Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Transdefinitional

For people who are trans, or who express their gender in non-stereotypical ways, gender is part of their personhood. When the parents and kids of William Fremd High School tell a student who identifies as female that she is a “biological male,” that is a denial of who she says she is.
Emma Green. “America’s Profound Gender Anxiety
There have always been conflicts between who we say we are, and who other people say we are. Gender and transgenderism are simply the current battlefront in the fight over which of the two viewpoints is more “real.” And it's worth keeping in mind that people can come down on one side of that in some areas, and the other side in different areas. While it's often considered rude to the point of hatefulness to contradict someone's self-identified view of their gender, consider the following statement: When people tell Rachel Dolezal that she is “White,” that is a denial of who she says she is. Is that any less true than the quote that I lead off with? If not, why is being “transracial” any less a thing than being transgendered? Especially given the widely held idea that “race” is more a social construct than a biological one. Why is race something to be imposed upon a person by accident of birth in a way that gender is not? Is allowing someone to freely chose their race really that much more threatening? How long will we consider those who see themselves as something different be labeled fools or even obscene?

Not forever, I suspect. Although now, the politics of race do not align in the same way as the politics of gender, it seems unwise to presume that it will always be that way. For right now, race is something that one cannot own - it may not be legitimately given away in favor of one that better suits one's understanding of oneself. But we would have been nearly unanimous in saying the same of gender not too terribly long ago.

When we will see more similarity on social views on such issues is not for me to say. I could speculate, but there's little profit in it. But it’s likely that the battle will move from place to place, as people seek more and more to have society bow to their definitions of themselves, rather than being made to bow to society’s definition of them.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Friday, May 27, 2016

Identified

Somewhere along the line street culture became confused with black culture, which became confused with black (and, to some extent, Latino) identity, which created a set of expectations that dooms many young people to mediocrity, that makes them, in short, become the "knuckleheads" who get Cosby so riled up.
Ellis Cose Does Cosby Help? Newsweek. December 26th, 2004

(Now that Bill Cosby has fallen from grace, and is perhaps on his way to becoming a convict, one wonders if anyone will take up his crusade to separate street culture from Black identity, or if it will be indelibly tainted by the current public perception of him.)

Not having been brought up in a Black (or even really integrated) neighborhood, I grew up with an understanding of Black identity that was based entirely on skin - my Black identity was the result of the fact that people identified me as Black. The idea that you would need to actually do anything, or behave a certain way, to be true to that identity then, struck me as weird. It wasn't until my father decided that I was going to attend a Historically Black College/University that I began to understand there was a difference between being Black and Being Black. (Which is, to be sure, part of the reason why my father decided that I was going to an HBCU in the first place. That, and I wasn't a good enough student to have any chance at an Ivy League school.) Unsurprisingly, I wasn't any good at Being Black, and my classmates let me know that in no uncertain terms.

Not being terribly familiar with street culture or broader black culture, I wouldn't have told you that the two were converging. Instead, I experienced it as a rejection of things considered White. Which was something of a problem, because the way I spoke, the way I interacted and the way I looked at life in general had all been shaped by growing up in a nearly entirely White neighborhood in a predominantly White suburb. Predictably, there was conflict, and I viewed things in much the same way Ellis Cose did - the people who were so put out by my supposed Whiteness were dooming themselves to lives of mediocrity by rejecting the things that allowed people to be successful in life.

As I grew older, I came to realize that this was the wrong way to look at it. While many of my classmates viewed me as a sellout, there was a subtext there, that I don't think that any of us were self-aware enough to understand at the time. As far as they were concerned, I was the one destined for mediocrity, because I was insisting on playing a game that was openly rigged against me. The fact that I "spoke White" and "acted White" simply meant that I'd be allowed to have scraps from the table of people who, while they may have been flattered at my imitation of them, were never going to see me as one of them.

The "knuckleheads" that Bill Cosby referred to were people who looked at the world around them and saw people like him, and me, for that matter, as losers who didn't realize that playing someone else's game was a fool's errand. They didn't see themselves as mediocre, because they simply rejected the idea that the judgements were the same for all people. They'd created their own set of norms, and sought to be the best they could at them. Despite the charges of classmates, I'd never bought into "respectability politics." I simply acted in a way I'd become accustomed to acting; in the same way that they likely hadn't consciously bought into identity politics.

Looking back on it, although it was a miserable freshman year of school, I sort of wish that I could experience parts of it again, so that I could better see and understand the competing forces at work. And maybe better explain it to others. For while many people don't make a distinction between excelling at something different and being mediocre at the things that matter, maybe it's that very outlook that's the root of the problem.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Saturday, May 21, 2016

This Meaning is Mine. Get Your Own.

