Tag Archives: Racism

Don’t Be A Sucker

20 Aug

 

Leaving you this weekend with original 1947 U.S. War Department film containing the two-minute clip that’s gone viral this week. It’s relevant in the wake of Charlottesville, and of yesterday’s anti-nationalist marches in Boston and here in Berlin. But it’s particularly relevant in its familiarity. The warnings of the dangers of authoritarianism and the assertion that there is no scientific proof of racial differences in character or ability have been repeated countless times in the 70 years since its release. Because so many have claimed otherwise. So often thinking theirs is a new, radical idea.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Charlottesville

13 Aug

Unlearn Racism 1(Image by Joe Brusky used under CC 2.0)

 

A woman lost her life over the removal of a statue. Her murder is an atrocity and a tragedy. But the greater danger of the horrors that went down in Charlottesville is the readiness of anyone to sympathize with or relativize the white supremacist movement that brought it on.

“I’m tired of seeing white people pushed around,” one marcher told The New York Times. “Jew will not replace us” was chanted by torch-bearers on Friday night. I don’t want to run through the specifics of Confederate monuments or Nazism or the global wave of nationalism. I’ve done that before and plenty are doing that now. Some of the marchers call themselves Neo-Nazis, some call themselves alt-right activists, some identify as Trump supporters first and foremost. But all were white-supremacists.

While plenty of spectators from afar will surely protest that the acts of violence were carried out by only a few, white supremacy is not limited to the willingness to harass minorities into submission. White supremacy is so much bigger than that.

If you believe it’s important that white people remain the majority of the U.S. population—or any Western country—that’s white supremacy. If you want to decide what words are and aren’t offensive to minority groups without listening to anyone belonging to those groups, that’s white supremacy. If you feel self-conscious as the only white person in a room but never consider how often people of color endure that situation, that’s white supremacy. If you feel pushed around at the sight of a non-white or non-Christian person getting a job, a raise, a promotion or an honor that you didn’t get, that’s white supremacy. If you more readily fear non-white and non-Christian criminals and terrorists, that’s white supremacy. If you tend to believe white poverty is about unfairness or personal problems while any other poverty is about inferior cultural values, that’s white supremacy. White supremacy is about power, and if any of us feel threatened when the descendants of slaves request the removal of honors for those who fought to keep their ancestors in chains, we absolutely must ask ourselves where, when and why we feel powerful.

It’s not easy to face these questions. White people in the West grow up used to seeing white people at the center of most conversations. White people today didn’t create slavery, anti-Semitism, colonialism or this white supremacist reality. But we reveal how deeply we have come to believe in it if we can’t handle the idea of seeing the system change.

 

 

 

Some of the Latest Ideas about Reducing Racism

26 Mar

Our Public Schools are Still Separate and Unequal(Image by Joe Brusky used under CC 2.0 via)

 

I Loved My Grandmother. But She Was A Nazi.” This is the title of this weekend’s excellent op-ed in the New York Times by Jessica Shattuck. She writes, “My grandmother heard what she wanted from a leader who promised simple answers to complicated questions. She chose not to hear and see the monstrous sum those answers added up to. And she lived the rest of her life with the knowledge of her indefensible complicity.”

I live in Germany, where many if not most of my friends and family members could have written that. Here in Berlin, if you call your grandparents’ generation “the greatest”—as so many do back home in the U.S.—you might as well slap a swastika on your chest. Or try to argue that the earth is flat. The Sixties generation in West Germany shared their American counterparts’ love of rock music and peace signs, but their top priority was to expose how many of their professors, teachers, and public officials were former Nazis. If the cost of expunging Nazi thought meant the end of both nationalism and nostalgia, so be it.

While the Sixties movement left a lasting impact on German politics, education, and the media, Germany today could hardly be considered racism-free. Last year, there were 857 attacks on refugee homes perpetrated by right-wing extremists nationwide. Plenty of non-white and non-Christian residents tell of the prejudices they too frequently face. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party has joined the global nationalist movement, calling for a return to the good old days when no one had to hear about celebrating diversity.

But the AfD is considerably less popular than nationalist parties in other countries. With every party in the Bundestag having pledged to never work with it, and with its best national polling numbers peaking at only 12% last fall, it stands no chance of winning the national election in September. The greatest fear is that the once fledgling party will come in third or fourth and garner well over 5% of the vote, which is the minimum required to be granted seats in the Bundestag. Human rights activists are right to believe than any success for the AfD will be a dangerous validation of ideas no citizen should embrace. But British and American nationalists have been far more successful in their respective countries as of late. Is there something anti-nationalist and anti-racist activists could learn from their German counterparts?

No one can say with any accuracy that German society is less racist than others. Proving one country is less racist than another is difficult to the point of nearly being impossible. But it is heartening to see the AfD’s approval ratings nowhere near a majority. I have asked many Germans how they have come to stigmatize nationalism so successfully. Don’t people get touchy? Don’t most people excuse away the Holocaust by arguing that most Germans never saw a concentration camp? Don’t most people tend to understand it from their grandparents’ perspective? One German explained the approach to me as “Verstehen, aber kein Verständnis,” which can be translated as “understand (as in comprehend) but without understanding (as in sympathizing).” One could describe Shattuck’s op-ed piece this way.

