Posts Tagged ‘racism’

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Our Worst Selves (or as I Like to Call Them, Our Selves)

2016.April.13

[I started drafting this before my recent travels, about which I have 1,001 things to say, so in the spirit of Imperfectionism I’m going to do quick edits and schedule to post so I can move on. The ideas here may be deeper and more complicated than my meandering draft captured, so don’t be surprised if I revisit this topic again in the future. As always, constructive criticism is highly encouraged!]

Two questions you hear a LOT on the internet that I see as strongly related:

“How could this happen?”
“How can you be friends with that person?”

I don’t believe the first needs much elaboration: we’re mostly all shocked (SHOCKED, I SAY!) at the thoughts and actions of people we don’t really notice until they burn their way onto the front page in fire and/or blood. No one ever foretells disaster and tensions flare up randomly; this space rock humanity calls home is basically one big laboratory for random events being communicated at high speeds and necessitating an ever-broader range of emoji and inflections for the word “tragedy” (except not in the classical theatrical sense, because a tragic hero must have a tragic flaw that foretells his — it’s always a he — tragic downfall).

The second statement, I fear, will seem equally random. For as long as I’ve tried to live an open life (which coincides roughly with as long as I’ve had a social media presence), people have taken issue with my broad selection of friends:

“How do you hang out with them?”
“I had to hide her on my feed, she’s just too negative.”
“That’s when I blocked him.”
“They are all just idiots; I don’t see why you bother.”
“Where’s your loyalty?”

But I’m increasingly of the opinion that they are two sides of the same awkward coin: inattention.

I don’t know why I can absorb a lot of information without it weighing me down, but I can, and I choose to do so. I’ve been saying for years that my “superpower” is perspective (thanks to a life lived along the fringes, between identities — some of my advantages helped offset otherwise confining societal expectations), so I don’t necessarily expect anyone else to approach either news or social media with my sense of openness and possibility. As is my habit, I’ve attempted to apply my personal privileges and skill sets to exploring possibilities and, hopefully, expanding them for others along the way.

But perspective is not just spotting silver linings for every dark cloud — it’s about balance. It’s also finding the dark clouds for every silver lining, and recognizing how light can play tricks on you.

For better or worse, I didn’t begin to curate my Face-friend list for length until it approached 500 (and such curation remained minimal; I didn’t excise the profoundly hard/negative until I was knee-deep in caregiver isolation and felt ill-equipped to find balance with the, what, three people I ended up de-friending?). I didn’t turn away people who were contentious, different of opinion, or generally negative, because perspective has shown me that people don’t behave in such a pattern without a reason. Although I’m sure I came off at times as a collector, someone who wanted only digital notches on my social headboard, I saw every single person I added as a friend or potential friend. I could have accumulated twice as many Face-friends if I’d wanted, but it wasn’t about the number to me, it was about the (potential for) connections, however narrow the range of commonality. My “Aquaintence” and “Restricted” lists were the mere dozen or so people whom I might hug in person but couldn’t hand off information without having a sit-down conversation about how they might receive it.

As for the rest, perhaps people thought I couldn’t see how contentious and negative “those people” were (note: “those people” were not consistently the same people; sometimes they would even talk about each other). But I saw the negativity. I could further see the pain and isolation of individuals from one another, and I would notice the way some folks insulated themselves with cynicism, skepticism, or misanthropy. I continually see the hard topics that drive wedges between us. And I don’t have to agree with someone else’s perspective to interpret and understand it; experience has shown me the humanity in people who don’t agree with me (even in people who are hateful toward me), so I endeavor to seek out the humanity always. Not because everyone can, but because I can.

And because I now habitually see the gray coexistence and subjective lighting of stormy clouds and silver linings (or is that silver clouds and stormy linings?), I look at the agitated, inflamed, overwhelming dis-ease of opinions on the Internet and I can see something of a familiar trajectory. I’ve learned to look past tone and education and shared experience, to squint and turn my head and check my eyes when I look at strong opinions, to see behind them people who have rare experiences and who are struggling to be seen and heard. And I believe the Internet is *giving everyone the opportunity* to do the same.

