Poor Little Pooped On

Sulking_BoyNobody loves me;
Everybody hates me.
I’m gonna go eat worms…

So runneth the ditty my mother sang to me as a child anytime I gave in to sulking and/or personal pity parties.

It has been runneth-ing through my mind pretty much all weekend.

In case you missed it, last June the Supreme Court handed down a ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, striking down bans on same-sex marriage in all fifty states. And, rather than celebrating with our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community, many of us have spent the last ten months bemoaning what this is really all about:

Ourselves.

One of the major objections to the Court’s decision is this: equal marriage rights for same-sex couples will infringe upon my religious freedom. For months I have heard this from presidential hopefuls (turning rhetorical somersaults to fit the phrases “created equal” and “no gay marriage” into the same sentence without exploding in a cloud of cognitive dust-onance), pundits, and others, over and over again. And I’m left with the question:

Your religious freedom to what?

Your religious freedom to condemn others? To marginalize whole sectors of society on a theological whim? To institutionalize your own beliefs (and rights) at the expense of everyone else’s?

Both President Obama, in his speech following the ruling, and Justice Kennedy, in the majority opinion of the Court, explicitly addressed the fact that some citizens of our Union(?) hold very dear convictions on the issue, and advised the rest of us to “go easy on them.” The whole “pastors who refuse to perform same-sex weddings will lose their licenses” thing isn’t actually happening. (You understand that, right?)

From where I stand, your religious freedom is right where it was before: plastered on church signs and Facebook pages, nestled in the bosom of your 501(c)3s, and coming out of your mouths any time a TV camera is pointed in your general direction. So, you’re good.

At the end of the day, the problems this country faces are not because of homosexuality or abortion or the economy or politics, or anything so headline friendly as any of that. The real problem is:

Selfishness.

You heard me. ME. MY rights. MY life. ME. ME. ME. ME. ME.

As a sizeable portion of our fellow citizens celebrates new-found freedom, another sizeable portion cries over freedoms they haven’t even lost. And have the gall to claim that beloved symbols of LGBTQ community like the rainbow are really symbols of anti-Christian bigotry. We’ve never been big on self-awareness here in the United States of Take-a-Hike. But we’re certainly good at looking out for No. 1.

Because we’re more than willing to poop on others…so long as nobody ever poops on us.

Who We Aren’t

Arco_das_Cataratas(Photo by Newordertemple)

The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times.

– Justice Anthony M. Kennedy

In his dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark decision that struck down bans on same-sex marriage throughout the fifty states, Chief Justice John Roberts asked:

As a result, the Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?

In all honesty, I’m not always sure who we are as a nation, but I think I can say with some confidence who we are not:

We are not Han Chinese, or Kalahari Bushmen, or the Carthaginians. And, unless at some point we’ve performed a ritual human sacrifice on the White House lawn, we are definitely not the Aztecs. I’d like to think we’ve made just a little progress since then. Even if one rejects the idea of biological evolution, no one who’s read a history book (outside of Texas) can possibly deny the reality of social evolution. We are not who we once were. And this is a great good.

We are not even the nation we were a week and a half ago. As President Obama so eloquently noted in his eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, the events that unfolded in Charleston have had an effect on us as a people that no one, from the shooter to the Fox pundits to society at large, saw coming: we have stumbled upon (or been thrust rudely into) introspection, a quality sorely lacking of late in our public discourse. We have perhaps for the first time in a very long time stopped to consider the feelings of others. When the son of Strom Thurmond advocates the demotion of the Confederate flag, you know a corner’s been turned.

In this groundswell of respect for others (fleeting as it may be), the Obergefell decision seems only fitting. Perhaps we are finally getting it through our collective head that our LGBTQ compatriots are not aberrations, not threats to the social order, not “less than” anything or anyone. That instead, they are just like us: people in pursuit of happiness, people in possession of human dignity, people entitled to all the rights and liberty the rest of us expect to wake up to in the morning. Perhaps we’ve finally realized that the worship of God doesn’t require judgment of others, or that these men and women simply want a share in our society, not to destroy it. Perhaps; perhaps not…

Here, though, is where the rubber meets the road. Neither the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, or the Civil Rights Act a century later, signaled the end of the racist streak that runs throughout our history as a nation. Charleston proved that. Legislation and/or court decisions get us only so far. And they are what truly show us who we are as a society, because they take what once was adherence to the law (call it “plausible deniability”) and transform it into circumvention of the law. Alleged innocence flies out the window: we’ve now reached the stage of egregious (and generally creatively underhanded) denial of our fellow citizens’ rights.

