Friday, February 28, 2014

On the Inside

So, according to a piece on NPR, an opinion piece in the China News referred to outgoing Ambassador Gary Locke, as a "yellow-skinned, white-hearted banana man." (Not being able to read Chinese, I'm taking their word for it.) This was a new one on me. I'm told that Asian Americans refer to people they consider "yellow on the outside, but white on the inside" as "Twinkies." I hear that for Hispanics, their version of the term is "coconut." And for African Americans, the term is "Oreo." But "banana," was novel.

All of this raises an interesting question for me: Do white people even have a term for this sort of thing? Do they call one another out for being white only on the outside? Supposedly, they use the term "inside out Oreo" for someone who's "black on the inside," but that sounds iffy to me, if only because it's so long. "Wigger" comes close, but it's not quite the same connotation.

I suspect, that as with many such things, that white Americans aren't really that invested in the idea that their "whiteness" must be more than "skin deep" in the way that other groups come across as being. Of course, I can only speak to African Americans as a matter of personal experience, and we seem to have a remarkably strong need to define ourselves as "not white." This tends to cause problems for us - especially when being well-educated is considered a mark of "whiteness."

Hardeman, 16, participates in a Los Angeles-based college-preparatory weekend program started by the 100 Black Men organization. Early on, his parents filled his head with thoughts of scholarly achievement. And that has led some to question his racial bona fides. On one occasion, "I was jumped after school for answering too many questions," recalled Hardeman. His dad gave him some hip-hop clothes to help him fit in. "That made it worse," he said. "People hated me." Even his music--the likes of Britney Spears, 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys--got him into trouble. Bullies shattered one of his CDs at a school function, and one told him, "Dude, you're whiter than they are."
Ellis Cose, "Does Cosby Help?"
Of course, this wasn't what the China News was complaining about, but there is a parallel. According to NPR, one of the things that riled up the China News writer was the fact that Ambassador Locke had been photographed "carrying his own backpack and buying his own coffee," which "was described as a ploy to embarrass less frugal Chinese officials."

The idea that it's somehow "un-Chinese" for a diplomat to act like a ordinary person (which, it should be noted, seemed to endear him to ordinary Chinese citizens) is just as strange, and insecure, as the idea that achieving in school should be understood as "un-Black." It's true that in many areas, the rules of virtue, as it were, were written by white people. And it's true that for some time, those rules were applied in such a way that benefited them as everyone else's expense. But a lot of the things that white people consider virtues are, well, virtues. And setting out to reject people who follow them as being "inauthentically" non-white (especially when the motivation seems to be avoiding shame or embarrassment over standards not reached) doesn't help anyone.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Unconditioning

I'm a student of human relationships and something of a people watcher, and so I've learned some things over the years. This particular thing struck me as one of the most interesting and useful. I suspect that a lot of you may already know this - it's something that you say to someone else mainly so that you can remind yourself of it.

The surest paths to love are learning to love yourself - and helping others to love themselves.
Of all of the relationships that I have seen disintegrate, several had a common thread running through them. The person who initiated the breakup found themselves having to choose between loving their partner and loving themselves. And they chose to love themselves. Their reasons for making that choice varied (some were good, and some were screamingly bad), but in the end, they could always be abstracted down to the same thing - the relationship, their partner or both came between them and their positive self-regard. "The worst loneliness," according to Mark Twain, "is not to be comfortable with yourself." And, as he noted, a person cannot be comfortable without their own approval. Relationships can be about children, religion or loyalty, but in the end, they're also about the people who are in them. A relationship that, in the end, forces a person to forgo all sources of their own approval results in loneliness and misery.