Okay, too silver, let me fix that…

I believe the Internet is *forcing us all* to do the same.

Awkwardly.

(But hasn’t the Internet shown us that awkward can be okay?)

The thing about Internet hate is that it isn’t Internet hate. There’s a lot of data out there that says humans so rarely change our minds about anything, it’s hard to blame anything for anyone’s opinion. The internet hasn’t transformed anyone who wouldn’t have been just as transformed if exposed to the right radio programs, scientific journals, newspapers, governmental edicts, wrapping paper, cheesecloth or parchment scrolls of yore. The challenge of our time isn’t new hate, new ideas, or new resistance to progress — it’s that old hate has found a stronger, louder voice on the Internet. This has been documented since the days of AOL chatrooms, and BBS systems before that. People just let it all out there, in part because we feel less accountable but also because we assume we’re in like-minded company. The small, self-selected spaces in which we participate online allow us to see in others much more of of ourselves than might actually be there. This is the macro level of what my favorite book on communication calls “The Usual Error”. You might tell yourself that the 200 members in your Facebook Fandom group aren’t all on the same page as you, but you are way more likely to assume you’re in the same book than with 200 random strangers driving on the highway or waiting with you at the DMV.

Online, we each express ourselves a little more boldly than we do in person (aggregated together in one place, most any viewpoint can garner attention — isn’t that the point of movement-building?). Advocates of peace and love as policy can be just as intense, just as intimidating, just as prone to cherry-pick data and memes (especially in the eyes of their opponents) as their opponents. The more significant difference is that, thanks to social media algorithms, a worldwide archive of material that can never quite be deleted, and the way sensational tweets can become ratings gold for what’s left of earlier forms of media, we now actually KNOW what is being said and thought by people who don’t agree with us. It shocks us. But only because we haven’t been paying attention.

And by “we”, I mostly mean white people, men, cis-persons, and/or those with better-than-average academic credentials. Practically everyone else grew up knowing about the deep tensions and the daily acts of unreported violence; they were a fact of life you only got through by doing what you were told, moving away, or perhaps fighting them with whatever means you had available (hint: these means did not include most governmental channels until fairly recently in American history — there’s a reason why unions and affinity groups were so important for the first half of the Twentieth Century and why they were so effectively undermined in the second half). So today’s viable ideologues are not representative of some mass hysteria, stupidity, willful ignorance, or swell of hate and misunderstanding (although sometimes the media and/or machinations will feed these aspects — sometimes deliberately, often tangentially to other goals — in their own interests). These patterns in voting are a reflection of viewpoints that have remained largely entrenched for generations in pockets that didn’t quite have the stage they now have. But just because you didn’t know this view of the world to persist while you or your parents sang “Kumbaya”, doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.

There never was a center, a normal, a mainstream. There was only the polite effort to minimize our differences until they absolutely necessitated response. That the myth of a mainstream “truth” lasted this long was a function of wishful thinking: that our incendiary melting pot was actually chill and balanced, that all those awful ideas that presaged the culture wars of the 60s were resolved and not surrendered to least-common-denominator banalities (like how much voting mattered and how so OVER racism we were as a country), that legislating anything from moral high ground and simple majorities (as opposed to, I don’t know, consensus and really fucking hard national conversations) wouldn’t invite generations of political resentment.

People fear what they do not understand, no matter how popular or moral it is (or seems). and the more polarized our leaders seem, the harder it gets for them to build common ground. Just as many conservatives are bewildered that not everyone arms up every time they hear the word “socialism”, so it is that liberals are bewildered that some people still like guns more than they like broad political inclusivity.

