Posts Tagged ‘media’

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Unpacking: The Art of Self-Awareness

2014.April.30

Baggage Claim

Now that “calling out” has become an Internet thing, there’s a lot of tension coming from folks who don’t really know what to do with it, particularly on the receiving end. The kneejerk reaction is usually some kind of defensiveness (“I am a good person, therefor I can’t be ___ist.” “I don’t follow your logic, therefor the mistake must’ve been yours.”, “How dare you? Don’t you know everything I’ve done for ___?”) or attack. Some conflict-averse folks can ignore or deflect being called out, but very few slow down to address the concern thoughtfully. To some extent, this is because dominant cultural narratives encourage us to take any disagreement as a personal or political affront, but I suspect it also owes to our inexperience with ambivalent self-examination. Deep self-awareness is neither common nor encouraged, so how in the world can it be acquired?

Personally, when I feel challenged or conflicted in some way, I attempt to unpack those feelings. Although I no longer have the privilege of travel, I find myself “unpacking” more than ever…

To a skilled traveler, unpacking a suitcase is as important as packing it. Upon return, one is smart to sort out belongings and reintegrate them into the usual routine. This may entail laying out contents into various piles: travel documents to be secured, dirty clothes for laundry, toiletries here, souvenirs there — oh, don’t need that bus pass any longer, better toss it… Investing a little time now can save a lot of trouble later.

In the activist spaces where I first heard it, to “unpack” is to take apart a complicated thought, belief, or conversation in order to interpret its smaller, less apparent components. When participants in a facilitated discussion stumble onto something profound or dense, the facilitator (whose role includes encouraging useful tangents) might step in and suggest everyone slow down to “unpack what just happened;” the aim is greater understanding for all participants and/or progress toward the group’s shared goals. Reviewing such components can help contextualize the ideas or persons present, and often the unpacker(s) uncover biases, assumptions, or other problematic notions of which they were previously unaware. However carefully they prepare an agenda, facilitators often cite these shared detours as the most fruitful points in their discussions.

As activism evolves from just movement-building to comprehensive lifestyles (where personal growth is progress, i.e. “being the change you want to see in the world”), the term gains wider usage because many ideological concepts are simply too complex to stand on their own. And although one of activism’s great proverbs alludes to it — “the personal is political” — unpacking has never been reserved for activists; it is an invaluable tool for any person who wants to live out a consistent set of personal values.

Our ideas and beliefs — all of them — carry some layer of social “baggage” (hence the metaphor), cultural and/or personal cues we may not recognize as ours or as optional. Like unpacking a travel bag, unpacking an idea involves reorganizing its contents, distinguishing what is useful as-is from what needs modification, even discarding some components entirely. This decision process cannot be performed well unless the context for each component — its social baggage — is known and understood. Unpackers must confront those concepts that are problematic, counter-intuitive, or self-contradictory, or they may instead need to anticipate others’ discomfort with ideas that, however beneficial, are simply new and unusual.

For activists, unpacking is integral to effectiveness. Ideological success cannot be guaranteed without confronting the biases and assumptions of one’s community, beginning (and ever-continuing) with the confrontation of one’s own biases and assumptions. Unpacking helps activists build consciousness of individual impact, rooting out any embedded contradictions and sowing more consistent insight and behavior into their work. Understanding one’s own baggage also makes others’ baggage more relatable and will ideally facilitate others to reflect for themselves. While many experiences are not universal, the ability to sympathize and point to parallel experiences can help open conversations that would not otherwise seem possible. Even if the conversation does not lead to the same conclusions for all parties, it will humanize those parties to one another and add faces and important contexts to opponents who might otherwise be nameless and alien.

Unpacking Privilege

As important as unpacking is for any person motivated by ideology (in order to practice what we preach), it is particularly valuable for persons afforded a lot of social privilege. In this context, I want to be clear that “privilege” is not the willful assertion of power by a person based on outdated and unequal social norms (I call that “entitlement”); privilege is the social power a person receives from others, consciously or unconsciously, based on such norms. If ethnic, economic, and gender bias were wiped from all human minds tomorrow, they would be back within a week because our personalities are forged in context, that context is perpetuated in our personalities, therefor the waters of our perception would flow down the same paths even if we could somehow pause the water for a bit. The only meaningful way forward is not for folks with privilege to wipe the slate clean of all past wrongs, but to discuss those wrongs openly and unpack our continued misguided notions about them.

