Search results for 'homophobic'

How to Insult 10 Different Kinds of Families with One Campaign Poster

17 Sep

Bundestag(Image by Michael Fötsch used under CC 2.0 via)

 

I was riding the bus home from work earlier this week through downtown Berlin when I caught sight of this campaign poster for the Alternative für Deutschland party. Featuring a white woman’s visibly pregnant belly, it reads: “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves!”

Talk about a punch in the gut. At first glance, the poster appears to be promoting closed borders and “traditional” family values. But it can never be read free from the history of the Nazis’ obsession with using women to make white, Christian, non-disabled babies. Lebensborn was an association built expressly for that purpose. Women across Germany who had four or more children and who were not branded degenerates were awarded medals by the Third Reich. Anyone who has gone to school in Germany knows about all this.

It would be perverse to claim this AfD poster is more upsetting than any of the others, which target burqas, halal cooking and the idea of multiculturalism. But as a woman with both a residence permit from the immigration office and a disabled ID card in my pocket, I felt the attack personally. The deep sadness then turned to desperate hope that the poster escaped the view of those who are more likely to be targets of street harassment than I am (people of color, LGBT couples and religious minorities), and anyone returning from a fertility clinic or an adoption agency.

Germans go to the polls next Sunday. Over the last ten days the AfD has been projected to win between 8% and 12% of the vote – far behind the top two parties, but fighting neck-in-neck with the Greens, the Left, and the pro-business Free Democrats for third place. As long as they reach the 5% minimum necessary for earning seats in the Bundestag, a difference of three or four percentage points will technically have little effect on the AfD’s ability to influence policy. Because all the other political parties have refused to work with the AfD, it will not be able join a coalition. But coming in third place instead of fifth or sixth will make a big difference in the post-election narrative. Both critics and supporters of the AfD will claim that Germany is shedding some of the post-WWII taboos and political correctness that have defined its democracy for the past 50 years.

Many voters here tell me they hope the AfD’s success in next week’s election turns out to be a one-hit-wonder that quickly falls apart like so many small parties have done before. But no matter what happens on September 24th, it is important to remember that the 12% of voters who have ever been sympathetic to the AfD and its xenophobic politics have been around for a long time.

Unlike the ostentatiously angry Nationalist Party, which has never come close to garnering 5% of the vote, the AfD has sought success by branding itself the moderate voice of xenophobia. They hope to appeal to conservatives and left-wingers alike who worry about multiculturalism gone mad. Most of their voters like to think of themselves as open-minded, not hateful. They just think there need to be restrictions on immigration because they’ve heard tales of towns overrun by foreigners who don’t know how to put their garbage in the bins. They just want to ban burqas and niqabs because sexism. And Islamic holidays and symbols should not be prominent in public or in schools because Germany should be recognized as a Christian nation. They don’t mind that the AfD’s candidate for chancellor is openly lesbian. It would just be nice to put an end to all this talk about LGBT rights. They tell my friends and me that when they complain about immigrants, “I don’t mean you.” C’mon, they’re not Nazis. They’re just asking, “What about me?” If you’re gonna call it racism or sexism, then it’s the reasonable kind. The kind every person is born with. Common sense.

The short but bombastic history of the AfD proves that xenophobia in moderation doesn’t work. The party was founded by pro-business politicians who opposed the EU à la Brexit. These founders were soon driven out and replaced by the anti-immigrant populists of today. Every few months the party has had an internal war involving someone who said something that’s just too reminiscent of the Third Reich. On the outside, friends of color report more frequent street harassment since the AfD’s increased presence. The disability rights organization AbilityWatch reports the AfD was the only party who declined to respond to their issues. The gay and lesbian alliance LSVD rates the AfD the most homophobic of all the major parties despite its current leadership.

That campaign poster embodies all this. It’s what you get when you think some degree of xenophobia is reasonable.

 

Disclaimer: As noted before, no political party will ever be endorsed on this blog, but political threats to human rights and equality, both historic and contemporary, will always be analyzed.

 

 

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Will the Netherlands Be the Next Country to Greenlight Nationalism?

12 Mar

 

 

Dutch voters go to the polls this coming Wednesday for the general election, and long-time nationalist candidate Geert Wilders has a better chance of coming in first or second than ever before. A first-place finish would be no guarantee of his becoming prime minister thanks to the multi-party coalition system in the Netherlands, but it would prove surging support for his policies. On his agenda is leaving the EU, closing the border to all refugees as well as all immigrants from Muslim countries, closing mosques and Muslim schools nationwide, and banning the Koran. He was convicted of hate speech by a Dutch court earlier this year for his utterances in the video above.

No candidate will ever be endorsed on this blog, but politicians who promise to roll back the rights of minorities will be called out and the danger assessed. In the ongoing debate over the best counter-strategy to the rise of xenophobia in Europe and the U.S., James Traub argued earlier this week in The New York Times that calls to simply celebrate diversity are partly to blame for the crisis. He views right-wing nationalism as a backlash against “the unquestioned virtue of cosmopolitanism,” writing:

The answer to xenophobia cannot be xenophilia. For mobile, prosperous, worldly people, the cherishing of diversity is a cardinal virtue; we dote on difference. That’s simply not true for many people who can’t choose where to live, or who prefer the familiar coordinates of their life. That was the bitter lesson that British cosmopolites learned from Brexit.