Unconditional love is often viewed as something that you give to another person. But I think that it's better viewed as something that we teach to other people. Successful couples, successful friendships, successful families - if it can be said that they are all alike it's in that the participants strive for their own approval and help everyone else strive for theirs. They may never make it to the point where said approval is completely unconditional - there may always be some price that self-regard demands, but every success lowers the cost just that much further, and lowers the chance that a choice will have to be made.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Ghosts

The story had started out simply enough. A friend of mine was telling me of having gone home to visit her parents, an intercontinental journey that required planes, trains and automobiles to complete. She was still a day's travel away, she told me, when the accident occurred. The way she explained it, it was sudden, and severe. The sort of accident where your first inkling that something is wrong is the sound of squealing rubber and rending metal, and by the time you understand just what is happening, it's all over. The sort of accident where the line between walking away unscathed and being borne away in a body bag is narrower than you care to realize.

When she arrived home, and told her friends about her trip, and the close call that she'd survived while making it, they told her that "he" must have been responsible for the accident. Even though "he" had died several years before. It's his ghost, they told her. He wants to be with you, they said, so he's trying to kill you, so that you can finally be together.

The last time they'd seen each other, they were in school together. They'd encountered one another in the morning, spoke, and then parted ways, promising to speak again that evening. By the time she'd found him at the end of the day, rushed to his side by friends who'd been frantically searching for her, he'd bled to death. They'd gone their separate ways to participate in anti-government protests, and sometime that afternoon, he'd been shot. When she said her last good-byes to him, she knew how he had died. What she hadn't known was that he had loved her. He'd never told her. And until then, their mutual friends had kept his secret. Her tale complete, we lapsed into silence for a time.

I remembered the protests she'd spoken of. I'd been a student myself at the time. We'd seen them on television. From our vantage point, they seemed like a lost cause. "Oh, those poor, poor fools," I'd said aloud, to murmured agreement. It was my one clear memory of how I had reacted to the news. It hadn't occurred to me that I would ever be relating it to one of the participants.

This story comes back to me with every new protest movement that slides into violence and chaos. And every time, I remember the hopelessness and the courage that leads people to fight, and die, for something they believe in. And I wonder, when the violence subsides and some normality is restored - how many more ghosts, lonely and bereft, will there be?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Five Words I Encountered Today

What frustrates me the most with [the Michael Dunn] case is that it further institutionalizes the exculpatory power of fear. I fear the person knocking at my door, so I can shoot them through it. I fear black male teens, so I can shoot them in their cars. I fear terrorism, so I can shoot these pixels I see on my screen via drone. Of course, the privilege of fear is not uniformly extended because of the political and legal power it grants.
"bear report" Comment on "Black Boy Interrupted"
"The exculpatory power of fear." It's a phrase that I had never seen before, yet it immediately resonated. We have granted fear a status akin to victimization, and thus, as we have with some other forms of victimization, we have also granted it certain privileges. And with good reason. I fear the person who has entered my home with a weapon, and so I may use deadly force against them. We privilege fear because we understand that otherwise, all we are left with is avenging wrongs that have already happened. But the possibility of privilege brings the potential for abuse.

When I was young, I was taught that fear was a weapon. That people would fear me, not because it was reasonable, or rational that they do so, but because it gave them the cover that they needed for abuse. That disobedience to their whims and dictates would be taken as a threat, because while being tyrannical, murderous or petty were indefensible, being fearful was accepted and thus the latter was always suspect as a cover for the former. Only those who were like me had any legitimate reason to fear me. But the privilege of fear was closely kept, and so, I was warned, I could never allow my fear to push me into defending myself from the ever-present threat, lest I provide them an excuse to be afraid, and thus to punish me.

But as I grew older, I came to understand. "The privilege of fear" is not uniformly extended, not because of a deliberate hoarding of the power attached to it, but because it is diminished by familiarity. The places I most encountered fear were those places were I was a completely unknown quality. Where the local environment provided no first hand frame of reference. As I stood on a sidewalk in northern Minnesota and watched a woman nearly trigger a serious collision through her inability to attend both to me, and to the road, it began to dawn. When asked to picture the average American, who do you see? Who do you think that your neighbors see? Who does your family see? Now - where can you go in the United States, and not see anyone who looks remotely like them? That ubiquity, that familiarity, makes them for the most part nonthreatening. Especially to one another. And fear is granted privilege mainly when it is shared. And that is why people pander to the fears of the mainstream. That is where the critical mass that can grant privilege resides. It's easy to see them as dishonest, because we do not fear what they do, and so the privilege that comes with fear seems unwarranted, if not completely inappropriate. And that leads us to denounce fear, rather than seek to eliminate it.