How does one own a definition of a word, whether connotation or denotation? And how does one force ownership of a definition of a word on someone else? I ask this because I was reading an article on Slate, about the fact that a delegate for Donald Trump from Illinois by the name of Lori Gayne uses the Twitter handle "whitepride." The Slate article, while avoiding an outright accusation, pretty strongly hints that the owner of the handle is a White Supremacist. But it also gives her rationale in her own words, thus:

With all the racism going on today, I'm very proud to be white. Just like black people are proud to be black and now, as white people, whenever we say something critical we're punished as if we're racists. I'm tired of it. I'm very proud.
There are different meanings for the word "pride." On the one hand, it can refer to a feeling of worth and entitlement to a certain level of respect, esteem and positive treatment; from both self and others. On another, it can refer to the understanding that one is intrinsically superior and more valuable - a level of self-regard (and expected regard from others) that rises to the level of conceit. And there are others, such as a feeling of esteem one derives from being associated with some one or some thing. Or a feeling of worth or competency that comes from a particular accomplishment. And there are likely a few others that can be added to the list.

Ms. Gayne notes "black people are proud to be black." Being Black myself, I was taught to celebrate my African heritage (even if I was otherwise completely disconnected from any real understanding of same) and to draw a certain amount of esteem from my belonging to Black American culture*; and there is a tacit understanding of Black pride that expects that it refers directly to the first meaning of pride that I listed above: "a feeling of worth and entitlement to a certain level of respect, esteem and positive treatment; from both self and others." I think that a lot of people, on some level or another, subscribe to this - even people some want to understand as White Supremacists, like Ms. Gayne. Where the conflict arises is in the contention that Black pride be allowed a certain, and somewhat exclusive, degree of ownership of the idea that at the expense of White pride, which must therefore be relegated, by definition to "the understanding that one is intrinsically superior and more valuable - a level of self-regard (and expected regard from others) that rises to the level of conceit." And that's what Ms. Gayne fails to understand - if being proud of one's parentage and ancestral history (because that's what it really comes down to) is an unambiguously positive thing for Black people, why must it necessarily be equated with racism, hatred and some of the worst parts of American history for Whites?

And while many of us understand that pride in being a member of a marginalized group (whether that's a racial or ethnic minority, non-heterosexual, non-Christian, female et cetera)is to merely expect the we can feel good about ourselves and simply expect what we are due from others, the idea that this sort of pride begins and ends there is a stipulation. No-one has done the proof for it other than to claim that since pride in being White, straight, Christian and/or male had typically meant the oppression of others 50 years ago, it must speak to a desire for the same oppression today. Which results in the "mainstream" of American society seeing a positive definition of celebrating and embracing what you are that they aren't allowed to access, due to a logic that often comes across as simply "because reasons." And perhaps worse for them, to the degree that those "reasons" are viewed as manifestly self-evident, any questioning of them is viewed as an assault on the fought-for equality that other people have achieved. Even when their understanding that they're being subjected to a double standard seems perfectly reasonable when viewed from a distance.

I think that it is a worthwhile question to ask why there is an expectation that some people can own a given meaning of a word, and saddle others with other meanings. And no, I don't expect that during the time when being some combination of White, straight, Christian and male conferred distinct social advantages that people who claimed one or more of those labels sought to ask that question of themselves, even thought the question was just as relevant then. But simply putting the shoe on the other foot doesn't represent progress, simply change.

* Which made no sense to me. My understanding of allowable Pride had always been "a feeling of worth or competency that comes from a particular accomplishment," and as near as I could tell, simply having Black parents was not an accomplishment. As I snarked to my parents: "I'm Black because you guys are, not because there's an exam or anything. It's not like there was a chance that the doctor was going to come in and say, 'We've gone over your unborn son's test scores and congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. McLin, you're having a Latino'." While my mother found this hilarious, my father was not amused (even though he was the one who had taught me that pride was something that you earned).

Friday, May 20, 2016

No Hiding Place

When I read the headline, "When Will the Internet Be Safe for Women," my first thought was: That kind of presumes that the internet is safe for anyone, doesn't it? According to a Pew study from a couple of years ago, about one-in-twelve people are subject to physical threats on the internet. And when you narrow that down to simply people in the 18 to 24 age range, the numbers jump to about one-in-four. But I don't know that it does us any good to wrangle over who has it worse online or whether or not the internet is just as unsafe for one group as it is for another.

