Astrodon Johnstoni

I was part of a movement of "dinosaur moms" when I lived in Maryland (Astrodon Johnstoni is the Maryland state dinosaur.) Which is nothing more than this -- dinosaur moms delight in the half-feral nature of the beasties they parent, even as they whisper Shakespeare and Kierkegaard in their ears at night.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Cats will be cats

There is nothing cuter than a lion cub practicing at being a lion, mustering all of his tiny ferocity into one unconvincing meow.  It is recognizable to us.  He is practicing.  Something in us sees in the furry prince the mighty king that is yet to be. 

So it is with our human cubs.  Something in us sees in the swagger and posturing of youth that same juxtaposition.  After all, we don’t want milquetoast youth – de-fanged and domesticated.  Although maybe we’re not so sure about facing down a sweaty, hormone-addled beast.   Our ambivalence on beholding the endearing cub and seeing the rough beast is inherent in the human condition.  Really, in the animal condition. 

My hope is that recognizing it, naming it, and putting it in its proper place can restore right relations among the generations, but not just that.  Because whether our own lion cubs make us want to cuddle them and scratch them behind the ears or reach for a whip and chair says a lot about us.  About where we’re at with race and class and gender.  It says a lot about what we think it means when a kid pumps the bass on his car radio or loiters or jaywalks or wears a hoodie. 

My mother would never let us hang out at the mall.  We could go if we had a goal – to buy this item or to see this movie – but she saw trouble in the idleness of teens.  She was a social worker in the community, so she likely knew more than she could disclose.  Plus, truth be told, we weren’t prepared to swear that we weren’t up to no good.  Despite being good kids at core – generous, helpful, kind – we would have been disappointed if no one found us menacing or shocking.   If we never pulled our lips back far enough to show our burgeoning fangs.

I know that I had a reputation for being smart, and that my reputation for being smart, at least at first, had a whole lot more to do with how my parents talked and what books we had in the house than any native intelligence of mine.  And that once you are perceived as smart, as gifted and talented, then that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  You learn this truth:  that the hardest classes are the easiest, because they are the spaces where you are given the benefit of the doubt. 

In those spaces, those traits that make you a good strong lion – mischief, aggression, obstinance, guile – which could easily be punished as infractions -- are celebrated.  Many of my friends, whose pranks were no more injurious, whose stance was no less affected, whose convictions were no less deeply held, were received  quite differently.  It was not lost on me that I could get away with it and they couldn’t.

This I believe:  Audacity in youth is not a vice.  It is a virtue.  And it’s going to express itself in the pedestrian trying to stare down the car or the entrepreneur trying to game the system or in the music that’s too loud or the pants that are too tight or too baggy or in the naked disdain and pity that stares back at us when we stare at them.  And it is good and right that it be so.   Because every lion cub has to scratch his claws.  Every lion cub has to practice his roar.  Else whence do we get our lions?  

Thursday, May 28, 2015

What Part of "Illegal" Didn't the Patriarchs Understand?

This month, we have been talking about the theme of “Formation:”  formation of the self, formation of the family.  In this talk, I will be focusing on formation of the community, the system of laws that make us a nation.  And our relationship to those laws.

Our congregation approaches our 50th year from our first meetings in the back of the pizza parlor.  And so, as is fitting, there is much talk of this being our “jubilee” year, a milestone; a time, according to biblical tradition, of celebration, of looking back, of looking forward, of taking stock, of making note -- a sort of ecclesiastical “victory lap.”  We’re here; we made it.  Time to party like it’s 1399 (B.C.E.)

This makes an interesting juxtaposition with the other place in my life where I used to hear talk about “jubilee,” which was in the anti-consumerist, ad-busting, debt-smashing circles of the early heady days of “Occupy Wall Street.”  Anarchist anthropologist and general agitator David Graeber, who is famous for, inter alia, coining the term “The 99 percent,” makes frequent reference to the concept of jubilee.  For instance, his book, Debt:  the First 5,000 Years, culminates in a call for a “Biblical-style Jubilee.”

