Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Fifth Stage: My Thoughts at the Thirty-Ninth Annual March For Life, January 23rd, 2012

(I wrote this post in the immediate aftermath of my experiences at the March For Life, and have revised it since. I was going to sit on it, and wait for inspiration in expanding my piece into essay-length. However, the recent decision of the Susan G. Komen Foundation to rescind funding for Planned Parenthood - which would undercut the organization’s ability to provide breast cancer screening to the economically disadvantaged - spurred to me to post this, as is, with the possibility of future journalism on an issue that I feel is very necessary to discuss: the radicalization of children.)

The sky pressed downwards on Washington D.C., swallowing its formidable landmarks in fog and rain. Clouds obscured the Washington Monument and the Capitol Rotunda and licked the roof of the tower at the Old Post Office. The remnants of the prior weekend's snowfall was crisp and slushy, an elemental flux that the Chesapeake seems fond of this time of year, and the mud is found in cakes and streaks across the pavement. While this weather is foreboding, the general consensus of the several-thousand strong1 pro-life 39th Annual March For Life held today at the National Mall seemed to favor it as a kind of divine trial of their will.

I had never seen an anti-choice2 rally of any real magnitude before. My university, a mid-sized state school in Pennsylvania, featured the type of radical folks with the sandwich boards and banner-sized images of mutilated fetuses about twice a year. Not like exceptionally large blots of menses on cloth, but dismembered and oddly burnt-looking pseudobabies that could have been found in premature wards in clear plastic boxes.

The March For Life is an annual and extremely well-funded rally held yearly at the National Mall in support of, well, not necessarily life but the end of abortion. While it does involve the titular march it's actually a three-day series of events including exhibits, film screenings, and mass, culminating in the rally and march, concluding with the $100 a ticket Rose Dinner, who this year features Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Other politicos this year include Mike Huckabee officiating a 'mini-rally' at the White House, and the lachrymose Speaker of the House John Boehner3, who delivered the keynote address at the March For Life rally.

I wasn’t planning on going, but I was on my way into the city to run some errands and I had learned at the last minute the event was that very day, so my interest was piqued.

These errands took me to the Brookland-CUA stop on the Red Line in Washington D.C., where Catholic University of America is. I descended the escalator to see the station brimming with people and signs, predominantly clustered around the farecard stations and turnstyles. The station manager, a paragon of patience, was explaining to successive groups of ten-or-so souls at a time how the farecard machines worked. These groups would then buy their farecards, and then have to educate themselves on the process of working the turnstyles. The four Metro cops standing sentinel to the affair seemed amused at the confusion.

I then spotted a wall of green, a group of male students in matching green t-shirts advertising their participation in the march for life. Based on some of their other clothing items I believe that they were part of the same fraternity. They then broke in two divisions, lining the gated entrances to the station. As individual people trickled through their guard, the guys would break into applause if they were spotted to be overtly pro-life4 in nature. Soon the rest of the people waiting in the station would be joining in the applause.

I completed my errands, and took the train downtown, stepping off at Gallery Place and being greeted immediately by teenagers, in their gawky and awkward ways, massed on the corner and apparently lost here in Chinatown. They all wore blue t-shirts, identifying them as a part of the March For Life. Aside from that, they were unremarkable: zits and athletic wear, Angry Birds hats, giggles and teasing comprising much of their interactions. These weren't radicals, necessarily. The bits and pieces I heard were not on the ramifications of Roe V. Wade (the anniversary of which occasioned the annual March) nor were they about strategizing. In fact, it was on things as innocuous as sports and gossip, the usual for the high-school crowd.

An adult from a local shop, and pointed them in the direction of the mall. I chose not to follow, but to make a survey of the area whilst on a meandering path there. It didn't take long before I found another group of teens – these ones in green t-shirts (possibly the CUA kids?), and carrying anti-choice signs. The signs were black with white type, one side advertising the March For Life and the other, provocatively, proclaiming these marchers as the “Pro-Life Generation.”

When I was in high school there was an older girl whose backpack had a patch in 'punk rock' style lettering (think spray painted stencil letters) advertising something called 'Rock For Life,' decreeing that among other things 'you' (italics mine) will 'STOP killing my generation.' (capitals theirs) It all seemed positive but bewildering (Was there a kind of millenial genocide that I was not privy to?) until I realized it was anti-choice polemic, a kind of Christian Rock thing.

The Christian Rock thing was big among certain circles of people I knew in high school. It may come across as a goofy coöptation of punk rock, but this adoption of that poise gives edge to those whose politics are closer to Ronald Reagan than to Ian MacKaye. The very foundations of punk, specifically hardcore, is the rejection of hegemony and the creation of a counteractive society. This narrative is appealing, especially to teenagers in their aforementioned transition to truly social creatures, as it establishes that counter-culture is an idealogical authenticity forged in opposition to norms and values held by hegemony.

What this meant for the Rock For Life girl was that she could feel that truly principled spirit of rebellion, even when campaigning for something as baldly conservative and status quo as being anti-abortion. What mattered was the revolutionary posture and the punk rock attitude, a feeling that you're truly a part of something that sets you apart from the 'normals'.

Back in the present, more pods of teenagers appeared, nearly running me off of the sidewalk in the way only rambunctious teens can do. A team of Catholic priests appeared, collars and all, and made genial chatter with me at a crosswalk, as we watched a lone police officer direct traffic and marchers through D.C.'s urban paradox of logical and chaotic streets. I could hear the tell-tale reverberations of amplified speech as I neared the mall, and what were once pods became a wall of marchers that was practically spackled into Madison Drive.

Here the March adopted a demographic closer to what you would expect. Many of the Marchers were older white people, swaddled in plastic ponchos and holding signs aloft that identified themselves as Pro-Life. Many had the cheer, fitness, and timeless fashion that suggested suburban, white-collar living; there were those who wore camoflage everything and had the heavier, more worn look of physical living. While the constitution of the March did little to dissuade me of the perception of anti-choice folks as predominantly white, there were marchers from a variety of racial backgrounds.