Before June 26, 2015, we could say that our attitude, our approach to the issue of LGBT equality, was about “the letter of the law,” about what’s written down on the hallowed papers and documents of our land. We could blame the Founders, pin it on the courts, whatever. Now, today, that ship has sailed: now it’s all about what lives in our hearts and minds, as individuals, as citizens, as human beings. Nooses on trees come from nooses in minds; hateful speech flows from hateful hearts. Who do we think we are? We are what we say and do.

Justice Kennedy foresaw the coming storm in the majority opinion: “Outlaw to outcast may be a step forward, but it does not achieve the full promise of liberty.” Anyone familiar with Jim Crow feels the truth of those words, some of us in ways the rest of us will never quite understand. And the choice, now, is ours: who do we think we are?

If we take Justice Roberts’ words as binding, it would seem we are who we ever have been, that we cannot change, that we cannot grow as a people and a society. We must always think as we have thought before; we must always plumb the depths behind rather than plotting out the course ahead. And that’s a dangerous frame of mind: if we think we are who we used to be, we’ll never realize who we might become.

The real question, as we move forward, is this: Who are we going to be, now that we’re beginning to understand what it means to be who we are?

It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

600px-Hrc_logo.svg

It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

– Justice Anthony M. Kennedy

Falling

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The sky is falling…
Well, maybe just a speck of dust, but
still–

Pill swallowed; now
Mellow: yellow snow is just as
cold as white. By night,
who can tell the difference?

Close the door; turn on all the
lights.
Bar the windows; lock them
tight.
Keep the bogey in the dark.
You’ve had your lark. Time to get

Serious

Here Today

Mustard_Plant_Flower

(Photo courtesy of Prakash Adhikary)

The Buddha said: “The life of mortals in this world is troubled and brief and combined with pain. For there is not any means by which those that have been born can avoid dying; after reaching old age there is death; of such a nature are living beings. As ripe fruits are early in danger of falling, so mortals when born are always in danger of death. As all earthen vessels made by the potter end in being broken, so is the life of mortals. Both young and adult, both those who are fools and those who are wise, all fall into the power of death; all are subject to death.”

– The Parable of the Mustard Seed

There are those who believe that, given time and resources, scientific advancement will one day conquer death itself.

I am not one of those people.

As much as I yearn to see the future, to walk in a world defined by galaxies rather than continents, to travel at the speed of light to the place where stars are born; as much as I’d love to watch history’s eons unfold endlessly around me; as much as I’d give to read the end of the story–even so, the thought rings hollow.

I have a sneaking suspicion that my life is exalted by its inherent limitations, without which it would be meaningless, moment-less. I wonder if they are really limitations at all, or if they are simply infinity in disguise. I am who I am because I will not be forever. True eternity dwells in the finite; the vicissitudes of time render time timeless. My existence matters only because it will one day cease.

This is my time. I am here today.

This person called “Vance” is a moment in time, a blip on the radar of reality–it cannot be otherwise. Whatever fate awaits is predicated upon birth and death. I am in between. It is the only place I can exist. It is the only arena in which I may act. And when I act, I act as one who will soon disappear and who therefore must act now.

Chögyam Trungpa taught that “we are quivering between this and that.” We live our lives poised on the razor’s edge, at a moment’s notice. We dwell in the instant between first breath and last. And in an instant, the instant will pass.

This is my time. I am here today.

I do not fear the loss of tomorrow, because it is the elusiveness of tomorrow that makes such a precious commodity out of today. A precious stone is precious because it is scarce. If there is always to be Vance, then what real value can Vance really possess? I am precious because I am scarce. The promise of death makes a precious commodity of my life.

There are things only I can do, words only I can say, and thoughts only I can think–and I have only today in which to do, say, and think them. They have never been before; they will never be again. Life’s greatest glory is its own impermanence. Here today; gone tomorrow. Precious now.

If I am to live as Vance, I must one day die as Vance. And in between, I must act.

Second-Hand Bullets

Pinkas-boy-gunso doctor doctor won’t you please prescribe me somethin
a day in the life of someone else
Cuz I’m a hazard to myself

– Pink

Let’s talk about cigarettes.

If you want to slowly flood your system with toxic substances and increase your chances of chronic and/or terminal illness, that is your right. In any case, I can’t really point too many fingers. We all have our poisons of choice. I’m well on my way to a Doritos-related heart attack. But, then, I’m not force-feeding you corn chips on buses and airplanes, or in hotels and restaurants, either. There’s no such thing as second-hand cholesterol.

Therein lies the difference between my poison and yours. Mine is mine; yours is everybody’s. Su carcinogen es mi carcinogen…whether I like it or not.