We may have nothing to fear, except fear itself, but sometimes, I think, that's more than enough.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Expedience

“‘Once the rocket goes up, who cares where it comes down? That's not my department,’ said Werner von Braun.”
Tom Lehrer, “Werner von Braun”
After World War II, the United States brought a number of German scientists to the United States to work on weapons and the space program. In return for this, they were effectively forgiven their involvement in Nazi atrocities during the war, and it was hushed up. Recently a new book on the subject was released, and the author was interviewed on NPR. It's made fairly clear that several of them, like the famed Werner von Braun, were both high-ranking members of the Nazi party, and knew of (and were sometimes involved in) the Holocaust. The actions of the United States government to to conceal these histories are portrayed as a “deal with the Devil.” The overall current of moral outrage, or at least criticism, that runs through the interview struck me as somewhere between na├»ve and willfully ignorant.

When someone is arrested for a crime, it's not uncommon for the prosecutors to offer a plea bargain. At its heart, a plea bargain is a trade - lessened accountability before the law for some consideration, normally saving prosecutors the effort of proving one’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. And other trades are made as well, a very common one being a reduction of sentence (or at least the promise of a recommendation of same) or a lessening of charges in return for cooperation with an investigation or naming other people involved in crimes. Unsurprisingly, this has lead to a certain amount of deceit in the process.
Under federal law, the only way someone serving a mandatory minimum prison sentence can get out early is to provide information or testimony that is of “substantial assistance” to prosecutors. What constitutes “substantial assistance” is solely up to the judgment of prosecutors. Make the prosecutor happy, and you go home early. Tell him something that may well be true but doesn’t quite go far enough to win him an indictment or conviction, and you risk giving up a golden opportunity to cut your time. Critics say it’s a system that suborns outright lying.
Radley Balko, “Guilty Before Proven Innocent
Like Operation Paperclip, the use of jailhouse informants to testify against people is driven by fear. While Operation Paperclip was put in place to help combat the fear of falling behind in the arms race or the quest to reach the Moon, the willingness to give unreliable “witnesses” breaks on jail time (sometimes, quite significant) in return for “substantial assistance” is driven by the public's fear of crime and drugs.

When I was first taking courses in Project Management, one of the classes I had signed up for was one on Ethics. After class one day, I asked the instructor: “Can you ever be considered really ethical if you’re not willing to risk your job, and maybe the rest of your working life?” What followed was an uncomfortable silence and an unspoken agreement. We both knew that the answer was, quite likely: “No.” But we also both knew that it was, quite likely, an untenable trade-off.

One of the lessons that we learn growing up that turns out not to be exactly true is that being held accountable only has costs to the suspected miscreant. When our parents told us that: “This is going to hurt me as much as it’s going to hurt you,” before dishing out a punishment, we rarely, if ever believed them. But the costs of holding someone accountable can, and sometimes do, go beyond the person themselves. And that creates an incentive to buy our way out of the consequences of accountability by releasing others from the same.

A commitment to Justice that begins and ends only with other people “Getting what they deserve” is always going to come up short, because there is no form of Justice that we can create today that lacks costs that the people seeking justice will be called upon to pay. It’s easy to look back on America of the mid-to-late 1940s, and decide that they’d overestimated the risks of sending Mr. von Braun to the gallows at Nuremberg, or to sneer at Louisiana’s law-enforcement community for being willing to send innocent people to prison to demonstrate their commitment to the War on Drugs. But it’s also dangerous. Bad ideas are not universally, or even commonly, the result of people being stupid, credulous or deliberately unethical. Often, they’re the result of being hard-eyed and coldly rational. The willingness to rationalize, like many other “failings,” preys on those who think they are above it.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

You're Different, And Who Cares?