A more interesting question might be "How do we get to a safe internet?" The Pew study identifies six different behaviors: calling someone offensive names, harassing someone for a sustained period of time, physically threatening someone, purposefully embarrassing someone, sexually harassing someone and stalking someone. If we, for the sake of argument, assume that all of the behaviors that prompt people to feel unsafe online fall into one of these six buckets (which is, admittedly, a stretch) then we can presume that if we can manage to expunge these sorts of behaviors from the web, then we'll have a safe internet.

So what stands in the way of us getting rid of these behaviors? The simple answer is that Trolls do their work in secret. But while I think that blaming the anonymous nature of the internet is convenient, it's inaccurate. Calling people offensive names and setting out to purposefully embarrass someone happens fairly regularly on LinkedIn, which is meant as a business networking site where people use their real names - after all, networking is fairly pointless if no-one knows who you are. I'll admit that I haven't seen any of the more serious behaviors there, but presumably people who are attempting to burnish their business image have the sense to stay away from openly illegal (or legally questionable) activity that provides its own evidence.

Given that, I'm going to hazard another guess. It's difficult, I believe to rid ourselves of calling people offensive names, sustained harassment, physically threats, purposeful embarrassment, sexual harassment and stalking because, as a society, we can be okay with them - as long as they happen to the right people. And that leads us back into the quagmire of subjectivity that is "deserving." Because there are times when we find otherwise reprehensible behavior on the part of others useful, even sexual harassment. I know that I've heard my fair share of people noting that, because of the phenomenon of prison rape, that a particular criminal was going to get what was coming to them.

Therefore the crime of the Troll is not that they indulge themselves in behavior that we would rather see exterminated - it's that they direct that behavior towards people we find undeserving of it. And I think that in this, we undermine ourselves, as we attempt to have our cake and eat it, too.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Rules

I was talking to a couple I knew, a friend and his wife, over dinner, back when I still lived in Chicago, and the subject of sexual abuse by clergy came up. For my friend, the issue was really simple - people were not meant to be celibate, and attempting to be so was more or less a one-way ticket to mental illness. Being neither in a relationship nor into casual sex - and not thinking of myself as crazy, I was inclined to disagree - after all, if I could handle not having a sex life, it couldn't be all that difficult.

Over time, though, I came to agree with him - sort of. My own understanding of The Rules tells me that for men, the only allowable avenue for dealing with the emotionally-laden parts of life is talking to a Significant Other. When you're talking to other friends or family, there is a certain... fa├žade that needs to be maintained. "Men aren't supposed to cry," is part of it, perhaps the part most familiar to people, but it's not all of it. In any event, it creates a situation in which there are certain things that one just doesn't talk about with anyone you aren't sleeping with on a regular basis, and that often results in bottling up things that other people can vent out (if they have a the right partner). I wasn't of the opinion that it lead to the serial sexual abuse of minors, but to just constantly being weighed down by a burden of personal secrets that could never really be shed.

I don't know if that's still true or not. It strikes me as the way The Rules were written, when I learned them, if you choose to think if it that way, but my understanding of said Rules solidified thirty plus years ago - a lot changes in that time.

In any event, this came up as a result of another conversation I was having with someone recently, in which we were talking about social media and the culture of sharing that it engenders. They'd asked if I ever discussed deeply personal issues here on my blog, and without thinking, I responded, "Of course not. That's against The Rules." But then I realized that other people did reveal personal issues on the internet - enough so that I was often impressed by their willingness to overshare, and so I started thinking about the whole topic again. And I wonder, has the overall nature of sharing simply changed from when I young (Are The Rules different now?), or does the internet have its own protocol that doesn't apply elsewhere?

It is, more than anything else, a philosophical question, rather than a practical one. Three decades of following The Rules have made it second nature, and I'm unlikely to change. So it's the sort of thing that I spend my Saturdays thinking about while running errands or pondering what to have for lunch. But still, one of these days, I might have to track down the answer for myself. Understanding The Rules in a broader context than oneself is a handy part of understanding the world.

Monday, May 16, 2016

What You See

(Soundbite of TV show, "Good Morning America")

George Stephanopoulos: What is your tax rate?

Donald Trump: It's none of your business. You'll see it when I release, but I fight very hard to pay as little tax as possible.

Renee Montagne: OK. Well, go ahead. Will Donald Trump's supporters care about his taxes?

