Time To Earn That Privilege

11 12 2015

(for my fellow white straight dudes)

5 months ago I started a post along these lines: it’s not enough for us straight white dudes to avoid giving offense. Bigotry is real. “Not all men” might be true, but “Some men” is also true and they are a real problem for people less privileged than us. “All lives matter” might be true, but it’s an offensive petulant whine coming from a white dude. Non-white, non-male, non-straight, less-able people struggle every day in ways we cannot appreciate. So we need to do more than not offend. We have a duty to recognize our privilege and become ambassadors for equality. This can be pursued in small, simple actions, such as noticing your attitude at a four-way stop or entering a public building. Because I noticed, to my unpleasant surprise, than in such situations I often felt entitled to go first. Not out of any sense of biological superiority– most of the time I can’t even see who’s driving the other cars– but just due to the habit of getting my way. It’s less pronounced, but the same impulse that leads to things like manspreading. So now I hold the door for someone else whenever I get the chance, regardless of who they are, as a way to break the habit and embody common courtesy.

That was five months ago. Since then the chaos erupting everywhere hit home on several fronts. The tension between police and African Americans keeps boiling over. A close friend lost someone when an aggressive driver plowed into a crowd. If he’d had a gun instead of a car it would have been tallied with the increasingly commonplace mass shootings. White supremacists in Minneapolis fired into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters, in no small part because a major presidential candidate is giving space and permission to violent bigots. It’s been terrifying. My little draft about resisting white privilege suddenly seemed pathetically naive.

Then there was this incident of Deepinder Mayell being intimidated by a white dude at a Vikings game. Here’s the takeaway: “But what scared me the most was the silence surrounding me. As I looked around, I didn’t know who was an ally or an enemy. In those hushed whispers, I felt like I was alone, unsafe and surrounded. It was the type of silence that emboldens a man to play inquisitor. I thought about our national climate, in which some presidential candidates spew demagoguery and lies while others play politics and offer soft rebukes. It is the same species of silence that emboldened white supremacists to shoot five unarmed protesters recently in Minneapolis.”

Five or six years ago, I was on a bus in Portland, sitting near the front. The driver stopped the bus to aggressively yell at a young woman who he felt was speaking Spanish on her phone so loudly that he couldn’t concentrate on driving. I was sitting right across from her. I should have spoken up. I could have politely told the driver that his attitude was uncalled for. Anything to let the driver and the woman both know that his belligerence was his alone, and that she was among friends. But I didn’t do anything. Eventually people toward the back of the bus did speak up and shut him down, but not me. I’m disgusted with myself over this memory. I hate sharing it, but I feel I have to if this post is going to be at all honest. I sat there, safe in the safest cocoon there is; straight white dudedom.

Despite the title of this post, the kind of privilege we white straight dudes enjoy can never be earned. But still. We are the ones who don’t have to fear being arrested, beaten or killed for the slightest provocation. We are not the ones dismissed as hysterical when we say there’s a problem. We are not the ones receiving violent accusations of being terrorists (or terrorist refugees, as if that made any sense). We are in the position of power. We have the least at risk when we stand up to the bigoted ass-clowns. If we don’t stand up to them, we might as well join them, because our silence props them up and threatens everyone else.

Bigotry is out in the open again. We have to fight it. And holding a damn door open is not going to cut it.

Just Bozos in Tights

19 11 2015

Alan Moore recently said of superheroes: “this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence … it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.”

I also saw this from Jeet Heer: “Superheroes work best as all ages entertainment because the roots of the genre are in the children’s daydreams: to be able to fly like Superman, to wield a lasso like Wonder Woman, to run like the Flash, or to leap from building to building like Spider-Man.”

Moore’s comment expresses a nagging doubt I have every time I read and re-read superhero comics. But, I think what he’s talking about is a symptom of a larger cultural stagnation (see this article again). We are awash in reboots, remakes, and rehashes, from the upcoming Star Wars Episode 7 to the exploitative cash-grab of Go Set a Watchman.

Heer piling on forced me to walk back a bit from my view of superheroes as urban fantasy, with veins of cultural ore akin to classical folklore (I have a tendency to– guess what– take these things too seriously). Together these articles had me scrambling to defend my enjoyment of the superhero genre. But that’s a pointless exercise. I like what I like, that’s enough. But maybe I’ll try harder, in my own little way, to inject some originality into our stagnating culture.


Person or Brand?