Some of this could be linked to a greater willingness in German culture to talk about problems, no matter how unpleasant. While American and British children are often told, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” many Germans would consider this evasive to the point of being dishonest. Germans are raised to mean what they say and say what they mean, and are thus likelier to believe that airing dirty laundry is the only path to improvement. Never does one hear, “I was just saying it to be nice.” As Sabine Heinlein wrote earlier this year in the Daily Beast:

It has always struck me as odd how timid most Americans become when asked to object to something, even politely. At the dinner table, I’ve noticed, what Germans call a discussion, Americans call an argument.

I know I am often perceived as harsh because I speak my mind. But I also see how the very thing that makes America great—its people’s quiet acceptance of other beliefs, their overwhelming friendliness, their effort to always get along—now threatens to become its downfall. I loathed having to read my friends’ whiny Facebook posts about how they were dreading Thanksgiving because of the elections. “Boohoo, I have to talk about politics to someone who thinks differently than I do!”

Here, this German said it. Will you still like me? I am asking because I believe what stands in the way is Americans’ compulsive need to be liked. At moments like this, though, we need to learn to object and intervene—whether in public protest or simply around the family dinner table.

Americans do generally prefer to emphasize the positive. We like to think of our ancestors and ourselves as the Good Guys. But while it is true that my grandparents fought on the opposite side of the Nazis, their generation cannot honestly claim to have been innocent of racism. Many U.S. veterans returning from the liberated concentration camps and the Nuremberg Trials understood them as proof of why they had to help end segregation across the United States. Others returned and hurled tomatoes and death threats at 6-year-old Ruby Bridges as she attempted to enter an all-white school. To such white supremacists, World War II was not reason to consider that the Nazis had modeled many of the Nuremberg Laws on Jim Crow. It was proof of America’s inherent superiority.

Some Americans face our long history of racism, some mention it as a footnote in the otherwise Great American Story, and others go so far as to question its relevance. The night Trump was elected president, I was told by one of his white supporters that discussing racism divides the country. Yet race issues have been proven to be a strong motivator among many such voters. More than age, location, religion, economic status, level of education, or party affiliation, the most common factor uniting Trump voters was feeling threatened by the fact that whites are projected to no longer dominate the U.S. population by 2042. Of course not all Trump supporters share these feelings, but they risk repeating the mistakes of Shattuck’s grandmother when they refuse to confront the dangers they pose.

White people in the U.S.—and across the Western World—are taught by their culture that their skin color, ethnicity, and/or religious background is the standard. Consequently, they often envision multiculturalism as merely welcoming some people of color into their everyday reality without altering the centrality of their role in the narrative. Getting them to question this can be hard. Dr. Robin DiAngelo has written extensively about the white fragility she often encounters when teaching anti-racism workshops in the U.S. and how quickly this fragility can unleash obstinacy and outrage. But if white people want racial equality and racial justice—if we want to practice what every democracy on earth preaches in their non-discrimination laws—then white people need to be willing to approach racism from perspectives other than their own. And in order to do that, we have to be willing to engage with ideas that may make us uneasy.

Zadie Smith’s 2016 novel Swing Time is the story of a girl who grows up in a poor end of London with her black Caribbean mother and white British father. Her white friend Lily “solemnly explained to me one day as we played, that she herself was ‘color blind’ and saw only what was in a person’s heart.” But when the biracial girl wants to watch a musical with an all-black cast, Lily refuses: “Why was everybody black? It was unkind, she said to have only black people in a film, it wasn’t fair. Maybe in America you could do that, but not here, in England, where everybody was equal anyway and there was no need to ‘go on about it.’ ”

I could have thought, if not said, something like that at Lily’s age. With slogans like “one race: human,” colorblindness was hailed in classrooms in the 1980s and 90s as both the right goal for society and the right tactic for ending racism. And so I recall feeling concerned when a character on the sitcom Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper talked about being proud of being black, thinking that surely any racial pride was akin to racism. I was disconcerted when Family Matters portrayed Santa Claus as black. My thoughts on the matter shifted as my brain matured to handle more nuanced ideas and I encountered more detailed arguments from people of color. This helped me eventually understand how the predominance of white people in mainstream culture in the U.S. had blinded me to the experiences of people of color, which were far more different from my own than my younger self had assumed. I realized I had never considered how it might feel to grow up with a Santa Claus—and a throng of national icons—who did not share my racial status.

Some white people are reticent to discuss race at all because, like Lily and I, they were taught that any generalizations about any people are just as taboo as inaccurate stereotypes about traditionally marginalized groups. Other white people may be reticent because they are terrified of ending up the butt of the joke in revealing videos or interviews about white myopia. Such wariness is well-known to activist Jay Smooth, who explains:

Anytime we are dealing with race issues, we are dealing with a social construct that was not born out of any science or reason or logic… The race constructs that we grapple with in America were designed specifically by a desire to avoid making sense. They were shaped for centuries by a need to rationalize and justify indefensible acts. So when we grapple with race issues, we are grappling with something that was designed for centuries to circumvent our best interests. It’s a dance partner that’s designed to trip us up.

If we deconstruct all that maintains the unequal distribution of power based on race, white people will find themselves in situations unfamiliar. Anxiety at such a reality should never shut down the conversation, but it too often does. Seventy years after Hitler gave racism a bad name, how many of us are willing to strive for racial justice beyond the boundaries of our comfort zones? How many of us are willing to listen more than we speak? How many of us are willing to endure this as often as necessary? How do we open the minds of those who become instantly defensive in such debates? I was recently asking these questions with friends and then, as if the Internet was listening in, this meme popped up in my feed:

 

Morgan M Page
What do you think? Can we do it?