Cokie Roberts: His supporters probably don't, but other people do. Look, this idea that it's none of your business is really not something that a presidential candidate can say. Everything is our business when somebody is running for president. What we know about the vote for president is that it is for the person, not for the policies.
This Week In Politics: Another Round Of Primaries
The degree to which any aspect of a candidate's life is the public's business is directly proportional to the degree that the "wrong" answer to a question results in more votes than simply not answering the question. Despite Ms. Roberts contention that members of the public "need to know everything about that person," when someone is running for President, the fact of the matter remains that this is only relevant when answering questions is the best way to win the race.

Donald Trump will be running for President of the United States in such a polarized atmosphere that it's unlikely that people will be making a choice between him and Hillary Clinton based on who has the best tax returns. By the same token people who are really invested in having a Republican President (or simply not having a Democratic one) are unlikely to "stay home" simply because Donald Trump refused to answer, one, the other, or even a dozen questions put to them by members the media - especially if they understand "the media" to be part of a hateful liberal cabal that looks down upon them.

Politicians tend to answer questions when it helps them - when the answers bolster their following by giving their supporters the feeling that they've made the correct choice or help them to feel better about themselves. And they tend to stay silent for the same reasons. And Donald Trump, having quite a bit of experience being a media personality, likely understands this very well. And he also likely understands the best answers to give - and the best non-answers. Sure, he has made some mistakes, but I would wager that his answer to George Stephanopoulos was calculated. Time will tell if his math is better than Ms. Roberts. And I don't mean whether or not he wins, but how well he does overall, and the reasons people give for their own votes for and against him. While it's unlikely that a lot of exit polls will ask about tax returns specifically, and so there will be a lot of guesswork involved, there should be some indication as to whether or not people think they understand Donald Trump well enough that he doesn't need to show more of himself.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

They're In the Room With You

When I was in high school, one of my classmates had a million cautionary tales that the rest of us termed "Scary Krishna" stories. (And sometimes, it seemed there were literally one million of them.) But then again, this was the 1980s, and moral panics were fairly thick on the ground at the time. David's apprehension concerning the Hare Krishnas wasn't unique - it was the sheer number of stories that he knew (and his constant need to tell them) that commanded attention. And they were pretty much all variations on the same basic narrative, namely that some poor sod went into a public bathroom (typically in an airport) only to be abducted by members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, otherwise known as the Hare Krishnas, to be taken away and brainwashed, never to be seen again. For him, the moral was simple - you could never be too careful about who was in the bathroom with you.

The dust-up over whether transgender people should be allowed, if using gendered facilities, to use a bathroom set aside for the gender that matches their gender identity or be required to use the one that corresponds to their assigned gender as noted on their birth certificate reminds me of these high school "Scary Krishna" stories. Both in the moral panic aspect of it, and in the idea that there's something about public bathrooms that makes them a magnet for nefarious characters that the rest of use should be on the lookout for.

And let's not forget the "won't somebody please think of the children" aspect of the debate, which can often come into play as a means of shifting the terms of the debate. Consider Washington State Initiative Measure No. 1515, filed March 24, 2016 otherwise known as: "AN ACT Relating to the use of gender-designated facilities; amending RCW 49.60.030; adding a new section to chapter 28A.600 RCW; creating new sections; and prescribing penalties." Under "Intent" it reads:

The people find that privacy and public safety in places like restrooms, toilets, showers, locker rooms, saunas, and changing areas is a legitimate public concern. The people find that schools, in particular, are places where a child's privacy is to be protected and that students should never be forced into environments where they may be viewed in various states of undress by members of the opposite sex, or where they may view members of the opposite sex in various states of undress. The people find that requiring students to share restrooms, locker rooms, and changing areas with members of the opposite sex will create potential embarrassment, shame, and psychological injury to students. The people also find that a statewide mandate prohibiting schools and public accommodations from maintaining restroom policies that separate the biological male from the biological female interferes with a student's right to privacy and a parent's right to determine when their children are exposed to sensitive issues and subjects. The people also find that creating liability for public accommodations because of their restroom policies creates an uncertain and unhelpful environment for business that discourages entrepreneurship and economic development.

This measure eliminates the statewide restroom mandate and eliminates liability for maintaining a restroom policy they believe is in the best interest of those they serve.
For my part, as a member of "the people," I am dubious about a lot of these claims, in the same way that I was dubious about the idea that the Hare Krishnas were using public bathrooms as part of a nationwide kidnapping racket.

I understand the idea that violating the norms we've put in place around gender segregation in certain public areas "will create potential embarrassment, shame, and psychological injury" for young people. But that potential is created through the way many of us interact with those norms, not because children and youths are biologically unable to deal with people outside of their own gender.