Societal baggage is weighed down significantly by assumption and unconscious prejudice, which means that privilege cannot be easily shirked. As a passive participant in zir own social role, a person of privilege may not recognize the extent of these advantages, nor the ways ze might accept, reinforce, and wield them.

For the record, I consider myself a person with above-average privilege: I am white, cismale, educated, young, attractive, and more hetero than not; I have been working most of my life to unpack my social privileges, but I continually make new discoveries and must uncover the ways my good nature and best intentions might lead me to subvert my own ideals. A white guy can grow long hair, get tattoos, wear radical clothing, and have no job yet still get better credit than a black man in a business suit; a tall man can be weak and non-violent and still feel safer walking down the street than a short woman; a heterosexual couple can consciously decide to never get married but later change their minds in ways that are not available to same-sex couples. I have learned to acknowledge and, where possible, to counter such injustices. Whenever unpacking leads me to a privilege I might overlook, I seek alternate ways to notice it and/or work around it; just as with driving, I must check my blindspots. Ultimate perfection will be unattainable, but improvement is not.

For a person raised in a conservative religious environment, all understanding of the world has been filtered through a specific dogma: every piece of knowledge before a certain age has been filtered to reinforce that worldview. If, at some point, that person rejects the faith/its leaders/its politics, the new worldview will still be founded by its relation to the foundational dogma. Unaddressed thought patterns will continue largely as they always have; like a riverbed carved into the countryside, ideas may flow in a different direction but they will still take the same path to get there. Rejecting a belief system that preaches women are inferior to men will not clear a person of residual sexist patterns. Even a person who consciously rebels again previous dogma will often seed that rebellion by merely choosing the opposite from the same options originally offered: what was “good” may become “evil”, and what was “evil” may become “good”, but positions outside that entrenched dichotomy will be no easier to fathom after defection then before (gender identities outside of male or female, for example).

The same self-analysis that leads someone to renounce a belief system must continue if the dregs of old patterns are to be voided. That person must learn to check blindspots, then to process information in new ways, and finally to adopt improved habits and reflexes — and there is no way to do any of it quickly. If the departure was mentally or emotionally taxing, the person may be resistant to dig any deeper, but otherwise it can be like removing a tick whose head remains in the skin, poisoning you for your health-minded efforts. Remnants of a former belief system can become liabilities to moving on, particularly when dealing with folks who were never part of that world.

(By sheer coincidence, my dear friend Heina is presenting on this topic vis á vis atheism this weekend; check out the event page or follower her on Twitter for info.)

Society itself is a belief system, a social construct with prescribed interactions, prescribed power dynamics, even prescribed rebellion; true change can only be possible when change-makers understand societal dynamics and learn to work around them. This can be particularly challenging, both personally and socially, when dominant advantages are in one’s own favor, therefor the single most pervasive blindspot afforded to persons of privilege is that unpacking is optional. When the mainstream society, politics, and morals around you all broadcast that you are a good person — that you deserve to be happy, healthy, and educated — you may not even realize that the same society is sending a different message to others. A white person who grows up in a white-dominated society and is not exposed to the experiences or challenges faced by contemporary people of color may believe that society offers the exact same opportunities in the exact same way to all its members; since society advertizes itself as “post-racial”/”colorblind”, a white person’s good will toward equality can even be subverted into reinforcing systemic and unconscious racism, to the point of resenting programs that undo centuries of discrimination and viewing THEM as unfair. Meanwhile, a person of color raised in a white-dominated society will become conscious of racial identity early in childhood and will never have the opportunity to stop thinking about it: the legacy of generations of poverty, the mixed messages in media and entertainment, the microaggressions of complete strangers, and, yes, the yet-unresolved prejudices.