Happy Birthday, Dr. King

15 Jan

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial(Image by PBS Newshour used under CC 2.0 via)

  

Almost countless quotations by Martin Luther King, Jr. are as apt as ever today, but I have been most recently stirred by the following passage from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

 
 

On Terror, Danger & Perception

8 Jan


(Video by the notorious Jan Böhmermann, NSFW: strong language)

  

The results are in. After the government accepted just over 1 million refugees primarily from Syria over the past two years, there were six terrorist attacks here in Germany committed by suspected Muslim extremists (the Islamic State and the Salafi movement) in 2016. There were 857 attacks on refugee centers across the country committed by suspected German nationalist extremists for the same period.

Whenever we attempt to address cultural problems and discuss who needs to learn proper values, the answer should invariably be: everyone. The price of democracy is constant vigilance.

  

 

 

 

 

What’s the Point of Nationalism?

3 Jul

 
Brexit(Public Domain Image from Freestocks.org)

 

The National Police Chiefs Council reports hate crimes in the United Kingdom have increased fivefold in the days following the vote for Brexit. A Polish waitress was asked by two customers, “Why do you look so happy? You’re going home.” A German woman found dog excrement thrown at the door to her home. Bilingual cards reading, “Leave the EU – No more Polish vermin” were distributed in Cambridgeshire. Some Central Europeans and non-white Britons have been harassed on the street, others have had to evacuate their residences after threats. 

Paul Bagguley, a sociologist at the University of Leeds told The Guardian:

There is a kind of celebration going on; it’s a celebratory racism…  People haven’t changed. I would argue the country splits into two-thirds to three-quarters of people being tolerant and a quarter to a third being intolerant. And a section of that third have become emboldened. At other times, people are polite and rub along.

While politicians argue about whether or not such incidents accurately represent the Brexit movement and its anti-immigration platform, no one can deny that belligerent nationalists have felt empowered by Brexit to say what they have been feeling about foreigners for a long time.

It may be nigh impossible to publicly reason with extremists – such as those who fire-bombed a halal butchery and the white supremacist who murdered Jo Cox. But it is essential to engage with anyone in the mainstream who may agree with their politics if not their tactics. So in the wake of all this, not to mention the Fourth of July, it bears asking, what is the point of nationalism? 

British political scientist Benedict Anderson called nationalities “imagined communities” because being American or German or British is all in the mind. No Briton will ever manage to get to know—let alone meet—all of his other 65 million fellow British citizens. In fact, he won’t ever meet a majority of them. But nationalism urges him to feel connected to them, and specifically more connected to all of them, across the country and overseas, than to anyone in Ireland or France, or to any Polish or German or Japanese people who live two doors down from him.

Sociologist Patricia Hogwood argues there are two models of nationalism states can choose from: the Nation of Culture and the Nation of the Constitution. The Nation of Culture, first made popular in the 19th century, determines citizenship by supposedly uniting millions through a common language, religion, arts, sports, holidays, traditions, and appearance. To be German means to speak German, belong to the Lutheran Church, read Goethe and the Grimm fairy tales, love beer and sausages, celebrate Christmas and Oktoberfest, and be tall and blond.    

With an exception made for those who are short with thick dark mustaches. And those who love döner kebab and hate Oktoberfest. (It’s Bavarian after all.) And those who speak Sorbian or Swabian as their first language. Not to mention those millions who are Catholic. Or Muslim. Or Jewish. Indeed, Nazism and the Holocaust was nothing if not a crisis of German identity, an attempt to dictate who was allowed to live in Germany on the basis of culture.

The Nation of Culture is a fallacy because no nation on earth is monocultural. Even bite-sized Luxembourg has three official languages, plus 30% of its residents are immigrants whose first languages is Portuguese, Italian or English. For all the jokes about the superiority of the Queen’s English to the American variant, the British Isles contain 11 living indigenous languages. Not long ago speakers of many of those languages faced the same sort of adversity documented in the past week in Britain against Central Europeans and non-whites. A Nation of Culture encourages the touting of one set of traditions, fashions and physical features while ignoring, or silencing, all others.

In a Nation of the Constitution, membership is defined by one’s adherence to the laws and rights guaranteed by a government’s founding documents. Which is what the European Union aims to be: an unabashedly diverse union of states united by a commitment to democracy and the European peace project. (Access to the European single market, the world’s largest, is ideally the reward, not the goal.) Member states must ensure the rule of law, freedom of the press, free trade union organizations, no capital punishment, equal protection of all minorities, and for all citizens the guarantee of freedom of personal opinion, the right to a secret ballot in free and fair elections at every governing level, and the rights listed in the European Convention on Human Rights. 

While many of these rights have long been preserved in Great Britain, they are less than 50 years old in Spain, Portugal, Greece, and the former Soviet Bloc countries. (And, contrary to common knowledge, the E.U. has expanded rights for women in the U.K. as well.) Turkey and Albania are both candidates for E.U. membership. A cultural model of membership might block their applications on the basis of their Muslim populations, while a constitutional model of membership instead demands improvement on their human rights records.

The E.U. has plenty of work to do in improving its implementation of human rights protections and anti-corruption laws, as in cases like Greece. But it is unwavering in its demands that members must openly recognize and celebrate their cultural diversity without clashing over it, in the same way New Yorkers can make fun of Californians for being loopy, passive-aggressive, granola-crunching, up-talking airheads and Californians can make fun of New Yorkers for being tactless, aggressive-aggressive, materialistic, shouting hotheads without going to war over it. Indeed, the most enthusiastic supporters of the E.U. often speak of its members some day becoming as open and close-knit as the fifty States across the Atlantic.

