Category Archives: Thinking

I Did a Thing

I was a last-minute substitution to the 20 x 2 show last night in Chicago, where 20 of us took two minutes to answer the questions: What Are You Waiting For?

It was fun and the other performers were an interesting assortment of talent and ideas. A couple of them were even friends of mine! The front row of the audience was super-enthusiastic, too.

I am very glad to have been included.

I have my notes of where I went wrong (surprising how much peril lurks in 2:15–I ran slightly long), but mostly, I very much enjoyed the chance to do a thing of the sort I have not done since college. Not just to do my own little bit but also to mingle with others doing their bit and spend some time around the Let’s Put on a Show vibe that I enjoyed before law school.

I have a lovely circle of friends and a great social network here but–well, I have more thoughts to tweeze out here about a community of being and supporting versus a community of doing and facilitating. Thoughts I did not realize I was having. I am about to spend some time at the beach with not much to do, perhaps the thoughts will come together.

In the meantime, this is what I said in response to the 20×2 question: “What Are You Waiting For?”:

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I am never relaxed.  Comfortable? Possibly. Confident? Where appropriate. Calm? As necessary. But I Never Not Ever Relax.

So you might guess that I’m waiting for the blow. Bracing for impact. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. The Catch. The Hitch. The Gotcha.

Except I’m not. I not waiting at all. For anything.

Because there is no need. There’s no next. No resolution. No finale. No Bang. No whisper.

Just each moment. Just each action. Each thought. And then the next. Then the next. The next and the next. And the none at all. So you might say that I’m waiting for nothing.

Which is not to say I’m waiting for death. Just that I’m not—so far as I know—waiting for anything.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not enlightenment. No carpe diem moment of zen. I put plenty of things off. And I have no more patience than your average middle-aged public interest attorney working in an unjust world.

But waiting? For what? For change? For justice? For the world to catch up with itself? I think not. I’ll wait for the elevator. I’ll wait for the toaster. (I’ll wait for the bus) But I’ve learned not to wait for humanity—I’m already anxious enough.

You see, change happens after you work for it your whole life. So you musn’t wait for it. To wait for it is to drive yourself mad. It torments your hope. Betrays your belief and hobbles you.

I don’t wait. And I never relax.

But in this I find belief in the value of each moment which follows each thought without ever actually displaying this Good we’re waiting for.

Just laying it down. In thin imperceptible layers of progress. Each of us. Each moment. One thought at a time.

 

From every mountainside, let freedom ring

You may have seen this going around: From an essay titled Is Patriotism a Virtue? by Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre:

I understand the story of my life in such a way that it is part of the history of my family or of this farm or of this university or of this countryside; and I understand the story of the lives of other individuals around me as embedded in the same larger stories, so that I and they share a common stake in the outcome of that story and in what sort of story it both is and is to be: tragic, heroic, comic. A central contention of the morality of patriotism is that I will obliterate and lose a central dimension of the moral life if I do not understand the enacted narrative of my own individual life as embedded in the history of my country. For if I do not understand it I will not understand what I owe to others or what others owe to me, for what crimes of my nation I am bound to make reparation, for what benefits to my nation I am bound to feel gratitude.

That last line–that is why I have been marching and protesting and calling the legislatures weekly since November. What I owe others, and what others owe to me, that is community, that is country, that is home. The measure of me and my life is what I do with those debts.

“. . . I will obliterate and lose a central dimension of the moral life if I do not understand the enacted narrative of my own individual life as embedded in the history of my country.” Modern intersectionalists might describe the latter part of this sentence and the next as “privilege”–that we must view our individual lives within in the structure of the larger life of society. What benefits have we accrued from being born white or being born a citizen of a influential rich democracy? That’s the awareness you need to check your privilege. That’s also the awareness you need in order to do good.

In this tiny excerpt, MacIntyre is tying that awareness into the question of why we consider it a virtue to be patriotic and answering that the national context of our personal benefits commands us to nurture those benefits for the larger national community through acts of patriotism: informed voting, paying your taxes, respecting your national parks, war service.

I read it that way, anyway. It follows with a belief I’ve expressed here many times: that our primary duty as human beings is to share the excess we have with those that have less. Not because God commands it but because each human is part of every other human and we express that through society.

The desire to share with your society in that manner–and the ability to recognize your excess as well as apply it meaningfully–comes from a studied awareness of your community and your surroundings. Careful patriotism leads us to question both the goals and the methods of legislators and executive, dogcatchers and registrars. It brings us to examine the qualifications, desires and manner of the people who lead us. It commands us to protest and shout when those people and their character reflect badly upon ourselves and our shared story.

