I Got 99 Problems, but to Bitch Ain’t One

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Learn to look, because compassion is understanding itself. 

– Thich Nhat Hanh

It occurs to me that I have nothing to complain about.

It also occurs to me that I don’t know from injustice. I mean, other than in theory, as it applies to other people, stuck in other lives. But in practice it is, for all practical purposes, foreign to me.

Black Lives Matter. Equal pay for equal work. A woman’s right to choose. The plight of the refugee. Gender discrimination. All these things speak to me. But I cannot speak to them.

What I can do–really, all I can do–is listen.

Because at the end of the day, the real professionals aren’t the “expert” talking heads on Fox or MSNBC, or the eggheads in the halls of academia, or the do-nothings in Congress. And it’s definitely not me. No, the real professionals are the people living these circumstances from day to day, the ones who can’t escape the situation simply because it is who they are, whether they like it or not.

I can watch, as I did yesterday, documentaries on the Holocaust; I can read books about slavery and Jim Crow; I can feel the weight of my own history, the white albatross of my existence, hung about my shoulders. But I cannot really comprehend the weight that my history has hung about the shoulders of these others.

So, I watch. And I listen. And I trust that my teachers, caught in a structure of real suffering, real injustice, know of what they speak. It is painful, to allow others to inform me of my complicity in matters that seem beyond my control, but these are words I must hear. I must yield to the experiences of those whose experiences can never be mine. Even if those experiences feature me in the role of antagonist.

This is not to say that I have no opinions on the subjects in question. But my opinions, however honestly considered, are also fatally flawed; they are based on feelings I cannot wholly feel, with which I can only sympathize, never empathize. And sympathy, while perhaps warm and fuzzy, is ultimately ineffectual. It is theater.

Racial theater is somehow the stand-in for actually confronting the problem. It lets us move on feeling like we’ve done something without challenging the order of things. And we tell ourselves after watching the special or listening to the conversation that we are all better people for doing so–that we are, at least, a bit less racist. But our racial habits remain completely intact. (Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.)

I don’t want to tell you not to take it personally. That’s the point: we never do. Not really. There is a difference between taking offense at something and taking that something personally. To take it personally is to make it our own, to the extent that we can. And we make it our own by recognizing that it is not, and making room for those to whom it really belongs.

It hurts, to be told you are ineluctably part of the very injustice you abhor. It hurts, but the truth often does. It stings, but it’s necessary. It is hard to step out of my own way, to stop listening to the sound of my own voice long enough to really hear someone else’s.

When you listen to someone, you should give up all your preconceived ideas and your subjective opinions; you should just listen to him, just observe what his way is. We put very little emphasis on right and wrong or good and bad. We just see things as they are with him, and accept them. This is how we communicate with each other. Usually when you listen to some statement, you hear it as a kind of echo of yourself. You are actually listening to your own opinion. If it agrees with your opinion you may accept it, but if it does not, you will reject it or you may not even really hear it. (Shunryu Suzuki)

Sure, I have problems. Everybody does. But are they really worth bitching about? My house drives me crazy…but I have a house. I really don’t like my job…but I have a job, and it pays well enough.

I don’t have to beg people to accept my marriage as valid “in the eyes of God.”

I don’t have to fear deportation or being turned away from a nation’s borders because I happen to resemble others who have done evil things, regardless of my innocence or guilt.

And unless I do something really, really stupid, I don’t have to worry about being stopped, frisked, Tasered, and/or shot by an officer of the “law.”

For some people, existence itself is a problem. For them, life is one long experience of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, because there is no “right” place for them to be. For no other reason than that they don’t look like me, or talk like me, or dress like me, or worship whichever deity I would prescribe.

Me? I’m white, straight, and male in the United States of America.

So who the hell am I to talk?

RadicalEyes

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARed, white, and blue, gaze in your looking glass
You’re not a child anymore
Red, white, and blue, the future is all but past
So lift up your heart, make a new start
And lead us away from here

– Styx

In Chapter Two of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna: “He lives in wisdom who sees himself in all and all in him.” The same might be said of the good global citizen. She is one who sees herself in all peoples and all peoples in herself.