Ooh, biblical-style jubilee.  That’s gotta be good, right?  He’s not talking about coffee and sheetcake, I’ll just bet.  He makes it sounds like something much more radical.  How radical was it?  Well, turns out, pretty utopian visionary stuff.   Let us read from the New International Version, Leviticus 25:10, which states (ahem):  “Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan.” 

How radical is that?  Did you catch it?  That is:   trumpet blows (okay, shofar blows) and- just like that- all debts are paid.  All leases are paid, all mortgages are cancelled.  All slaves and indentured servants and other debt prisoners are free. 

Imagine.  It blows my mind to think that our spiritual forebears built into their society what looks from here to be one great big emancipation proclamation/ discharge in bankruptcy/general amnesty once in every generation?  

What would it look like?  I can imagine the Warner Brothers cartoon where the wolf and the sheepdog are at each other’s throats and then the lunch whistle blows and they pause, mid-blood feud, to clock out, with a “Hello Ralph” and a “Hello Sam,” get out their lunch pails and have a repast. 

Here’s what I learned.  Jubilee is laid out in Leviticus.  Leviticus is one of the five books of the Torah, which the Christians call the Pentateuch, and tells the story of the Tabernacle and its first laws (That is, it’s the sequel to “The Ten Commandments” that picks up after the miracles, after the parting of the sea; after Charlton Heston comes down from the mountain and Edward G. Robinson is swallowed up by the earth.) 

Now, I am a sorry excuse for a biblical scholar and I don’t want to get caught trying to pass myself off as one, but what I am is a good structuralist. 

By structuralist, I mean that I dig this anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and I think he was onto something when he observed that all of the people of all of the cultures he studied have this in common.  They (and we) do the same thing with our brains.  They (and we) systematically process organized – that is to say, “structured” – units of information in the material world.  We take these units of information and we combine them and recombine them to create models that 1) explain the world we live in, 2) suggest imaginary alternatives to the world we live in, and 3) give us tools with which to operate in this world we live in. 

Structuralism gives us the paradigm --  And, now, don’t check out on me.  I promise I’m not going to say “paradigm” again.  OK, I just said paradigm again.  I’m not -- this is the last time I’m going to say “paradigm.”  As Unitarian Universalists we draw from the words and deeds of “prophetic” women and menStructuralism gives us a methodology to look at what comes down to us in holy books of these ancient societies, these prophetic peoples, not as the mysterious rites of an anointed but primitive people but as, essentially, “Us.”  Not just “kinda like us,” but “Us.” 

“Us” with less technology, less access to information – sure.  Us with some real hang-ups about eating shrimp and wearing blended fibers.  But us, with minds no less subtle, no less capable than our own.  Us, doing what we always do – creating structures that help us understand and get by in our world.

So, what did they do, these people who had been delivered out of slavery and had just settled in the promised land?  They began to establish rules for the new society.  And having just come out of slavery, you can imagine, the creeping possibility of falling back into slavery was much on their minds.  We know this, because, they then proceed to spend chapters and chapters laying out every stage of mounting spiraling debt on the slippery road to servitude with descriptive detail worthy of the most persnickety UU working group. 

In the first stage, a person is simply cash-strapped. This would be what the comedian Chris Rock means when he says “We were broke but we were never poor.”  This is broke but not poor.  The presumed scenario in an agrarian economy is:  farmer borrows money to buy seed but has a bad harvest; the proceeds from the harvest are not enough to repay the loan. He therefore must sell some of the land to a supplier in order to cover the debt from last year and plus buy seed for the next planting.  

If he still can’t get ahead, he eventually sells off more and more of his land until he becomes like a tenant farmer on his own land, then more like a sharecropper.  And on and on, until, as the folk singer George Davis once wrote about the coal mines, “Saint Peter dontcha call me ‘cause I can’t go/ I owe my soul to the company store.” 

Finally, if he can’t support his family, then he still has recourse to selling himself into bondage, either to another Israelite as an indentured servant, or to an outsider as a full-on slave. 