Other critics have demanded similar compassion for the little old white lady who reports feeling uncomfortable when her daily bus ride has her surrounded by people speaking Arabic/Farsi/Somali and wearing headscarves. Yet is she much different from the little old lady who reports feeling uncomfortable when her daily bus ride has her surrounded by people talking in slang and playing techno/hip-hop/k-pop/whatever the kids are listening to these days? Indulging such concerns with legal action quickly devolves into infringements on freedom of expression. Society does best when citizens simply shrug at the sight of new piercings or the sound of a foreign language.

Yet no society has managed to rid itself of the Fear of the Other that convinces a good proportion of its citizenry that the new immigrants will never integrate or that youth culture is more depraved than theirs ever was. A hippie friend’s parents were regularly told in the 1970s, “If my kid ever dressed like that, I’d break his legs!” It feels strange when Americans my age try to imagine that the Beatles were ever considered a moral threat or that jazz was once branded “devil’s music.” It feels just strange when we hear comedian Dara Ó Briain tell of a British shopkeeper who suspected him of being an IRA terrorist based on his accent, or to see the 19th-century scientific articles that claimed the Irish were biologically closer to apes than humans.

Indeed, fear of the Irish was once rampant in Britain and the United States, based on the assumption that most were poor, uneducated, prone to violence at home and in the street, and/or terrorists. Their religion was also deemed a threat on both sides of the Atlantic. History has shown that isolating the Irish both as a nation and as immigrants would not have solved the crisis. On the contrary, Ireland has been one of the EU’s greatest success stories, transforming from the poorest country in Europe to one of the richest. This has coincided with an expansion of democratic reforms and human rights, including gender equality. Ireland was just ranked far ahead of the U.K. and the U.S. on the Democracy Index, and in 2015, what was once one of the most religiously conservative countries in the world became the first country to legalize marriage equality via national referendum in a 2 to 1 vote.

The Netherlands, meanwhile, has long led the continent in LGBT rights and, unlike most nationalist politicians, Geert Wilders has weaponized this, arguing that Muslims threaten these rights. His late predecessor, Pim Fortuyn, was openly gay and based his right-wing populism on the same ideology.

Many voters will be tempted by Wilders’ promise to protect Dutch gender equality by expunging Muslim extremists from the country. But such a policy is not only racist and undemocratic, but hazardous and hypocritical because a) it disregards both the work and rights of feminist and LGBT Muslims, and b) it says nothing about expunging non-Muslim  groups that oppose gender equality like the Christian Reformed Churches of the Dutch Bible Belt or the Neo-Nazis. If Wilders and his supporters are sincerely concerned about threats to LGBT rights, they would do well to partner with the Maruf Foundation and the European Queer Muslim network, rather than the right-wing populists of Europe and the U.S. who are far likelier to dismantle Western laws protecting gender equality than any Muslim extremist group.

Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and Sweden’s Sverigedemokraterna argue for a return to traditional gender roles. Marine Le Pen pledged last week to nullify all same-sex marriages in France. The former and current leaders of Britain’s UKIP have repeatedly galvanized homophobic sentiment. Donald Trump used the Pulse night club massacre in Orlando last summer to argue for his proposed Muslim ban while at the same time partnering with Mike Pence and other leading members of the American Religious Right, who have been blaming feminism and LGBT equality for most of society’s problems since the 1980s.

Any gender equality movement must protect and support women and LGBT citizens of all ethnicities and faiths. This can only be done with a humanitarian immigration policy. The best hope for combating misogyny and homophobia anywhere is to support human rights activists everywhere. The best hope for successfully integrating immigrants is to learn from the past how it was done before. And to understand that xenophobes throughout history pick different targets but always say the same thing.

In 1751, Benjamin Franklin issued one of the very first warnings of the dangers of immigrants arriving in the United States, asking:

Why should [they] be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and by herding together establish their languages and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to … never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion?

He was talking about immigrants from German-speaking regions of Europe, whom he did not consider “white people,” classifying them along with Italians and Swedes as “swarthy” and dismissing them as “generally of the most ignorant stupid sort of their own nation.” The influx of Germans into the U.S. did end up flooding the country, but it did not end up destroying democratic values. The resilience of the fear of immigrants has proven time and again to be the greater threat to universal human rights. A strong showing for Wilders on Wednesday would, too.

 

 

Rare Conditions & the Tyranny of the Majority

5 Mar

Odd One Out(Image by Javier R. Lineira used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Last Tuesday, February 28th, was Rare Diseases Day. (In leap years, the day is held on February 29th.) The organization’s website reports: “A disease or disorder is defined as rare in Europe when it affects fewer than 1 in 2,000. A disease or disorder is defined as rare in the USA when it affects fewer than 200,000 Americans at any given time.” For the purposes of this article, I will supplant the word “diseases” with “conditions” since “disease” is a complex word already examined earlier on this blog.

Rare conditions are frequently misdiagnosed and poorly understood due to a lack of funding for research. All forms of dwarfism qualify as rare, since the most common form, achondroplasia, occurs somewhere between 1 in 20,000 and 1 in 40,000 births. Vosoritide, the drug developers hope may “cure” achondroplasia, is classified as an “orphan drug.” Such drugs are so named because of their difficulty in garnering support for research and development. The Orphan Drug Act of 1983 is intended to counteract this disparity, but vosoritide owes its existence to one father of a child with achondroplasia who had the financial means to launch the project.

However, I don’t think any of these facts were what motivated me as a child to ask my mother, “There are more dwarf people than tall people, aren’t there?” I knew the answer before my mother soberly shook her head. I remember that even at the time I knew I was issuing a hope rather than an honest question. I wanted there to be more of us. Because… Because even a four-year-old knows there is strength in numbers.

