Stop Doing It White

6 07 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a letter to his son in an excerpt from his new book Between the World and Me. In it he speaks of the dream of being white and the breaking of the black body to achieve that dream. The essay is beautiful and powerful and it reminded me that I don’t own any privilege in the black world. As much as I may want to reach out and help someone out of racial inequality, the very act of pulling someone up toward me is just another reminder that I am up and they are down. Us and them. This is the world as we see it, from both sides.

Coates talks about the importance of the individual. The human soul is made from the heart and the brain, which are fragile and violable. We who live within the white dream can comfort ourselves by elevating our bodies to the realm of the ever-after because we built the dream. And so we can inspire ourselves with the dream of being benevolent, of accepting them. The very act of acceptance is doomed to be just another version of the dream that we built for ourselves and excluded them from.

I recently saw a photo of a white lady playing guitar to a group of African kids in some destitute village that we reward ourselves by pitying, and my first thought was how happy the lady looked. She was beaming. And why not? She was living her dream. Her privilege is to “make a sacrifice” on someone else’s behalf, to pour a little of her abundance into needful hands. How proud she must have felt on the return trip home that she gave so much of herself to people in need. Never mind that the dream left with her and they will never know what that dream feels like.

There’s no privilege for white people to check on behalf of anyone else. In his essay, Coates recalls reading a quote by Saul Bellow asking, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulu’s?” to which Ralph Wiley replied, “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.” There is no us and them, if we are to properly engage with one another outside of race. The act of reaching out and down only entrenches the divide. Reaching across is the only option. Tolstoy belongs to everyone, but our experiences are our own.

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The Age of Outrage

29 04 2015

Maggie-Smith-maggie-smith-30743001-773-1024If you’ve ever watched Downton Abbey, or Room With A View, or The Age Of Innocence, or pretty much anything starring Maggie Smith, you’ve probably noticed the unbearable suffocation of social restrictions that people were expected to abide by lest they be considered “uncivilized”. If the above depictions of the era are at all true, it seems the late 19th century was a time of widespread disapproval of virtually everything. So much effort was spent on ensuring no one got the wrong idea about something, it’s a miracle anyone was able to discuss much of anything. It seems silly to us now, this narrow and fastidious Victorian world view, but perhaps it shouldn’t.

On the surface it would seem that we live in a very permissive society. Anything goes. You’re gay? Awesome, let’s have a parade! You’re into BDSM? Great, what’s your safe word? You’re a prostitute? No judgement here, lady. Let’s get you some free health care. You’re a drug addict? Here are some fresh needles and a clean, quiet place to shoot up. All fair as far as I’m concerned. No need to judge everybody, right?

Wrong.

If you belong to any group that is deemed marginalized, you are pre-approved for an outrage-free line of credit. If you don’t have any victim credentials, check your privilege and stop your arrogant micro-aggression, whitey.

Just as the Victorian era had its exhaustive list of unmentionables that gave proper ladies the vapors, so too do we have our socially proscribed taboos: being rich makes you public enemy number one; mentioning any skepticism about the “settled-ness” of climate change science will get you burned at the stake as an enviro-apostate; wondering out loud whether under-scrutinized third trimester abortions are excessive is pretty much the same as setting kittens on fire.

Not all that long ago you could debate each of these things. Should the wealthy be allowed to decide whether to contribute more to the public purse? Should we focus more on pollution control rather than simple cap-and-trade? Should doctors be allowed to simply ask why a woman waited until the day before her due date before deciding the kid is a reject? Now you’re expected to simply know the right answer without even thinking about it,  or be doomed to roam the wilderness of commonly rejected attitudes (aka Fox News).

I remember debating class in high school. You were given a topic and then told you were arguing in favor or opposed. The idea was that you apply as much logic and as little emotion as possible to attempt to persuade the audience to your point of view. It was a particularly rich experience if you happened to vehemently oppose the position but were forced to argue in favor. It provided you with the tools to properly assess any argument from multiple points of view, thereby coming by your final opinion honestly, and with the caveat that your position might change in the future given new data and new bits of intelligence.

