem to slow the march toward war.

A colleague of mine is of the opinion that the Vietnam War might have actually ended a little sooner if protests in that era had not been so fractious and antagonizing. He is a trainer of activists and has always stressed that when the goal is to be seen and convince a national audience that you have the moral high ground, your message must be simple and consistent and your messengers must be perfectly behaved.

Of course the most effective use of rallies and protests in US history came during the Civil Rights Era, but they did not come overnight. Marches during the 60’s were only the latest steps in a long, gradual climb dating back to Rosa Parks’ bus defiance in 1955. Direct actions from sit-ins and boycotts helped spark outrage because of the violence police often used against nonviolent protesters. Doing the right thing wasn’t enough reason for many Americans until they saw the consequences on their TVs. While it would be a bit much to say organizers wished for the violence, they did plan for it rather than planning around it. In contrast, violence and suppression at marches over the last ten years or so have been much more sporadic and less extreme.

In the 60’s, boycotts were very effective locally – but again, it didn’t happen overnight. The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted just over twelve months – no small duration for a service many people counted upon daily.

With Prop 8, there is discussion of boycott as well, but so far nothing definitive. Individual merchants have been targeted, but the scope of corporate power has altered the landscape of business since the 60’s. While a handful of household names will stick their necks out to support progress, none will allow themselves to be caught opposing it.

So would you boycott a particular company, large or small, over the politics of its founder, even if those politics are not directly related to the business at hand? Here’s a nice, juicy, complicated example:

Although the extent of the support has at times been overstated, the founder and CEO of Curves International (one Gary Heavin, with some credit also given to his wife Diane) is an outspoken ally and financial supporter of pro-life organizations. Yet his company has provided a service, helping women to live healthier lives and even develop camaraderie along the way. Kind of sticky, isn’t it? Is he all evil? All good? Somewhere in-between?

OK, so most men are off the hook on the boycott question, because most of the gyms are women-only, but here’s a further complication to keep you involved: Curves is allied with General Mills to produce cereal bars and possibly other food products bearing the Curves name.

If you are a pro-choice voter, how would/does this color your business with Curves and/or General Mills?

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When Is Sex Not Personal?

2008.November.11

First, check this out. If you or anyone you know has been in this situation, congratulations, you live in a world of postmodern sexuality.

Perhaps the only union more awkward than politics and religion is that of politics and sexuality. And wouldn’t you know, it’s tied to those convenient wedge issues the Dems and Reps love to throw at us: if you have a friend or family member who is gay, you have to vote Democratic or you’re forcing them back into the closet. If you have any hesitations about abortion, you have to vote Republican or they’ll become mandatory and paid for with taxes on your fingernail clippings.

Nope, there couldn’t possibly be such aberrations as pro-life Democrats, or gay Republicans.

The difficulty with sexuality as a political issue is that, like religion, it is next to impossible to divorce from the personal experience of each and every voter. Say you had a homoerotic dream one time, does that make you a Democrat? Say you heard about someone who’s had four abortions and you think that’s just too many, does that make you a Republican? Of course not, but because sexuality is so personal, it inspires intense reactions in both extremes, leaving little room for gray on the issues.

To me, one of the funniest things is how sexual politics doesn’t necessarily correspond to one’s sexual proclivities. The most ardent supporters of abortion rights use protection so as not to need them. Most of the gay men I know struggle with their identity not only because their love is forbidden, but because they don’t feel like they have a complete choice in forming that identity. Do I identify as an athlete first? An artist? A father? Or am I relegated to always being a gay athlete, a gay artist, or a gay father? I recently mentioned how Black Americans are struggling over whether to identify gay rights with civil rights, but both peoples have been forced to experience how one piece of individual identity can so easily overshadow all others – regardless of whether it is your preferred identifier.

Wedge issues cause polarization within the broader American community, but they can even polarize the communities FORMED by the division, by forcing members to fight for mainstream recognition by going mainstream or fight for the fringe since that’s the only place you can be yourself. As gay men have come to a more prominent visibility, they have to struggle to develop individual or even community identities beyond stereotypes and pavlovian associations. Admit it, when you think of gay men, you think of pink clothing, musicals, interior decorating, and BUTT SEX. Where is there room for a personal or political identity beyond that?

Does sex ever get to be personal for those whose own American identity is designated for them based on one dimension of lives that are otherwise no more or less complicated than anyone else’s?

If I may offer a conjecture, it is not solely the responsibility of these individuals to ask such questions. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We must each (not in spite of our individual proclivities but in celebration of them) recognize that any sexual act is pissing someone off somewhere, and therefor embrace love itself as an act of rebellion.

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