Generation Euro is, as one New York Times journalist put it, one that thinks nothing of “growing up in one country, studying in another, and living in a third.” When such intermingling does not outright prevent someone’s xenophobia, it forces them to confront it head-on. As reported in 2014, one million children have been born since 1987 as a result of the European study abroad program – that is, these children were born to parents who met because one of them was taking part in the program. This leads to multilingual families with multicultural social circles who bring diverse perspectives to the table when politics and the solutions for the world’s problems come under discussion. 

It may sound idealistic if not saccharine, but a mere glance at the last 1,500 years on the continent—battle after bloody battle of Protestants vs. Catholics, capitalists vs. communists, fascists vs. democrats, Belfast vs. Belfast, Nazis vs. everyone—should forever be a reminder that the European peace project can never be taken for granted. It’s a project that makes a lot more sense than any model of cultural nationalism.

 

 

This Is How You React When Someone Finds Your Stupid Little Joke Offensive (And You Know They Might Be Right)

1 Nov

From the Archives

 

Really, With the Gay Jokes?” “The Rape-Joke Double Standard.” “Has The Onion Gotten Too Mean?” These are the headlines to just a few of the several articles appearing this week about comedians and conscience. All of them make excellent points, but the problem with trying to explain why a joke is offensive is that it instantly kills the mood. Culture critics aren’t professional comedians and thus they almost always end up being viewed as the more uptight of the two, even if their arguments are rock-solid.

And yet, the best comedians are pretty good culture critics, as Dara Ó Briain proved years ago at the Theatre Royal in London. Amidst his cracks about the idiots who ask you to remove your shoes in their home, the idiots who confuse astronomy and astrology, and the idiots who think the IRA had uniforms, he talked about a time when he was the idiot:

Last year I told a joke, and this is not a good joke, I have no excuses.  It is a terrible joke, but it was about the musical Billy Elliot. And “What was the composer’s inspiration for Billy Elliot? Elton John – do you think he saw a little of himself in Billy Elliot?”

I know. It was rubbish. I didn’t mean it as an attack on Elton John, or as an attack on the gay community. I meant it as another joke in the glorious tradition of jokes involving the word “in.” As in, “Do you have any Irish in ye? Would you like some?”

Okay, so he explained he didn’t intend to trash homosexuality. But he didn’t leave it at that. He went on to talk about the backlash from the LGBT rights alliance Outrage, who said the joke contributed to a culture of hatred against gay men in Britain. Ó Briain explained:

And the thing is, your initial reaction is when somebody does a complaint like that is to get all tough and say, “It’s only a joke, for Jesus’s sake, relax.” Swiftly followed by arguments about civil rights and comedy’s obligation to say the difficult thing and freedom of speech. Which is a fairly lofty point to bring in to back up something as bad as that joke about Billy Elliot. You wouldn’t go to Strasbourg to the European Court of Human Rights with that as your argument: “Oh, my lords and ladies of the court, Elton John? Do you think he saw a little of himself in Billy Elliot?”

He went on to clarify his political stance, emphasizing that “there is no pedophilia-homosexuality relationship at all,” showing he was brave enough to break character as a comedian despite the risk that always carries of losing the audience. He then addressed that risk as well:

And some people think it’s very politically correct of me, but then, I’m Irish. And if anyone’s benefited from a good dose of political correctness on this island, it’s the Irish. Remember the good old days with all those jokes about how stupid we were? And then a memo went around some time in the Eighties, when you [Brits] all said, “Oh, Jesus, we’re not doing jokes about the Irish anymore? Okay, fine.” And it just stopped. And thank you very much. A bit overdue, but thanks very much nonetheless.

He went on to tell a joke about a bunch of drunk Irishmen, reveling in the fact that he was allowed to tell it and the British weren’t. He then said, “But again with the whole Billy Elliot thing, the reason I backed down so fast on that was because I received one letter of support.” Removing the letter from his pocket, he proceeded to read the message sent by a group of conservatives in Northern Ireland who applauded him for taking a stand against the forces of sodomy. “If you ever use the phrase ‘forces of sodomy,’ it had better be a gay heavy metal band that you’re talkin’ about!”

It’s rare that comedians are brave enough to admit that their joke was a fail. But I’ve never heard a comedian own up to it so fiercely and admit the ways in which he’s personally benefited from the political correctness movement. By changing his target from the group he originally attacked to himself, Ó Briain proved not only the sincerity of his regret but the breadth of his comedic skill.

And I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Whenever comedians insist that any criticism of their work is an indictment of all comedy, it sets the bar for comedy so low that no comedian need ever try to be original. Ignoring the “PC police”—i.e., anyone who doesn’t live with the privileges they do—they can simply regenerate old stereotypes, mining the minstrel shows, the frat houses and the school yards, and if no one laughs at this, it’s simply because we’re all too uptight, right? Wrong. We don’t refrain from laughing because we feel we shouldn’t. We refrain because, unlike the repressed who giggle away in awe, we’ve heard it a thousand times before and we know it’s far from unique. And isn’t unique what every comedian, entertainer and artist strives to be?

Or, in the words of another Irish comic, Ed Byrne: “I see comedians making jokes about fat people being lazy, and I just think, well, they’re not as lazy as comedians who get easy laughs by picking on fat people.”