(Since I keep using conservative examples, allow me to point yall to Ferret’s post about how liberals can also live in a bubble…)

Unpacking is a daily fact of life for persons who lack privilege, while those with social power may choose to ignore persistent inequalities without great effort. The disconnect of privilege is most troublesome when the privileged viewpoint leads a person to disregard the lived experiences of marginalized people because those lives contradict the safe and familiar world lain out for privileged hearts. Even folks with moderate privilege can recognize the ways awareness of other exclusions stays with them: the weight of having a high-school education when employers want a college degree, for example.

Chances are, there has been a time in your life when you felt compared by an unfair standard — an orange among apples — but how well do you notice when you’re the apple and someone else is the orange? And what do you do once you have noticed?

Owning Your Stuff Is 9/10s of the Law

Unpacking happens when you realize something about your own context and decide to examine it further; ideally, this process brings your beliefs and actions closer to alignment. That moment when you realize you’re an apple at least SOME of the time, that is the moment most potent for unpacking. It can also be the moment when you recognize just how complicated this society can be, how convoluted its biases, how self-perpetuating its machinations.

I cannot tell anyone how to unpack; like love or art or jazz you have to see it done a few ways then find your own. What could be more individualized? Unpacking involves untangling the layers of your very self, from personality quirks to early influences to adolescent rebellion. What practices are based in your experiences alone? Which beliefs were handed to you, prefab, through societal cues? Which came from your parents or guardians? Which are just habits you picked up and couldn’t defend if you wanted to? And the layers run in more directions than just origin: which of your behaviors have ongoing emotional ties? Which have healed you in times of pain? Which have been contradicted in the past, and have the contradictions turned you away from or toward the familiar? A synonym to unpacking is “deconstructing”, though this has a more formal connotation in literature (and isn’t always reassembled). Unpacking is the deconstruction of your own text.

Unpacking is not always pleasant, nor is it straightforward. Taking apart an idea may involve explaining a useful piece in more detail, or it can lead to dismantling a flawed concept and starting over entirely — and you won’t know which needs to happen until you’re already in the thick of self-discovery. You may need outside observers (who may or may not share a similar background) to point out your idiosyncrasies or explain correlations you never knew about, or you may simply need to listen and be willing to challenge yourself. At some point, if you want to examine your own assumptions, you’ll likely have to confront them with the benefit of several diverse perspectives, but only you can figure out when and which.

Self-examination is only the first part of unpacking, really. Once you’ve broken a behavior or belief down into components, you have to figure out what to keep and what to throw away; just as with literal baggage, you’ll need to plan for the next configuration, and to do that you will almost certainly have to relate it to other people. Got a racist uncle who says this same thing you say? Might be dubious. But what if he worked in a multi-ethnic neighborhood and married out of his race? Maybe he has a very different view and is more irreverent than oppressive. But then he calls his wife racial slurs and stereotypes her culture? Well, exoticism may not be the same kind of racism as a Klan rally, but it is still harmful and entitled… You have to follow these tangents — tangents from your own concepts, remember — and see where they lead you.

Some layers are obvious and easy to re-conceptualize, but most are subtle, nuanced, and well-entrenched, and the world isn’t going to stop turning just because your work-in-progress leads you someplace unpleasant. Better ideas will come in their own time if you let them, but it helps to maintain awareness of your own weaknesses while keeping an open mind; resist the urge to find quick fixes or diversions that will leave the problem in place, but also pace yourself and don’t expect an epiphany on command. Don’t be afraid to step away from a topic for a while or to ask for help.

Unpacking in a group can present its own challenges; while listening to others, you must not only note what you believe but also how you feel and respond; it benefits no one if your unresolved discomforts spill over into your group’s work. Remember what I said at the top about kneejerk defensiveness? Unchecked discomforts can overtake a share space and unintentionally reinforce social power dynamics by derailing the unresolved topic toward one participant’s personal process. A person of privilege can derail an otherwise productive group discussion by insisting that zir personal progress be validated, by asking for on-site education on topics that others know well or agree can be saved for later, by contradicting broad trends with rare incidents and anecdotes, or by generally projecting zir own discomfort as being more urgent than the issues at hand. A person without much privilege may have the same capabilities, but is less likely to be taken seriously or to unconsciously command full and immediate attention.

For individual reflections, I cannot recommend journaling enough — particularly if you are used to processing aloud or are not yet comfortable taking your challenge to someone else — for it is as much about listening (whether to yourself or to what others have said previously) as it is about speaking.