A speaker, presumably Boehner, was on stage delivering some such hoo hah about defending liberty, and life, and defending babies with all the aplomb of a rock star hitting every exact note of a thirty year old guitar solo. The sidewalks were a thicket of ponchos, signs, more teenagers (Now in red and yellow and purple shirts!), some with parents but mostly roving in packs. Something soon became apparent: that these were not just kids pulled from school by political parents. Many were enthusiastic; they chanted, some shouted randomly to no one in particular to “Stop killing babies!” and others held signs clearly made by teenagers. A lot of them wore their politics on their sleeves. Shirts proclaimed “END ABORTION” or advertised the wearers as “FORMER FETUS(es).” These were believers.

This revelation unfolded as I noted the abundance of banners stretching across walkways and the very street itself, denoting origin from a variety of groups. Many of the people identified with various archdiocese. The Knights of Columbus had an impressively designed banner that cordoned off an entrance to the sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Art. Orthodox Jews, without any ostentatious banners, were visible purely on their particular style of dress and appearance.

Yet most immediate to my notice were the high schools. Places like Notre Dame High School from Missouri, and St. Johns from Massachusetts. Many schools from Pennsylvania, West and Standard Virginia, Maryland. Ohio had a delegation. I estimated that of the people I encountered (admittedly I stayed on the outskirts – fighting to be part of the crowd viewing stage didn't appeal to me) roughly 45% were between the ages of 10-18, which was disarming. My experience, again, has been with individual families of rather disaffected and disheveled types, waving pictures of fetuses resembling over-microwaved buffalo wings in the faces of bored co-eds on the way to their Safety Sciences midterms.

It was at this point I knew, I had to talk to some of these kids.

My first approach was sidling up to a group of kids, fairly mixed as far as gender goes, huddling along a streetcorner. They all held the “Pro-Life Generation” signs. I pegged them at about JV age, and was confirmed in my assessment with my (brief) conversation with them. Next to them was a truck that in passing glance looked to be identically the numerous food carts of DC. Until I recognized the face of infamous Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui-Cho, staring out from a poster-sized replication of a frame swiped from one of his filmed manifestos, arms akimbo with pistols outwards. The banner underneath declared (emphasis theirs) “END THE VIOLENCE IN AMERICA.” I was confused by the sign, and had asked if they knew anything about it. “No,” said a girl with electric blue eyeshadow and a Vera Bradley backpack, “It's been there since we got here.”

“So this is like a school thing?” I asked, to some tentative nods, “Do you get credit or anything?” One girl, the type who was effortlessly cool despite being into nerd subcultures, dismissed that idea. “No, this is just something the school does. We all went last year too.” She was apprehensive, although not defeated in way that would suggest this was a trip against anyone's will. A guy, who wasn't a football player but definitely could have been if he shook the obvious self-awareness that he carried, assented, “It's like a field trip, I guess, but it's for a cause.” This elicited more intense nodding from the group. But then they were chaperoned off across the now-clear street, the adult in charge sending me a skeptical look.

I was aware of myself quite keenly throughout this experience. Whether or not anyone was aware of me was generally lost on me, though. Occasionally you'd see other people not involved in the protest; museum employees looking harried at having to push through a throngs of protestors, poor tourists who picked the wrong day to see El Greco. A paucity of purpose, and the flicker of obvious annoyance on their faces made me self-conscious. My own general discomfort and friction with the anti-choice platform was possibly evident in my physical situation vis-a-vis stalking under umbrellas and signs, cursing a bit under my breath every time an errant adolescent knocked me into the expanse of mud separating sidewalk and street around the National Mall. I wondered if anti-choicers feared agent provocateurs5, a COINTELPRO sponsored by the illusory Abortion Complex that these folks pillory as the prime mover behind the decay of American morality.

This notion, a kind of Abortion Industry, is one that frequents the rhetoric of the anti-choice people. For these folks abortion is not a medical procedure, but an illicit practice a la witchcraft or alchemy, one that egregiously defies nature (as all medical procedures do, if you think about it) and more specifically their particular Scripture. It is propagated by the 'abortionists' and the liberal elite, and willingly embraced by the morally bereft and sociopathic. This was the party line of a troop of older gentlemen wearing VFW regalia from their lodge, possibly lodges, of origin that I overheard while taking a quick respite from doing parkour around the protestors.

“You know, these abortionists are as bad as the communists. It's eugenics and population control, and plus they get all that money.”

“You bet. It's Obama, and it isn't right that he's trying to give all this money to these doctors”, another man added, placing a sarcastic twist on the last word.

If this sounds paranoid, that's because it is. When you consider that people literally believe that Planned Parenthood, individual abortion clinics and their doctors, and pro-choice individuals are all tendrils of an anti-fetus Bohemian Grove, then the mindsets of people like Scott Roeder come into into legible relief.

Another strong element in the anti-choice belief is persecution. Many of the signs I saw proclaimed the holders as giving 'Voices to the Voiceless' and 'Standing Up For The Unborn,” in accordance to the idea that to be pro-life is to be fighting a dire battle against oppression. It's an idea that those on the pro-abortion ticket find laughable, and then harrowing. The current push to defund Planned Parenthood, a great Arch-Fiend of Baby Killing, would leave millions of women without access to general reproductive health, sexual health, access to cancer screening for breast and cervical cancer, and perhaps most importantly, an education. The truth of the matter is that education, contraception, and screening make up the bulk of Planned Parenthood's services, as in the vast majority, as in roughly equaling an elephantine 97% of their services. This isn't a party line or an exaggeration, this is the kind of thing documented by necessity for tax and funding purposes. Grant allocations and funding sources are open information, and not hidden. The elimination of Planned Parenthood would set back sexual health service by decades.