 

Originally posted May 12, 2013

No One Should Be Proud to Wave That Flag

21 Jun

222 - Columbia, South Carolina(Image by Eyeliam used under CC license via)

 

Back at the beginning of the millennium, the news was a-twitter with a lukewarm debate about whether or not South Carolina should keep the Confederate flag flying over its capitol building. I was in high school at the time and assigned to argue the issue from the side of the flag-supporters in history class. I read about truck-driving good old boys who emblazoned the stars-and-bars across their bumpers because it’s not about hate, it’s about heritage. It’s about honoring our great-great-grandfathers who were sent off to fight and die in the bloodiest war in American history, they insisted, and most of our ancestors never owned slaves. The epic novel Cold Mountain was topping the bestsellers lists at the time and echoed this sentiment, portraying the war as a senseless tragedy and most Confederate soldiers as confused young boys who merely wanted to fight for local honor.

While these arguments did convince me that many flag-wavers of modern times do not share the racist agenda of others, I argued for the flag in the debate on a technicality. (There wasn’t enough support to remove the flag in the state legislature, and such a move could not bypass the legislature, etc., etc., etc.)

Years later, the issue arose again in a college class, where there was little sympathy for the flag-wavers.

“What about the point that it’s just about honoring the fallen soldiers and Southern heritage?” I asked.

The only black student in the class replied, “I’m from the South and black people are just as much part of Southern heritage as anyone else, and we are not represented by that flag. The Confederacy fought to keep blacks separate from whites and that flag certainly does that.”

Point taken.

Fast-forward a few years later to a birthday bash at my apartment here in Berlin. A friend of a friend is saying goodbye to me and the other hosts, and someone notices a button pinned to the jacket of the date she brought along.

“What’s that?” my friend asks, pointing.

The guy holds up the button and replies nonchalantly, “White power.”

We are all speechless as he turns and leaves.

One friend can’t stop glaring at the spot where the guy used to be. Neo-Nazism has been on the rise where he comes from – that is, the former East Germany – ever since mass unemployment followed the fall of the Wall.  That kid was simply one of many who grew up in shrinking towns with few prospects and who had decided to transform his frustration into racial pride.

What should we have said to him had we not been so paralyzed with shock?

That the button is not okay.

That bronze plaques just a few doors down from my apartment mark where Jewish people were dragged from their homes and shipped off to be murdered in Latvia.

That of course most young swastika-wavers didn’t ever set foot anywhere near a concentration camp.

That to them, in the words of one German friend’s grandmother, the Nazis were about “organizing nice get-togethers for the young people and the local community. Most of them weren’t killers!”

That another friend’s grandfather said, “I never had anything against the Jews. I always said hello to my Jewish neighbors!”

That you don’t have to watch Judgment At Nuremberg to know that the best way to allow genocide and ethnic cleansing and slavery and other human rights atrocities to happen is to encourage everyday people to shrug off arrests and killings as “unfortunate tragedy,” to encourage them to sit comfortably with their prejudices while insisting, “I wouldn’t personally harm anyone,“ and,  “We couldn’t do anything about it if we wanted to!”

Not one of my German friends would ever wear Nazi insignia to honor their country’s history or their grandfathers, many of whom were confused young boys hauled off to the battlefields, convinced they were simply fighting for their nation’s honor.

Those who do wear such paraphernalia are most often found in the modern Nationalist Party of Germany, which today lists “getting over the Holocaust” as one of its main political goals. We’ve apologized enough! they insist. All this complaining about Nazi Germany is overdone! White guilt is the real problem of our times.

Several of these goals are shared by the Council of Conservative Citizens, which years ago presented France’s National Front party with a Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol, which right-wing pundit Ann Coulter argues is “not a racist” organization, which Dylann Storm Roof cites in his manifesto as the first organization he referenced at the beginning of his militancy.

Moments after the kid and his white power button were gone, a German friend finally sighed, “That’s an embarrassment to my generation.”

And Dylann Storm Roof’s agenda is an embarrassment to mine.

I’m not directly responsible for his actions. But I’m an heir to the last Western country to abolish slavery on its soil. And I’m the beneficiary of loads of white privilege in the U.S. and around the world. And I belong to a generation whose ignorance about racism is perhaps the greatest facilitator of it.  As Gene Demby of Codeswitch notes:

Roof will read to many as some sort of fossilized outlier, a remnant of a vanishing tribe…

[But] it turns out that even as this generation is on the whole “cool” with interracial marriage and dating, there’s a lot of daylight between the way white millennials and those of color feel about a bunch of other questions about race… Young white people were nearly twice as likely to say that the government pays too much attention to the problems of racial minority groups. They were also nearly twice as likely to say that discrimination against white people has become as big a problem as discrimination against minorities…

In the Oxford journal Public Opinion Quarterly, researcher Vincent Hutching combed through public opinion surveys taken before and after several presidential elections and found that “younger cohorts of whites are no more racially liberal in 2008 than they were in 1988.”

And really, why would they be? America’s public schools are more segregated now than they were 40 years ago. Americans continue to live in very different worlds; a 2011 study showed that ethnic identity outranked income as a predictor of where people live…

There’s also good data suggesting that white millennials have a far rosier view on race relations than their contemporaries of color. This too makes sense when you think about the schools, the stark housing segregation, the fact that on average white people have hardly any friends of color, and, perhaps more importantly than we realize, the fact that they just don’t have much experience talking about this stuff. (In fact, it’s safe to assume that Roof has spent far more time discussing race than most people his age.) As Politico’s Sean McElwee put it, the data that’s out there “suggests that millennials aren’t racially tolerant, they’re racially apathetic: They simply ignore structural racism rather than try to fix it.” …

A big Pew study on multiracial Americans released in June found that most of the country’s multiracial adults are likely to identify with one race — usually a non-white one — often because of their own experiences with race-based discrimination.

