What is Whiteness? (a linked NYTimes article)

I don’t usually focus on the fact that race is a social construct, because I think it can detract from the reality of our institutionalized racism. That said, I think if we white people read things like this and talk about the ideas, we could start some important internal and personal changes that might add to a foundation we need to help make structural changes in our institutions.

If you look at the #blackoutday tag on twitter it becomes really clear how race is a social construct. There’s no real way to “look black.” From the article:

Eliminating the binary definition of whiteness — the toggle between nothingness and awfulness — is essential for a new racial vision that ethical people can share across the color line. Just as race has been reinvented over the centuries, let’s repurpose the term “abolitionist” as more than just a hashtag. The “abolition” of white privilege can be an additional component of identity (not a replacement for it), one that embeds social justice in its meaning. Even more, it unifies people of many races.

politics as art (liberals are terrible painters)

Reading bits and pieces of the liberal reaction to the conservative story of the “Obamaphone,” I am once again disappointed in my fellow progressives. The radical right’s communication machine was dragging us and now walks peacefully with Americans as we destroy our constitutional freedoms. They keep getting better at it and we keep helping them.

The radical right (or conservatives, the Republican Party, the Tea Party) understand how our minds work. People understand everything through metaphors. We feel our reality. They use majestic broad strokes, realizing it’s the whole painting that matters. We will feel what they want us to feel (fear, in particular) when we are exposed to powerful metaphors that reach all of our senses. It’s a story of a Black woman getting a phone from a Black man. It’s the Black man giving our money to greedy (lazy), ignorant Black people. We feel it without any facts.

The_Scream

Then, there is the typical weak and disorganized progressive (or liberal, Democratic Party) response. First, it’s not much. Second, it’s peck-peck-pecking away at facts-facts-facts. No broader picture with metaphors we can feel and understand. We’re so distracted by the blatant inaccuracies/lies put out by the radical right’s communication machine, we miss the whole point. And, we have no communications machine. We have no way to keep our messages consistent — using the same metaphors across the liberal/progressive media to make clear how much we value freedom, caring, and responsibility. We peck-peck-peck. No shared concept of the larger picture we ought to be painting.

Until they click on the image to see the larger picture, rare is the person who would have a clue about the complete painting created with the help of this tiny pointillistic image.

We need our own metaphors. We need clear and direct communications among all our factions to determine our own larger pictures. Consistency. No individual responses, peck-peck-pecking at tiny images that don’t even come close to communicating—through feelings—our important message of valuing freedom, caring, and responsibility.

because liberals/moderates are stagnating idiots, Gingrich will be President

(Edited to add: this article does a more clear and thorough job than I’ve done describing these issues.)

Liberals/progressives/moderates are all in a tizzy because the Republican candidates are comically awful in so may respects. It’s infuriating to see the feeding frenzy as photos of a wildly laughing Obama or the shamed Newt gifs fly all around cyberspace. It’s infuriating because while all the people who think Sarah Palin was an idiot, a fluke, a media spectacle and not much more, are going to be laughing and pointing over here —> the radical right will take their candidate of choice (whether it’s Gingrich or anyone else they select) right into the Oval Office.

The radical right loves a redemption story. Entire industries are built on it. The machinery in place that speaks to most Americans (most Americans, not just a few lunatic Tea Party-esque misspelling freaks), the one that has co-opted the language of freedom, rights, independence, and patriotism, just needs the perfect candidate and they will win. We liberals (progressives) will be so stunned that this group could select such a screwed up candidate that we’ll miss the point.

The point is, they want someone who has screwed up a lot. They want someone who has made serious errors. They want someone who will feed into their values: people screw up and they learn their lessons through hard knocks and make things right and we must forgive them (if they are one of our own). (Especially if they are leaders in our hierarchy.)

It’s even worse than when the liberals/progressives who I have considered like-minded people until the last few years glommed on to calling the Tea Party the “tea baggers.” Talk about feeding the fire that the liberal elite are laughing at the rest of us.