Usually, the challenge is just getting started: it’s easy to feel vulnerable or attacked (especially if one has been called out publicly) and give in to fight or flight mode, but unpacking benefits from a mental quiet and no small amount of personal security. It requires humility, patience, and often allies who can sympathize with your discoveries and your defeats. Most of all, it requires the willingness to be wrong once in a while. You will make mistakes; learn from them gracefully. Each of us already holds some incorrect or unhelpful assumptions from earlier points in our lives, but through unpacking we can identify and correct those assumptions more fully.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. And if you don’t know how anyone else can do it, remember that people who have less or different privileges than you have probably been wrestling with similar questions their entire lives; while this does not diminish the newness for you, it does prove that it can be done. (When all else fails, though, a search of the Internet or your local library can also be fruitful; again, your challenge is probably not completely original.)

If it sounds daunting, take heart in knowing that you have the rest of your life to learn and small steps can make a great difference. Eventually, you can learn to be generous to people with less opportunity than yourself (especially by listening) and to speak up more among people like yourself. Along the way, you get to be a better person, a stronger influence on others who have yet to recognize their own hangups, and help forge a society that is more aware and more respectful of its members’ most thoughtful values.

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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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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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Dr. Laura: Read the Constitution

2010.August.20

Dear Esteemed Doctor:

How fares your research into the effects of insulin on 3-0-methylglucose transport? Well, I hope. I understand if you haven’t had a lot of time to dedicate to it since you’ve been busy the last few decades taking radio by storm, but I am not so cynical as to figure someone of your stature would ever advertise her PhD without maintaining some connection to her thesis. (Plus, as I understand it, the California Board of Behavioral Science Examiners frowns on counselors using the title without a degree in psychology.) I look forward to reading more, whenever you can get around to it.

I hear you’re having a rough time of it right now, what with every politically correct, language-policing liberal in the country denouncing your recent use of the “n-word”. Well, I’m not here to do denounce your show — I always enjoy a good laugh. In fact, this situation reminds me of a cartoon I saw in a magazine once (I’m pretty sure it was one of my step-dad’s Playboys from years ago; don’t hold it against me, I was so young and curious!): two men are talking at a dinner party, and the guy speaking is casually holding a drink and pointing his finger while saying, “The way I see it, the Bill of Rights cuts both ways. The First Amendment gives you the right to say whatever you want, but the Second Amendment gives me the right to shoot you for it.” Hilarious! Oh man, I still laugh every time I think about it.

I want you to know that, like such luminaries as Voltaire and his friends, the Supreme Court of the United States, Charlton Heston, and that guy in the Playboy comic, I stand 100% behind your right to express yourself openly. I applaud your candor and your willingness to “say the wrong thing”, which is — truly — a tenet of my life. Unlike many other couch-commentators, I have actually listened to the show in question (available here on video and transcript) and noted that you never once used the n-word against anyone, but instead only quoted what you have heard from some rather explicit comics on HBO. (And isn’t HBO the standard to which we should hold society’s greater good? I mean, it’s not just television.)

So far as I can tell, you were — in your own, special way — trying to approach the painful and epic history of racism in America from a place of heartfelt reason. You were trying to ask a highly charged question that deserved careful, thoughtful consideration and long, contemplative discourse, wherein we spend more time listening to the experiences of those different from us than we do talking about our own, and that takes courage. Sure, you asked the question point-blank, with a raised, accusatory voice and a finger on the “drop-call” button, and without one of the nuances I above endorse, but you did raise them and I thank you for that. You went on to apologize for hurting people with the utterance and for not offering the caller help with her problem, and I congratulate you for recognizing how the conversation could have been handled better, albeit after the fact.

But despite your resoundingly adequate handling of the matter up to that point, I simply cannot stand by the follow-up appearance on Larry King, wherein you announced that you will soon end your radio program. I must protest the devastating impact this announcement is having on our country and our culture.

Don’t get me wrong; I have no strong opinion about whether you continue your radio show (it is, after all, a free country). However, I must protest because in your reasons, you perpetuated a common myth in our American culture that needs to be corrected. Sadly, someone must serve as an example to others.