The real question that the moral panic around transgender people and public bathrooms is simple to articulate, but difficult to answer: What is gender, and what makes a person's gender? It's much easier to frame the debate around keeping students safe or keeping sketchy people out of the "wrong" bathroom. David's "Scary Krishna" stories were really about the idea that the Hare Krishnas were dangerous, and I suspect that they were considered dangerous because they were different. After all, my high school was Roman Catholic - while I don't know that Hinduism and its offshoots fall into the category of "as different as they come," it certainly fell outside of our experiences at the time. A focus on the "biological" male and the "biological" female (Where, I wonder, do the biologically intersex belong in this formulation?) seems to also want to frame the debate as the familiar versus the unfamiliar, with the unfamiliar in this case, being people who identify as one gender, but have the secondary sexual characteristics of the other, due to age, inability to afford gender reassignment or what have you. And again, the unfamiliar are cast as dangerous - while the initiative measure doesn't raise the specter of  sexual predators wearing transgendered clothing in the way that some backers of measure like this have, it's pretty clear that it believes that there is potential harm in sorting by identity, rather than biology.

And it should be pointed out that for those who believe that the sorting should be by identity, they are also willing to fall back on arguments of harm in the form of appeals to the safety and comfort of the transgendered. The claims of competing harms are going to lead to a deadlock, and deadlocks tend to lead to acrimony. Whichever way the initiative measure(s) go (there are several of them), someone is going to be put out.
Maybe one of these will stick...
It would be nice if we as a society could simply have it out over what gender really is without falling back on "it's obvious" arguments designed to shut down the other side as immoral, bigoted or otherwise knowingly on the side of Wrong. But people often see the rejection of their norms as a rejection of themselves and their values - and, by extension, what's right. In this regard it's not much different than a devout Christian claiming that atheism isn't about an understanding of reality, but a desire to flout universal rules that they know to be valid. So while it would be nice, it's not particularly likely. Which leaves us to navigate our understandings of difference and/or harm, guided by dubious stories of the dangers of public spaces intended to be private.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Benjamin Privilege

When I was younger, the idea of "privilege" as a marker of social inequality was limited mainly to legal issues. So the kid who was let off after being caught shoplifting red-handed because his father was president of the local bank had privilege. And we didn't think of it in terms of race or gender, but usually in terms of money, although there were other criteria. In other words, when I was young, "privilege" was mainly about the fact that "more valuable" people operated under a different, and more forgiving, set of formal rules than rest of us, even if those changes were never spoken of aloud.

This is now considered a subset of the modern understanding of privilege, which encompasses an entire range of unearned social advantages. Pretty much anything that sets two groups of people apart, and appears to give one a benefit withheld from the other is ripe to be viewed as privilege. Once I read an article in which growing up in a home with both parents was characterized as privilege. Part of the issue with framing privilege as unearned advantage is that it can start to shade into: "Person A isn't as miserable in their life as Person B is in theirs, and that's unfair." But I also think it can be difficult to relate to. At least I found it so. And then I came across a useful analogy.

For this particular discussion of privilege, the part of privilege will be played by a one-hundred dollar bill, a specific one-hundred dollar bill, in fact.

On Monday, while at work, I felt a bit of scratchiness in the back of my throat. Concerned that it was the stirring of a cold virus looking for an opening, I stopped off at a random grocery store to pick up some orange juice, and came across a green-tinted piece of paper on the pavement.

For a lot of people, this is how they think of privilege - a stroke of good fortune that comes from, among other things being in the right place at the right time. Something that came to them through no action of their own. But there are other ways of viewing it. For those who see privilege as a mark of moral turpitude, privilege is something that is taken from another - and in the case of the one-hundred dollar bill, it was only there for me to find because someone else had lost it. And you could make the point that it was an act of thievery for me to pick it up - after all, it wasn't mine. We usually think of found money as unearned, but this isn't always the case. A woman who works in my building believes in the ability to attract things to oneself, and she tends to characterize the act of attracting things as work. So to her, if I'd done the work to attract the lost bill to myself, I had worked for it, and thus deserved to have it.