When those entrusted with enacting the narrative of my own individual life as embedded in the history of my country forsake what is owed to others, they have forsaken what is owed to me.

Happy Independence Day. May we create the nation worthy of a larger story.

I Definitely Need to Get Out More

Last night, thanks to my sister and the Chicago Humanities Festival, I went to a reading by Roxane Gay. It was great. She’s just as sharp and interesting in person as she is in carefully drafted written work.

After she read, she took questions from the audience. One woman asked for expansion on a comment Ms. Gay had made about allies and allyship (in another context–I don’t recall the context, but here is apiece at Elle which makes a similar point. I believe) and Ms. Gay asked all of us how many of us had had a conversation yesterday about Charleena Lyles. Or Nabra Hassanen.

I have had a conversation this week about Charleena Lyles. But it was a conversation among people who all agree, first about the unvarnished tragedy of her death. A pregnant woman who had called the police for help, asked for assurances that she would not be harmed, and then was shot to death in her home with three children at home. Nothing here is justified.

It was a conversation, second, about the absolute failure of police training, of police procedure, of police recruitment & hiring, of individual police officers in the United States. Among people who all believe these failures to be true.

It was a conversation, third, about the examined and unacknowledged racism that still pervades American institutions. Among people who try to learn about and see the unalloyed racism at the root of our structures.

I am certain that’s not the conversation Ms. Gay was talking about.

She was talking about me having that conversation with a person who would defend two police officers shooting a small women who called the officers to her home for help because they thought she was concealing a knife. Or with someone who does not think it was inappropriate to respond to a call for help prepared to shoot the woman who called. Or with someone who thinks de-escalation was not the proper choice in the situation.

Or with someone who thinks police are under siege. Or with someone who believes police not subject to bias, whether conscious or not. Or someone who does not believe there is a pattern of police violence against people of color.

Or with someone who is offended at the suggestion racism permeates all our official structures.

I know those people. I know who some of those people that I know are. But I know I do not know who some of those people are. I find myself wondering: which is the more useful conversation? I’ll admit straight up that I avoid the first one. I know I’ll be angry and I worry that, especially now, I won’t be able to temper myself.

Nearly ten years ago, I pushed back in a conversation with a woman roughly my mother’s age. I had said something offhand about the exorbitant phone rates for calls to and from inmates in Illinois prisons (Chicago Reporter story) (Recent legislation on the issue). She had reflexively said something about not feeling sorry for them and prison not being about fun and who cares. I tried to gently point out that people in prison very rarely stay there their whole lives. That the come back to the cities and towns they left. And isn’t it better that they be able to stay in touch with their families while they’re gone? So that the relationships remain intact so they have something to go home to? Somewhere they can be while they readjust? And isn’t it better to not further burden the finances of the families who are trying to get by without whatever income or household support the prisoner once provided? I don’t know how successful I was, but I remember I remained calm. I remember I did not embarrass myself. I remember I did not make anyone visibly angry.

I really don’t think those things would happen if I tried to confront the unexamined racism of the people I know. In fact, only a few short years later, I was inarticulate and angry at someone who made a disrespectful comment about Eric Garner. And I was ashamed at their callousness and ashamed at my inability to speak calmly and persuasively about their error. And I have not tried to engage since. Either with the people I know are not working on their personal relationship with America’s racism or the people I don’t know are not working on it.

Which may have been part of Ms. Gay’s point. How useless my own work toward understanding is if I only share it with people who are already undertaking that work themselves. And so she’s right.

 

==

I don’t recall the comment about allyship Ms. Gay had been asked about. A short internet search pulled up this essay at Marie Claire which seems about right.

Privilege is a Privilege

Tulsa

Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation by Alfred L. Brophy and Death in a Promised Land The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Scott Ellsworth. Eyewitness account.

Even if you are the most progressive, most egalitarian white American who ever lived, even if you were born with nothing, worked hard to change that, and succeeded, this is some of the history which gave you–a white American–a headstart.

It’s hard to reconcile that with the knowledge that you worked hard, that you are smart, that your road was not easy and never sure. But you can. Because you work hard, because you are smart, because you know how to travel roads that are not easy.

And once you’ve reconciled this–or perhaps to help you reconcile this–you can work for remediation.

Because you know how important it is to benefit from your own hard work and your own smarts–no matter who you are or what you were born with.

And you owe this to your communities, to the people this history harmed, to the people still harmed by this history. My privilege–your privilege–was not earned; it was bought with this history of injustice and hate and harm. The debt requires your hard work.

Memes, Context and Unguarded Places

13245432_193001741094399_2178145280221345906_nAttributed to Eris Koleszar and it quite nicely summed up the discomfort I felt when I saw the original meme. Many of the comments on the edited photo also quite nicely summed up the discomfort I felt seeing who chose to share it.