I happened upon a young woman, Jane, wearing a very new jacket indicating allegiance to a Division I athletic program (“I just got accepted,” she beamed). She was a midwestern girl, athletic and charismatic, undaunted by strangers nor crowds and clearly committed to being pro-life. Planned Parenthood, as she explained, was an abortion mill that peddled baby-killing without regard. This was delivered without venom or the facile cheer of evangelism, but as simple matter-of-factness. From ten feet away, an older man I surmised to be Jane's parental unit nodded approvingly.

I opined that Planned Parenthood offered a bevy of other services, as listed above. She shook her head, you poor sap she seemed to convey. “That may be, I guess, I don't know. But they provide abortions. A lot of them. That's wrong.” Her passion was evident. The back of my neck heated, I was aware that I was suddenly afraid of being ganged-upon. Could Jane smell the pro-choice on me? Was she going to turn and, unhinging her jaw, issue forth a warning screech that would beckon others to rend me apart? Or did she just see me as a waffler, someone on the fence, an equivocator of sorts? I opened the forum to a guard of young men (one of whom, also an athlete, was Jane's boyfriend) and sought their views on the matter, also.

They were more sporty kids, all white and midwestern (save for one kid who I surmised from the name on his jacket to be at least partially Latino) and dedicated to proving to me that they were here in support of what they saw was the civil rights struggle of their generation. I became aware at this point that there wasn't a real disparity in gender, here, regarding the passions ablaze at this rally. Young men and young women were equally emphatic in their views.

One guy, possibly a linebacker judging on his relative heft, insisted that the murder needed to end. “What they're doing, what Obama is doing,” he said with emphasis, “is murder. A lot of it, too.” The guys enthusiastically cheered him. Across the street a cheer started, it went “we love babies yes we do / we love babies, how 'bout you?” Jane and her group applauded. One of the guys said with surety that the cheerers were cheerleaders. The Linebacker-Orator smiled, “I love cheerleaders. Especially when they have a cause.” Another fellow, this one with the Tim Tebow/John 3:16 glare paint on his cheeks, wondered aloud if they were from school local to them, possibly a rival, as one looked familiar. This soon became a discussion on the finer points of their football rivalries, and I excused myself from them.

Jane's father stopped me with a gentle palm laid into my path. Dave was a hefty guy, fit, handsome in that George Clooney way where the physical signifiers of age only enhance and strengthen his genetic predisposition to beauty. He cast an eye to his daughter and said with obvious appreciation, “she sure is smart, yeah?” I agreed, not entirely out of mere social grace. Dave turned to me, “It's just great to see these kids out here supporting an important cause. Crucial. Just crucial, you know?” I agreed, this time entirely out of social grace. Emboldened by his midwestern ability to find rapport with anything that breathed, I had to ask him, “But do you think they get it?”

“Get what?”

“Get abortion. Get what it means to people, the implications, so forth.”

“You know what,” Dave, speaking in a grand speech between lecture and invocation, said, “It's getting these kids out here and into the issues that's important. This is one of the biggest problems of our times, and if we can't fix this, we can't fix anything.”

The pro-life agenda is naked in its religious morality6. It is a movement that's rhetoric is steeped in scripture, that's membership is composed of parishes, congregations, and believers. It views abortion as murder and genocide, and in more pointed language, as a spiritually bereft form of birth control. The general tone of their community is that the United States of America is on a moral decline, with sin and debauchery fore-fronted and broadcast with abandon, typically directed at the young and impressionable. The doctrine eschews any reasonable arguments for abortion access, from practical (preventing life-threatening pregnancies) to the philosophical (the right to claim ownership to a woman's organs). Extenuating circumstances, unequal access to contraception and sexual education, medical crises, and the sheer reality of poverty are middling in the face the big, bold moral truth: that abortion is murder, and it is the sin of a nation that has lost its way.

After these talks I could see why this march, this movement, appeals to the youth. I tend to agree with the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson that, in the fifth stage of our psychosocial development, between the ages of 13 and 21, people primarily tend to focus on social relationships in their emotional and intellectual development. With an ego fully formed, teenagers are thrust into a world where reputation precedes, and will make-or-break you amongst certain groups of peers. It is a confusing time, and teenagers lack the wisdom and developmental ability to see shade and nuance in people and their reasoning. Society will seem harsh and unforgiving, and people seemingly will do bad things for no good reason.

If this sounds condescending or narrow or prosaic, think back to your teenage years, with all the anxiety of growing sexually and socially. Grappling with your feelings amongst the perceived expectations of others, armed only with the rudimentary empathy to help in understanding the actions of others. Parents are not flawed human beings with whom you share genetic material, but an entity whose roles swiftly shift between punisher, protector, teacher, idol, embarrassment, provider, and so on. What is important on one day will become toxic the next; people, places, and things fluctuate in value and acceptability with the slightest change of the wind.

For teens, pro-life can make sense. There are good people and bad people. It can be seen as the unequivocal holocaust of the unborn, and must be stopped. It is a cut-and-dry, no bones about it perspective that rewards passion and dedication, rather than insight or critique. It is a movement of people that are not seemingly preoccupied with the machinations of patriarchy, race, and class, or the nuances of medical practice. It is a moral system that is clear and accessible, with villains and heroes.

Watching the teenagers at the March as they alternated between sloganeering and the usual hijinks of teenagers was disquieting They were flirting and teasing, clumsy and mischievous, given to boldness and then shame often in the same expression. Then they would hoist their signs and call to the heavens for an end to abortion. It made me uncomfortable less on account of my own principles, and entirely on the sheer ethical concern I had of radicalizing teenagers. When does it become appropriate to impress the impressionable into the rank-and-file? That's not to suggest these kids were merely parroting liturgy or beliefs, quite the contrary, the passion was evident. Yet I felt that they had been led to this path of self-righteousness by parents, parishioners, and teachers whose own views have been secured and settled for a long time. They were believers, but the beliefs were less theirs to find and more theirs to inherent.