For one, maybe two generations, everyone got roughly the same inoffensive news coverage from roughly the same handful of inoffensive news outlets because it was so convenient (and the lack of an apparent agenda — which is not the same thing as a lack of agenda — was better for ratings and readership). Subtle, even unconscious biases convinced most of us that we were all equal under the law and that meant all old grudges were to be forgotten and America was, at long last, the only and best home to opportunity. With a handful of notable yet unspoken ground rules (religion and cops are generally on the right side; respectability of tone reflected respectability of argument; the majority and the customer were right unless the Supreme Court or the Board of Directors say otherwise), coverage allowed people to believe whatever we wanted, and the need to keep peace between disparate groups invited a lot of talk about unity, tolerance, and acceptance until every bigot, xenophobe, and extremist could answer accusations with, “I know you are, but what am I?” It wasn’t the absence of opposition that existed all this time; it was the absence of its mention.

Internet hate is not hate born on the internet; it is the same old hate externalized like never before. The startle here shouldn’t be what we now know they’re thinking; it’s how long we hid our heads in the sand and could believe otherwise before the Internet!

The “mainstream media” as we think of it, operating with a broad audience in mind and some attempt at objectivity in presentation, is less than a hundred years old; before World War II it was standard practice for not only editorial boards but all sections of any newspaper to coordinate around a specific political slant and to use its circulation to promote the political agenda of its publisher. To some extent, this practice only became subtler as television news emerged to carve out a middle ground and newspapers had to adapt; as news institutions fall or get bought out in waves, we may not be seeing the death of journalism so much as the end of its golden age of neutrality and a return to its polarized roots.

I would not wish harmful outcomes on any community, but they may just be the proverbial chickens coming home to roost. With every Trump victory, the good white liberals of America have to confront the fact that people of color have been right all along and we never really did lick that whole racism problem and laissez-faire capitalists (when they’re not lobbying for favorable laws and gargantuan tax breaks) have to begrudgingly consider that their economic gospel is especially bullish for loud, media-savvy blowhards. With every gruesome, unarmed death at the hands of a police officer, more civilians are forced to pay attention to how police are empowered, trained, and galvanized with fear that is too often nonspecific and/or coded to reinforce and entrench officers’ every prejudice. With every poisoned American city and collapsed bridge, activists are forced to recognize that polarized, single-issue elections fill government with ideologues who can only rehash the same battles over and over for inching social change, while miles of infrastructure and mundane policy age gracelessly until people (far more often than not, the very people our leaders swore they’d include in their big tents every four years for the last forty) die committing such innocent acts as drinking water and driving to work.

These are not shocking, spontaneous disasters; they are the fourth act of America, and they can be directly traced to incomplete victories of one and two generations ago, when short-term solutions made long-term problems look solved (if you didn’t look too long, which we’ve totally turned into an American value) so the victors wouldn’t have to look any harder, any deeper, at themselves, and no one would have to look at the losers at all. (I suspect there are parallels to Reconstruction after the Civil War, but it would take someone more familiar with that era than myself to draw clear connections.)

 

Our great American narrative has said that this land is great and we’re all great because we were born here and that’s all you need to be empowered to win, so all those losers of unfinished business and unvoiced resentment, the unequal equals who know they’ve been lied to their whole lives but not always about what and why, well they all think they’re winners, too, and they’re wondering when you’re going to start treating them as such. This is one thing the advocates of #BlackLivesMatter and Trump voters actually have in common: they have no more buy-in to American culture than they had before upper-class white folks declared racism was wrong but it was over now anyway and we should all go home and get some sleep because everyone’s got to go to work in the morning. Until such folks find authentic involvement and representation in their own lives, they’re going to keep raising a lot of fuss on the Internet.

There was a time when “community” was perceived largely around geography/proximity: your neighborhood, your town, your coworkers, the family who lived nearby… You and your community were in roughly in the same “place” at roughly the same time. The roots of this phenomenon touch on immigration, urbanization, and no small amount of housing discrimination, but it wasn’t hard to see the commonalities because you actually had a LOT in common. Areas were settled, resettled, sold, rented, blighted, gentrified in waves as people with a lot in common followed one another from one destination to the next. Before there was an internet, even the most urbane American was unlikely to encounter THAT many types of people, and it made it easier to hold beliefs and unchecked assumptions about everyone else.