The problem is that we are not trained to see things in this way. In fact, we are trained actively to not see things in this way. We view the world through nation-state-colored glasses; anything else is but a cataract begging for removal.

This is a singular form of myopia, characterized by an inability to see ourselves as a part of, rather than apart from, the rest of the planet. It is not restricted to any one nation or nationality; we all suffer from it to one degree or another. D.T. Suzuki, the great Westernizer of Zen, explained that “it is in the nature of the intellect to set up a series of antitheses in the maze of which it loses itself.” And the greatest antithesis of all is “us against them.”

We understand ourselves by categorizing the Other. This in itself is not a bad thing. But we tend to go farther than that, and imbue those categories with moral significance, as if we cannot conceive of our own importance without calling into question the importance of our opposites. Insert whatever label you like–white, male, European, Christian, heterosexual; the point is the same: knowing one’s place and defining it as more.

National borders serve a similar purpose. There is some benefit, of course, in fellow feeling and shared identity that has nothing to do with imaginary political delineations: to be “American” (or “South African,” or “Iraqi”) is to share a journey, to participate in a greater vision born of multiplying one agent by many. We are part of a whole, larger than ourselves and cumulatively purposeful. Nationality is not in itself a bad thing: it can show us who we are, where we’re going, and give us an inkling of how to get there.

Difficulties arise, though, when nationality bleeds into nationalism:

Nationalism gives rise not only to the affirmative mischief of exceptionalism and the various paranoid doctrines of “un-Americanism” by which our modern history is so unfortunately disfigured, but also to narratives of patriotic sovereignty and separateness that are inordinately bellicose about enemies, the clash of civilizations, manifest destiny, “our” natural superiority, and, inevitably (as now), to policies of arrogant interventionism in politics the world over, so that, alas, in places like Iraq, the United States today is synonymous with a very harsh inhumanity and with policies whose results are particularly and, I would say, even perniciously destructive. (Edward Said)

Keep in mind that Said died in 2003. He wrote these words with relatively little reference to post-9/11 history. And yet…a decade later, the prophecy in his words could not be more evident. In the midst of an election cycle defined by one man’s wall, and in the wake of Paris and all its implications for our national morality, it’s hard believe Said didn’t pen these thoughts last week.

Speaking of Trump’s wall, one of the truisms often voiced by presidential candidates from both major parties is that, for a country to be a country, it must have strong borders. This suggests, incorrectly, that national borders are real. They are not. If they were, we wouldn’t be spending so much time talking about walls.

At the end of the day, national borders are lines drawn on a map, and we’ve all been taught the evils of coloring outside the lines. The Fun Pad is not just a toy; it is a tool of indoctrination. Rather than embracing the creativity of broad and reckless strokes, we instill the aesthetic of prescribed limitation. Overstatement? Perhaps. But consider the utter joy that characterizes the liberal scribblings of a crayon-wielding child, before the authoritarian imposition of “lines.” Is it any wonder that the accomplished artist in the adult world is one who succeeds, at long last, in pushing past the rules governing a lifetime of expressive orderliness?

Talk of wall-building also suggests, sadly, that in order to be a country, a nation must vigorously decouple itself from the rest of the world, to avoid, as George Washington counseled, any “foreign entanglements.” I think we can all agree that the isolationist ship has sailed; for better or for worse, there is no returning that genie to its bottle. And even if we could, should we?

Perhaps the day of the nation-state, like that of the city-state in ancient Greece, is passing. We boldly went where no corporation had gone before–everywhere–without considering the logical outcome of the process: having gone everywhere, it is now incumbent upon us to be everywhere. Be there as if we belonged there, as if we had a true stake in the places we are. “In but not of” is not a sustainable model, either for business or for citizenship. Not anymore. Not in the 21st century.

It is not enough to think in terms of natural resources as materials dug out of the ground and loaded onto airplanes for transport. We cannot just get our stuff from “other countries” anymore. People are resources as well, not to be used up but to be learned from, worked with, respected and cared for. Our profit must be their profit as well, or it is no profit at all.