I wondered, then, surrounded in a conservative miasma, if it's ever appropriate to radicalize the youth. I thought back to that woman in Canada who refuses to ascribe gender to her child, and parents who buy Marxist coloring books, and pull their young children from home to live in tents on public property. Those sorts of things feel self-evidently positive given my politics, but on an ethical level I fear it could rob children of their development, and send them on the path to eventual burn-out and reactionism. When people are still young enough to reason that magic tricks are real distortions of reality, is it fair to being molding them?7

However, this is what parents do, isn't it? Parents instill their moral views on their offspring. They hold them to certain standards and are their primary socializers in how the world works. It is the role of parents, primarily, to prop their wards upon their knees and set them forward with the skills to cull the good from the bad, to make right, and to be fair and honest. So be it, then, if part of that moral view is political and social engagement, right? If parents want to bring children to a protest, and involve them in radicalized strategy and thought, then who am I to judge them? After all, would they not sit in judgment of someone who believes civic engagement thrives solely in the voting booth? They would surely judge the lukewarm, who dare not involve themselves in politics for fear of reprisal, hardship, or introspection.

I found myself then wishing that more parents could radicalize their children, to give them the skills and confidence to travel the long road on issues that press their most important buttons. Would our country not be more truly democratic if the youth were raised to organize and agitate? Imagine the kind of world there could be, if from a young age our citizens were raised with self-efficacy and patience, with the fortitude of spirit to really commit in improving their world in even the most casual of ways (be the change you wish to see, the personal is political, etc.). Regardless of political orientation, wouldn't an engaged populace generate more representative democracy?

It was a hard choice to make, not to at least witness the actual March For Life. Yet the rain would not abate, and the fog would not lift. I was achey, and wanted to grab some tea. The magnitude of the event was making me anxious. I started to make my way out of the crowds. While waiting at a crosswalk a group of teens were being handed signs by who I assumed to have been their priest, based on the collar. The waiting teens were clustered around the box, save for a few, who hung on in a listless line as they glanced around at nothing in particular. They didn't wear school-issued shirts or ones they made themselves. No Rock For Life patches or Livestrong-style bracelets that said 'abolish abortion.'

In an empty stretch of lawn on the National Mall a girl, possibly thirteen, had a blanket of some kind and was swooping up and down the field like some great bird, to the mirth of her friends. If it weren't for the installation about five yards behind her I would have thought it was another field trip to the nation's capital. The installation was like a carnival booth set up with images of babies and cloying messages such as, “I Hope Mommy is Pro-Life” and “Ever Notice That Everyone Who is Pro-Choice … Has Been Born?” It was stationed by some dour, older people in slickers, who didn't talk to anyone who approached and had the steely look of brimstone and condemnation. The flying girl flashed across my vision again, her face contorted in whimsy. An adult hurried after the girl and blocked her path. They exchanged assumedly terse words, and the adult snatched the blanket back over to whence it came. The girl was clearly incensed, and rejoined her then-perambulate group of friends. Under their arms they all carried signs, “WE ARE THE PRO-LIFE GENERATION.”

1. [Estimates from the March For Life organizers put yearly attendance at around 250,000, with 2011's March featuring 400,000 people.]

2. [I favor this term in describing people who believe, fundamentally, that there should be legal restrictions on the things a woman can do with her body. It is a politically charged term, to be sure, but no more politically charged than pro-life, which is brazen agitprop in its very construct, as I will eventually discuss. ]

3. [Of S.P.E.C.T.R.E]

4. [As I said previously I favor the term anti-choice in describing this particular political stance. However I felt uneasy about labeling their own politics as such, because these people see the dichotomy as life-death, not choice-oppression. In their minds they weren't taking to the streets to deny women the choice of abortion, they saw themselves as people campaigning for the high moral truths our nation allegedly has forgone. The question as to whether or not women fundamentally have the right to choose what to do with their own bodies was irrelevant to their held truth, that women who seek abortions are murderers as are the doctors who perform them. For this reason I will occasionally use “pro-life” as a descriptor of their politics when I am framing propositions and attitudes from the perspectives of the protestors, rather than my own voice, so that their opinions can be more clear.]

5. [It is a common fear in radical organizing, as seen in the recent Occupy Wall Street actions, that the police or FBI or hired thugs will ingratiate themselves into their movement or body in order to incite violent or illegal activities for the purposes of entrapment. Often they'll appear as lone wolves, with cursory knowledge on organizing or radical politics, and will focus pointedly on disturbance and violence as methods of protest, often to the consistent behest of the actual members' consensus. ]

6. [There are people who have created arguments against abortion based along lines including evolution (it will weaken the species), social (we need people), racial justice (it is disproportionately cutting down the black population), and men's rights (it deprives men of the children to which they apparently entitled, following situations involving their inability or outright refusal to use appropriate contraception.)]

7. [To be fair, there are teenagers out there who become radical and political early on, purely of their own volition. I offer that this is more a personality feature rather than inculcation of attitudes via parents. ]

Special Thanks to Cassidy Schenley for extensive revision help, and to Nikki Murray as a sounding board for my ideas.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Joe Paterno is Dead

I’m going to be rather unpopular on Twitter, Facebook, and such for the next day or so because I will not be one of those people idiotically mourning the death of a rape enabler.

Hearing how some people are treating his ‘incident’ - like it was just a big dumb mistake like bribing kids to play for his school, or tacitly endorsing the sale of merchandise for tattoos - demonstrates that they are willing to overlook that Paterno’s involvement in the Sandusky case wasn’t just a momentary ethical lapse, but an extensive silence on the knowledge that someone closely tied into the Nittany Lions’ identity was committing profoundly heinous acts of violence against young boys. Acts of violence that will shadow these kids’ lives well into their adulthood, that will irreparably be a part of their identity forever.