One of the things that is easy to forget about the internet is that people who don’t know you, who can’t hear your tone of voice; who don’t know how you live your life or how you treat the friends, enemies and strangers you encounter every day; or have any context at all for your comments see the comments you make.

This means–more often than not–the unknown person on the internet who sees your comments also sees unintended subtext or unexamined subtext (often resulting from unexamined or privilege). Perspective is personal and it is an impossible task to live every moment or to choose every word with a complete–or even skillful–understanding of every perspective someone might bring to your words or actions. Sometimes, you’ll be confronted with a meaning in your words you had no idea was there. But it is. And when someone shows it to you, you should try to understand how it could be there without you meaning it or why it could harm someone you’ve not consciously meant to harm.

It’s not always possible to anticipate this. It is, however, always possible to learn from it when it happens.

When I saw the original meme, I was surprised that the thoughtful woman who had shared it (a woman who is responsible for my understanding of intersectional feminism, for a little perspective here) had missed the othering subtext. But I realized that my friend was only seeing the part of the graphic that said “I don’t give the slightest concern to who is in the bathroom with me, as long as there is parity in the facilities and I don’t have to wait twice as long to pee because I’m using a toilet, not a urinal.”

I realized this because I know her and am familiar with her perspective. (<–that, by the way, is the privilege at work–the luxury of being able to reduce the entire issue to the convenience of peeing now, as opposed to the safety of peeing now)

The meme was–to the mind of a hetero-normative, cis-gendered, graduate-level-educated, middle class American woman–a statement of exasperation that she’s supposed to worry about people with penises in the bathroom, when most of the time she’s aggravated because she can’t get into any bathroom at all. And I had that moment of recognition at the sentiment because while I don’t have any problem with sharing a public bathroom or a locker room with a transwoman and can’t think of a reason why I should care that there is a transwoman in the bathroom or locker room with me, that does not mean there is no there there. For me, transwomen in the bathroom is not a problem, and I will happily oppose attempts to make it a problem, but that does not relieve me of the responsibility to consider my words before I attempt to deflect the suggestion that no problem exists.

So when Eris Koleszar (whom I do not know–I choose the “she/her” pronoun both because the name is a woman’s name–to my knowledge–and because the one reference I saw to her was a mailto link with the phrase “contact her “. I apologize if that’s incorrect) reacted to the meme and made explicit the harmful subtext in it, she was not making a fuss over nothing. Koleszar was not being over-sensitive, nor making up an insult to react to. The re-made meme simply exposes the subtext that a wider context brings to the original expression.

I saw many people accuse the remade meme of making mountains out of molehills. Of missing the intended subtext. Of creating hate where none was intended. Which the remade meme simply does not do.

And, to my original point, people who think the exposure of unintended subtext is an attack on their character are wrong. They must stop reacting that way and do the difficult work of setting aside their own ego in order to listen.

No-one is capable of never making a mistake, of never speaking unguardedly. We will all sometimes miss the alternate meaning of our words, no matter how kind or progressive or successful our actions when we are being intentional. If you’ve got privilege of any kind, you will speak from a position of privilege at the wrong moment. When that happens, acknowledge it; learn from it; and continue trying to do better. If you’re calm, respectful and willing to listen, not only will you better understand the world around you, but you’ll better understand yourself and how the world has shaped you. You’ll have more to offer someone whose difficulties don’t resemble your own and be better positioned to solve your own problems without unintended harm to others.

Half-formed thoughts on a Saturday Morning

QotD: And to think all of this is over secular marriage licenses! Not life & death. Not war & peace. But secular marriage licenses!

Was proud of myself this week from walking away from an Idiot Begin Wrong on the Internet, who was defending the bigoted clerk by saying that all marriage licenses were the government practicing religion.

There’s a reason why the phrase “Christian religion” is not redundant and is common.There’s a reason why the anti-tax movement is associated with fringe Christian sects. (SPLC link that touches on the connection).

Government and religion (to differing extents and possibly different ends) proscribe human behavior. People (to differing degrees and different results) chafe at having their behavior dictated by rules they did not create (Note how angry people get when you suggest that there is a convention of etiquette contrary to how they want to behave). But there are millions of us people and there is necessity both to common rules and to strong commendation of behavior that harms the whole.

That explains why and how people get confused over the intersection between a local government-issued marriage license that confers local and federal legal benefits (inheritance rights, tax effects, property rights) and social benefits with a religious covenant of the same name but which carries only social and religious benefits.

It does not, however, explain why we should countenance the confusion.