Indeed, I grew up frequently believing racism was a thing of the past, unaware that my white privilege was what permitted me to do so. I winced but did not reflect when I heard classmates say, “I don’t get what black people’s problem is. I mean, what more do they want?”

Three weeks ago, North Carolina high school students on a trip to the Gettysburg battlefield took some selfies with the Confederate flag, titled them “South will rise,” and uploaded them to Instagram. After garnering racist remarks (“I just bought my first slave”) and then finally outrage, the poster issued a non-apology:

I’m sorry that my picture offended people and especially since my initial caption (that I changed once I realized people took it seriously), but I’m currently on the Civil War trip learning about the history of our country and this just so happens to be a pretty fucking important part of it. We were reenacting Pickett’s charge in which the South lost 85% of their soldiers. These aren’t the Confederate flags in fact, they’re the North Carolina regimental flags. I’m proud to be a part of my state and I’m sorry my photo was so offensive but I find it appropriate in that I’m honoring heroes that fought to protect their home and families.

We cannot take credit for our ancestors’ achievements if we refuse to learn from their failures.

The plaques near my apartment were hammered into the pavement of our street to say one thing to everyone who passes by: Never again. You don’t have to consider the differences between the Holocaust and the American slave trade to know that both count among the darkest episodes in human history.

You don’t have to consider the difference between casual racist remarks and full-blown hate crimes to know that they enable each other. Roof has proven himself to be a bloodthirsty killer. He is also a high-school dropout craving something to believe in, and ended up drawn to white supremacy. And there are many, many like him throughout the United States, here in Germany, and around the world. If we do not confront the insidious ideas they are willing to kill for, if we do not address the newly uncovered fact that blacks shot by police in the U.S. are more than twice as likely as whites to be unarmed, if we don’t get flag-wavers to listen to those they frighten, then we are doomed to witness this happen again and again.


 

Baltimore Is Everyone’s Problem

3 May

Mural, Baltimore(Image by Eli Pousson used under CC 2.0 via)

 

I could write about the year I spent in downtown Baltimore, when I rode past the above mural every day, when the neighborhood I lived in was serving as the inspiration for the crime show Homicide: Life on the Street. But this is not the time for white people to talk about themselves.

This is the time to consider the undeniable disparities between white people and black people living in Baltimore, and elsewhere in the U.S. This is the time to acknowledge the privileges and freedoms black Americans still cannot enjoy today. And this is the time to listen to what we are being asked to do by those who have good reason to be upset about all this.

If we spend most of our time telling poor and disenfranchised people how they should behave rather than examine what we regularly take for granted, then we’re not interested in fixing the problem. We’re just interested in congratulating ourselves for being better than others.

 

 

“Power for Good”

28 Jul

tumblr_mqm3ypKbXg1qz5q5lo1_500(Via)

 

Tropes are ideas we construct based on observing patterns in society and wanting to understand them. Stereotypes are ideas we construct based on hearing about patterns in society and accepting them at face value. Needless to say, stereotypes based on that which we have no choice about—our sex, gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, physical traits, or mental abilities—usually do more harm than good.

Not only do they deny minorities equal rights and opportunities, but a recent study shows that embracing racial stereotypes leads to creative stagnation. So how do we combat them? 

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict and President Obama’s call for a dialogue on race in America, Harvard researchers announced a competition to find the quickest, most effective method for getting people to let go of the prejudices they have about a certain group. The results? Calls for empathy and other try-to-put-yourself-in-their-shoes methods were largely ineffective.  What worked best was showing the participants counter-stereotypical images. World leaders with severe disabilities. Parents proudly painting their son’s toenails. Construction workers nursing their babies. Sons helping out with the housework.  Seeing is believing, apparently.

It is crucial to note that celebrating diversity can feel patronizing, especially to the subjects. The goal, after all, is to drive stereotypes to extinction so that observers find absolutely nothing extraordinary about any of the above images. Because the subjects do not feel extraordinary, at least not all the time – they feel normal.  No person who can qualify as a minority or counter-stereotype should feel pressured to spotlight their everyday life if they don’t want to.  But it is encouraging—if not unsurprising—to see that altering media portrayals of society alters a good deal of the prejudices plaguing too many corners of society.

As my friend Sarah Winawer-Wetzel recently said:

For me, it validates the importance of being out as a gay person. How else are people going to believe that a nice white Jewish girl who dresses femme and doesn’t look particularly counterculture can be queer if I’m not out like a friggin’ lightbulb everywhere I go? I’m not doing it just for me – I’m doing it so that when a little kid looks at the world and thinks about being gay, that kid sees the full spectrum of possibilities, not just a cultural stereotype. Those of us who control visuals and representations of people in the media need to remember to wield our power for good.

We often forget the power we wield when we have a stereotype in our hands, thinking it’s bigger than anything we can do about it. But it is not.  And that is wonderful.

 

 

Doctor Tries to Be Hip And Misses

21 Jul

spine(Image by Katie Cowden used under CC license via)

 

Fifty-five year-old Terry Ragland of Tennessee recently sought medical attention for lower back pain at her local orthopedic center. She was introduced to Dr. Timothy Sweo, who ordered x-rays. After analyzing the results, Sweo concluded that the pain was caused by a curve in the spine called lumbar lordosis. He delivered the diagnosis to the patient by saying plainly, “You have ghetto booty.”