Let’s just be clear. Joe Paterno knew that Jerry Sandusky was raping a child. I don’t care that he in recent weeks pled the ‘I’m just an old jalopy from an era where raping a child was unheard of!” line, because Sandusky didn’t invent child rape, child rape is not some new-fangled Sony technology from the 19 - dickity - 80’s. Joe Paterno more likely than not had heard the pervasive rumors and allegations against Sandusky that had pursued him like the dogs of hell nipping at his heels. There was no way a man who was literally the most powerful person in Happy Valley did not know this.

Crowing that he “fulfilled his legal obligation” - like he was calling the county housing authority on a neighbor he suspected of renovating without proper licensing - ignores that the incident in question was a fundamentally immoral act of violence against another person, a child. For this, Paterno will always be remembered, as he should, because no amount of winning should be able to rinse away the stink of covering up child abuse.

While not a rapist himself, he ceded the responsibility his stature demanded and demurred to bureaucracy and the diffusion of responsibility. He knew there was a wolf among the sheep, and gave that wolf a collar and an “If Found, Please Call” tag. The legacy of Penn State football, by the inaction of himself and the entire chain of command from top to bottom, is now tainted indefinitely. The lives of several young men are forever ruined, and to the victims of sexual abuse who suffer in silence daily, Paterno has set forth the example that it is not always in the best interests of those with power to bring you justice. May the earth where he is buried be laid with salt.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Third Rail

So last night I was called a 'miserable fuck', a 'fascist', and (most insultingly to me) a Ron Paul endorser for having the audacity to suggest that Ron Paul's anti-war, anti-empire, and pro-civil-liberties stances were commendable, especially given the political climate. That climate being one in which the same people decrying George W. Bush for being a friend to plutocratic capitalists, oil interests, a sprawling military-industrial complex, and surveillance fetishists now give Obama passes for those same activities. It's a strange time where people obstensibly to the left of center demand you remain in lockstep with the party, and not criticize the president for fear of showing weakness to the 'other side.'

The other side being the Republican party, who aside from being vocally opposed to social reform is not substantively different from the Democrats. Yes, I recognize it was a Democrat who ended DADT, and passed a reform to Healthcare*, and proposed sweeping changes to student loans. This is also the president who opposed Guantanamo Bay, telecom immunity, indefinite detention legalized via the NDAA, and suggested with great fervor that he would prosecute Wall Street within an inch of their gilded gristle, and we know how all of those went.

I'm not looking forward to this upcoming general election, because it'll be the same tripe as it has been for years. Two goons being financed by literally the same people will make a big show of how different they supposedly are (“close the borders!” “no, let's find another way” etc.) when ignoring that they are in complete agreement on deeply important issues such as unfettered capitalism and how we engage militarily with the world at large. Then the party loyalists will scream for complete fealty on both sides of the aisle, as I learned last night.

There's a strange thing about the social justice blogosphere. For as much as they are willing to be aggressive in confronting the issue of their raison d'etre (Tim Wise, for example, is about as diplomatic as a freight train), when it comes to party politics they fall right into line. “But Mike,” they crow, “by suggesting anything wrong with Obama you're aiding the other side, and that is bad. You are a fascist and ruining the party. Get with the program.” Because what is of the utmost importance is getting our guy (not yet girl, unfortunately) to win, because there is meager flotsam of success in a presidency otherwise teeming with corporate handouts and the curbing of civil rights that these party-line types will shove in your face in an attempt to shame you.

This is why I wish Ron Paul was the Republican nominee. Not because I like him – dear God, no, the man is an Ayn Rand character brought to life, acting out the weird horrorshow of her stilted worldview – but because he would hold up a mirror to the ugly realities of our supposed 'progressive' president. That while he has wound down troop commitments abroad he has ramped up a campaign of drone warfare that targets people who were are told are terrorists. Anwar Al-Awlaki, for example, who I have been told by countless people with no proof or explanation was a “bad guy” and deserved being killed, despite that he was an American citizen and entitled to the due process of the law**. That neo-fascist policies have been put into law with Obama's alleged reluctance (yup the kind of reluctance to sign a bill allowing for the imprisonment without charge of anyone the president says is a bad person, rather than veto it). That a racist and classist drug war continues unchallenged under his watch, which in concert with a massive and unregulated private prison industry is one of the major assaults on the freedom of people of color today?

Paul would raise these issues, and it would make for a more intellectually honest debate. Yet to raise this issue is to be as bad as Paul himself. This fallacy is a great tool of silencing dissent, because it shames the dissenter with associations to the candidate's entire platform, and forces the dissenter to regain their favor and credibility with the party. Ron Paul's views on race, sexuality, women, and the economy are insane and despicable. There is no question to that in my mind. But how does this discredit areas in which he happens to be correct? It doesn't. But it's a convenient strategy of intellectually dishonest people to pretend it does.


The two party system is a titanic failure. It does not accurate represent the amount of social and political diversity in the United States, which is more broad than I assume any of these Democrat loyalists like to accept. The two-party narrative is a false, but attractive notion; that it's US against THEM, and the dreaded OTHER PARTY will destroy everything we have tried so hard to work for. It's a simpler and more immediately gratifying experience, rather than recognizing the plurality of voices in America with their own individual needs and problems.

What it does is simplify ideology and platforms. It ignores the intellectual coherency and voices of the socialists, communists, libertarians, syndicalists, anarchists, social democrats, among others. Embracing the notions of the 'big tent' party only serves to dilute specific ideology into the concerns of game theory and political brouhaha, and allow for a conslidation of money and power into those who espouse myopia and fear. It creates a false set of alternatives, where you could vote for the conservative capitalist or the semi-liberal capitalist.