So, before they get to the utopian visionary part, these people of the tabernacle, they’re good naturalists, laying out a parade of horribles so relentless and seemingly inevitable that they seem to be saying, quite frankly, “Make no mistake, slipping back into slavery is a very real possibility.  Here is precisely what it would look like.  It just takes a run of bad luck.” 

This is a cold, bloodless accounting the likes of which you might find in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”  It makes no moral judgments.  It does not vilify the creditors or weep for the debtors.  It’s just, this is how it is.  Debts are debts.  The law is the law.

But then they take a hard left.  They say, y’know the Sabbath?  Well, we need a super-sabbath, a whole year in every fifty where we’re going to take a break from business-as-usual.  We’re going to build into our society right at its foundation a safety valve, a re-set button.  And just as the Sabbath is a day of rest, so should the jubilee be a break, but from materialism, from competition, from domination and submission.  A break from these things, because, winner or loser, we all could use a break from these things.  Because striving and scratching and clawing might very well be good, even necessary, habits for surviving but they are disastrous habits for thriving.  So, take your boot off the neck of your neighbor and let’s just hang out.

And just as I might resolve not to take any work home and to dedicate the weekend to staring my family in their actual faces, so might a jubilee be a time to relate to each other in a different way.  Perchance to come to the realization that there is another way.  Perhaps, what they built into their society was the space in which to imagine a new way.

And here’s where I see parallels in American political discourse.  This attitude toward the law like “Whattayagonnado?”  It’s the law.  Zero tolerance.  Three strikes.  What part of illegal don’t you understand?  It crops up a lot. 

It was very present for me in the media coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown.  We couldn’t talk about Michael Brown without someone making a point of whether he was or wasn’t shoplifting a box of cigarillos or was or wasn’t jaywalking down the middle of the street.  We couldn’t talk about the outcry from the community of Ferguson, Missouri without talking about whether the riots turned to looting.   Mr. Brown’s relationship with the law is but one of many relationships at play in these events, and not the most salient.  To reduce human relationships to a system of laws is a failure of imagination.

It reminds me of Martin Luther King’s depiction of the white moderates in the Jim Crow South.  He describes them as being “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice”; as preferring a “negative peace which is the absence of tension” to a “positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Dr. King makes no bones about his disappointment in these lukewarm allies.  “I had hoped,” he writes, scoldingly, “that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice.” For the purpose of establishing justice.  He makes justice not the happy by-product of law and order, but its raison d'être.  He goes on to write that when law and order “fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” 

Dangerously structured dams.  This is a fun quote because UU’s don’t hardly get to say “dam” in church.  Dangerously structured dams.  So, not the dams that facilitate human progress.  Not the light-bringing hydroelectric dam.  Not the Hoover dam.  But an old beaver dam.  Law and order without aiming toward justice are like an old beaver dam, gumming up the works.

          Now, this is not a criticism of law and order.  I don’t want a world where a contract and a border and a license aren’t meaningful things.  I can recognize that they are arbitrary and still want them to be there.
          I am with Sir Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons” when his lawyer son-in-law accuses him of “giving the Devil the benefit of law!”  “Yes!,” he affirms. “What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?”  Son-in-law takes the bait, “Yes,” he declares.  “I'd cut down every law in England to do that!” 
          And then Sir Thomas More knows he’s got him.  “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law,” he concludes, “for my own safety's sake!”

There is no evidence that there ever really was a jubilee.  The sad reality may be that 50 years is all it takes for Jacobin revolutionary fervor to give way to the iron fist of concentrated wealth.  That in fifty years, the privileged managed to make of themselves new pharaohs in the promised land, to make their supremacy so unassailable that people didn’t even remember when the land used to be theirs.  It may be that by the time the shofar sounded, there was no great reckoning.  There was no super-sabbath.  There was a party and then back to the status quo. 

But we can still take the lesson, that we, when we’re doing it right, when we’re our best selves, we recognize that law is not some other thing. Debt is not some other thing.  It is us.  We make it up.  It answers to us.  It is one of many relationships to have with each other.  And we can choose others.