The more I thought about the bill that I'd found, the more I realized that it could be a stand-in for so many factors of privilege theory. Like the idea that sometimes, privilege makes all the difference, while at other times, it seems completely irrelevant. Maybe it's the fact that I tend to be a more concrete thinker than others that it took a physical object to give me a hook to understand a social equality concept. But now that I've found one, I think I have a much better grasp on the broader topic.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Switcheroo

It’s a stereotype of the Republican party that they are intensely focused on “personal responsibility.” Which tends to be accurate, until identity politics enters the picture; at which point the stereotype changes, and Republicans feel that all members of any aggrieved group become their brother’s keepers, and the problem becomes one of group behavior. Such is the case with this Michael Ramirez cartoon from a while back, which makes the case (accurately) that a young Black man is more likely to be shot by another young Black man than they are by a White police officer. But this is true of any group. White criminals are much more dangerous to the White community than Black police officers are. But, since White Americans lack a reputation for criminality (at least in the eyes of conservative commentators and cartoonists), and there hasn't been a spate of shootings at the hands of Black police officers, there is no pressure on them to reform their entire community as a means of pushing back against complaints about police misconduct or simply overzealousness.

Monday, May 9, 2016

You Got Some 'Splainin' To Do

Mansplaining covers a heterogeneous mix of mannerisms in which a speaker's reduced respect for the stance of a listener, or a person being discussed, appears to have little reason behind it other than the speaker's assumption that the listener or subject, being female, does not have the same capacity to understand as a man. It also covers situations in which it appears a person is using a conversation primarily for the purpose of self-aggrandizement — holding forth to a female listener, presumed to be less capable, in order to appear knowledgeable by comparison.
Mansplaining
While I understand the idea behind "mansplaining," I'm not a fan of the term itself. Mainly because it ignores the fact that just about everyone is capable of placing someone in a group apart from themselves, and then assuming that, as a member of some out-group, the listener lacks the same capacity to understand as themselves. Likewise, anyone can hold forth to another person in order to make themselves appear (or feel) knowledgeable.

I've been "'splained" to on many occasions, by advocates for the homeless, social justice warriors, writers, parents, Democrats, conservatives, Millennials et cetera - each of them presumably convinced that my not being a member of whatever group they identified with robbed me of the ability to comprehend some basic fact about the human condition. Sometimes, it's a simple matter of the fact that they are a member of group "X," and I am not. For instance I'm not a woman, and for some, this means that I obviously can't grok what it must be like be told, "You'll change your mind about not wanting children one day." Now, as near as I can tell, there's nothing about that statement that means it applies only to women. After all, we're not talking specifically about the process of giving birth to a child, but rather the experience of being a parent.

And by the same token, there are times when I've felt that the occasional lecture on not knowing what it means to live under moral/ethical restraints that I've been subjected to by the occasional Internet Christian is more for the purpose of proving one's religious bona fides to other people on the internet (or themselves) than it is for illustrating to me the experience of not feeling free to do "whatever one wants."

This isn't to bash women or Christians specifically - as I've noted, a lot of people indulge themselves in a little 'splaining, now and again. Sometimes it seems to be as human as breathing. And I think that the terms that we've coined to describe this sort of thing, like "Mansplaining" or "Whitesplaining" or "Rightsplaining" seek to limit it to certain segments of the population that we consider not progressive enough to understand that it's poor behavior. But the fact of the matter is we can all be jackasses, when we put our minds to it. The first experience I had with the phenomenon could easily have been labeled "Blacksplaining." Sure, there are certain aspects to being Black in the United States that require a certain level of firsthand experience in order to really understand, and are unlikely to happen to people who aren't themselves Black. But poor service in a restaurant, to give an example, is not one of them. Poor service isn't a universal part of the human experience, to be sure, but it happens to more than just the approximately 40 million of us who see ourselves as "Black."

One of the inescapable facts of life is that barring some sort of truly blatant action (and sometimes, even when there is one), it can be impossible to tell a chauvinist, bigot or extremist from any other sort of garden-variety jackass. And this can lead to a lot of jackasses being labelled as chauvinists, bigots or extremists because it suits the worldview of the person doing the labeling. The realization that few, if any of us, are above being jackasses is an unlikely path to a more egalitarian outlook on the world, but I do think that it's helpful. because being aware of the 'splainer in ourselves might help us be less vigilant about calling it out in others.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Flying While Visible

The woman wasn’t really sick at all! Instead this quick-thinking traveler had Seen Something, and so she had Said Something.
Ivy League economist ethnically profiled, interrogated for doing math on American Airlines flight
The whole point behind an ethos of "see something/say something" is that a terrorist could literally be anywhere, and that anything out of the ordinary could be the clue needed to prevent the next attack, which could come at literally any time. And that's how: "This not-quite -White-enough guy is doing something that I don't understand, and he doesn't want to talk to me" comes to equal "suspected of terrorism." I've lived in places where, by that logic, you couldn't cross the street without becoming a suspect.