The internet gave people the chance to reconnect in ideological “communities” after suburban sprawl and myths of normalcy made it hard to tell whether your next door neighbor was actually just like you or completely different, and in doing so it is pulling off the band-aid of American tolerance to show we’re still deeply scarred.

Call-out culture, when it is authentic (and not just white people looking to score brownie points by talking over others rather than engaging in an actual dialogue in a relatively safe space — although this is STILL not what activists mean when they say we need more jobs for communities of color!), is not a genesis of whining and/or entitlement; it is the culmination of generations of lived experiences not being taken seriously, of people with privilege being taught that their privilege doesn’t exist and/or could be overcome with good intentions alone (okay, maybe also a token black and/or gay friend), of well-meaning idealists declaring victory too soon after small achievements and failing to evaluate their success with the rigor of, say, a pedantic capitalist.

It’s not too late to find common ground, but we’re going to have to let go of those reflexive block buttons and actually talk with our ideological opponents once in a while. Find out what makes them tick. Share a link that didn’t come from an inflammatory Op-Ed, but includes relevant storytelling and enough research to ground that story without hitting someone over the head. Note: I’m again talking mostly to people with a lot of privilege here; self-care is revolutionary for people who already face daily oppression, and they should be judicious with their boundaries; but, for example, white people defriending other white people over racist microaggressions will only show that we want to avoid the problem of perspective, not that we want to engage or discuss our ideas or challenge ourselvses.

At our worst, Americans are lazy, and our oversights always have a way of coming back to haunt us.

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PSA: It’s Okay to Laugh

2015.May.20

[I drafted this a few weeks back, tweaked it a little, and shared it with a trusted source who thought it was even better than I did when I drafted it. I feel like it needs a lot more work than I am willing to give it, so in the spirit of Imperfectionism, I’m just going to post it as is.]

If you think about it, White Guilt is pretty damn hilarious.

From the stance of marginalized people, the notion that a visible status and some restless pushback can disrupt the individuals with power better than generations of ardent resistance must cause more than a couple of stifled giggles (in the head-shaking sense that one must laugh so as not to cry).

From the stance of people who believe in the power structures that exist, that poor people deserve to starve and people of wealth deserve to have their personal security regarded as a public matter and that no trained cop has ever, ever shot the wrong kid for the wrong reason, the idea that the people who hold that power should feel guilty is a notion worthy of derision.

From the pragmatic, those who perhaps know that systems are unequal but are just trying to get by and don’t make it a personal mission, the weight of oppression is optional and emotional, and how ever is guilt going to get the children fed and the roads paved? [snicker]

From the bleeding hearts, we vocal white liberals, White Guilt is a trap that either catches oneself (evoking nervous laughter) or gives chase unceasingly (evoking smug laughter until we fall and it inevitably catches us).

White Guilt finally caught up with me last year, when the strain of caregiving and other personal struggles forced me to pull away from activism; I was left alone to cross-reference the intersections of my white privilege (which I more or less handle sanely) and my male privilege (which I can hardly say I handle at all…) and started seeing very uncomfortable patterns in my dating and, for lack of a better term, “ally” behaviors.

The greatest laugh of White Guilt is that it laughs at you when it takes away your sense of humor.

For the thousands of privileged people on the Internet clamoring so desperately to be accepted as “one of the good ones”, the easiest gesture to make is to call out others’ bad behavior without ever looking within. Denounce the racist fraternities, but not the academic culture that overlooked them for generations. Stop following whatever privileged writer has been newly declared “problematic” without taking the time to re-examine why you loved them in the first place. Swoop in on other people’s social media, declare their privilege is showing and they should read some bell hooks, then swoop out before they ask for clarification (or specifics).

People of color have no obligation to educate white folks, and I’m “one of the good ones”, so that kind of applies to me too! 