We’ll all be laughing our heads off (well, I won’t be) because the candidates are farcical and we won’t take them seriously (Obama’s got it in the bag!). Or, we’ll be terrified about the prospect that they might win so we’ll focus on their weak qualities in an effort to appeal to voters’ logic and reason. We’ll write editorials and op-eds and talk on Sunday morning news shows about how this candidate is weak in x, y, z areas and how they aren’t holding positions in the best interest of their constituents instead of speaking about our progressive values and… we will lose.

I’m tempted to say it won’t make that much of a difference if they win because obviously Obama’s no radical progressive. But, it will make a difference. The radical right, the fundamentalist extremists, the “Left Behind”-led core leadership that counseled and guided George W. Bush. These are the people who will have the power. Last year some significant polls found that 41% of Americans believe Jesus will be returning (before 2050). This is not a small number of people who believe in this, it is not something to take lightly or laugh off as ludicrous.

It’s deeply disturbing to see all of the energy being poured into mocking the Republican candidates when so few people seem to understand how people make choices because of their values, not because of “their best interest.” Visit Focus on the Family’s website. Check out the related industries cited in Ehrenreich’s Bright Sided. Talk to someone who gets glassy-eyed when they discuss “The Gift” with you. Recognize that the machine that started with Reagan, the framing, the understanding that people vote with their values not in “their best interest.” We left/liberal/progressive and even the moderates (those “social liberal/fiscal conservatives” in particular) are still stuck in the Enlightenment view of the mind. We are stuck looking at facts and figures thinking that is what matters. What matters to voters is their values. The radical right fundamentalist extremists are the only ones who understand this (save a small handful of academics like Drew Westen and George Lakoff). They are going to win because of it.

gun control and/or firearms education

Bloody rare. I like my meat. I’m an omnivore, not a vegetarian. Once my first daughter was old enough to start asking questions, I began more seriously investigating my own relationship with my carnivorous tendencies. I taught her that this was “cow meat,” and this was “pig meat,” instead of hamburger or bacon, for example. Around that time I read Barbara Kingsolver’s fantastic book, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” Mindfulness, or intentionality in my food choices became important to me.

Fast forward a few years and where my food comes from is still important to me. As much as I love eating meat, I don’t love pretending that’s not what I’m doing. I like the idea of knowing the animal, for example, before eating it. Or, if that’s not an option, knowing the farmer and trusting they provided the animal with a good life.

I got the idea last summer that I’d like to harvest my own meat. Our landlords won’t let us have chickens, so that’s out. I would like to explore the relationship between taking an animal’s life so I can eat its flesh and my own thoughts and ideas about mortality, what it means to be human, all those big ideas. I’m toying with the idea of going hunting. Deer hunting, I guess, is what has crossed my mind.

In On Killing (an incredible book—if you’re a peace-loving liberal like me—as it instilled in me more respect than I thought possible for our military) he talks about how death is taboo. How as in Victorian times sexuality was hidden and therefore became the Holy Grail. Everything was about not dealing with sexuality and sexuality was perverted from those days. These days most of us aren’t familiar with death. In past times death was a part of life. Killing chickens or other animals for meat was no big deal. If someone in your family died, you dressed the body for the funeral. It was close and real and undeniable.

I would like my meat’s former life to be undeniable to me. Not every moment, but I’d like to face it head on.

In the quest to face the truth of meat, I signed up for a firearms training course sponsored by the North Berwick Rod & Gun Club and the NRA, Women on Target. The experience was spectacular. Most startling to me was what it felt like to be on foreign territory. It was clear that no one, even those people who seemed to think they understood where I was coming from, had any idea. Every single person there had experience with guns in some form or another. I once touched a rifle that a boyfriend had for when he and his father would go duck hunting in the boundary waters of Minnesota, but that was about three minutes of contact with a firearm. That was it. Everyone else was used to them. They had them in their homes. They talked about using them “to protect themselves.”