Numbers help build community and communities build solidarity. The women’s movement of the 70s, 80s, and 90s often touted the fact that we made up 51% of the world population. (This is no longer true.) Lists of adopted, dyslexic, Jewish, left-handed, colorblind, or genderfluid celebrities are but a Google search away for anyone seeking to celebrate diversity. Activists in the early days of the gay rights movement frequently argued that homosexuality was far more common than assumed. But arguing for a group’s rights on the basis of its ubiquity seems to contradict the foundation of minority rights. So why do we so often do it?

Minority rights advocates know that challengers of a certain group’s fair treatment will often try to portray low numbers as proof of anomaly and anomaly as deserving of a low degree of care. When singer Jason Webley tried—and failed—to defend his Evelyn Evelyn performance, for which he and Amanda Palmer dressed up as conjoined twins raised in the circus, he argued that the number of people who could be hurt by the project was small: “I had some fear that the few conjoined twins living in the world might find the project offensive.” (Emphasis mine.) One commenter sarcastically responded that Webley and Palmer should feel “lucky” that there were so few conjoined twins for them to offend thanks to the fact that the infant mortality rate of the condition is remarkably high.

A man from the U.S. recently complained to me that “LBG-whatever people are like .000001% of the population, but we gotta hear about their rights 24 hours a day!” In 1948, Alfred Kinsey shocked the public when he deduced from his interviews that roughly 10% of the U.S. male population was exclusively gay. The current estimates of openly gay and lesbian citizens are lower than this, but of course the effects of the closet combined with the complexities of self-identification and labels remain a wrench in the work of statistics. But even if studies someday decisively prove Kinsey was overestimating the percentage, they will not disprove the fact that gay people exist in every possible culture and sub-culture. Numbers will rise as shame and secrecy recede, which in turn will cause prejudice to recede. Studies have repeatedly proven that people are less likely to be homophobic if they personally know one or more people who are openly gay. Many more lives would have been saved had there been less homophobia and more funding for research in the first days of the AIDS crisis.

Acceptance is often aided by awareness and awareness is aided by prevalence. This is a frustrating fact for minorities who will always be low in number. Women and ethnic groups may dominate a given country at a given time, but people with intersex conditions or dwarfism will never do so. But while this may be a cause for loneliness—who doesn’t like knowing someone with similar experiences?—it should not be cause for existential threat. The guarantee of liberty and justice for all is founded on the very opposite of this. When liberal democracies commit to equality for all citizens, they commit to protect the few from the tyranny of the majority. In her essay, “What to Expect When You Have the Child You Weren’t Expecting,” philosopher Alice Dreger writes, “Your child’s civil rights and status as a human being should not depend on the prevalence of her condition.” (Emphasis hers. And mine.)

Whether you are a woman with the rarest form of dwarfism or a man with breast cancer or the carrier of a condition not yet named or a wheelchair user facing a staircase, your treatment should never be contingent upon how many others there are out there like you. Equality means rare and common conditions both deserve common courtesy. Whether a condition should be cured, treated or accepted by society should be determined by whether or not it inherently causes suffering. The quicker we learn to wrap our heads around that, the less suffering there will be.

 

 

A Challenge for Supporters of “Traditional Marriage”

13 Apr

(Via)

 

I’m all for toning down the emotion in politics and avoiding vitriol. But sometimes a silly idea reprinted for the umpteenth time just gets to you.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between proponents of marriage equality and the opposition, columnists Will Saletan and Connor Friedsdorf have been arguing that the former shouldn’t dismiss the latter as bigoted. Not all same-sex marriage opponents are homophobic, they declare, and comparing them to interracial marriage opponents is a false equivalency because plenty of traditionalists think gay people are perfectly okay. “Opposition to gay marriage can be rooted in the insidious belief that gays are inferior,” Friedsdorf writes, “but it’s also commonly rooted in the much-less-problematic belief that marriage is a procreative institution, not one meant to join couples for love and companionship alone.”

Childfree couples will take umbrage at this, and who can blame them? If we decide that the word “marriage” should only be awarded to those ready and willing to make babies, how about raising the bar a bit higher while we’re at it? How about limiting it to couples who have known each other for at least five years, have both completed their education, and are financially independent enough to pay for their own wedding? How about requiring premarital cohabitation for a period of at least 18 months—the infatuation phase lasts 9 to 18 months, after all—and of course requiring engaged couples to have sex a bunch of times, in order to make sure they know what they’re getting into? And why not reserve marriage for those who have never been previously married, never had a brush with so much as a traffic cop, and have passed an emotional intelligence test? In any case, conservatives who dare to argue that only baby-minded couples qualify for the marriage moniker shouldn’t be one bit surprised when this unleashes a barrage of opinions about which sorts of couples truly “deserve” it.

But while we all privately hold firm opinions about the best recipe for a partnership, and we all tend to voice these opinions here and there in public, there is something particularly revolting about those earnest attempts to argue that the ideal family is founded in a man and a woman’s physical capacity to make children. Five justices already decided last year that this argument doesn’t hold up in court. But Saletan and Friedsdorf’s insistence that the argument is nevertheless “rational” and “much-less-problematic” than other forms of bigotry is solipsistic and insensitive to the point of seeming cruel.

My extended family includes foster children and adopted children. There are scores of wonderful reasons for couples to adopt: they can’t physically have kids, they don’t want to physically have kids, their medical situation is complicated, they don’t want to increase the global population, they desperately want to do something about the crisis of unwanted children in the world. They recognize the indisputable truth of which most are aware but not all of us like to acknowledge – that family is what you make of it.