Guns used to be like Doritos. Outside of violent crime, gun-related deaths were restricted to the home, or at the very least involved only those who chose to own a firearm. While I find all such incidents regrettable, at least they could truly be attributed to the consequences of personal choice. But this is no longer the case (most recently in my home state of Texas). Now, guns are becoming cigarettes.

Except for one thing: in the case of cigarettes, we have moved away from public harm toward public safety. We have chosen to respect the personal choice of those who choose not to smoke. We have restricted the spaces in which smokers may partake of their habit, in order to limit the involuntary exposure of non-smokers. To a large extent, buses, airplanes, hotels, and restaurants no longer present a problem. Because, while we respect your right to poison yourself, we also respect the right of others not to be poisoned by you.

Let’s look at a similar issue: drunk driving. From the standpoint of absolute freedom of choice, an argument might be advanced that an individual ought to be free to do so if she chooses. It’s no one’s business but her own if she knowingly acts in a way that endangers her life. Except it’s not just her life that’s endangered, is it? In this case, her right to act is counterbalanced by others’ right not to be acted upon. So we legislate against drunk driving. This doesn’t by any means ensure that no one will do it, but it does put into place a legal structure whereby we might be able to mitigate a great deal of the risk. We see a danger, and we act to curb it to the best of our ability.

In the case of guns and gun safety, though, we are actually moving in the opposite direction. The Texas legislature just passed an open carry bill (HB910), and Gov. Abbott signed it into law on June 13, at a gun range, of course. This bill, which takes effect on January 1, 2016, will allow licensed carriers to carry their firearms openly in a belt or shoulder holster. OK Corral, anyone? To make matters worse, they have also passed a campus carry bill (SB11), which at its fullest strength would allow students 21 years of age and older to carry their firearms in dorms, classrooms, and campus buildings. What could possibly go wrong?

Of course, one may protest: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” But, then, that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s people who decide whether or not to pull the trigger, and so, it’s people who make guns dangerous. And people are notoriously prone to panic-induced chaos. There’s a reason you’re not supposed to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. And, given the ridiculous amount of mass shootings that have taken place around the U.S. in the last few years, we’re all primed to hear the first shot. Which makes it unwise to equip Tom, Dick, or Harry (or me, in case you care to accuse me of elitism) to take the second.

I was recently taken to task by someone who pointed out that if 21-year-olds are responsible enough to vote, join the military, etc., etc., etc., then they are also responsible enough to carry a gun onto their college campus. Setting aside the age of last week’s Charleston shooter (which was 21, if you’re wondering), this is hardly the point. It’s not just about the people with the guns; it’s the message(s) they’re sending.

The last thing we need is for a new generation to grow up under the impression that guns are cool. Back to cigarettes: one of the constant refrains of the anti-smoking campaign has been “Don’t smoke in front of your children, because they tend to do as you do, not as you say.” And then there’s the effort to convince teenagers that smoking “ain’t cool.” But guns are a fashion accessory.

There is also the minor issue of conflict resolution strategies. Do we not understand that these laws, and their “personal safety” justifications, perpetuate the idea that the solution to potential violence is more potential violence? That the only palliative to our lack of social consciousness is less social consciousness, and more social belligerence? Forget “these are your lungs on tobacco”; your brain on bullets…is dead.

Just as there are people who choose not to smoke or be associated with tobacco in any way, there are those of us who choose to neither own nor be associated with guns. In fairness, smokers are generally fairly conscientious when it comes to following the rules: there was grumbling at first, I’m sure, when the limiting trend began, but by and large, they are a respectful lot. Baylor, for instance, joined the ranks of smoke-free campuses at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, and the transition went largely without a hitch. Meanwhile, the gun lobby seems to be going out of its way to force the rest of us into the firing line.

Imagine the gall of suggesting that law enforcement officers be free to ask open carriers for proof of license! Since all 21-year-olds have their age pinned to their foreheads, what could be the use of so overbearing a measure? By all means, ID kids trying to buy tobacco or alcohol, but how dare you infringe upon their rights by asking for legal paperwork on the deadly weapon strapped to their hip? Now, everyone’s up in arms because of possible signage restricting open (or concealed) carry in businesses: in Texas, über-respect for the businessman apparently ends when they tell you to leave your toys outside.

If you, in your hubris, want to channel Cary Grant or John Wayne, then for the love of God, do it in the privacy of your own home and leave the rest of us out of it. If you’re going to be an ass, then at least make sure it’s only your ass that’s on the line.

‘Cause second-hand bullets are real.

Whistling Dixie

800px-General_Lee_scale_modelMidnight, our sons and daughters
Were cut down and taken from us.
Hear their heartbeat
We hear their heartbeat.