2 07 2013

brandingI just read this article about Paula Deen. (Also this, which seems like a more measured and responsible take on the whole controversy than I am capable of.) I don’t have much to say about the Deen story–I’ve never been a fan and I don’t mourn the loss of her career. What really jumped out at me in the first article was the bit about Food Network Star, which, much like American Idol, Shark Tank, and a host of other shows, offers contestants the chance to be “a big star who makes a lot of money and is successfully transformed into a brand.”

This is the Faustian bargain being pushed throughout our consumerist, media-heavy culture. Stop being a person, start being a brand. This is why I have no patience for any of the manufactured stars of reality tv competitions. Brands are artificial, hence inherently false. Brands are calculated to make lots of money.

Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but every time the word “brand” is used for a concept larger than an actual logo, my skin crawls. All of us independent artists are supposed to make brands of ourselves, which to me seems like the opposite of making authentic art. Franchised fictional properties are brands, not characters. News outlets work harder to brand themselves then to report the news. Even our political parties are now brands. How are we supposed to ever have a real discussion about anything when everyone is busy targeting demographics?

The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are people. Before long they’ll probably rule that brands are people too. We’ll have brands electing brands, an entirely brand-driven economy, with the few remaining people toiling in the service of brands. At least there will be plenty of sugary soda.

Fed Up With The Guns

13 12 2012

My reaction to the recent shooting in Clackamas Town Center (about 13 miles from where I live) was first shock, then sadness, then exhaustion. I’m worn out by the frequency of mass shootings, and the same fruitless arguments that happen after each one. But the more I try to put my thoughts in order about this whole thing, the more I’m overcome by anger. I realize my anger is counterproductive so I’ll do my best to keep it under control, but honestly, the fact that people get gunned down in public with automatic weapons is outrageous.

After the shooting in the movie theater in Aurora (about 20 miles from where I grew up) the consensus among my Facebook friends was don’t make it political, let’s just let everyone heal. But that only makes sense from one side of the argument. If you feel,as I do, that mass shootings are a direct result of the  over-accessibility of guns, then every shooting is political. And there will be no healing until we address the issue in a meaningful way. And if you’re offended by someone bringing up gun regulations in the wake of tragic murder, I invite you to closely examine your reasoning and ask yourself if you feel at all responsible.

I do. It’s irrational, but I feel responsible. That’s why I get so angry. I feel like I’m not doing enough to stop it. There’s not much I can do, but I can at least speak my mind, which I haven’t very much, because everyone hides behind the tragedy and claims it’s too soon to “get political.” Hence, this post.

So here’s my view: automatic and semi-automatic weapons should be banned outside the military, period.

Following are the arguments I’m aware of against my view, and my refutations. Spoiler alert: they all break down when weighed against the dead, the shattered families, and the traumatized survivors resulting from mass shootings.

  • It’s a slippery slope. If we ban assault rifles, next we’ll be banning all firearms. Okay, no one can say with certainty what legislation will or will not pass through congress in the future. But it’s quite a leap to go from assault weapons to handguns and hunting rifles. Sure it’s a risk, but it’s a very small risk when weighed against the dead, the shattered families, and the traumatized survivors resulting from mass shootings. I suggest the NRA alter its mission. Instead of pushing for more guns in more places forever and ever, they should adopt a position of reasonable limits and bend their considerable power to preventing the slippery slope scenario from happening.
  • It won’t solve the problem. No, gun regulations will not end murder or cure mental illness. That’s no reason not to mitigate the problem as best we can. If a crazy person has a handgun instead of an assault rifle, there will be less of the dead, the shattered families, and the traumatized survivors resulting from mass shootings. The less the better.
  • Guns make us safer. If only everyone carried a gun, the crazies would get gunned down the minute they started shooting. Oh my god, where to begin with this one. Let’s leave aside the fact that it’s an infantile wild-west fantasy. An armed populace will no more end murder or cure mental illness than gun regulations will. Personally, I do not want to live in a society where gun battles break out in public places. If that appeals to you, there are plenty of places in the world you can go to find it. I prefer the mostly peaceful, marginally civilized society that generations of our ancestors have suffered and died to create for us. Anyway, just because someone owns a gun does not mean they will take the time to learn to use it skillfully. Or have good judgement when assessing threats. The “arm everyone” scenario is just a recipe for more hails of bullets, more dead, more shattered families, more traumatized survivors resulting from mass shootings.
  • Without high-powered weapons we are vulnerable to tyranny. This is the argument of survivalist militias, preparing for the day that government forces kick down our doors to do…something. Take away our freedom. Take away the guns that are needed to stop them taking the guns. If this is your argument, we’ve got nothing to say to each other. I know I’ll never change your mind. But here it is anyway; the government doesn’t want your guns. They don’t care about your guns. Tyranny in the modern world is not military, it is economic. You should be more worried about the bank foreclosing on your compound. Do you plan to hold them off with guns? There’s no way that ends with you staying in your home. You should worry about your stagnating wages, or being shut out of the marketplace if you’re self-employed. Taxes? That’s the least of economic tyranny. If you really want to meet your oppressor on equal footing, sell your arsenal and go get a degree in finance.