Some adopted children, like the subjects of the 2011 documentary Somewhere Between, feel compelled to make contact with their birth parents or culture of origin, and that is their right. Others, like Scott Fujita and Philipp Rösler and Steve Jobs, have felt no connection whatsoever and are at best amused by others’ fixation with their origins, and that is their right. When facing the myriad complexity of what makes a person who she is, guaranteeing everyone the right to self-determination is by far the fairest solution.

Some people admirably bend over backwards to honor their family ties, no matter how hard it may be, while others wisely save themselves a lot of grief by avoiding toxic individuals who share their DNA. For outsiders to implicitly value that DNA over genuine love and unwavering devotion is a pretty brazen putdown. Those who voluntarily commit and honor their commitment to be someone’s family deserve so much more respect than all of the deadbeat and emotionally abusive parents I’ve had the misfortune of knowing.

Because Ive said it once and Ill say it again. Caregiving isn’t just about having a big heart and finding joy in knowing you helped someone. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about reading a book for the fourth time no matter how much you want to throw it out the window. Or rubbing someone’s feet to distract them from the pain no matter how little sleep you’re running on. Or missing out on parties and events no matter how badly you want to go. Or suppressing your gag reflex as the one you love spits up something absolutely gross. Or mustering the strength to decide whether you should endure the anger being vented at you because everyone needs to vent, or whether you should call your loved one out on their self-pity lest their anger become an abusive habit. Caregiving is about testing your patience until it inevitably wears thin and you make a mistake or lash out, ensuring you’ll be up the next several nights wondering whether you just scarred someone for life. Caregiving is work and, regardless of whether it is paid work, it is one of the most psychologically taxing kinds of work there is.

Yet blood is still thought to be thicker than sweat, as the stigma of non-biological families persists. This traditional obsession with genealogy on a grand scale has led to classism and racism and aristocratic inbreeding and the sterilization of disabled people. On a smaller scale, it’s led to parents and children pushed to the brink of tears as they endure, again and again, some loudmouth’s opinion about “real” families.

Which is why I propose a challenge for all those well-intentioned supporters of “traditional marriage.” I won’t ever call you a bigot—if anything because name-calling has a pretty low success rate when it comes to changing society for the better—but do me a favor. Walk up to a childless couple planning to adopt and tell them that you’d like to see their marriage invalidated. Say it to their face. Tell them that their marriage is “wrong” or “not right” or less than or whatever it is you’ve been lead to believe is “real” because they didn’t use their own genes to make their children. Then visit them again after they’ve adopted and tell their kids about your wish to replace their parents’ marriage with a separate-but-equal civil union. And then tell me with a straight face that what you’ve said to them about their family is “much-less-problematic” than what Jim Crowe said about our president’s family.

Speaking of the president, he may have said it best: “What makes you a man isn’t the ability to make a child, but having the courage to raise one.”

 

 

What To Do About Sochi?

9 Feb

 

Opinion is split over the best way to protest Russia’s new homophobic laws that legalize the persecution of its LGBT citizens. Some are boycotting the Olympic Games in Sochi and urging advertisers and spectators to do the same. Others are pointing out how gay the Winter Games are to begin with. The Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion has released a video about it. President Obama has sent a delegation of openly gay Olympians to represent the U.S. Germany’s heads of state are staying home while sending their athletes in suggestive uniforms. In his opening ceremony speech Friday night, IOC Chairman Bach stated, “It is possible—even as competitors—to live together under one roof in harmony, with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason.” (This comment was edited out of the broadcast seen in the United States. The National Broadcasting Corporation claims it was merely “edited for time.”)

Fashion commentator Simon Doonan at Slate declared the opening ceremonies the “gayest ever”:

The ceremony started and my sense of impending doom evaporated immediately. As soon as I saw the smiling Olympic Snegurochka snow princesses with their huge filigree headdresses and their vampy runway walks, I relaxed. Why? Because I was reminded of the deep and profound gayness of Russian culture.

How gay is Russia? Sorry, Vlad, but it’s far gayer than you might acknowledge or wish. Russia is Tchaikovsky gay. Mussorgsky gay. Nijinsky gay. Ivan The Terrible gay. Diaghilev gay. Eisenstein gay. Erte gay. When I say gay, I mean the very best of gay. I mean inspired, dramatic, flamboyant, theatrical and fabulously haughty. I mean Rudolph Nureyev gay.

The gay (and therefore glorious) moments of the Sochi opening ceremonies came thick and fast…

Meanwhile Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas, who is openly gay, has flashed her rainbow gloves in protest at the cameras.

Whatever tactic seems most effective to you, it is crucial to remain aware of the law and its very real consequences for everyday Russians:

The Health and Human Rights Journal finds rates of violence and suicide among LGBT Russian youth are rising.  From Human Rights Watch:

 

As the Games kicked off on Friday, four activists were arrested in St. Petersburg after unfurling a banner quoting the Olympic Charter’s ban on any form of discrimination. They were detained on Vasilevsky Island, where I lived 12 years ago during a summer language course.

As a longtime russophile, I am accustomed to seeing protests of this terrible legislation, or any of the Federation’s anti-democratic institutions, devolve into snarky racism against Russia or Russians. As one blogger observes: “Russia; foreign enough for you to characterise the homophobia as uncivilised, white enough for you to care about the victims.”

Criticism of a nation’s human rights record should never slip into complacent xenophobia. That the homophobic law is attracting so much international attention is a wonderful but all too recent phenomenon. No one protested the 1996 Olympic Games when they were held in Atlanta, where homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment. How would Americans have reacted had Western European human rights organizations demanded a boycott of the Games back then? International condemnation of an entire culture usually does little from the perspective of those who live in that culture – on the contrary, it usually galvanizes nationalistic sentiment.