          David Groeber said it well.  He writes, “In this book I have largely avoided making concrete proposals, but let me end with this one.  It seems to me that we are long overdue for some kind of Biblical-style Jubilee: one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt.”  We could add, the border, the war on drugs.

          “It would be salutary,” he explains, “not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also because it would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable,” money is not ineffable, “that paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality,” paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality, “that all these things are human arrangements and that if democracy is to mean anything, it is the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way.”

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Politics of Plexiglas

The other day, Kevin Bruce, a student at Kennesaw State University, was having some difficulty getting a response from his advisor, so he decided to go to see him in person.  There, they told him the advisor was busy and he told them that was ok, he’d wait.   Without further provocation, a staffer charged around the counter at Bruce, insisting that he was harassing them, explained that she therefore invoked the right to call campus security, and asked did he want that.

He filmed the interaction on his phone.  People are doing that nowadays, when they want confirmation that they are experiencing something outrageous.  They film it.   The jpeg has become our Greek chorus.

In the video, one can make out Bruce very calmly and quizzically stating that he is merely sitting and waiting.  “Sitting here until somebody is available,” the staffer officiously clarifies, “is harassing us.” 

“Sitting here until somebody is available is harassing us.” 

The video quickly went viral, no doubt because of the racial dynamics -- another White functionary finding a Black man menacing for no reason.   We could talk all day about that. 

But I submit that the video was so compelling, in part, for another reason.  We can’t look away because we’ve all been there, sitting on one side of a pane of plexiglas from a shopkeeper, a bureaucrat -- someone who has the power to grant us what we’re after.  Perhaps we’ve had to take a number or supply a more secure password or take off our watch and shoes.   Perhaps we’ve had to listen to the whole recording as the menu options have recently changed.  We’ve all been there.  It’s modern life. 

In these times, we’ve grown accustomed to having to conduct our dealings with other people in these mediated ways.  Either literally or metaphorically through Plexiglas.  The world is harsh and jangly and we understand the need to insulate ourselves.  The world is chaotic and busy and we understand the need to compartmentalize and delegate. 

And, frankly, there is something appealing about the modernity of it all.  I mean, I receive my prescription meds from a pneumatic tube.  That’s neat.  I don’t have to do that.  It would change my life not at all to make the walk into the pharmacy and receive them from the hand of the actual pharmacist.  The pneumatic tube traverses the distance from my car to the wall of the drug store, a length I could probably reach my hand out my car window and touch.  Yet I receive my meds from a pneumatic tube, because, I don’t know.  It’s safer or more discreet or faster or something. 

So, that’s ok.  It’s like the neighbor was telling Dustin Hoffman’s new college grad when he was at a loss what to do in life.  “Plastics, my boy, plastics.”  They’re the future. 

But it is so easy for these little efficiencies, these little mechanisms we put in place to ease our transactions with each other, to go haywire, to take on a life of their own.  It is so easy for the supplicant at the other end of the counter or the keypad or the help window to feel frustrated by an indifferent machine.

Miraculous and amazing perks of modern life, like airplane travel, cable, satellite, and wifi start to feel a whole lot less miraculous and amazing when they are the tantalizing prize at the end of an infinite loop of customer service representatives with sunny dispositions and no power or will to help us. 

In the video game, Portal, an intelligence called GLaDOS, promises the hero a Black Forest cake at the end of the quest, but as the quest goes on, he starts seeing signs that GLaDOS is malfunctioning and cannot be trusted.  “The cake is a lie” was a reveal so devastating that it quickly became one of the most famous spoilers in all of gaming. 

We could all be forgiven for feeling a little like the hero in Portal, navigating challenge after challenge with an increasing sense that the authority does not notice or care.   That the cake is a lie.

Spending too much time as Kafka’s cockroach can make a person peevish, disengaged, even destructive.  So, that’s life on the one side of the plexiglas, but what of the person on the other side?