Today, being February 15th, (and thus the day after Valentine's Day) has been designated by some smart aleck to be Singles Awareness Day, the initials of which are somewhat unfortunate. For my part, my issues with being single were never around being sad (or S.A.D., as the case may be) but in attempting to dodge the judgements of others.

Given that some 90% or so of the American population is married, and some of the remaining 10% would like to be married at some point, being single and content to stay that way was an easy way to trigger "You're different, and that's bad." Not being in a relationship lead to being slapped with any number of unpleasant labels, from Coward to Immature to Suspected Sexual Offender. Of course, some people were well meaning. (While it never quite made sense to me how insisting that someone was in denial about an abiding fear of commitment was actually doing them a favor, I've encountered stranger concepts.)

Of course, it doesn't take bucking a broad majority of the populace to earn "You're different, and that's bad." Understanding the choices we make as universal imperatives and our personal judgments as objective facts is common, and so it's easy to see something wrong (and sometimes, very wrong) with people who come to things from a different worldview. Link that to a tendency to think that all of human experience should be relatable, and you have a recipe for disdain. In everyday life, politics is the primary example of this, but it bleeds into other facets of life, as well. Being an aspect of human nature, it doesn't have to make any sense, but it's something that we should understand. In the grand scheme of things, a person's relationship status is trivial, and thus safe to practice indifference towards. And it's practice that we need. The bigger choices we make in life often have large amounts of baggage attached to them, that leads to much more serious consequences than self-serving suspicions and social faux pas.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Gifts

"The church has the opinion that life is a gift from God and that we don't have the right to throw it away," said religious commentator Rik Torfs, a former parliamentarian and current rector of Catholic University in Leuven.
Belgian Proposal: Terminally Ill Kids Could Choose Euthanasia
When I was a child, I was raised Roman Catholic. Now, religious instruction for children is really more about indoctrination than education, and so asking questions wasn't always looked upon favorably. And so, whenever I had random theological questions (sometimes VERY random), I would put them to my mother. (This put my mother on the spot, of course, given that she wasn't a theologian.) One day, I asked her why, in effect, being good at something required you to do that thing. This was my introduction to the idea of Gifts from God.

The answers that my mother gave me to my question (and most of the other ones I asked) cemented in me an understanding (that I wouldn't be able to articulate for some time) that God operated on a different set of definitions than the rest of did. For me, as gift was something that you have someone - and then it was theirs, and they could do with it whatever they wished. But a Gift from God was something that God gave you - but that was still his, and your job was to make use it of it in the best way that glorified God. When I was younger, that struck me as a tool, more than anything else, like something that an employer gave you, and allowed you to also use for yourself. It was something that you could do your own thing with, but there were limits and you were ultimately answerable for what you'd done with it. As I grew older, and came to enjoy giving gifts myself, I came to see such things as responsibilities.

And I've wondered for some time now why we don't commonly think of it in that way. Why we don't say "that life is a responsibility from God" and therefore we have an obligation to discharge it. After all, given the way we commonly use the term "gift," in the everyday sense, the religious concept has some pretty significant strings attached - enough so that we wouldn't normally think of something given under such circumstances as a "gift" at all. I suspect that history plays a fairly large role in it, but I wonder if that's all. And I wonder if we wouldn't look at things differently if the semantics of it were changed, and perhaps have a better outlook on things because of it.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Lessons In Love

“[A] misconception: that to make a marriage work, you have to find the right person. The fact is, you have to be the right person,” [Professor Alexandra] Solomon declares. “Our message is countercultural: Our focus is on whether you are the right person.”
The First Lesson of Marriage 101: There Are No Soul Mates
I don't remember when I first came across this concept, which I always articulated as “It's not about finding the right partner, it's about being the right partner,” but I find it interesting that it's now being taught in a college course. I don't know that it would have done me much good when I was that age - it's one thing to be okay with the idea that you're not the right person when you're forty-something - it was quite a different story when I was young. (Of course, even then I was notoriously un-romantic, and well aware of it, so maybe I'm being too hard on my younger self.)