Are we sure we’re not the subject of someone’s satire? Because it seems pretty ridiculous…

The truth is, with the right perspective, just about anything can be funny. Those of us who want to be aware of our privilege should take extra care not to laugh at the expense of those less fortunate than ourselves, but that does not mean the paradigm itself is not rife with comedic potential. It’s a matter of getting the right joke.

Personally, I’ve been at this a long time, but I still struggle at times to keep perspective. I should know by now that any time I can’t laugh at SOMETHING, I’m probably not in a healthy mindset. And I’m so used to looking at the big picture, the intersections, the gravitas of everything touching upon everything else, that I actually have to encourage myself to seek out the humor in mundane moments.

As a caregiver, there are plenty of these moments, where I only take myself and my situation seriously at my own peril.

I often find myself tweeting ludicrous scenarios from my caregiving adventures. I do so partly because I use my hashtag as an archive, so that one day I might come back and make sense of how these years reshape me. I do so partly because moments are poignant, and a moment recognized is a moment when I stood still and looked around.

I also do so to share a laugh.

A few people have told me that my social circle has likely evaporated because people don’t know how to interact or relate with me as a caregiver. For such persons, I might be tempted to say their interactions were never stellar to begin with, and my expectations were not high (I was never comfortable on pedestals — especially when my loved ones were left off — nor of casual enmity, especially by Brutuses who never bothered to declare animosity until I was already under attack).

But really, this waxing cantankerous comes more from the fact that I have been telling people all along how to interact with me, to no avail. I was an over-communicator before all this started, yet people consistently hesitate to ask even basic questions. I would hold private and public events regularly to stay connected, until attendance tapered off and I was just spinning my wheels. I posted thorough, thought-out lists of how my needs could be met best, and they got a handful of likes and no substantive results.

And I shared (and continue to share) poignant moments along the way. Because I am now an unfamiliar entity, my posts are approached with trepidation, every word taken most severely, and all humor stripped away because it might be better to be silent than to be insensitive. My family chastened me once for calling my caregivee “the old man”, even though it was a) factual, b) protected his privacy, and c) only used in humorous posts. Not long ago, I shared a slice-of-life moment that made me smile, but got two frowny-faces on Facebook. Anyone else’s roommate starts fussing over the “correct” flavor of ice cream and it’s a silly laugh to be shared; it happens in my house and I end up feeling like I’m bringing people down for having shared it.

Let me be clear: I cannot laugh at the person for whom I care. He is not weak, ridiculous, pathetic, or contemptible. He is my personal hero, and he is sick. But because of his illness, he sometimes says or does idiosyncratic things. That’s amusing.

To not laugh at funny situations (again, in good nature) would be to infantalize him.

Laughing can also represent acceptance, that however well or not things work out, we have done our best in a situation and we have no significant regrets. To not laugh at our missed opportunities is to acknowledge that we weren’t doing the best we could. That we have something for which to actually feel guilty.

I can’t really speak to when or how it’s appropriate to laugh at White Guilt (I just dashed this off in the wee hours when I should have been sleeping), but I can tell you about my life and my personal experience. I can tell you that I share moments that touch me, but not so much the ones that scare me. I announce changes in condition (for the sake of my family, who will always opt for the least interactive communication available, ever since we used to shout across our series of rather small houses for one another because stepping into another room was SUCH a chore), but only when it feels safe to do so.

Everything else, I’m at least trying to be a little funny, because humor helps me cope and sharing humor helps me not feel alone. I won’t dare laugh at something I could change, but I’d like to get to a point where I could laugh at anything I couldn’t.

So for future reference, any time you think I’m trying to be funny about my life as a caregiver, please join in the laugh. And if, some day, I return to activism and you think the same thing about something I post with political implications, try to find the humor in it (even if it’s just how ridiculous I am for trying).