It's easy to point and laugh at whomever this woman was, but in the end, the story really isn't about her, despite the Washington Post's desire to make a laughingstock of her. It's about the fact that we're running around too busy being afraid of terrorism (and terrorists) to have a workable understanding of what the risks actually are, and therefore what we (as the public) should be doing.

In the end terrorism isn't much of a threat to us, as members of the general public. As much as groups like al Queda and Islamic State are portrayed as willing to stop at nothing to exterminate us all, the fact of the matter is that Mara Salvatrucha likely has been doing a much better job of prematurely ending the lives of Americans than either of those groups have. The destruction of the World Trade Center was splashy and attention grabbing, but it was a singular event, that would be hard to repeat in any event. Gang warfare, on the other hand grimly marches on. It's just that it marches on in neighborhoods that most national politicians will never visit or rely on for votes.

It's more likely that we'd save many more lives if some amount of the money we spend fighting the War on Terror (and the War on Drugs, for that matter) were applied to simply making driving safer. But the fact of the matter is that most of us don't hold the tens of thousands of fatalities that occur on our roads and highways every year as a problem that government should be fixing - even though it likely has at least some ability to do so. But people in government understand that if a bomb goes off in an airplane and terrorists turn out to be the culprit, heads are going to roll, in much the same way that people expect that there's a government policy that will keep their children away from drugs.

And here we are, because of it.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

A Very Brady America

Mike Brady was an architect. And on his architect's salary, he was able to support a blended family with six children, a stay-at-home wife, a live-in maid and a shaggy dog. And while this wasn't exactly a common situation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when The Brady Bunch was still first-run television, it wasn't presented as openly fantastic - that is, it wasn't expected to require a particularly high level of willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewing audience. They weren't openly and conspicuously wealthy in the way the Ewings were portrayed on Dallas, about a decade later. The Bradys may have been more successful than many, but they were still intended to be seen as a middle-class suburban family, someone that viewers could identify with and reasonably aspire to.

I'm not a student of the economics of that period, but I suspect that for all the Bradys were intended to be an unusual family only in the size of the household and the strange fact that a man with three sons just happens to marry a woman with three daughters, one would have been unlikely unlikely to encounter real people living in similar circumstances. But for all that, there is this idea that there was once a prosperous America where many, if not most, people lived more or less like that. Dad went off to work every day, Mom took care of the household and the kids were kids.

And there were people who lived like that. But not everyone. There were a lot of families where both parents worked, either at or outside the home. And those families helped pay, to one degree or another, for the opportunities that better-off families had access to. And some of them were better off than others.

I think America is changing. It's changing before their eyes and I think that a lot of the angry white men who support Donald Trump have a belief that America has passed them by. And that people who don't look like them are getting ahead in the new America. And I think they all understand in some ways that Donald Trump is speaking in a less coded way than some others in the Republican Party, but he's saying Make America white again, not Make America great again. And I think, unfortunately, working class people have bought that. And that's why my heart is broken.
Richard Russo "Novelist Richard Russo: 'I Find Myself Now ... Having Lived The American Dream'"
While I understand where Mr. Russo, and others who express similar sentiments are coming from, I will disagree with them somewhat. Most of the people who feel that a Donald Trump presidency will result in them getting ahead in America again aren't calling on Mr. Trump or other Republicans to turn back the clock to the days of Jim Crow and water cannons. They're not asking for someone to make other people pay the price of their own prosperity.

And that's because I don't think that they understand that the prosperity they seek has a price. Part of the reason that Mike Brady made enough money to fold Carol and her children into his home was the fact that Carol wasn't expected to work outside of it. At least not as an architect. And it's a safe bet that had there been an office sitcom set in the firm where Mike Brady worked, everyone at his level and above would have been a White male, just as Mike was. And it was this locking out of the prestige workforce of such a large percentage of the population that made Mike Brady's labor valuable enough that he could support such a large family on it.

Of course, The Brady Bunch was a situation comedy, not a biting social commentary. It wasn't conceived as vehicle for the audience to understand the inequalities of society, who won and who lost and how those inequalities build the world that people lived in. I suspect that few other shows served that purpose, either. And so when people agitate for a return to a misremembered past that never really was, they're not thinking of reinstituting those inequalities. They're not thinking of those inequalities at all.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Return of the Cats

One of the interesting questions of this Presidential campaign season has to do with supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders: If the Senator doesn't win the Democratic Party's nomination, will his supporters vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election? Conventional wisdom says that some number of them will not vote for Mrs. Clinton, whether this means voting for another candidate or simply abstaining altogether. So then it comes down to a matter of how many.