On the other side of the plexiglas, protected by it, constantly sizing up the other, judging the other, can make a person callous and imperious.  It is possible to be too consumed by the circumstances under which you will deal with another person, what you shouldn’t have to contend with, what you should be protected from.   It is possible to become a little too in love with your right, your power to release the hounds on someone, to hang up, to walk away. 

Think how often that thin layer of polycarbonate corrupts and confuses our human interactions.   It is the riot shield that separates the police officer from the protester; the windshield that insulates the driver from the panhandler; the window the banker closes precisely at 4:30. 

In cyberspace, it is our power to block, to mute, to “unfriend” our way to safety.  To create for ourselves environments of people who abide by the social contract, as we know and understand it.

This is the story of a total violation of that contract and what one person did about it. 

It all started when the comedian Daniel Tosh was heckled in the middle of his comedy routine. 

Now, the generally agreed-upon convention in comedy, as I am given to understand, is that if you decide to chime in when a comedian is on a roll, well, you get what you get.  The comedian might turn on you, talk about your momma…  You asked for it.

So, Tosh began to call the heckler out on her unwelcome contribution.  And then, abruptly, took it to a very dark place where he began to mirthlessly and relentlessly exhort the crowd to violence against the woman.   Sexual violence.

It was all the buzz in pop culture circles the next day, with the usual parties falling into the usual camps.  The outrage industrial complex was calling for boycott.  Tosh was a bully taking a cheap shot at a traumatized population.  So unspeakable was the violation that it was deemed a violation merely to discuss what a violation it was. 

“Trigger warning” all around.

Meanwhile, the free speech absolutists were exhuming Lenny Bruce and preparing to water the meadows with the blood of the first amendment’s martyrs.  Oh the patriotism that was invoked to defend this B-list comic and his potty-mouthed tantrum!

It was funny! they cried.  And,…  even if it wasn’t funny, the comedian is the vanguard.  To gag him is to gag us all!
It was misogyny, came the retort!  Comedy should punch up; not down!  If it needs rape culture to be funny;  then it isn’t.

Thought police!


And on and on it went, until, in accordance with Godwin’s law, each had likened his enemy to Hitler and the Nazis and the internet was aflame.

But there was a heroine in this battle.  And to my mind she was a particularly Unitarian Universalist heroine because she beheld this scene and thought, “What is called for here is a debate.”

She thought,  “Let us have a forum.  And it will be clever and funny and it will make people think.” 

Thus did Lindy West pair with Jim Norton in a series of engagements billed as a debate about “rape jokes”, with West gamely taking the side of using your powers for good (surely a thankless job) and Norton arguing for radical freedom.

And for her pains, Lindy West was subjected to a campaign of incessant cyber-abuse.  Oh the fat jokes!  Oh the elaborate graphic threats!  You can imagine.  And if you can’t imagine, you can google. 

There’s a term for this brand of gratuitous online cruelty: we call it internet “trolling.” Trolling is recreational abuse – usually anonymous – intended to waste the subject’s time or get a rise out of them. 

There is always the underlying threat that it will spiral into stalking and harassment, but even without that threat, even relatively “innocuous” schoolyard fight-baiting and name-calling, “when it’s coming at you en masse,” she reports, “ from hundreds or even thousands of users a day, stops feeling innocuous very quickly.”

Now, Ms. West will tell you that she is no thin-skinned rube.  She has pretty much made her peace with the fact that this steady barrage of hate is the price of doing business.  And when it flared up after her latest experiment in “parley” about jokes and gender, well, it just strengthened her resolve.   

“Weather-beaten, but fortified,” is how she put it.  It was all dissolving into so much “white noise.”

But then. 

But then she was contacted by her late father on Twitter.
One particular troll, “Bored, apparently, with the usual angles of harassment”– had made a parody Twitter account purporting to be her father, “featuring a stolen, beloved photo of him,” and tweeting his disapproval and disappointment in her from the grave.