– U2

I still remember the Christmas morning at my grandparents’ house in Waxahachie, Texas. I found one of these little guys under the tree: a remote-control model of the General Lee. And I was pumped! The Dukes of Hazzard was one of my favorite TV shows as a kid. I once busted my knee wide open pretending to be the Duke boys on my Big Wheel. They were, to me, the height of cool.

Of course, I was a kid, and I didn’t know from the Confederacy or the Civil War. I knew I was supposedly related to some guy named Robert E. Lee (that has since been debunked as a myth), but that was pretty much it. I hadn’t an inkling that the awesome design on my favorite car in the world (beside K.I.T.T., that is–it could talk, after all) actually meant something. I didn’t know what racism was, or slavery, or prejudice and discrimination. Jim Crow would have sounded like a storybook character to inexperienced little me. I had no idea that I loved something that to many, many people was a symbol of hatred, fear, and inequality.

Now I know. But I still don’t often think about it. I still watch reruns of the Dukes without stopping to consider the underlying cultural message, one that still resonated, apparently, two years after I was born in 1977–112 years after the Civil War ended, and 114 years after U.S. slaves were (sort of) emancipated. It never occurs to me to wonder how my African American compatriots feel as they channel-surf past TVLand when they happen to have a little free time. How it may, for some, call into question the very idea of “free time.”

Why? Because I’m white. Which is more of a soporific than I often realize. Yes, it is structural, and no, I wasn’t around in the 1800s, nor did–as far back as I’ve gone, at least–any of my forebears own slaves. But the simple fact of my white-ness implicates me in a way I can perhaps ignore, but not in any responsible way deny.

I recently became angry with a couple of fellow bloggers (my sincere apologies to Ruth and Madalyn) when they suggested that I might be implicated in the politics of patriarchy and chauvinism simply by virtue of being a man, regardless of my personal stance on the issue. If you ask my wife, I think she will tell you that I am a fairly enlightened male-type person when it comes to feminist issues, but does that let me off the hook? Perhaps not so much as I’d like to think. I also consider myself fairly enlightened when it comes to racial issues: I grew up in Argentina, where they did to their natives what we did to our buffalo–literally; I belong to the local race relations committee (or I will, if they ever get around to cashing my membership check); I have worked in educational settings with minority youth of multiple backgrounds and ethnicities. There isn’t a racist bone in my body.

Except it’s not my body that matters. It’s the space my body inhabits, the system of which it’s a part, however innocently. I have never burned a cross; I have never donned a bedsheet or strung a noose. I haven’t turned away a job applicant because of his color or denied anyone the right to vote. I have never summoned up sufficient hubris to try and own a fellow human being. I have never done any of these things. But they are still a part of who I am, because they are an ineluctable part of my cultural milieu. They are, whether I like it or not, whether I even know it or not, mine by birthright. An ideological inheritance I have to acknowledge, painful as it may be.

I am white. Therefore, I am responsible.

I also think in a racialized manner. In this context, I don’t think there’s really a significant difference between “racial” and “racist,” no matter how many people tell me there is. I think it is a distinction born of collective guilt, of a certain helplessness in the face of systematized conceptual violence. We’re all of us whistling Dixie, and we’ve no idea how to stop.

When I was on that misson trip to the Carver Baptist Center in New Orleans, and made a conscious effort to interact with the people there in a way that would show them I “wasn’t a racist,” I implicated myself in my white-ness. As much as I rail against gentrification, I avoided the same neighborhoods as everybody else in Waco when I bought my house, never stopping to consider the fact that the very feasibility for me of that avoidance implicated me in my white-ness. I am implicated by the simple fact that I have never nor will I ever feel the stigma of minority identity. I will never look at the General Lee or the flag flying over the South Carolina capitol building with any other than white eyes, and I am implicated in my white-ness by that, as well.

I am white. Therefore, I am responsible. And I haven’t a clue what to do about it.

But perhaps that’s the beginning of comprehension, the first step toward a solution: I cannot understand. Not completely, by any means. And if I cannot understand, then how can I presume to be the arbitrator? So much of our society, our politics, is based on this misbegotten assumption of “understanding,” of comprehension we cannot possibly possess. Men want to regulate the sexual and procreative choices of women; heterosexuals want to define the family lives of the LGBT community; Christians want to limit the political participation of atheists, Muslims, and people of all other faiths (and vice versa–don’t think you can get off the hook that easily).

Whites want to decide whether African Americans should be able to look at the their own state institutions without the constant reminder of centuries of subjugation and injustice. Because we think we know better.

Am I a racist? I don’t believe so, but that’s not really the question. The system is, and that’s the real problem. I sit at the end of a timeline I cannot fathom, a history I can study but never truly understand. Because I am white.

And I am responsible…