Now we bellow and wail, and screech full-throated group-think at anyone who dares question our commonly held social philosophies. Now we carry placards and chant “shame” with our singular voice of enlightened conformity. We don’t even want to persuade our opponents to see our point of view by tempting them with logic and critical thinking. We’d rather cast them into the volcano, burn them at the stake, scream bloody murder on social media until their lives are ruined and justice is done.

The burning rage of the self-appointed advocates of the disenfranchised is the heliotrope to which we bend like a field of sunflowers, all of us facing the blinding light of the aggrieved in silent salute. How did we arrive at this place? When did we usurp the rights of the many for the rights of the sorrowful few? How did it become okay to ban peanuts from the workplace for the sake of one or two allergic idiots who can’t seem to keep their hands off the very thing that will kill them?

Every generation ferments into a ripe, aged state of rigid absolutes. We shed our flighty idealism for hard-earned reality, and each new generation supposedly comes by their reality honestly, within the context of the zeitgeist of the times. We might disagree on art, or popular culture, or even morality, but ultimately change will happen according to the hard-won ideals of energetic youth. That has always been the case.

Has this changed? Are we entering a new Victorian era when social mores are not only commonly accepted, but rigidly enforced by the bien pensants? I worry that new generations won’t be able to conscientiously arrive at hard-won opinions of their own because of the the brow-beating, remonstrating glare of social media’s judging omnipresence.

Facebook and Twitter has become the disapproving dowager of our times and the wagging finger of the digital age. I just hope there’s enough gritty rebellion left in the populace to ensure the overthrow of blind moral outrage and the thawing out of our frigid unmentionables.





This Totally Isn’t 40

6 04 2015

I just finished watching This Is 40, Judd Apatow’s “truthful” look at middle aged existence and parenthood. Paul Rudd owns a struggling independent record label dedicated to the “artists that he’s passionate about”, and Leslie Mann owns a generic retail store that is losing money partly because one of her employees may be stealing, but mostly because it’s a generic retail store and why would it succeed? They are parents to two girls. Their sexual passion is on the wane. They have no money.

We hear about money problems throughout the film. Leslie Mann is missing twelve thousand dollars from her store. To find out what happened to it, she goes out with the employee she suspects to the kind of bar where NHL hockey players spend twelve thousand dollars in a night. She dances with the Philadelphia Flyers. She has a great time. They have no money.

Paul Rudd has been giving his father money on the sly, to the tune of eighty thousand dollars over two years. He hides this from Leslie Mann. His music label, which has never made any money, is losing money. He hides this from Leslie Mann. He’s missed a mortgage payment. He hides this from Leslie Mann. To relieve their stress they drive their BMW, instead of their Lexus, to Laguna Beach and stay in a luxury suite with an ocean view. They laugh. They reconnect. They have a great time. They have no money.

Leslie Mann finds out about the money. She’s mad that Paul Rudd lied. They fight about it in the study that is connected to their bedroom. You can see in the distance, yes distance, that there is another room on the other side of the bedroom with a lovely sofa. It’s a dressing area next to the walk-in closet, opposite the en suite with the separate tub and shower. The neo-colonial house is massive. It has a swimming pool and a gated, circular driveway. They have marginal businesses that make next to nothing. They live in a mansion. They have no money.

Paul Rudd’s latest musical project is a failure. He doubles down and spends another twelve thousand dollars. He puts it on his Amex. They haven’t had any money for a while, but his Amex has lots of room. Thanks Amex! The gamble doesn’t pay off. He loses even more money.

They are planning a lavish birthday party for Paul Rudd. It’s a catered affair. They have no money. Leslie Mann wants to cancel it. Not because they can’t afford it, but because she’s mad at Paul Rudd for lying to her about the money. Which they don’t have. They go ahead with the lavish party anyway.

Believe it or not, this movie is not about money. Money is a side show. It’s not the problem. It’s just another symptom of being forty. Everyone who’s forty has money problems, right? Tell me about it. Nope, the problem is just life, dang it. Life is hard! It’s hard when you lose your ability to get an erection and have to rely on Viagra! Aww geez! Ain’t that the truth! It’s hard when your husband doesn’t look at you the way he looks at your hot, young employee! Damn it, I know! It’s a real struggle to navigate the murky waters of your teenaged daughter’s social media streams! Man alive, it’s funny because it’s true.