Of course, with the horrible shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a lot of people are talking about “gun control.” There were a couple times in my workshop where I decided to go ahead and bring up some of the issues I knew would be controversial. I surprised myself with how much I held my tongue, honestly. I wanted the guys to like me. But I also didn’t pretend to be who I wasn’t. It was just difficult to sit back and hear them talking about how “this light’s gonna shine on an intruder and scare him away before I even take a shot” as if the terror of a home invasion wouldn’t render them immobile (maybe it wouldn’t but there was something so television/movie about the way they described protecting themselves).

One of the greatest things I learned in this experience is what an intellectual or even spiritual experience it is to work with guns. There are so many different levels of appreciation or talent. My addict’s personality was definitely into it. I wanted to shoot more. Keep shooting until I mastered it. I immediately had a favorite gun (if I were a real fan of the things I’m sure I’d call them firearms, as that’s what the guys of the club did) because of how it felt. I was totally drawn into the experience of learning how to hold them, how to not anticipate the shot, how to aim correctly with a variety of different weapons, etc.

What I’m saying is those of us on the outside of gun culture don’t understand, or, I didn’t, that it’s a complex experience. It’s not necessarily just a bunch of yahoos who want to go explode some shit with bullets. There is mastery of a skill. There’s a major psychological component to the experience. Even writing about it I’m reminded how I wanted to arrange some practice time again.

It’s my position that outside of a military or police context, only cowards use fully automatic weapons. This is a statement I think that should become the norm in our society. It’s something I think even the most radical right wing fanatics would agree about. I’m not discussing issues of legality or control here. I’m talking about our moral compass as a culture. If we all agree that fully automatic weapons = cowardice, we can begin to find common ground. Stepping outside the “control or no control” argument seems key.

It’s also my belief, and the workshop confirmed this for me, that we must require significant levels of training and testing before anyone is allowed to own or operate firearms of any kind. It’s not like riding a bike. Even riding a bike takes practice. We ought to, as a society, put firearms in the same category as automobiles. Our government (we, the people) is responsible for our protection. Part of that protection ought to be the requirement that gun owners train, practice, obtain licenses after testing, and get re-tested every year or so (to be determined). We ought to be free to own and operate any kind of weapon we see fit. But those weapons also ought to be available to us only after we show we have the skills required to use them. It’s just common sense.

At some point I’d like to detail the entire experience of the workshop. For now, here are some highlights.

My first shots:

The Henry. My favorite. It was smooth and steady. I felt it was my favorite before I saw how I did firing it, but I did alright with it and that made me like it more.

When they took us out at the end to shoot… I forget what they called them, the things that get shot up into the air, several things were interesting. First, there was almost no guidance about how to do this. I liked that, though, because I like doing things to learn them rather than being told how. It was less satisfying, though, than shooting the (very close) targets because it was hit-or-miss. With the targets there was the satisfaction of knowing how close I was getting. Still, it was a fun way to end the morning.

Keeping ourselves safe shouldn’t be about getting guns into everyone’s hands. It should be about making sure that everyone who has guns is trained in their use. And, of course, criminals will always have weapons. That’s not the point for me, here. Guns are scary, powerful things. Holding a loaded gun in my hands was freaky and strange and exhilarating. It was a meditative experience that brought up many philosophical issues that I’d like to explore further. I will explore them further, in fact. I am glad to understand that it’s not just idiots who like guns. That’s pretty much how I felt, though I knew intellectually that wasn’t the case. It was my sense that only idiots would like guns, what was the point in them anyway, right?

Well, if this social anarchist peace loving empathetic and caring liberal can learn the gun culture isn’t about assholes and power (only) I think maybe some of those guys from that side might learn that those of us who believe regulating firearms aren’t against them entirely. It seems there are opportunities to learn from each other, find common ground, and still hold true to our own values.

Islamophobia and wimpy progressives

We progressive populists are a bunch of wimps. We recognize fear-based ignorance in our fellow Americans as their Islamophobia* rages and all reason and sense fly out the window. Instead of noting their foolishness and getting back to the real issues, we are sucked in. We are reactionaries. So afraid we might be like them we err on the side of milquetoast.