In disbelief, she explored this new twitter moniker and found that her tormentor had gone all out.  “The name on the account was ‘PawWestDonezo’, because my father’s name was Paul West, and a difficult battle with prostate cancer had rendered him ‘donezo’ (goofy slang for “done”) just 18 months earlier.”

“‘Embarrassed father of an idiot,’ the bio read. His location was ‘Dirt hole in Seattle’.”

“Now, the conventional wisdom about internet trolling is that internet trolling just happens. You hear this all the time,” she says, “from even the most progressive allies.” 

It is one of those times when you use the internet neologism, “Welp.” W-E-L-P.  “Welp,” I learn from the urban dictionary, is an exclamation which comes to us from Jim Carrey in “Dumb and Dumber” and is what you say to convey resignation to an “existential helplessness.”

As in, Welp, that’s the internet for you.  Haters gonna hate.  Trolls gonna troll.  And so it follows that if you accept trolling as “some mysterious, ambient inevitability” that you should follow the conventional wisdom and, whatever you do,  “Do not feed the trolls.”  Meaning, do not respond.  Do not take the bait. 

“Sitting at my computer,” she relates, “Staring at PawWestDonezo, I had precious few options.  All I could do, really, was ignore it: hit “block” and move on,”

Do not feed the trolls.

“Knowing that that account was still out there, hidden behind a few gossamer lines of code,”

Do not feed the trolls.

“Still putting words in my dad’s mouth, still using his image to mock, abuse and silence people.”

Do not feed the trolls.

“After all,” she notes, “It’s not illegal to reach elbow-deep into someone’s memories and touch them and twist them and weaponize them.”

Do not feed the trolls.

And then, Lindy West did exactly what everybody said not to do.  She responded.  And she responded in hurt and pain and vulnerability and indignant anger.

Why’d she do it?  She’d tell you it was a mix of complicated reasons, including, hey look, I’m not gonna lie.  It’s cathartic and, frankly, good fun, when you are being used as a “chew toy,” to be a chew toy that’s, as she puts it, “full of poison.” 

But she will also say, “I talk back because it emboldens other women to talk back online and in real life, and I talk back because women have told me that my responses give them a script for dealing with monsters in their own lives.” 

And, finally, and most importantly, she will say, “I talk back because internet trolls are not, in fact, monsters. They are human beings—and I don't believe that their attempts to dehumanize me can be counteracted by dehumanizing them.”

And that would be a fine end to that story.  And I don’t need to tell you what those of you who listen to “This American Life” already know – that he reached out to her.  That he renounced his trolling behavior, took down the offending twitter account and several she didn’t even know about.  That he apologized.  That he copped to some misplaced rage and unexamined misogyny and resolved to be a better person.  That it looks to all the world that he has in fact become a better person – more conscientious, more whole.  That our heroine got to call him to account for his misdeeds and also found herself forgiving him.  And that is a very satisfying conclusion to the story, but all of that is addenda. 

For her, for me, the important part of this tale is that, for better or for worse and for reasons both noble and maybe not-so-noble, she decided to step out from behind the plexiglas.  She decided not to use the tools, meager as they are, that the internet has available for mediating your dealings with people, for shielding yourself from hurt.

As she put it, “Sure, we’ve all built up significant armour at this point, but, you know, armour is heavy.” 

She made the decision to be hurt, to be vulnerable, to be human, with another human, when she had every reason in the world to do the opposite.  And if Lindy West can step out from behind the plexiglas with her worst troll, well then I reckon I can try to be more human too.

On social media, at work, on the street, I have one tool or another to insulate myself from another person.  I can mute, I can block, I can “unfriend,” I can roll up the window and essentially render another person invisible to me.  As it were, to “disappear” them.  I have that power.  

The challenge for me is to recognize how easily I could become like that counselor at Kennesaw State who was a little too excited about that power.  A little too excited about her systems, her protocols, her right to call down the authorities.  A little too caught up in a vision of a well-run world that can’t accommodate the needs of an actual human trying to navigate it.  May I every once in a while step out from behind the Plexiglas, put down the little efficiencies that help mediate the world for me, and just deal with the noisy jangly world.  May we all.