For me, the central takeaway from this was that a lot of understanding was needed. You have to understand yourself, and know the person that you are. You have to understand the kind of person who would be a compatible partner for you - even though you couldn't count on simply bumping into them one day, you still have to know them. Because you also need to understand who the right person for them is. In other words, to be able to successfully recognize and invite in a compatible partner takes more than simply knowing who you're looking for. But, as Professor Solomon noted, that's not the cultural message that most of us are raised with.

In a sense, I think that her way is easier. When people would say to me that: “You just need to find the right girl,” I was often openly skeptical. Even in 1990, the world's population was some 5+ billion people. Narrowing that down to women in my age cohort, that still left some 250+ million people. That’s an awful lot of rocks to look under, hoping to find a treasure.* No matter how much work it may be to understand yourself, a potential partner and the right person for them, it seems less labor-intensive than scouring the globe. But it also seems less romantic, and I understand that the pull of romantic notions of someone who just “gets you” with no effort needed is fairly strong.

But in the end, I think, it also sets people up for failure. Whether or not Northwestern University’s Marriage 101 class will do any better remains to be seen. But I suspect that it's a promising start.

*When people assured me that “the One” was going to be someone with whom my path would cross at some random point in life, I wisecracked that it was just as likely that she was living in China, and, having given up on ever meeting Mr. Right, had married a Communist Party official, lived in a nice house and drove a Mercedes. It was funnier at the time.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Creativity

At a class I took recently, the instructors had laid out stacks of pipe cleaners at each table, and told us that if at any point, we were in a position of not knowing what to do with our hands, we could make things out of them, and the best creation would win a t-shirt.

While class was actually in session, I was way too busy taking notes to mess with the pipe cleaners, but during lunch and breaks, I put this little guy together. Everyone commented on how creative I had been. But to me, it was a simple wyvern, cobbled together a piece or two at a time, and nothing (outside of the fact that wyverns are mythological) out of the ordinary. So it certainly didn't feel creative, or even that interesting.

Which leads me to a question - what fuels our understanding of ourselves as creative or not? Do the people who come to mind when we say the word "creative" think of themselves that way? For myself, I don't really know what it would mean for me to be "creative." I don't ever really ever see myself that way. Which is a large reason why I always could never manage to "be creative" on command. But I understand that there are people who are capable of doing just that, and who have an image of themselves as being creative. I'd like to look inside their heads one day, and see how that works.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

That Was There...

McDonald's Canada released a video showing how Chicken McNuggets are made. And a spokesperson said that it's also pretty much the way they're made in the United States. Critics are skeptical, and some have gone so far as to allege outright deceit, on the basis that Canada is not the United States, and the rules are different there. But the fact that McDonald's could theoretically make McNuggets under a different process in the United States than they use in Canada is not, in and of itself, proof that there are actually process differences (namely, process differences detrimental to Americans).

There seems to be an assumption that in the United States corporations are so evil, government is so corrupt, regulation is so hobbled and the public so dim that businesses can, and will, virtually pick trash out a landfill, toss it in a blender with some colors and flavorings, profitably sell it as food and then claim that they use "only the highest quality ingredients." McDonald's unsurprisingly, has run afoul of this. Not to say that they've never done anything to give people reason to be suspicious of their processes, but there is a difference between the understanding that if someone had lied to you in the past and/or has a reason to lie to you now that one shouldn't simply take them at face value and understanding that anything less than abject confession to the wrongdoing you suspect is automatically false.