We do not need walls, Mr. The Donald. We need doors. Lots of them. Open doors, through which relationships are formed, through which people come and go as neighbors, not doors that are closed and fastened against “the rest of the world.” The rest of the world is really the rest of Us, and without it we cannot be strong. Not really. Fear is never strong. And we are afraid. Of everything. And fear breeds enmity.

We need new eyes. Radical eyes. Eyes that see past the false logic of strong borders to the real strength of fair, honest, and equal relationships. We must be brave enough, human enough, to color outside the lines drawn for us by the process of industrial globalization, which insists that we spread our nets for our benefit alone. To seek out the softer, more graceful lines of a shared globalism, diverse but united, that is not a threat to our national identity but its complement.

We need to stop fortifying our borders and learn to cross them. We need to stop creating enemies by way of recognizing our friends. We need, simply put, each other.

Enough with the walls. What we need is a bridge.

Who Does a Guy Have to Piss Off Around Here?

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Better to win by admitting my sin
than to lose with a halo

Evita

Vance offends half the world: 115 views, and a crapload of comments.

Vance apologizes for the offense and attempts a reformulation along more sensitive lines: 25 views, and one comment.

How’s that for a MasterCard commercial?

Welcome to the wonderful world of bits and pieces. A world in which one’s image depends on the snippet view. A world in which, as Madalyn at Wary Wonderlust pointed out, opposition often carries more weight than fellow feeling, and anger becomes the motivating force that both drives and derails our desire for communication.

Last week, I set off a barrage of protest with a post I wrote about race and gender relations. Most of the protest centered around the fact that, being neither Black nor a woman, I should check myself before venturing an opinion. Much of it was valid. And there was much of it: my blog stats went through the roof. One of those situations where your graph looks like it’s flipping you off: nothing, EVERYTHING, and then nothing again.

In my perceived offensiveness, I became a momentary celebrity. Not because I said something worth celebrating, but because I opened myself to easy attack (perhaps justified, but attack nonetheless). I painted a bullseye on my head, and people opened fire.

Okay. Fair enough.

The day after everything exploded, in an attempt to rectify whatever foul I had committed, I wrote a second post, in which I tried to explain myself more clearly and less offensively, and to acknowledge the possible poverty of my initial approach.

Then, I sat back and counted the tumbleweeds.

The pitchfork-laden crowd that had done such an effective job of raining criticism down upon my head the first time around apparently had other barns to burn. A couple of the people who had taken me to task stopped by, but for the most part…silence. No linking, pretty much no commenting. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Now, you may be tempted to take this as me making everything about Me. But I’m really not out to be patted on the head, or to be showered with compliments for addressing my own misstep. That’s just what decent people do; no big whoop there. It is telling, though, that given the central remonstrance (men never listen) offered to the first post, no one had much to say when one of us tried.

But it’s a broader point I’m making here:

This bloggy-sphere of ours is the quintessential typecasting machine. It nails us to the lowest point in our rhetoric, and leaves us there to rot. It catches us on our worst day, at our darkest moments, and etches the image in stone. We become the villain of the story no matter what that story really is.

Now, I’ve been told exhaustively that it isn’t the blogosphere that does this, and that’s a valid point. The Internet doesn’t kill people; people who use the Internet kill people. At the end of the day, it’s us. We’re the ones who determine the nature of this beast, and the fact that its nature is so prone to conflict and confrontation says far more about us than it does about the medium in question.

We tend to choose the shortest possible route from A to B, and the shortest route from post to response is too often a bloodthirsty yell. It is your label of choice. It is the distance from the target, the remove that displaces responsibility from the one who pulls the trigger.

We are all human, and we all respond to criticism or disagreement in human ways which are often less than constructive, if not outright destructive. We all have our dark side and our light. We all have our triggers, and we’re all quick to pull them. And we all leave little chalk outlines strewn behind us as we go.