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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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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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Ranty McRantenstein

2010.August.23

[Contributor Post by johncleonard]

Politics has been particularly upsetting lately. It’s gotten to the point that I don’t really want to write about it. Well, nothing particularly useful, anyway. So, in that vein…

I’ve had it with social conservatives. If they don’t appreciate what freedom of religion in this country gives them and they can’t share with everyone else, the motherfuckers can all try and practice their religion in Iran. It’ll be cheaper for the rest of us to evict them and pay for their relocation than it will be to continue to fight their senseless wars. And Hell, even the Supreme Court of MEXICO has upheld same-sex marriage as a right. Fucking MEXICO, people! One of the most Catholic nations on the planet understands separation of church and state better than Americans do.

I’m sick of Libertarians, too. The Market is not some magical force that can fix everything. In fact, left to their own devices, markets have been responsible for and/or supported some of the worst things that people do to one another (let’s start with slavery and go from there). Also, you stupid motherfucking twats, just because you were born with enough privilege to pull yourselves up from nothing (And your idea of “nothing”? Not even close.) doesn’t mean that everyone else in this country is. On paper the opportunities may be equal, but it’s far past time to take off your blinders and see what things look like in practice.

I’m sick of the Republican party pandering to the social conservatives and other various nutjobs (yes, I’m looking at you, Teabaggers). How the fuck hard is it for you to grasp the idea that you’re supposed to be helping the country, not wanking over bikini/rifle pictures of Sarah Palin?  Keep trying to hold back progress and progress is going to squash you like the insects you are.

I’m sick of the Democrats and other liberals being such cowards. Why is the US (supposedly the greatest nation on Earth) always the last to take care of its own people? Where’s our version of universal health care? Where are you on getting all of us equal rights and privileges? Quit cock-gobbling the lobbyists and do what’s right for the people for a change. Oh. That’s right. That won’t get you re-elected. I just have to ask, “If it’s the right thing, who the FUCK cares?” If you can’t grasp the gravity of that, go simper somewhere else. Like Nevada. Prostitution is legal there, so you should have no trouble at all earning a living.

Oh, and all this illegal immigration crap is beyond disgusting. It’s a bunch of white people trying to protect their privileged status as the majority. You know what? Every last person who thinks that illegal immigration is the problem should be doused in napalm and set on fire.  It’s not the problem, you puss-dripping cocks, it’s a symptom. It’s a symptom of the economy in Mexico (and other places) being even  shittier than ours. It’s a symptom of businesses who think they’re above minimum wage and worker safety law.  It’s also a symptom of a legal immigration path that can take in excess of 20 years to process a simple application. We could build Fortress America, and people would still figure out how to get in if the problems that lead to the symptom of illegal immigration aren’t fixed.

You know what else pisses me off? Our schools. Yeah. Exactly what this country needs is more mindless automatons. This is one of the many things that’s led to our economy being crap, our government being dysfunctional (at best), and has supported the gradual loss of individual liberty. But they’re doing their job right now, I’ll give ’em that. We’ve got a huge workforce of complacent and compliant workers.  So many we don’t know what the fuck to do with them all.  It’s our just deserts for not encouraging innovation and imagination and for allowing politics to determine curriculum.

But wait! There’s more!

The whole WTC/Mosque flap is another great big steaming pile of racism. Something like 84% [editor’s note: Gallup polled 68% nationwide] of the population oppose the location. Well, you shining nuggets of shit, the site is a full two NYC-sized blocks from the (16-square-block) WTC complex. It’s being built on private property with private funds. It’s not just a Mosque, but also a community center. Some of the higher-ups involved with the project have even openly cooperated with the FBI’s counter-terrorism efforts. Yep. Let’s demonize and dehumanize the enemy and then pretend we didn’t know better when average people start taking matters into their own hands.

Then again, maybe we should just start rounding up all the Muslims and Mexicans and putting them into camps like we did with the Japanese immigrants in WWII. Oh. Wait. We already tried that (with the Muslims, anyway). Shrub/Chimpy (the guy who spent 8 years with Cheney’s arm up his ass running him like a puppet) didn’t get all that far on that one, did he? Maybe there’s still some hope for the masses, after all…

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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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