No matter what evidence someone comes up as to how a particular food is produced, McDonald's is going to remain the poster child for "Evil Corporations That Are Pushing Trash And/Or Poisons As Food In The Name Of Unfair Profits." As long as people see corporate boardrooms as the cradles of Hateful Conspiracies Against The Masses, and the government as a bought-and-paid-for enabler of same, the idea that McDonald's food is the product of people being up to no good will remain. Which is something of a shame, because if giving people a look behind the curtain is an exercise in futility, the curtain isn't likely to be raised.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

In the Beginning

As someone who's not religious, the only people in my social circles who come close to qualifying as "Creatonists" are some of my very much older relatives. (But even when I was an active churchgoer, Roman Catholicism doesn't teach creationism...) So I've been hearing a lot of crowing recently about how Bill Nye laid a smackdown on Ken Ham in their recent "Science vs. Creationism" debate. And a fair amount of irritation at Mark Joseph Stern's contention, over in Slate, that Mr. Nye lost just by showing up.

I'm don't buy into the idea that a couple of people had floated that there is a constituency of people out there who don't have an opinion either way, or don't know where they stand that, and that Mr. Nye could reach and convince them that they need to be advocating for secular science (I think that was the argument being made). And Mr. Nye is especially unlikely to convince anyone who is an active creationist that what they've been taught is bunk, because it's not really about the science, it's about the greater worldview. The video that Slate linked to is instructive because it points to the thing that has motivated every creationist that I've ever met - the idea that there is no workable moral or ethical framework that doesn't rely on divine will.

The issue isn't whether or not the Earth is actually billions of years old, or if there's a tree that's older than Ken Ham. The issue is that people have been taught that if the Genesis account is not a word-for-word literal history of the events that it purports to chronicle, then there is no God, and if there is no God, then I can walk up and stab them, and if no people choose to punish me for it, then I get away scot-free. THAT'S the issue. No amount of carbon-dating is going to assuage the fear that when they grow old that someone will decide to snuff them to save a buck or two and there will be no objective force in the universe that will guarantee punishment for the killer and solace in the afterlife for them.

Mr. Nye wasted his time because it's not about the evidence. It's about not wanting to live in a Universe that isn't fundamentally Just and understanding that the proof that the Universe is fundamentally just is found in a literal reading of Christian scriptures. Science can never make that go away, because it can't provide an objective sense of unerring Right and Wrong to replace it. Assuming you cared to excise creationism from the world, it wouldn't be about proving the biblical account incorrect - it would be about proving it unnecessary.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Taboos

An actor dies of an overdose, and a Washington Post style writer admits to anger at the violation of "artistic responsibility."

A mixed-race Asian-American man confesses to feeling undesirable, and some commentators seem to go out of their way to put him down.

And I wondered - when did we decide that letting slip the fact that not everything is perfect become reason to see people as having transgressed against us? Why be angry or bitter at Messrs. Hoffman or Cho? What harm have they done to us? What injury is salved by excoriating them? How does deciding that they are culpable in their imperfections make the world a better place?

Part of me wants to analyze - to create a narrative that would explain why people see being unlike themselves as somehow sinful. There is an answer. There is always an answer. And I want to find it. But what good would it serve? If I determine that the anger and bitterness are the result of people being damaged and unhappy, would that bring Mr. Hoffman back from the dead? Or lead Mr. Cho to self-acceptance?

I understand that to express anger at Hoffman's death from drugs violates my personal taboo against speaking ill of the dead. And that to put down Cho for suffering from a form of self-loathing is to kick a man when he is down. And so I realize that part of me is stirred to the defense. And so - do I simply want to purchase my own self-esteem with the idea that I resisted, this time at least, the world's penchant for meanness? Am I seeking to understand other people's vices to show myself my virtues? If I cannot mount a defense of those who are attacked, must I at least show that I am better than their attackers?

One stop on the road to self-acceptance is learning to accept others - even when they are less accommodating. Sometimes, the faults we see in others are the reflections of the faults we wish to excise in ourselves. To the degree that the analytic impulse is about proving to myself that I am accepting, it does, of course, prove the opposite. And so I must let it go. The paradox is maddening. But in that madness, lies peace of mind.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Wrong Advertisement

Sometimes, aiming advertising at articles that touch upon the product you sell winds up placing your ad in a really, really inappropriate place.