See, check this out:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Now, the rest of that stuff is pretty controversial itself, so let’s just focus on the parts about free speech:

    Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech […].

Fucking A! That’s a good rule! Man, I love that rule. Thanks to that rule, I can get away with saying anything from “Fucking A!” to “George W. Bush Loves Dick!” to “Obama is a gingerbread man destined to be consumed by the nation he would save!” no matter HOW profane they seem. Ergo…

Under the First Amendment, any American (and most any visitor) has the right to:

  • Have any opinion about anything.
  • Express any opinion publicly.
  • Present a falsehood or misconception as fact (think misleading advertising… doesn’t it just make you sick, Doctor of Physiology Laura?).

Of course, this amendment only explicitly applies to Congress (not the Executive or the Judicial Branch, which regulate the notable exceptions for public safety, sworn oaths and testimonies, obscenity where there might be children around, etc.); an eroding distinction has been made between personal speech and commercial speech, but you’d have to go back for a J.D. to navigate those waters. Also, and this should be obvious but isn’t, don’t just assume you can invoke your First Amendment rights in another country…

But, here’s where it becomes relevant to you, Doc…

What the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee Americans:

  • That anyone will listen to you.
  • That you can make money by virtue of having or stating an opinion.
  • That someone else won’t exercise their free speech to disagree with you.
  • That you won’t say anything stupid.
  • That forces outside the government (such as public opinion, cultural progress, scientific evidence, advertiser dollars, your own guilty conscience, or the bigwigs overseeing your contract) will back you up if you say something stupid.
  • That you can say something stupid and avoid facing any consequences (e.g., social, political, or financial — you’re still covered for legislative, though!).
  • That your perfect PR apology for the stupid thing you said will be accepted and the whole matter forgotten by the offended party/parties.
  • That — outside of Congressional abridgement — some person or persons won’t take issue with the stupid thing you said and publicize / denounce / protest / boycott / demote / reschedule / fire / otherwise embarrass your dumb ass for saying it.

So, you see, when you said you were leaving radio to “regain [your] First Amendment rights”, you were doing a rather unpatriotic disservice — to yourself, to our Constitution, and to the civic understanding of the thousands of American children whose parents force them to listen to you — by encouraging bad information.

By invoking the First Amendment, you have placed the blame for your present predicament on Congress. Instead, I think you will find our polarized political culture offers you two ready-made scapegoats: the dehumanization of corporate Capitalism or oversensitive Black People. Just remember to choose one, stick with it, and don’t get them confused; we certainly wouldn’t want you to accidentally denounce the dehumanization of Black People! Boy, that would be embarrassing!

Now, I probably sound like I’m being a little harsh, but I need you to know that you are not alone in this misunderstanding. Liberals who denounced Bush, conservatives who denounce Obama, the poor over-moderated members of Internet community boards across the country, and plenty of Hollywood visionaries have made the same mistake. Maybe they’re using the Constitution as a metaphor, but I suspect most of them are just plain wrong.

The uproar over your comments, while unpleasant, was no more a violation of your First Amendment rights than your repeated interruption of the caller, ranting, and abrupt hang-up were a violation of hers. You yourself have decried the quality of education in this country; set an example and read up about from whom the constitution protects us. Maybe if more people understood our Constitution better (I’m pretty sure we all learned it in high school, but sadly we live in a culture where it is all too easy for facts to be overwritten by beliefs), we could get back around to meaningful conversations about the roots of such controversies.

Why is the n-word standard applied unevenly? Is the U.S. generally insensitive or overreactive about race? Is it possible to be both? Is the media’s coverage of racism just a little too much like wind applied to fire: whether blowing it out, spreading it around, or just making things miserable with a lot of hot air?

It could have been a good conversation.

Instead, what we heard was you and the caller getting defensive as soon as the n-word was out there (quite a Pandora’s Box, isn’t it?) and legitimate questions from both sides being buried in the most common reflexes to these situations: anger and self-righteous vitriol. At that point, no one can go on to win the argument, but those of us who’d like to see a thoughtful discussion definitely lose. Congratulations, you are now the proud host of every other political call-in show on the air! May your conversations be just as successful and productive as the legendary Crossfire!