Sometimes we are the villains. More often, I think (I hope), we are simply people with complicated things to say and little clue how to say them, desperate for the patience and understanding of others, but unwilling to grant either ourselves. And here’s the rub: when we’re not willing to extend the same consideration to others that we desire for ourselves, everyone becomes our enemy. We arrogate to ourselves the best of intentions while assuming everyone else is out to get us. And you know what they say about assumptions…

They make bloggers out of U and Me.

The Potter in Me

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Hey, my eyes aren’t glistening with the ghosts of my past!

– Harry Potter

It is December 2007, and I’m standing across George IV Bridge from The Elephant House in Edinburgh, one of the several places J.K. Rowling frequented while writing her Harry Potter books.

At the time, I wasn’t nearly the Potter fan I am now. Mind you, I’m still not the Potter fan some people are: I don’t own a Ravenclaw scarf, and I’ve never taken a quiz to find out which Hogwarts house suits me best. But I am a big enough fan to reflect more seriously upon what it means, why it appeals so strongly to young and old alike–and why so many fear its “corrupting influence.”

Simply put, we all live for the moment in which our Hagrid comes for us, the moment we realize we are not Muggles after all, that we are really all magical beings, witches and wizards in the making. The moment we realize the sorcery that is part and parcel of being human: our magic may be metaphorical, but it can still change the world.

The Harry Potter series is about the breaking of chains, both internally and externally imposed. Perhaps one was raised in a severely restrictive household, not unlike the Dursleys’. Or, conversely, perhaps one was, as a child, perceived as “different,” whether through temperament, inclination, or physical limitation, and thereby came to perceive herself as in some way limited or less-than.

These are those of us to whom the Potter books speak, and the reason they speak so universally is that all of us, from the biggest nerd to the biggest jock, from the math club to the cheerleading squad, we all feel our limitations. Each of us in a different way, but each of us, nonetheless.

A good book frees the imagination, and Rowling’s are good books. Will they stand as “great literature”? Who cares? “Great literature” is for eggheads in academia (although I suspect that the eggiest of heads sometimes wishes himself in the rush of a Quidditch match). Rowling’s are great books, books that touch us on a visceral level: we want to be free to be who we really are. We want to feel that our differences, the ways in which we stand out from the crowd, are our strengths. That in the battle between good and evil, we all have a wand to wield.

The Dark Lord is real, and he is legion.

The Dark Lord is embodied in the ways in which society forces upon us prescribed images of “who we’re supposed to be.” Erich Fromm wrote of the “marketing character,” the insidious manner in which the capitalist ethos seeps into our consciousness and compromises our will to authentic self-representation. We are induced, in the name of individualism, to renounce our individuality in favor of the “norm,” to sell ourselves on the stock market of impersonal choice. To become whoever or whatever others want us to be, in the desperate hope that we won’t be left on the shelf, or discarded in favor of a better model.

The message? Go along to get along, so that society can move along. And whatever you do, DO NOT ROCK THE BOAT!

The Dark Lord is systematized within all the nomological structures by which the status quo is enforced on a daily basis, from the Ten Commandments to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” We ascribe to the law of God and of the market protection against that which we fear as humans: that one soul brave enough to stand up and step out of line. Because, as John Hughes taught us, if one gets up, we may all get up. And then where would we be?

In the end, the reason people hate Harry is the same reason people love him: he is the poster child for seeing things differently, for being brave enough to be ourselves, even when the rest of the world doesn’t approve or understand. For allowing our imaginations, rather than our fears, to dictate how far we can take this thing called humanity. In short, in the wizarding world we find the key to being better Muggles.

The truth is, all our eyes are glistening with the ghosts of our past. But such is the magic of life, a magic inherent in each of us, Muggle or no: the magic of transcendence, of unlocking the present in ourselves (Alohomora!) so that we may overcome the past, so that we may learn from it without becoming trapped in it.

This is the gospel according to Harry Potter:

The Firebolt is not a broomstick. It’s a state of mind.

Perception is Nine-Tenths

Sulking_Boy

You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.