There is a camp that compares the die-hard Sanders supporters to the PUMA movement of the 2008 Presidential election. While a loud segment of that group made a lot of noise that they'd rather vote for anyone other than Senator Obama, in the end, if any of them did vote otherwise, the numbers were small.

On the other hand, there is the realization that anti-Clinton sentiment is often worn as a badge of honor in the Sanders camp, and the opposition to Mrs. Clinton is has changed over the course of the campaign. In the run-up to the primaries, before votes were actually being cast, most of the criticisms of Mrs. Clinton that I encountered were objections to her politics - namely the idea, perhaps born of a realization that she wouldn't have a particularly friendly Congress in the outset, that change was best made incrementally. Senator Sanders, on the other hand, believed in much more of an all-in approach. If any proposed progressive legislation would be watered down in Congress, the only way to make any headway would be to ask for the Moon and the stars. This more aggressive, "damn the Congress," approach appealed to people who saw the nation as fundamentally broken with only a little time to fix it.

But as time has gone on, the opposition to a Clinton presidency has become rooted in a dislike of Hillary Clinton herself, with objections referencing her character and honesty. Where her plans for incremental change were once viewed mostly as ineffective, they were now being characterized as deceitful, part of a hateful plot to fool "the people" so that Mrs. Clinton could continue to do the bidding of her wealthy campaign donors.

Sincerely, someone who can't even be bothered to spell the candidate's name correctly.
It's been interesting to watch this evolution, especially over the short timeframe in which it occurred. It's rare, I think, to witness such transformations in real time.

Monday, May 2, 2016

You're Different, and That's Bad

Last September, the Wall Street Journal conducted a video interview of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and posted it on YouTube. About a week and a half ago, someone posted the video to LinkedIn. In it, the Journal asks a bunch of everyday sorts of questions, like "Are you a morning person or a night owl," and "What's on your smartphone homescreen?" Nothing hard-hitting or that would have given you a idea to where The Software Giant's stock price might be going.  The comments that the video elicited from the LinkedIn community were what one might expect - praise for Mr. Nadella's "ordinary-person-ness," unflattering comparisons of Microsoft to other companies (and of Mr. Nadella to other CEOs), comments on how inspirational the video was, et cetera. But one comment, the most recent one at the time, stood out for me.

One of the questions that was asked of Mr. Nadella was: "Who's been the greatest influence on you?" Unsurprisingly, Mr. Nadella says: "My parents," followed by a brief description of the pair. Mr. Nadells described his father as an: "economist leftist Marxist." This triggered one viewer to remark: "Leftists have great evil. Guess he inherits great evil as well. No Jesus mentioned in his life."
 
It's to be expected that Mr. Nadella didn't have anything to say about Jesus - after all, none of the interview questions touched on religion, and Mr. Nadella is a Hindu. But I wasn't expecting someone to call him out for that (or his parentage), let alone in so sectarian a fashion.

Christianity, as a global religion, is far too large an institution for all of its adherents to be of one mind. And so once one moves beyond certain universal defining factors of the religion as a whole, it's not difficult to find differences of opinion about certain subjects.

One such difference of opinion has to do with whether or not Christianity (or even particular sects within it) can lay claim to be the sole source of spiritual and religious truths or even Truth, should one chose to look at it this way. It's a topic that can be a serious bone of contention, especially if it begins to expand outward from there. Because it's not difficult to meet people who would tell you that Christianity is the sole source of justice, morality and even "Good." It's one of the factors that lends the religion (or, perhaps to be more accurate, the entire group of religions) an air of intolerance in many people's eyes. After all, it can be hard to see a group of people as accepting of others after a comparison of non-believers to some of humanity's worst criminals. David Lim's comment fits neatly into that mold.

The United States, like most first-world nations, has a fairly extensive legal system, and one that's moderately well-enforced (given the sheer number of laws on the books, it's hard to imagine the country doing much "better" than that. And that's what tends to stand between people who see evil in political and religious differences and an escalating pattern of murders and reprisals. American Christians often see themselves as above the sort of actions that they have come to religious extremists of other faiths. So confident are we in our tolerance bona fides that The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is legally barred from commenting on the United States.

But a reading of American history the rule of law is a more fragile thing than we give it credit for. We shouldn't forget that.