The professor who taught me my first semester of Russian was also in charge of our school’s LGBT Studies program. Every year his memorial award goes to a student who demonstrates dedication to the field of Russian and Eurasian studies.  For him, there was no contradiction in passionately loving a culture and speaking out against its greatest crimes. The Live and Let Love project of Sweden also appears to understand this, having released this video last month:

 

Ten protestors in Moscow did the very same on the opening day of the Games. Unlike Tilda Swinton, they were promptly arrested:

 

 

 

The Most Racist Place On Earth

26 May

world map 3D(Image used under CC license via)

 

Where in the world are people most likely to say that they would not want “people of another race” as neighbors?  The results, from the Swedish World Values Survey, were published this week in The Washington Post in the form of a map by Max Fisher, who drew some conclusions here.   The Swedish research team, meanwhile, found that racism does not necessarily decrease when economic freedom increases.   (But homophobia does.)     

The results are fascinating, but they should not be seen as inerrant proof of how things stand.  Nor should the map be used as a travel guide.  In the case of Sweden, which has seen on-going riots in the poor suburban neighborhoods of Stockholm all week, qualifying as less racist than other countries hardly proves you are racism-free.  And as Fisher points out, there is no guarantee that the respondents answered honestly. 

When both Americans and Germans hear the word “race,” only the most socially inept among them do not know to respond very, very carefully.  In Germany, even seemingly objective words like “home” and “deport” make most people immediately think of the Holocaust.  But if you said to a white German, “How would you feel about having gypsies live next door?”, or if you said to a WASP American, “How would you feel about having neighbors who are illegal immigrants?”, you might get a more cynical answer.  (I use the offensive terms “illegal immigrants” and “gypsies” for hypothetical purposes.  Readers outside the U.S. and Europe should note that “undocumented immigrants” and “Roma” are more objective, less derogatory terms.)  Almost everyone in the U.S. and Germany knows racism is a bad thing, which is why most racists will not admit to it.  As Desmond Tutu said, five minutes after apartheid ended in South Africa, you couldn’t find anyone who had ever supported apartheid.    

Indeed, while readers in India have been reacting angrily to their nation’s standing in the survey, there is a tremendous risk that people from the countries that appear less racist are, or will become, dangerously complacent about their supposed open-mindedness.  The U.S. and U.K. appear slightly more tolerant than Germany, but a friend from India has openly said she feels much more respected and protected here in Berlin than in New York, where she has been harassed by Homeland Security officials, or in London, where her brother was beaten up for being a “Paki.”  Anecdotal evidence is less empirical than statistical evidence, but statistical evidence is far from infallible. 

Take for example the fact that France ranks as one of the most racist nations in the West.  The strongest evidence to support this finding is probably the popularity of the right-wing, anti-immigration party National Front, which won 17.9% of the vote in the first round of last year’s presidential election.  But racism cannot always be measured so plainly.  In the United States, hate groups are on the rise, but most segregationists and white supremacists vote either Republican or Democrat because they must operate in a two-party system if they want to get anything done.  Many members of Congress have been members of the nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens (also known as the CCC, which sounds a lot like another white supremacist organization), which in 1997 presented the former head of the National Front with a Confederate flag.  The U.S. ranks as more tolerant than France in the survey, yet a great deal of its racism survives covertly.    

And on the flipside, America’s history reveals more overt racism than France’s.  All anti-miscegenation laws were lifted in France 175 years earlier than in the United States.  French literary giant Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was the son of France’s first black general, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who was the highest ranking black general in any Western country until Colin Powell rose to the rank in 1989.  Racial segregation laws did not exist in modern France until the Nazi Occupation, which is why many black American celebrities like Josephine Baker expatriated there.  Anecdotal evidence suggests people of sub-Saharan background have been better integrated into French society than people of Arab and/or Muslim background, but this is difficult to examine because, unlike in the United States, it has been illegal in France since 1958 to collect data on race or ethnicity.

Indeed, what do we mean by people of a “different race”?  What do you imagine?  In the United States, we tend to think of ethnicity as something we can’t quite put our finger on, while race is widely thought to be based on indisputable biological facts.  Having pale skin, brownish wavy hair, and no epicanthic fold makes people think of me in the U.S. and Europe as white, affording me all the privileges that implies.  The precise details of my ethnicity and heritage—growing up in a WASP family with ancestors who were English, Irish, German, Polish, Scottish, and also possibly Jewish—are rarely an issue.  Nowadays.  But marriage to my Irish Catholic grandfather in 1943 led my grandmother to be disowned by her own grandmother. 

And today the ethnicity of a white person of Middle Eastern background is a major issue for many right-wing Westerners.  Some will argue that the dark hair and olive skin tone common among Middle Easterners renders them a separate, biologically identifiable race, but then what about Greek or Spanish people?  What about Austrians and Southern Germans?  What about that Harry Potteresque raven-hair/pale skin combination so common in the U.K. and Ireland?  Is this starting to sound silly?  Jokes about redheads suddenly become less innocuous in light of violent gingerism.  For better or for worse, predominantly white societies recognize tremendous physical diversity across Europe, but usually fail to differentiate between Chinese and Japanese, or West Africans and East Africans.  Race is in the eye—or mind—of the beholder.  