What gets me is the reluctance with which the social justicers among us take in tackling capitalism as, if not a direct cause of, an enabler of social inequality and oppression as way of dividing those who would otherwise have common interest in working towards economic justice and equality. I hate to be so glib as to suggest that truly is no war but class war, but these times are definitely rallying towards that invective. Economic injustice is the blight in the roots of the tree of human dignity; patriarchy, nativism, racism, and others are the eventual atrophy and death of the leaves.

So that's why it's frustrating to see people like Tim Wise Рwho has written important works on being a white ally in the struggle against racial oppression Рtreat any criticism of our entrenched political system and our president who currently presides over it as tantamount to treason against progressive politics. For people who are erstwhile graceful and insightful, this demonstrates a frustrating lack of nuance for political thought and operation in our country. I feel a lot of them has bought into the lie of the two party system, and as a result none of them will ever represent real change. It's alienating and kind of a bummer to be called fascist because I think a Ron Paul nomination would provide for honest examination of our national character vis-à-vis military and homeland security concerns. But my appreciation for areas of Paul's politics where I agree is apparently the same as gassing six million Jews, because god dammit you are undermining Barack Obama and see kid it's an election year and you need to get with the program.***

So I guess this is my final break-up with the Democratic Party, that great lumbering beast of lukewarm social progressivism and economic regulation.

Because to play party politics is to ignore the real diversity of political thought and to reduce yourself to the narrowest of narratives – the Us vs. Them. It ignores that we really have the power to organize and reject the system as it is, as Occupy Wall Street was doing and will hopefully continue to do (as pessimistic as I am getting w/r/t them), and that we as people can agitate for something better if we make the groundswell too large for the plutocrats to drive safely around. It is up to us, not Barack Obama or Mitt or Ron Paul. This is social justice – not voting in Democrats with the blind hope they'll pass the ERA or the DREAM Act, but recognizing that neither party will ever have our interests fully in mind, and that no party worth our salt ever will until the system is plundered and retooled to actually represent the totality of our nation.

*Which, fascinatingly enough, was identical the Republican proposals in the early nineties, and the Massachusetts healthcare program as passed by, yup, Mitt Romney.

**As is anyone accused of terrorism on American soil, a fact that would be bandied about with more enthusiasm if a Republican was president right now.

***Last night on Twitter somebody literally told me to get with the program w/r/t/ supporting Barack Obama. It was bracing.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Male Commenters You Meet On The Internet Regarding Feminism

The Men's Rights Activist

"Please. The feminist machine has made the male a species on the run, raising our boys to be self-hating, sissy DORKS! How can you say women get raped? That's a myth. We are in the dark age of misandry here, men. Not since Boudicca and the Amazons have we been so victimized and demonized in society."

The Moderate

"See, I don't understand why we can't just be equals, here. Feminism was good, but it's run its course and has accomplished its goals. This just feels like henpecking, to me."

The "Good Man"

"Hey, I'm not a rapist or abuser or anything, but I don't need to be a feminist to be a good man. See, women are such beautiful, nurturing creatures of grace and beauty, and it's wrong to do ANYTHING to them. That's why we men are gifted with strength and quiet resolve, to protect our women and make sure nothing ever hurts them."

The Troll

"Go back to the kitchen!!!!"

The Orator

"I believe, ma'am, that your criticism is very off-base and I will respectfully take the time to guide you by the hand on a wondrous discourse of logic and rhetoric so that you may learn, at the seat of pre-law undergrad genius, of where your worldview vis-a-vis gender is wrong and imperfect."

The Charmer

"I know where you live, and I am going to rape you."

The Rape Apologist

"Rape is just so over-used, these days. I hear some of these stories, and I don't think a lot of them are rape so much as they are 'sex-regret' stories. Okay, maybe 'gray rape' can apply, but I just think some of these girls use it to cover up their mistakes."

The Ex-Husband

"My ex-wife used to say this shit all the time, and she robbed me blind in the divorce, and turned my kids against me! Yeah women have it so hard, but all they gotta do is tell the judge I beat them and cry a bit to their lawyer, and they get the world! Bitches."

The Wounded Soul

"I just don't understand it! Why do feminists hate men so much? What have we done, as a collective sex, to engender such hatred?"

The PUA-Fodder

"Why do all women seem to think this way? I mean... I'm decently attractive, and can kind of dress myself, and no matter what you women tell me I can never seem to get you women to talk to me! What is so wrong with gender relations when a guy can't even get girls to talk to them no matter how hard he tries??"

The Contrarian, Feminism Expert Male

"Actually, honey, you seem to be getting this backwards. Here, let me explain what feminism REALLY says about this ..."

The Lukewarm Privilege Dude

"I really want to like feminism ... but then I read stuff like this, and I'm like, 'how could I ever be a feminist if all of you believe this kind of stuff?' It just seems so extreme to me..."

The Guy Who Obviously Doesn't Talk To A Lot of Women

"Hey, I know a LOT of girls, and none of them think like this. Why can't more of you feminists be like THAT?"


"Feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."*

The Evangelist

"God made men and women the way he did for a reason, and I think that stuff like this is just temptation to keep women from their divine duties as women."

*Direct quote from Pat Robertson

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hitchens is Dead, Long Live Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens passed away last night at the age of 62. I was never exactly partial to him. Actually, I was largely troubled by him. It was somewhere around when he declared that women aren't funny, or when he defended the Iraq War well past the salad days of its efficacy and popularity.

Hitchens belonged to the largely repellent secular libertarian philosophy of stringent logic and reason. He believed in what he saw, and was able to make damning, thrilling sport of critically dissembling many of the backwards oddities he saw in society, most particularly religion. It was always clear that he was thinking. It was always true that he grew, and developed his opinions. This was one of his greatest strengths as an intellectual and as a writer: you could trace a trajectory of his thought, and his personal philosophy remained internally consistent.