Money. Yawn. Money isn’t everything, right? Why do we let ourselves worry so much? I’m sure things will work out. It’s probably just several hundred thousand dollars in bills they owe and their businesses don’t make a dime. But hey, we all learned something, right? Adult life might be whacky and unsatisfying at times, but Amex is there when you need it.





Lord of the Wrong Guy For The Job

6 01 2015

I love Lord of the Rings except for the ending.  The story features mystical elves who are nearly immortal; dwarves who are willing to mine so deep for finery they dredge up great demons from Hell; Hobbits who are so passive they want nothing more than to smoke Longbottom Leaf, drink ale, and avoid the problems of the rest of the world… yet it ends with Man in charge of Middle Earth.

Is Man mystical and immortal? Is Man willing to dig down to demon-depth? Is Man so passive that peace is nearly impossible to disrupt?

Man is mystical because he says he his. He has a soul. Man is immortal because he says he is. Eternal blessing or eternal damnation. Either way: forever. But man is a great big liar and a bit of a cheat. When he wasn’t refusing to drop The Ring into the fires of Mount Doom (he was right there!) he was trying to steal it later on from a Hobbit an eighth his size.

Man is willing to fight the great demons of Hell for one thing only: elf ass. The king himself is willing to go to war with the very Eye of Sauron just for the chance to tap some Whoopi Elfberg for three hundred years straight. It ain’t an eternity, but it sure is a damned blessing.

Man is peaceful only when he’s getting a good supply of elf ass and no busybee fire eye is trying to hone in on his action.





God, Are You There?

4 08 2014

GOD HAWKING
For some time I’ve believed that scientists and religionists share a common goal, namely the search for God. And each time I read about news from the cosmologists and particle physicists about some new theory or discovery, I come back to my observation that the greatest minds of our generation are indeed searching for God.

This observation requires a pretty flexible definition of what God is, otherwise it runs up against some very specific differences. The most obvious difference being that science is derived from disciplined observation, theorisation, and standard models of testing whereas religion is derived from a distinct lack of understanding of our observed universe. I have always assumed that religion is simply the product of our ignorance about the universe. When lightning strikes and you know nothing of the electric chemistry of vapor particles, an angry deity is a pretty useful explanation. Any aspect of existence that wasn’t understood went into the canon of “things to attribute to an all-powerful entity”.

I’m sure a very smart theologian will disagree with me here and point to historical artifacts that might provide a different perspective, but I would rather argue about the nature of existence with a theologian than a particle physicist any day of the week. The burden of proof is a little leaner with the former.

Still, I am fascinated by the subject of God because it’s a very definitive example of how highly intelligent beings think. I would surmise that if there is intelligent life on another planet that they, too, had their dalliance with religion as they coped with existence in a very large and very mysterious universe. It seems like the natural thing to do given the situation.

So if one method of thought is obsoleted by more information and greater understanding, then how can I say that scientists are searching for something as experimentally bereft as God? Well, that comes back to that flexible definition of what God is. If I can carry on my assumption that God is the temporary explanation for the unknown, then the existence of the unknown can be described as God.

The mysterious Higgs Boson particle was God for awhile. It drove people to build a massive experiment at Cern, Switzerland to smash particles together in the grand Hadron Collider to find out whether their theories about the Standard Model of particle physics were true. Since the Higgs Boson particle was detected in 2012, one piece of the puzzle has been completed. But the Standard Model has some problems, such as the Cosmological Constant whose unknown value is problematic enough to upset the theory of so-called “super-symmetry”, which is the beautiful, elegant, perfect explanation of the known universe.

I think it’s interesting that as the world’s biggest brains turn over more and more stones, they are greeted with yet more majestic mystery. And this only adds fuel to the fire. I can’t imagine where we’ll be in another hundred years in terms of our understanding of the natural order of things, if there even is one, but I do imagine there will always be a God to chase after in the pursuit of ultimate knowledge.

I guess what it really comes down to is this: we are all searching for God to give our existence meaning; your God of choice just depends on whether you’re a genius or an idiot.