Years ago, my German-Swedish boyfriend almost went through the roof when a teenage friend of the family said she felt a bit nervous in Berlin “because of all the immigrants around.”  How could she say such a thing in front of his American girlfriend?! he seethed.  But she didn’t think of me as an “immigrant” because I’m middle class, I have the same hair color and complexion as the majority of German citizens, I celebrate Christmas, and I immigrated to Berlin simply because I loved the city, not out of economic necessity or a fear of persecution at home.  Around the world, some people are intolerant of any race that they perceive as different from their own, while others are intolerant of only certain races.  Which kind of racism is preferable? 

No matter the answer, the existence of the second kind proves that both kinds of racism are unnatural.

 

Fighting the Good Fight or Feeding The Ego?

19 Aug

Body Art Chameleon“I know so many men and boys and trans individuals who wear dresses for so many different reasons, and they do it a lot more than mainstream movies, TV, and advertising suggest.” 

I felt my fingers tremble just a tiny bit as I typed this sentence last week.  Not because of the subject matter.  Not because of the point I was trying to make.  Because of the “I.”  Was that word going to drive home my point, or derail it?

Studies show personally knowing someone who belongs to a minority group increases the likelihood that you will have empathy for that minority.  If you have a family member who is gay, you’re less likely to oppose marriage equality.  If you know someone with dwarfism well, you’re less likely to see their medical diagnosis whenever you look at them.  GLAAD emphasized the political potential for all this in a brilliant meme last fall.  Urging LGBT individuals to talk openly about their partners and love lives at the dinner table with the same frequency as their straight family members, they called it, “I’m Letting Aunt Betty Feel Awkward This Thanksgiving.” 

Truly caring for someone with a different perspective often—though, sadly, not always—inspires us to try to understand their perspective and this enhances our own.  Letting others know that They are not so different from Us because we know and care deeply about many of Them can effectively break down barriers.  And, when discussing social injustice, it’s always best to ask someone with personal experience, lest we unwittingly make erroneous assumptions.  But, of course, just having friends who belong to minority groups doesn’t solve everything. 

As I wrote about knowing men and trans people who wear dresses to elucidate that They are actually Us, I cringed at the idea of flaunting my loved ones’ Otherness for the purposes of my blog.  By inserting myself into the statement, there was a risk that some would think I was trying to prove my open-mindedness.  I’ve bragged like that in the past, especially when I was an egocentric teen.  (You know, back when you practiced writing your name over and over?)  And my own Otherness has been flaunted a few times by friends and acquaintances seeking attention for their open-mindedness.  It’s a serious problem in the social justice movements.  

In Black Like Me, the author tells the story of a New Yorker he encounters who has come to the South to “observe” the plight of the black citizens.  “You people are my brothers,” the New Yorker insists.  “It’s people like me that are your only hope.  How do you expect me to observe if you won’t talk to me?”  Although the man’s opposition to segregation was morally correct, his overt self-regard and patronizing disgust at his brothers’ “ingratitude” makes it one of the most cringe-inducing scenes in the book.

In Baratunde Thurston’s fantastic memoir, How To Be Black (just out this year), the author asks writers and activists about white people’s fear of being called racist.  damali ayo, the author of How To Rent A Negro and Obamistan! Land Without Racism, says it best:

It shows our values as a culture when somebody says, “I don’t want to be a called a racist.”  Really what they’re saying is, “I want you to like me.  I don’t want to not be liked.  I want to still be okay with you.”  They don’t mean, “What I really want is to know and understand experiences of people of color…”  That would be great.

And so, it just shows that, as I always have said, we are operating at this third-grade level of race relations.  And it’s that third-grader that goes, “Please like me, do please like me,” versus “Can I understand?”

We all want to be liked and we all want to do the right thing.  But the the third-grader mindset can’t help but focus more on the former.  It is evident in common phrases like:

“We were the only white people there!” 

 “I’ve always wanted a gay friend!” 

“I think I’m [bisexual/learning disabled], too, because I [kissed a girl once/have difficulty concentrating]!” 

“I’m not prejudiced!  I have so many [nonwhite/foreign/LGBT/disabled] friends!”

Of course, in certain contexts and worded differently, these statements would not be offensive.  What makes them offensive is the need to let others know all about us, the belief that our support for equality deserves praise, the patronizing (and unjust) view that minorities should be grateful for our lack of prejudice.  We can note that we were the only white people in a group in order to spark a dialogue about social segregation, or we can flaunt the experience like a medal from the Liberal Olympics.  We can worry that having a homogeneous circle of friends will limit our perspective, or we can believe that racking up as many minority friends as we can is proof of our expertise on all minority issues.  We can try to empathize with someone labeled “different” because of their sexuality or biology in order to remove stigmas and barriers, or we can try to seek the attention they are getting for ourselves.  We can respond to accusations that we have offended by trying to understand why someone would be hurt, or we can respond by listing our liberal credentials.

This depends primarily on the individual.  Someone who likes to brag about their open-mindedness usually brags about most things they do.  This personality trait seems to be particularly common among educated elites—parodied so well at Stuff White People Like—because elite education frequently fosters competitiveness.  (Taking the time to count your degrees, count the books you own, count the minority friends you have…)  Competitiveness is anathema to selflessness.   But while bragging about the number of books we own is silly because we’re obviously missing the point of reading, bragging about the number of minority friends we have is grave because we’re missing the point of human rights.

Do we donate to charity privately because it makes us feel better to spend the money on someone else?  Or do we hope that others will notice and admire our sacrifice?  Then again, drawing attention to the work we’re doing is usually important if we want to advertise the cause and urge others to join.  That’s where things get murky.