However I disagree, very strongly, with a lot of his conclusions and his haughtiness. He cheered the war in Iraq as a way of extinguishing the flame of dreaded religion, and create a secular state of reason. Islam was the dreaded boogeyman rising over his perspective on our involvement in the Middle East, a never-ending war against a faith that allegedly seeks the murder and extermination of 'infidels.' It was the same propaganda as the conservative machine, the very same as he once professed disdain for, spread as a way of turning people onto imperialism, 21st century style.

Yet it was his piece, linked above, on why "women weren't funny" that sealed it. A cheeky piece of the faux-pro-women chauvinism where women can't be funny because they are attuned to a higher calling, or something. It's the same weird backwards sexism where putting a woman on a pedestal, on which is inscribed her essential duties and traits that, as a woman, have been inscribed to her by evolution (which could easily have been replaced with 'divine plan' in the Hitchens' article*). Of course, his general attitude of "I'm such a stinker!" it grating or ingratiating depending on how you view it.

Hitchens' flavor of secular libertarianism is generally a viewpoint that I take umbrage with frequently. It's a perspective that favors real, tactile events as opposed to the more covert and subtle operations of human interaction, like language and experience and narrative. Hitchens would have rolled his eyes and drolly dismissed anyone who suggested that, perhaps, evolutionary perspectives on gender are greatly influenced by the essentializing characteristics to men and women based on cultural heritage and - yes - sexism. He would have further chortled at the notion that maybe he, himself, is perpetuating structural sexism without really thinking about it. But, libertarians of that sort don't see themselves as beholden to such social factors, and don't suspect socialization has formed them one way or another. They're "individuals," and social structure has no bearing on who anyone is, period.

So, this is why I never got behind Hitchens fully. But I have to give him credit for two positives of his career. One, his facility with words was incomparable. He was a talented writer, and his logic at least had an internal consistency so that you knew that no matter how obnoxious his opinions, it was clear he had given it a major focus of his mind. His polemic was not from rank, unreflective bile, but rather a desire to stimulate conversation, and then to steamroll said conversation with his own self-righteousness.

But, that steamrolling is my second point, and that point is that Hitchens was a part of a dying breed, the public intellectual. Once, people clamored to see Albert Einstein think. Thomas Paine inspired a nation. Voltaire chilled with the political and social elite of his time. Compare that to today, where the government defunds NASA, shrugs at scientific innovation, and proudly claims ignorance on the Internet while seeking to pass specific regulation of it. People support the defunding of universities that promote humanities, social science, and other "unpractical" studies as Rick Scott would call them. The words of academics and great minds are assailed as words from on high, from the ivory tower. Yet we build this ivory tower, not as a lordship but as a prison.

We're in a wilderness of anti-intellectualism, and it's not just about proper respect given to those of intellectual stature. Rather, American society is rapidly devaluing critical insight and discourse. The Internet has made it simpler for us to gain information, yet we don't think critically about this information. The economy, further, is pushing fields of discourse and criticism out in favor of "practical" studies and "hard sciences." This promotes the incestuous nature of academia, as no one there has no desire to break out and into the mainstream as people once did.

That's why we chortle when we see a person's title as "sociologist" or "cultural linguist" or "philosopher" in a Washington Post article. The climate is tough on thought, these days. We don't want to hear it, and the intellectuals don't want to talk about it. Hitchens, although a big of a gloryhound, was motivated by that impulse to spread his thoughts and insight as far as he could. I may have disagreed with him, but I was comforted to know that he was taking himself public rather than shielding himself in jargon and journals.

We need more Hitchens', to the extent that we need more people taking the intellectual and making it accessible and, frankly, cool. We need more Gloria Steinems, and Neil DeGrasse Tysons. We need more (sigh, yes) Richard Dawkins' and Cornel Wests. We need younger people, too. We need to make it cool to be smart again, a gift that Hitchens had in spades.

*Just saying.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

If I Were A Poor Black Kid

You know, I really wanted to lead this off with a hypothetical situation in response to Gene Marks's privileged and incredibly condescending article "If I Were A Poor Black Kid." I was going to illustrate structural racism through the situation of an actual poor black kid faced with that reality. Then, I remembered why the original article was pernicious and awful on its face: like Marks, I am not a poor black kid. Yeah, I grew up economically disadvantaged in some ways but my parents made alright money. Plus, I'm white, so I had that privilege going for me.

Much ballyhoo has been made over addressing the patent ignorance in this article. But, reading it, I imagined many of my white friends going, "I don't get what's wrong with this... these all sound like good points to me." The article is the same 'gumption and work ethic' snake oil that the rich/successful among us peddle when they've lost all perspective on their life and the world around them. It presupposes that rosy, Hanna Barbara idealism that we're all really equal anyways, and we're only put down by bigotry and poverty when we let ourselves be.

The article isn't really to black kids, no. Although Marks may have thought of himself as dispensing the sacred wisdom of the successful to those poor, unfortunate proles not seeing themselves as future Forbes writers, there's a deeper reason that articles like this are written. Poor black kids don't read Forbes. This article is the privileged, the financially successful, to remind them that they got to where they were purely on their own hard work and merit. This article is to swaddle the wealthier among us, to assuage them that they do not sit high within an economic system that constantly disenfranchises the poor.

It's telling that he admits a few times that he doesn't know what he's talking about. What's more telling is that he does not explore that. Has he talked to a poor black kid? Has he talked to a poor any kid? Why not Latino, or East Asian, or Indian, or even a poor white person? Has he explored how people of color are oppressed through differential law enforcement, and immigration law, and the myriad social institutions that white people take for granted? Has he gone into any of these difficult urban schools to talk to any actual kids?

No, of course not. Being blind to privilege means that you don't accept being underprivileged as a barrier, because you cannot conceive that society has given you opportunities based on something you cannot help. White privilege, male privilege, hetero/cis privilege, ableist privilege, all of them function so that those with privilege see themselves as inherently 'normal', 'baseline' people whose success shows that obviously, anyone who uses inequality as an explanation against success is just blaming the successful for their failure.