Lumbar lordosis is a severe curvature of the lower spine most visible from the side and it can be caused by a variety of a factors. “Ghetto booty” is, according to the most popular Urban dictionary definition, “a term used when you see a girl with a firm, big, tight packed ass. {Most black girls have ghetto booties}.” In other words, it’s slang for simply having a big butt.

For a medical professional to use the term is fantastically patronizing at best. For a white male medical professional to use racially-charged sex slang with a black female patient he has only met once before is jaw-droppingly gauche. His attempted apology to Ragland via letter does not help his case: “I was trying to take a technical conversation regarding your lower back and make it less technical.”

Presuming orthopedic patients are unable to comprehend medical terms like “lumbar lordosis” is ludicrous. After a month into my first limb-lengthening procedure at age 11, I could explain the difference between lordosis and scoliosis, a corticotomy and an osteotomy, and I could name every bone in the human body. I wasn’t exceptional – I just wanted to understand the world I was living in, like every one of my fellow pediatric patients. Priscilla Alderson’s excellent book Children’s Consent to Surgery presents overwhelming evidence that child patients are far more aware than adults tend to give them credit for. And Ragland is not a child.

“It says to me that he doubts what type of intellect I have, how intelligent I am to be able to understand what he conveys to me in a medical term,” Ragland told reporters.

While Sweo’s condescension comprises a particularly stunning mix of nasty prejudices, he is hardly the first doctor to speak disrespectfully to a patient. Medical specialists are renowned for being scientifically brilliant but socially inept. After making you sit in the waiting room, sometimes for several hours, they swoop in, keep their eyes on your body or the floor, bark a few questions at you, rattle off some orders for the nurse to take down, and swoop out again.  The patient is supposed take solace in the fact that it is all a sign of how important the doctor is.

Since this stereotype has become so pervasive, some medical professionals do make earnest attempts to shatter it, but their success varies. Some try through their body language and demeanor to give you the sense that they are genuinely listening and care about your all-around well-being. Others try by jamming a few blunt jokes into your narrow time slot. It gives you the sense that they’ve just watched Patch Adams and decided that being a clown is the perfect defense against being accused of coldness, so let ’er rip! Your body, your condition and your diseases are hilarious!

Years ago I attended a conference where an orthopedic specialist did a presentation on achondroplasia and said with a smile, “The short bones cause the average-length muscles on achondroplastic people to bunch up so that they look like the Michelin Man!”  He clicked forward to a slide featuring a list of achondroplastic symptoms with “Michelin Man look” featured at the top.  He was obviously very proud of having come up with this description.

I was the only person in the room with achondroplasia, and I had to kick my friend sitting next to me because he couldn’t stop giggling at the surgeon’s cluelessness. The Michelin Man?

Indeed, the most exasperating aspect of the Dr. Sweo case is that he appears to genuinely believe that his comments might have been helpful. Usually it is easier to engage in productive discourse with someone whose intentions are good than with someone who aims to hurt. But in light of his oblivious apology, it seems Ragland has a better chance of getting through to other, more perceptive doctors via the media than to Sweo via complaint.

I have lumbar lordosis.  It’s one of the primary symptoms of achondroplasia and it’s why I had to undergo spinal surgery last year.  I could have crashed this site with a list of all the off-putting doctors and healers I encountered, as well as the sarcastic jokes my closest friends came up with to keep me sane.  As Ragland files a formal complaint with the Tennessee Department of Health, there will inevitably be some backlash about PC culture gone mad and minorities being too sensitive and humorless.  But more power to her for sticking up for herself, and for patients everywhere.

 

 

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.

 

What’s Censorship?

27 Jan

Banned Books Display At the Lacey Library(Image by the Timberland Regional Library used under CC via)

 

Eeeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a tiger by the toe.  If he hollers let him go…  That’s the version I learned.  My British friends caught a fishy by the toe.  My mother’s generation caught a n***** by the toe.  Were they wrong to alter it for us? 

Last week I applauded The Observer’s decision to remove a childish, poorly argued opinion piece from its website on the grounds that it did not meet their standards for style, while others hollered, “Censorship!”  This week, the German media is abuzz with its own debate over publishing standards as Thienemann Verlag has announced its decision to replace racist terms—such as “die Neger-Prinzessin”—in certain classic children’s books.  To which some are saying, Finally, while others are saying, Censorship!  And some are saying, The N-word isn’t racist!

This debate is older than the civil rights movement.  Pull up reviews of The Five Chinese Brothers on GoodReads and you’ll find nostalgic fans shouting, “Book burners!” at anyone who criticizes the illustrations.  The problem with this debate is that it usually attracts extreme narrow-mindedness on both sides. 

Some progressive activists do mistake witch hunting for spreading diversity awareness.  A few years ago feminist author Chris Lynch drew angry reactions from some women’s rights groups who demanded he change the name of his young adult series The He-Man Women-Haters Club.  But the books pick apart the machismo boys learn from pop culture and their fathers.  The mentality adopted by Lynch’s critics was so blunt that they couldn’t tell an opponent from an ally.  If the equality debate ends at what words are okay and which aren’t, regardless of context, it has failed.  Miserably.