A while back, within a few months of each other, two friends stood up to ableism and told me about it after the fact.  A guyfriend came fuming to me about his teacher who had used the word “midget” and who had then insisted, despite my guyfriend’s protests, that it wasn’t offensive at all.  A girlfriend told me that a mutual acquaintance had said something crass about my dwarfism and that she had told him to back off repeatedly because she wouldn’t tolerate such bigotry in her presence.  The first friend focused his story on the offender’s behavior.  The second focused her story on her heroic defense.  People who want to understand the problem more than anything tend to focus their feelings on the injustice they encountered.  People who want to be liked more than anything tend to focus their feelings on their performance.

This shouldn’t ever deter anyone from working for equality and social justice, from celebrating diversity or from spreading awareness.  Open minds should always be highly valued.  But to paraphrase the recent words of the Crunk Feminist Collective, by not being racist—or sexist or homophobic or lookist or ableist or transphobic—we’re not doing anything special.  We’re doing what we’re supposed to do.

 

 

Four Tiers of Fear

31 Mar

 

“How DARE you call me a racist!” 

We’ve all heard that one before, and it’s becoming ever more frequent with the debate over Trayvon Martin’s death.  Marriage equality opponents have been adopting the same tone over the past few years, claiming “homophobic” is now an insult.  In the video posted above, Jay Smooth makes an excellent argument for shifting the focus from criticizing actions instead of people in order to spark more productive dialogue about racism and this can be applied to any discussion about xenophobia. 

But outrage at any charges of xenophobia is not only an issue of grammar.  This outrage usually relies on the assumption that “racist” or “homophobic” automatically denotes a Neo-Nazi level of vitriol.  (This is why it’s frequently accompanied by the protest, “Some of my best friends are black/gay/dwarfs!”)  The outrage silences any discussion about the more insidious forms of chauvinism, and this is the very discussion that needs to happen, because the most insidious forms are the most ubiquitous. 

Most people who harbor transphobic, racist, ableist, sexist, lookist, ethnocentric or homophobic views are not Neo-Nazis.  Most would never physically harm anyone, and as Jay Smooth demonstrates, most would never admit to being xenophobic.  My theory is that chauvinism appears in society today in four different forms:

***

1. Violence: Both organized and individual violence, though of course the more organized, the more terrifying.  (The Southern Poverty Law Center reports this month that hate groups are on the rise in the United States.)  A hate crime should not necessarily be punished more severely than any other case of assault or murder, but its designation is an essential counter-statement by society to the statement the violence was intended to make.  While the most horrific form of xenophobia, violence is also the least common.

2. Overt Animosity: Harassment and disrespect that falls short of violence.  It’s insulting someone to their face, knowingly using slurs, arguing in earnest against someone’s human rights.  It’s refusing to hire, date or talk to someone because they belong to a certain ethnic group, or because they do not belong to a certain ethnic group.  It’s parents disowning their children for being gay, trans or disabled.  It’s the guy I witnessed at the mall yesterday who tapped a Chinese woman on the shoulder, closed his eyes and babbled, “Ching-chong-chang!” before dashing off.  It’s the Yale Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity’s pledge, which included the chant, “No means yes!  Yes means anal!”  It’s the New Orleans cop saying Travyon Martin was a “thug and… deserved to die like one.”  Because the intention is either to provoke or dismiss the victim, it’s extremely difficult to find a constructive counter-argument.  Beyond ignoring such provocations because they are beneath us, our only hope is to appeal to any capacity for empathy the offenders may have when they are not in a provocative mood.  Such cruelty always stems from profound personal insecurities.         

3. Covert Animosity: Disrespect behind someone’s back.  This usually occurs when the speaker thinks they are surrounded by their “own kind,” and thus unlikely to offend anyone present with their slurs or jokes.  We’ve all heard at least one relative or coworker talk this way.  Often an environment encourages such disrespect and the peer pressure to join in is high.  Often someone will insult an entire minority privately but be utterly decent when meeting an individual from that minority.  A friend of mine once dismissed a boy band on TV as “a bunch of fags” just hours after he’d been raving to me about my awesome neighbor, who he knew is openly gay.  Sometimes this behavior is excused on the grounds that the speakers are from “a different generation,” an excuse I rarely accept since those with more progressive views can often be found in the same generation.

4. The Xenophobic Status Quo: The stereotypes and privilege that surround us.  Most of us have some of these prejudices without knowing it because we have been bombarded with them from birth on.  It’s the invisibility of minorities in the media and the social segregation in public that causes us to stare when we see certain people.  It’s the jokes that rely on the assumption that all heterosexuals find gay sex, intersexuality or transsexuality at least a little gross.  Or the assumption that physical disabilities, mental disabilities and physical deformities are always tragic and sometimes morbidly fascinating.  It’s the virgin/whore standard to which Western women are still held, leading us to comment far more on the appropriateness of their clothes and promiscuity than on men’s.  It’s our collective misogyny, homophobia and transphobia that converge to make us wonder why a man would ever want to wear a dress, but not why a woman would want to wear jeans.  It’s the prevalence of chauvinist expressions in our language (e.g. “Congressman,” “flesh-colored”) and of chauvinist traditions in our books, films and legends (e.g. our god is a white male) that makes them difficult to avoid and easy to reiterate.  It’s our demanding transgendered people wait for the rest of us to “get used” to the idea of their transitioning instead of questioning our belief in the gender binary.  It’s our view of every person who belongs to a minority not as an individual but as an example representing that minority with every move they make.  It’s the assumption that a difference upsets normalcy in lieu of the concession that normalcy is a delusion.  The privileges bestowed by our society on some members at the exclusion of others, rewarding those who have done nothing but be born with characteristics considered “normal,” are perhaps the most insidious reinforcement of these prejudices.