Let's talk about structural racism. A poor black kid is more likely to be suspended or arrested than white kids committing similar offenses. A poor black kid is more likely to access the internet via phone, than computer. Standardized tests, like the SAT, favor white people by use of white vernacular. Your schools are likely to be less funded, and closer to prisons than places of learning. The educational system is based on hammering the achievements of White America into you K-12, to further remind you that black people have only been passive in the construction of the nation, and that you're truly helpless to do anything about it.

Factor in the decades of practically non-existent social mobility, a welfare system that doesn't exist to really benefit you, and an indifferent world outside, and see that the faults are without, rather than within, you.

Of course, Forbes isn't the place for this critical writing. Forbes lists successful business people. Forbes is what people read to congratulate themselves on having won the privilege lottery. The audience for this article walked away from it with relief, having been reminded of the myth of American Meritocracy.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Some Thoughts On Occupy Wall Street, and Finally a Plea

I'm trying to keep up the writing! Yet I have begun to come down with a cold so I apologize for the often rambling nature of this short piece.

It was a little reported development a few days ago when the Occupy Wall Street folks moved into a rented office space in NYC. This is an indication of planning for the future and entering into a new phase of ongoing political agitation, one that is frankly overdue for the Occupy camp. Let's all be honest: who really expected the movement to be approaching winter and still going strong in cities that haven't forcefully ejected protesters? It is the strongest statement of American progressivism since the seventies and has brought rhetoric of our staggeringly unequal society, and corrupt corporatist policies into everyday people's lives.

The strength of Occupy Wall Street is unfortunately its chief weakness. The movement is purposefully leaderless, as it seeks to model a new society of radical democracy and equality, rejecting the oligarchical leanings of our political and economic systems. This is great. However, it has also had its issues: how Zuccotti Park almost collapsed from an inability to leverage an end to the drum circles comes to mind (though it was resolved by the established process) but otherwise it has been a well-functioning, self-governing organization. However, this is where it ends.

There isn't a sense of organization between the different cities, outside of sympathy and base camaraderie, and this hampers further directions for political agitation.

They need to buckle down and organize. They need to take their power to the unions (not the dreaded SEIU, who has drank the partisan Kool-Aid and is now seeking to make OWS a voting drive for the Democrats), the women's groups, the LGBT groups, the race groups, the immigration and anti-war groups, farmer's associations, and religious institutions with the message that all of their struggles are connected. This isn't just about financial malfeasance anymore: this is now about a broken system, a hydra of corruption encompassing politics, the media, and big business.

It is a broken system that creates a Meta-Narrative (yes, engaging critical theory) that supercedes everything. The problem isn't an institutional failure to combat Wall Street corruption, it's the dreaded Iranians; we shouldn't concern ourselves with ending the war, because look at these awesome toys the Pentagon is blowing billions on; don't question the obvious con of the two-party system, because partisan sparring is just so entertaining. No need to discuss patriarchy, or the war machine, or racism. It doesn't suit those in charge for those challenges to be made. This is where OWS can step in, build coalitions, and agitate for a new American Left.

This is what it will take. You can only occupy for so long until you build a long-lasting structure that can organize and sustain a viral presence in the American consciousness. There needs not to be control, but direction. You do not have to sacrifice the spirit of the movement's rejection of hierarchy in order to do this. Read up on Parecon and other alternative methods of sustaining large organizations in egalitarian forms. There can be a national body of coordinated action and ideas, and we can create a truly grassroots swell of popular support. We need to organize and do outreach, educate, and empower people to truly act in their own interests.


Now, an open letter:

OWS: Don't forget that you represent the cops, even if they mace you. Police brutality and violence are structural problems born out of power, conflict, and the adaptation to roles (see: Stanford Prison Experiments). It will only benefit Wall Street/K Street/Congress/big Media to create an adversarial relationship with law enforcement by carving up your constituency. Do not play into this, as I fear you are, and make this about taking down the police. Acknowledge the role of institutional power and privilege, and how ultimately the rule of law is directed by those above and beyond the police.

The very nature of law enforcement, and our justice system in general, is based around three concepts.
  • One, heavily penalization of crimes committed most proportionally by poor people, which in turn leads to suspicion, deception, and occasionally violence by some impoverished communities against police officers, who react in kind with everything from ignoring crime in poor neighborhoods to treating all people of a certain stripe as potential criminals.
  • Two, a thriving and powerful prison lobby, who donates heavily to politicians that support long and strict incarceration policies. Here the incentive is to incarcerate even perpetrators of minor crimes, most often leading to high recidivism rates (usually for worse crimes!) among those released.
  • Three, a war on drugs founded on misconceptions and falsehoods that perpetuate a black market for narcotics, which leads to endemic violence and tangential criminality. Most violent crime is drug-related, and our nation's drug trade strongly influences social unrest in a variety of Latin American country's (Mexico and Colombia, to name two).
None of these problems are caused by police officers, yet they have to abide by these influences and operate within a system that heavily sanctions poorer people and in some ways encourage criminality. These create a strongly unequal society, and gives the police undue power over citizens. The incentive for an aloof and stern police force is high, and there is little to gain in reacting with acceptance of even support for disobedience of any sort, especially if it directly challenges those in power. When entities like J.P. Morgan can finance the NYPD at the drop of a hat, and the mayor of your city is a billionaire media tycoon with a flagrant disregard for the law (and does not-at-all-undemocratic-things like pushing through legislation to eliminate term limits) who has the ability to fire the police commissioner for whatever reason, police seem a lot less powerful.

Class war is a brutal thing because the power of those with capital and political connection to turn those beneath them against each other. Do not let this movement be a casualty of those manipulations.