– Oscar Wilde

I find that, no matter the situation in which I find myself, there is a Wildeism that applies. Today, this one’s mine.

Simply put, I’m often too clever for my own good. I’m often overly convinced of my own vision and acumen, of my own position in the master-student hierarchy. Convinced that in a kingdom of the blind, I’m the only one who can see. In short, as was pointed out to me rather bluntly a few days ago, I am often an arrogant bastard.

On one hand, I’m not persuaded that this is necessarily a bad thing. The very act of writing something down for public consumption entails a certain “humble arrogance”: to think that something one has to say might actually be of benefit to others. To hope that some pearl of dim wisdom, derived from the relatively quotidian experience that is the average human life, might in the end shape the essence of things, might change the world as we know it. This requires a special kind of arrogance indeed.

On the other hand, though, there is the sometimes overlooked fact (at least by me) that the experience of average human life is quotidian precisely because it is shared. I am not the only one watching the world through perceptive eyes; although I may have something of value to contribute, in that I am surely not alone. Failing to acknowledge this entails a not-so-special kind of arrogance.

There are two sides to every coin. And my coin, much to my chagrin, seems to be rigged. It’s a trick coin, a Harvey Dent coin, a coin with a mind of its own. In other words, in the battle between arrogant bastards, the humble guy generally gets his ass kicked.

A few days ago, I wrote a post about gender and race relations. I tossed the coin, aware of the risk I was taking, but not as prepared for the fallout as I thought I was. Like I told a friend, my skin is never as thick as I think it’s going to be. I tossed the coin, and it landed pretty much right on its edge. Which didn’t work for me. So I knocked it over. The wrong way.

Let me be clear: I still believe what I said is in many ways correct. I’m not the type to grovel and scrape, and I don’t feel any need to here. That being said…it has become clear to me that a) I didn’t say it nearly as eloquently or innocuously as I thought I had, and b) what is more important by far, I am perhaps not the right person to say it in the first place.

I want to revisit the Alicen Grey quote that started me down this argumentative road in the first place:

It’s painful when I hear/see quotes from men, waxing poetic about how violent and inhumane “we” “humans” are “to each other”. When historically and globally, males account for the vast, vast majority of violence. Mostly against women. I used to wonder, how could these men – fancying themselves profound and in-on Truth – possibly call “humans” violent when they are technically the source? But I guess that’s what happens when the only people you consider humans are other men.

(I’m going to borrow a bit from a recent e-mail to a friend, sent in the aftermath of the “post-ocalypse,” in the hopes of explaining myself a bit better. I hope she doesn’t mind.)

I believe Alicen Grey is justified in her feelings in ways that (as I said) I cannot understand, being neither Black nor a woman. I’m telling you that I believe her (yes!) imperialistic language is used in this case in an attempt to right wrongs in a system in desperate need of righting, but in a manner that sells itself short by angering the people (men) she holds responsible rather than inspiring them to self-reflection. Not unlike my own reaction. Sometimes people who have a point worth making make it in unfortunate and counterproductive ways. Again, not unlike myself. I can’t hold it against her, because I wouldn’t want it held against me. So, yes, given the opportunity, and given the benefit of the doubt, I would gladly work alongside her. I’m not just saying that. Once I’ve gotten over myself, I truly believe there is no one on this planet with whom I could not find some common ground somewhere.

You see, I forget sometimes that perception is nine-tenths of the truth. I said what I said, convinced of its accuracy, with little regard for the ways in which it might be taken. In other words, I did exactly what I was suggesting Alicen Grey shouldn’t have done. So…shame on me.

Whatever else you take from what I write here (and I’m stealing from the e-mail again), please take this:

I truly desire nothing more than to make the world a better, more equitable and just place for all of us. But at the end of the day, I’m human; I can’t be more than that. No one can. And my humanity, as everyone’s, is the thorn in my flesh. It allows me to soar, and it causes me to crash back down to earth when my wings collapse under the weight of my own hubris. And it always will.

According to Oscar Wilde, the world needs a few more fools. In my case, perhaps an acknowledgement of my own episodic foolishness will do, as a step toward a more Wildean equilibrium.