Bottom line: people are dead. Families are shattered. Lives are ruined. Ended lives, ruined lives. These trump all of your principled arguments about the 2nd amendment. If you’ve got something to say about guns that doesn’t directly, concretely reduce the numbers of dead, shattered, and traumatized, I don’t want to hear it.

Update 12/14: The day after I wrote this, the shooting in Newtown CT happened. I cannot even process the multiplying sadness, outrage, exhaustion and disbelief. I’ve got nothing more to say, but I refer you to this article that offers some hard numbers and expresses the problem with the “don’t politicize” cry much better.

Magic is Real, in the Past

17 10 2012

I recently listened to an old episode of Radiolab about memory. I was struck by the capricious nature of memory as described in the program. Remembering something, they say, is not like playing back a tape. It is actually a a reconstruction of the event being remembered.

This is a weird concept, especially in the digital age, when we take for granted the capacity to record and play back any visible or audible event with perfect accuracy. We expect our memories to work the same way. Even when memory is suspect (we’ve all forgotten things, or remembered things differently than someone else) we can compensate by externalizing memories. We can look at old photographs, read old journals, re-watch movies, and virtually re-live past experiences.

But what did memory mean to cultures with no photography, and no mass literacy? How does a society conceive of the past when all their histories are maintained by oral tradition and abstract art?

As any art historian will tell you, pre-modern artists were not too dumb to paint in a lifelike way; they just weren’t interested in doing so. One might say they understood the folly of Pygmalion (which my drawing teacher Joseph Mann was fond of citing). The map is not the territory. A work of art is a representation, not the thing it represents. So if a culture doesn’t care about lifelike recordings, what is their understanding of the past?

I’m speaking in wooly generalities here, but it’s a blog post, not a dissertation. Ancient cultures had a wide array of myths and legends– magical tales. Today we intuitively understand the universe to be predictable. It can be dumbfounding, sure, but it works according to rules that can be understood through study and exploration. It’s hard for us to imagine someone truly believing in magic. But if we had no records to go on apart from stories that had been passed down for generations, stories that had been imperfectly copied from one teller to the next, stories that inevitably alter, perhaps growing ever more colorful and outlandish…wouldn’t those stories seem as real as our photographs? Even if we’re aware that the stories change over time (again, ancient people were not idiots), they are our best tool for understanding the universe. And if our best tool is fluid and abstract, we might sense that it reflects a fluidity in the universe. Unlike a photograph, which reflects concrete, predictable reality.

Or–this is even better (and it’s really where the Radiolab thing comes in). Suppose you live in this world with only fluid, mythic histories, and you have an outlandish experience, like, say, being struck by lightning. And every time you recall that experience, you recreate it slightly differently, until it becomes an encounter with a monster or a spirit. That memory is just as real and reliable as the weight of a rock in your hand at the present moment. And then, you hear a story from someone else about magic elves. Why wouldn’t you believe it?

Magic cannot happen in the present, but it can happen in the past. For ancient peoples, magic was constantly going on in the past, as evidenced by both personal and ancestral memory. Boom! All ancient mythical stories are now true. You’re welcome.

Waters vs Nugent

25 05 2012

I mentioned last time that I went to see Roger Waters perform The Wall, and that during Mother they had an animated CCTV camera looming over the stage, and it crystallized the connection between the personal and political in the performance. It also threw me into a tailspin, because the image of a goverment camera playing the role of overprotective mother made me think “nanny state,” a term which is generally used to denigrate social programs like welfare, medicaid, and public education.

Oh no, I thought. Is Roger Waters a libertarian wacko like Ted Nugent? Is he saying that the gummint needs to butt out and let everyone live their own lives? It kind of makes sense; all these monstrous meddlers are attacking Pink and forcing him behind his wall, and if they’d just leave him alone he’d be okay, right?