In Destiny Disrupted, Tamim Ansary does an extraordinary job of telling the history of humanity from an Islamic perspective. One of the many elements I found compelling was how clearly he demonstrated the history of the world I knew—and it’s safe to say most Americans were taught a similar history as the one I learned—essentially ignores or omits the existence of what Ansary calls “the middle world.**” It’s a fascinating exercise. Informative, too. As the reader is brought into the earliest days of Islam, we see how the people living there thought of themselves as “the world,” just as European/Westerners did.

What brought me to this book was bits of a public affairs speaker I heard on the radio a month or so ago. I wish I was able to track down the actual speech. It’s possible it was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, though I’m not sure. The speaker’s point was similar to that made by Hirsi Ali, though. Well-meaning progressives are so uncomfortable with what might sound ignorant, racist, or simply hateful, we end up watering down the truth. I began searching for a way to learn what Islam is really about, not what the extremes claim it is about. In Destiny Disrupted I happily found a source of the entire history of Islam written in a near story form. A good read that really brought me into the frame or perspective of Muslims. It did, however, make clear to me that we progressives are chickening out of the real discussion. We’re afraid to say a bad word about Islam in ways we aren’t afraid to criticize almost any other institution.

For example, how many people have a hard time criticizing the Catholic Church for how it managed child sexual abuse? Not many people beyond some conflicted Catholics, I imagine. The situation was horrifying and wrong. We all spoke freely about how the system needed to change, yes?

Well, I’m not prepared to be or planning on being very critical of Islam. And I can guarantee you I will never make blanket statements about “all Muslims.” In fact, Ansary’s book does a beautiful job showing how Islam evolved from the 7th century along many different lines. “Rivers,” he refers to the most common perspectives. It blossomed and bloomed and devolved and starved and expanded. In fact, the Muslim world was much more advanced than its Western counterparts until the Reformation/Industrialization/Nationalism days.

One example of a misguided attempt at defeating ignorance is well described in Ansary’s conclusion. He talks about how American Muslims will say that jihad means the internal struggle to remain true to Allah, that Islam is a religion of peace. This doesn’t respect the reality of the rich history of Islam, however. It is true that some interpretations of the meaning of jihad focus on the internal struggle. However, throughout history, there was a recurring pattern of near-constant warfare on the edges of the Muslim world. This served many purposes (economic, civil, religious) and Ansary explains in the book how it was when this constant fighting at the edges of the community began to fade that the entire larger community (Ummah) started to crumble. For any of us to claim that war, fighting, militancy isn’t a tremendous part of Islam, we’d be just as ignorant as the idiots who think that’s all it is. In fact, for most of the life of Islam it was the victories in warfare that were used as evidence Allah was with them.

In later posts I will address the issue of the role of women in Islam and I’ll likely have a lot more to say. Most important for me to share now is that just as the FOX News loving brain-washed racists who think all Muslims are backwards and evil are wrong, we progressive populists (or liberals or whatever you call yourself if you are someone striving to avoid fear-based hatred and ignorance) shouldn’t be blind to the actual problems that exist in Islam. What we should do, and what I’ve started doing, is learn what it is actually all about. What is the reality. It’s not that all Muslims hate Americans and want to kill us. It’s also not that Islam is a religion of peace and love for all, either. Some Muslims want it to be, but that would require revolutionary change. In any case, we ought to inform ourselves beyond what the mainstream media pass along in their little Western-centric dribbles.

For me, being a populist progressive means believing in freedom and justice for all. It also means not blazing through in opposition to those we know are usually wrong (the radical right, the conservatives) in knee-jerk reactions. We are better than that. In fact, I suggest we all start with that simple interview with Hirsi Ali posted on Salon. She does a fine job noting some of the issues of Islam that deserve strong criticism.

*According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, “in 1997, the British Runnymede Trust defined Islamophobia as the ‘dread or hatred of Islam and therefore, to the fear and dislike of all Muslims.'”
**Rather than using “the Middle East” which places “the West” at the center of the world, Ansary refers to the geographic placement of the Muslim world. Right there, in the middle.