I will write on. And stumble from time to time over my own wayward ego. And then, get back up, dust myself off, and write on further.

It’s the best I can do…

The Radical in Me

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Not to see that the essence of humanism is to understand human history as a continuous process of self-understanding and self-realization, not just for us, as white, male, European, and American, but for everyone, is to see nothing at all.

– Edward Said

As I listen to our national fears emptied upon the world in terms beyond hyperbolic; as I watch our rhetoric become self-fulfilling prophecy before our very eyes; as I wait for whichever shoe drops next to land with a thud upon our collective psyche, each successive blow threatening to bring down the whole of the crumbling edifice of our pretension…

…I wonder…

At what point do we realize that it is our own violent language that encourages the radicalization of enemies we ourselves create every time we allow sound bites to shove aside sound judgment? Hate gives birth to hate, prejudice to prejudice. When the Trumps among us deliver pronouncements that devalue and demonize difference as difference, we should not be so surprised when difference gives way to demon, or when difference devalues us in return.

The 24-hour “news” networks have taken xenophobia to the air waves in a way not witnessed since the height of the Cold War: Radio Free Europe has morphed into Video Loose Lips. We monger fear alongside patriotism, to the point that it becomes difficult to distinguish between the two. And we are hoisted on our own petard. We grow so intent on destroying the Other that we do not realize that we are actually destroying ourselves.

Because, you see…we’re all somebody’s Other.

The enemy of my enemy is my enemy’s enemy. If we are to insist on casting ourselves in the role of nemesis, is it any wonder that we are treated as such? Such an approach may work well on Game of Thrones, but let’s face it: what are the odds anyone actually survives it?

Faced with the specter of radicalism, at what point do we realize that the only real solution to any of our problems is to become radicalized ourselves? Not by way of guns or bombs, and not as dictated by any religion or ideology (including, I might add, the one that goes by the name of “freedom and democracy”)…but as members of one race, one global community of neighbors far and wide. We’re all in the same boat, and when it goes down, we all go down with it.

I dream of a day when our humanity is of so radical a stripe that difference as difference ceases to exist. A day when we conceive of one another only as various shades of similarity, when kinship transcends oceans, bloodlines, and political boundaries, taking in every feature, every line and crease, of a global human face. When we truly are the world, regardless of the beverage we drink.

And every time a new story hits the wires, I feel myself pushed closer and closer to that day. Underneath the anger and frustration, there is a glimmer of hope, dim though it may sometimes be.

I want to be a radical in my human being, in my humanity toward humanity. I want to be a terror to terror by offering love in the face of hate.

My enemy is my enemy because I am his enemy. I will, then, be no one’s enemy. Difference divides only if we allow it to take away from, rather than add to, who we are and who we can be. I will, therefore, subtract no one from myself.

In a world coming apart at the seams, this sort of radicalism is the only thread that can hold us all together…

Spread the word:
Open the doors!!!

This Post Is Anonymous

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Never free
Never me
So I dub thee Unforgiven

– Metallica

It is not I who writes these words; we write in my place.
I am Locutus of Earth.
Resistance is futile.

I speak with violence,
for violence;
with peace, for peace.
I speak as one for all
and all speak through me.

I am the sound of bullets;
I am the echoes of screams.
I am silence in place of speech
when speech is not enough.
I am the planet; I am the stars;
I am faces laced with scars
of battles fought and yet unfought.

More than words, I am
a Thought:

smile amidst ashes,
rainbow in storm.
I am the cold keeping you warm.

Open hand in place of a fist,
touching the faces of you who exist
apart and within
once and again…

I am the hope at the heart of despair.

No one and everyone–
that is my name.
A world’s worth of hearbeats
in one living flame

One ray of starlight
pierces the Night
One drop of saltwater,
silent, takes flight

Wish what we may
wish what we might–
humanity strapped to the string of a kite
caught in the wind, embracing the breeze–
We are the blossom born of the freeze

and the future holds whatever we please