Whatever you do next, I hope you will never hold back your earnest thoughts, so the dialogues can always be honest, the reactions passionate, and the deserts just.

Good luck in your future endeavors!

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Our Political Atmosphere: How Bad Is It?

2010.July.28

So bad that fear of one’s opponents is a faster motivator than those opponents themselves.

The short version is that a Black nonpartisan federal employee was caught on video saying something that sounded racist against Whites and was fired almost immediately, only for word to later come out that the video had been edited to place her comments in antithetical context to their personal-triumph-over-racism origin. Partisan officials from the top scrambled to apologize and offer the woman her job (or better) back.

So what role did partisanship play in the whole fiasco? Ironically, only the partisans are really talking about this, and you’re not going to get much of a straight answer out of either side.

Of course, liberals are pointing fingers at conservative media (e.g., Fox News). The NAACP (not staunchly liberal, but let’s say sympathetic; they were implicated because it was at their event that the video was shot) declared “we have come to the conclusion we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party Activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias … we now believe the organization that edited the documents did so with the intention of deceiving millions of Americans.”

Conservatives rebut this by pointing out that Fox barely had time to mention the video before the woman was forced into resignation. The Tea Party activist who first posted the edited video has refused to apologize, swearing up and down that the video was already edited when he received it (source unknown).

Media sources that attempt to be nonpartisan are just shaking their heads going, “WTF?” because those who bought the story gave it legs and those who didn’t only avoided doing so because they weren’t fast enough. The old UPI motto “Get it first, but get it right” is clear in its structure about which half is the priority and which is the caveat.

Ugh. This is our politics. Just makes you want to burst into patriotic song, doesn’t it?

I watched a little of the ensuing tennis match between Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly earlier tonight. I laughed with Rachel and cringed at Bill like I was supposed to (grouse though I might about partisanship, I do tend to sympathize with those who tout social justice over corporate interests), but it felt rather distant from reality. There was one very meta moment wherein Rachel was speaking alongside a monitor displaying Bill, who in turn was shown alongside footage of Rachel… it was like looking at a reflection of a reflection of a reflection (AKA an “infinity mirror”)…

I was left feeling a little empty. I didn’t gain anything from watching this display, and I doubt Rachel or Bill or anyone on either of their staffs learned during those 5… 10… 30… however many minutes this volley will go on. The whole story seems to be showing us an ugly underbelly of politics and media, even as it is exploiting it, without offering any solutions or hope for improvement.

There have been some oblique references to how journalists should check their sources, but aren’t we at least past the point of confusing “commentators” with “journalists”? Just clarifying the difference between news for the sake of news and opinion posing as news for the sake of entertainment posing as political involvement would go a long way toward a calmer, more rational political climate for all sides. There are commentators trying to be journalists and journalists trying to be commentators, but a real newsperson isn’t going to have his or her name ahead of the word “News” in the title of a program. Instead of everyone saying, “Those journalists should have checked their sources!” how about we ask how and why journalists, commentators, the NAACP, and the freaking federal government could get so invested in a story without checking their sources?

How about the liberal commentators and officials check their sources, even now, and recognize that while, yes, Fox News and their allies have created an intimidating news environment, in this case they were behind the curve. Just because officials feared their backlash doesn’t mean the backlash had actually begun. While their at it, liberal and non-partisan officials need to grow a spine and not jump to defend themselves against every little attack. And liberal commentators who nightly denounce ideologues like Bill O’Reilly for being caustic blowhards need to not get involved in tit-for-tat, self-referential reporting, lest you become blowhards yourselves! (Oops, too late.)

And conservatives, who are more or less faultless in this one incident (congratulations, your seeds of self-destruction have been sewn quite well in the opposition), need to recognize that playing the frothy underdog for ten years has only made them bitter and lightning rods of fear (both felt and inspired). If they want to defend this country so well, they need to let go of the most extreme rhetoric and sit down and have a conversation with their enemies once in a while. Maybe then they can see we’re human beings, too, we’re Americans, too, and that somewhere between us is the path to a successful America.

Or that, at the very least, people look very different when not viewed through a reflection of a reflection of a reflection…

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