 





Birds of a Feather

5 07 2014

IMG_00000230_editWe own two budgies. We rescued them from a pet store where they had been callously and unceremoniously left by an elderly couple who were moving away and simply didn’t want them anymore. My wife found them and suggested we take them. Why not? Our cat was old and unthreatening. Even in his prime he was no hunter. So we went and picked up the birds.

They came with a small cage – too small for two birds. They’d spent their whole lives in this cage. The green one was six years old and the blue one was two. Now they are eight and four. We got them a bigger cage filled with various perches and platforms and foraging options. The woman at the bird store furnished it as though she were moving in herself. Her running commentary was thinly disguised. When she said, “And they will want a swing big enough for both of them,” what she really meant was: “I want a swing. I want a platform. I want wings.”

The bird store is located conveniently beneath the birds-only veterinary clinic where a tired, fifty-something woman with a moustache cares for birds of all types. The store owner made it clear that the vet is one of the best, looking at the ceiling above which the clinic operates, “…but I doubt she knows more about birds than I do. We’ve had our arguments, and let’s just say we agree to disagree.”

Bird owners are a funny bunch. Funny weird, not funny ha-ha. The clichés are true. Within minutes, a woman with bird’s nest hair and wild eyes, her body draped with scarves and beads, came into the store. A regular. We knew she would come. She had to. These are the people who form relationships with African Grey parrots that last decades. They can’t ever leave their bird because parrots mate for life and they reject all others in favor of their chosen mate. Spouses do not fare well in three-way human-human-bird relationships. The bird always wins. The scarves, the beads, the wild hair… These are proof of that victory.

While our cage was being given the Martha Stewart treatment, our birds were being given a checkup at the clinic upstairs. We went up to learn whether or not our birds are female. “Probably,” said the vet. Budgies are devilishly difficult to pigeon-hole, gender-wise.

Budgies also require twelve hours of sleep every night. Our birds weren’t getting anywhere near that. “They’re exhausted,” sighed the vet, her moustache shaved to exactly the mid-point of her lip. She seemed exhausted when she said this. She looked exhausted. That moustache looked exhausted. My wife and I looked at each other. Having birds is thrilling.

How can birds get twelve hours of sleep in the wild? It’s called “the wild” for a reason. Certainly not because it’s a great place to zonk out for twelve hours at a time. Budgies are prey animals. They exist on the lowest links of the food chain. Their whole lives are spent being furtive and hyper-alert. Everything frightens them, including all other birds who share their habitat. How can any animal that is so permanently freaked out sleep for twelve whole hours?

Once we started throwing the blanket over the cage for twelve hours and improved their diet, the birds stopped being exhausted. Now they chirp and flutter their tails and preen and flap their wings (not clipped) and occasionally come out of their cage for awkward, clumsy flights that usually end in an abrupt thud. They are terrible at being birds.

But they make great pets. No, that’s not true. They are our prisoners, and they seem to know this. We leave the cage open all day and the rare times they come out for a fly they head toward the windows and screen doors. These are not flights of fancy. They are recon missions. They are gathering intel for their escape.

Budgies are said to be smart. Smart as a one year old human child. One year old children are not smart. Give a one year old child a problem to solve and they will either try to eat it, or they will poop and then cry, just like a budgie would. We shouldn’t say budgies are smart like one year old children. We should say one year old children are as dumb as budgies.

I want to open the window and let them escape. It’s what they want, after all. A cage is the cruelest place for an animal that possesses the gift of flight. We should give them the gift of certain death, because the few moments preceding that death would at least be a life.

I try talking to them. My wife and I ask them questions and then fill in the blanks for them. We are their guardians, after all. We do the paperwork. We pay their bills.

Lately I have begun asking different questions. “Do you care about us? Where is this relationship going?” They reply with a blankness that I can’t fill in. We own them. We rescued them. And they couldn’t care less.





More On The Subject Of Free Speech

23 04 2014

For the sake of posterity, here are three more important voices on the subject of freedom of speech and the demise of critical thinking skills in our society:

Rex Murphy

Andrew Coyne

Barbara Kay