***

There is a danger to placing too much emphasis on the differences between the four tiers—I never want to end up in a conversation where people’s actions are excused as being “only Tier 4 sexist”—because all four tiers feed off each other.  They don’t exist in a vacuum.  The non-violent ideas of covert animosity and the xenophobic status quo provide confrontational people with a means of choosing their victims.  Conversely, regularly seeing society’s long tradition of hate crimes and public humiliation both in our history books and in our everyday news is what leaves us all dangerously unsurprised by the less belligerent forms of disenfranchisement many of us help perpetuate. 

Yet it is important to distinguish between these manifestations of fear in order to avoid the assumption that only violence and overt animosity qualify as xenophobia.  That assumption lets millions of people off the hook.  You don’t have to belong to the Westboro Baptist Church in order to have homophobic views.  You don’t have to belong to the NPD or the BNP or the Georgia Militia in order to have racist views.  You don’t have to wait in a dark alley for a stranger in order to commit rape.  You don’t have to threaten someone in order to to make them feel unwelcome.  Our society has been built on many xenophobic assumptions, making it very easy for all of us to pick some of them up along the way.  The fight for equality aims to make it more and more difficult, but it needs to be able to recognize its targets and use tactics suitable to each. 

I make these distinctions in the hopes of facilitating the conversation on chauvinism.  Yet it should come as no surprise that chauvinism is difficult to discuss because, in the words of Jay Smooth, it’s a system that has been designed to insult and subjugate.  In other words, it’s hard to speak politely about the idea of being impolite. 

 

 

It’s Not One or the Other with Evelyn Evelyn

6 Nov

Evelyn EvelynSo Jason Webley and Amanda Palmer have formed a band called Evelyn Evelyn for which the two dress up as conjoined twin sisters.  I wasn’t going to comment on the scandal that has erupted over the launch of their new album because it seemed too many people were screaming at the top of their lungs and the ones who weren’t had stuck their fingers in their ears.  But I’m both a big Jason Webley fan and an advocate for more visibility on the issues of ableism in political discourse.  And this is an excellent example of a common occurrence in the counter-culture that rarely gets talked about.  Here are a few of my points, some of which have already been made by others, some of which haven’t.

One can love Jason and/or Amanda as artists and also believe that they’ve done something wrong.  One can be in awe of Mick Jagger’s talent, and still gristle at his womanizing and the lyrics he sings advocating it.  The adolescent idol-worship of these two singers that’s been revealed in the defense arguments is quite disturbing.

Even though I fiercely believe in intersectionality (i.e., if you’re gonna support the rights of one minority, you’ve got to support them all), being insensitive toward one group of people does not make you insensitive to all.  Amanda Palmer is a fierce feminist and LGBT advocate, and both she and Jason like to sing about, as he put it, the experiences of those on the margin.  This project does not nullify their previous good works and transform  them both into misanthropic bigots.

As intersectionality often proves, a liberal identity does not make progressives like Jason and Amanda incapable of prejudice or sheer jack-ass behavior.  I met student after student at Bard who would glare at anything remotely racist or sexist or homophobic, but who insisted that dwarf-tossing is fucking hilarious and cringed at individuals with facial deformities.

I admit that I didn’t consider the offensive implications the first time I heard of the project.  When I read the bio on Evelyn Evelyn’s MySpace page, I did start to feel the thing reverberate with circus-freak retro-chic.  More than anything, I didn’t see why the twins had to be conjoined.  They have the same name and sing back and forth to each other; there isn’t anything about their record requiring them to be conjoined except to add a little freak-show flavor, realized by the sight-gag of the two singers performing onstage on a single accordion.  If Evelyn Evelyn were merely identical twins, no one would have given it a moment’s pause and only the freak-show flavor would be lost.  I happen to think “Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn?” is a great ragtime song.  I also enjoyed Jason’s solo rendition of “Elephant Elephant” using the audience for call-backs far more than his version with Amanda as his twin. 

Bearing all this in mind, it is my opinion that both Jason and Amanda have handled this quite badly. 

Jason’s apology on his blog is much less defensive than Amanda’s, his shock at the reaction seems genuine, but he nevertheless manages to keep stumbling.  “I had some fear that the few conjoined twins living in the world might find the project offensive.”  Ouch.  Respect and human rights do not directly correlate to a minority’s numbers.  Someone pointed out that conjoined twins are so few because their infant mortality rate is so high.  Ouch.    

As for Amanda, I don’t know why she tweets or posts so frequently only to be shocked about the fire she draws from her hastily typed statements regarding her often controversial projects.  Let’s not kid ourselves – she obviously likes being an iconoclast, which is fine and in fact admirable, but she so far lacks the poise to handle the inevitable backlash each time she comes roaring onto the scene with another boisterous project.  And, Amanda, you don’t need to let us know you’re PMSing.  If you’d used the word “midget” on me and included that in your apology/excuse, it would not help to redeem you. 

I originally wasn’t going to attend the Berlin show because it’s rather expensive, but now I’m considering proposing a boycott over this issue.  Not because I hate these two for it (I don’t), but because the friends who were reluctant to go over the price would likely tell me to loosen up if ableist politics were my sole reason.  And that could be a good opportunity to confront the prejudices lurking under the liberal badges we love to wear.

 

UPDATE: Any credibility Amanda’s apology had was swiftly obliterated by her performance on this Australian talk show.  She may very well be a feminist and a radical and an activist, but first and foremost, Amanda Palmer is a narcissist.  Possibly the least radical thing you can be in show business.

 

 

Note: This post originally appeared on February 21, 2010 at klompen.livejournal.com