No, actually, it makes no sense at all. The whole point of The Wall is that we don’t do well all by ourselves. I guess it’s one more testament to the power of the performance that for a moment I was prepared to take all the fascist/xenophobic satire literally, and afraid that I was already in the belly of the beast. As I try to recapture those thoughts now, they seem ridiculous. I guess I was more absorbed in the show than I thought.

Anyway, it got me looking, as I often do, for some overarching, anchoring principle to identify right and wrong. I figured out in high school that there is no such thing, life is too complex for a single anchoring principle that holds up in all cases, but I keep looking for one anyway.

I’ve been trying for a long time to understand the meaning of left and right in politics. Now I’m just about ready to give up on the whole left/right terminology. Probably because on top of the traditional lack of adherence to the spectrum in America, our whole political discourse has become a joke. What used to be right-wing fringe is now mainstream, and what used to be centrist is now tarred as fringe-left radicalism. So, under the gaze of The Wall’s animated nanny-state-cam, I went looking for an underlying motivation that could identify Waters as an ally.

What I found was compassion. So this is my new overarching principle. Compassion vs self-interest, or to put it in simpler, more new-agey terms, love vs hate. (I prefer to put in terms of Green Lantern’s emotional spectrum, which comes with a cool insignia.) Compassion leads one to consider the well-being of others, to treat those who are different as deserving of respect and happiness, and to act accordingly. Focusing only on one’s own well-being…well, to borrow a metaphor, it puts you behind a wall and worms eat your brain.

So, to bring this post around to some kind of point, in future I will attempt to ignore party allegiance and evaluate acts and policies based on whether they spring from compassion or selfishness. If you are someone who acts only for your own self-interest, you’re not my enemy exactly, but I hope you’ll get some counseling.

Movies Made to Satisfy Expectations

19 01 2012

We rented Cowboys & Aliens. My experience was much the same as with many Hollywood blockbusters: the first act is quite good, suggesting interesting characters and unique situations to come. In the second act, everything quickly devolves into familiar clichés. By the third act I don’t care anymore. Cowboys & Aliens followed this pattern with a vengeance, weaving tired stereotypes in with the familiar clichés and piling on the unearned dramatic payoffs in the final scenes. This movie was not made to challenge or surprise, but to go exactly where the viewer expects it to go. I guess people like that. It’s certainly a good formula for making money. But, no one will remember this movie in five years. The memorable movies are always the ones with surprises.

If you’ve been following my blog, you know I’ve been thinking about the disproportionate effect a small number of billionaires has on our politics. This movie got me thinking, could the same be said of big-time producers and our culture? A handful of names crop up over and over in producer credits; Brian Grazer, Jerry Bruckheimer, Steven Spielberg, etc. Could there be a tiny cabal of producers who constantly give us the same movie, dressed up with different actors and sets?Are they restricting us to a diet of easy, familiar stories, when we could be consuming inspired, challenging surprises?

Well, not really. I looked at the top grossing movies of 2011, and didn’t find any big prevalence of my producer cabal. Most of the movies have half a dozen producers I’ve never heard of. If I was a diligent researcher I would look at top earning movies of the past 10-20 years, and track producers, directors, and studio executives, but I prefer to guess based on my initial shoddy search. My guess is, there are too many people involved in making movies to assign all the influence to the top dozen recurring names.

Anyway, there’s a big difference between politics and movies. Surprising, challenging movies get made all the time. Quality movies are out there for anyone inclined to do a little searching. (For sci-fi fans, I suggest Primer, Ink, Monsters, and Attack the Block, to start with.) They don’t tend to get big-studio funding or mainstream promotion, and maybe that’s wrong, but they also aren’t made to appeal to the lowest common denominator, which seems to be the focus of the big studio mechanisms. Anyway the big studios will only become less relevant as digital streaming continues to shrink their profit margins, and the technology of movie making becomes cheaper and more accessible.

So, a moviegoer can always go look for a better movie. Politics don’t work that way. We all have to live by the same laws of the land. We don’t all agree on what those laws should be, but no one gets to pick and choose which ones apply to their own life. So in a free, civil society, we negotiate and compromise. Unfortunately the bad billionaires are busy distorting those laws in their favor.

I can hear David Koch right now: “If you don’t like it, move to France!” No David, you’re the one who should move away if you can’t abide the little people having any influence.