But too many activists opposed to censorship demonstrate none of the openness and subtlety that are the building blocks of free thought and artistic integrity, which they purport to defend.  After reading Fahrenheit 451, an unparalleled tribute to the majesty of books, I got snagged in the inanity of Ray Bradbury’s hysterical afterword.  He begins by citing an editor who asked if he could put more female characters in The Martian Chronicles:

A few years before that I got a certain amount of mail concerning the same Martian book complaining the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn’t I ‘do them over’?  …  How did I react to all of the above? …  By ticketing the assembly of idiots to the far reaches of hell.  The point is obvious.  There is more than one way to burn a book.  Every minority… feels it has the will, the reason, the right to douse the kerosene, light the fuse…  For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage to interfere with aesthetics.  The real world is the playing ground for each and every group to make or unmake laws.  But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule.  If Mormons do not like my play, let them write their own.  If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters.

That he dared them to back off and write their own books was a productive challenge, but his arrogance in damning them all to hell did not suggest he ever intended to read what they wrote.  (If he truly believed all art should be borne out of one person’s imagination alone, unscathed by anyone’s suggestions for improvement along the way, then he was probably the only writer in human history who never once accepted advice.)  This is not dialogue.  This is not open debate.  This is accusing your opponents of oppression in order to silence them.  This is failing to discern between book-burning and social critique.

Censorship is a serious issue.  Berlin’s memorial to the Nazi book-burning of 1933 is a window into an empty library.  It bears a plaque that reads, “Those who are capable of burning books are capable of burning people.”  No one should ever call for legally prohibiting the publication, sale, or existence of any sort of text if speech is to remain truly free.  Libraries should offer the public all they can eat and more.  But every publisher of children’s books should also be free to reject or revise what they release based on their own educational theories.  No one on earth believes any child of any age should read absolutely anything.  Releasing less hurtful editions of a story—while maintaining the right to publish the original—is not always censorship.  Indeed, automatically assuming it is betrays the sort of narrow-mindedness typical of censors.    

The leave-greatness-untouched argument ignores how many well-known stories have been severely distorted over time.  In the unadulterated Cinderella, the ugly stepsisters chop off pieces of their own feet to force them into the glass slipper.  The prince is fooled until he notices the slipper overflowing with blood.  Snow White forces the Evil Queen to dance in a pair of hot-iron shoes at her wedding until she drops dead.  As for Sleeping Beauty, do you think the medieval prince only kissed her as she slept?  It makes old-fashioned Disney look like a flaming liberal.  These violent versions are still around, but a lack of demand has nudged them out of the spotlight.  I wish the same fate upon racist versions of old children’s books. 

Of course, context is everything, and certain words can have many meanings.  Mark Twain used the N-word in Huckleberry Finn to portray a complex, admirable character who discredits racism and slavery.  But the N-word as it is used by Otfried Preußler—and Astrid Lindgren, and so many other white storytellers of the early and mid-20th century—evokes the colonialist stereotype of the savage who is either happy-go-lucky or bloodthirsty.  (In the words of Cracked.com, “Lesson Learned: What’s the deal with Africans?  If they’re not trying to eat it or throw a spear at it, they’re worshiping it as some sort of tribal deity, am I right?”)  Of course it’s absurd to think that every kid will automatically turn racist from reading this, but it’s also naïve to think such caricatures have no influence.  If childhood stories had no bearing on readers’ perceptions of minorities, then no one would ever promote children’s books that celebrate diversity.    

While I don’t object to students seeing racism or sexism or ableism in books, I strongly object to their being subjected to it before they’ve had any other exposure to more realistic depictions of the people these ideas dehumanize.  Psychologist Hartmut Kasten argues in the left-leaning newspaper Die Zeit that children ages four and up can read and should “learn that there are people with different skin colors, learn what we used to call them, what we call them today, and that there is such a thing as prejudice.”  But is it necessary when first introducing a child to someone who looks different to immediately hand them all the historical baggage of racism, too?  Doesn’t that suggest to them that people with different skin colors are always controversial?  Prejudice can spring from seeing a minority constantly portrayed either as a stereotype or as a victim of stereotyping. 

Prof. Kasten argues that expunging orientalism and other exotic tropes from children’s literature “destroys the imagination.”  But must the exotic always be colonialist just because that’s our tradition?  It is traditional in the Netherlands for St. Nicholas to be accompanied by a mischievous African man named Black Pete.  Some say he is supposed to be St. Nicholas’s servant, others say he is his slave.  For decades, white performers have donned blackface to portray him.  In recent years, some have replaced the blackface with multi-colored face paints, renaming the character “Rainbow Pete.”  This approach has long been popular in Suriname, a former Dutch colony with predominantly black citizenry.  Many are appalled to see an old tradition changed, but the St. Nicholas/Santa Claus/Kris Kringle/Father Christmas/Father Frost myth has been constantly evolving over time, forever an amalgam of various cultural influences.  Our nostalgia does not like us to admit this, but as said before, nostalgia is rarely honest, often revisionist.  And could Prof. Kasten argue that rainbow people are less imaginative than black slaves?         

And if children’s creativity is nurtured by stories from long ago in far off lands, why not make more of an effort to offer tales originating from those lands?  Indeed, in my workshops about teaching diversity awareness in pre-school, I promote translated folk tales and fairy tales such as Sense Pass King and Children of the Dragon to be read alongside Cinderella and Snow White.

 

The best way to combat uncreative stereotypes is to flood children’s libraries with beautiful stories that go deeper.  My hero Judy Blume agrees.  She is the most challenged author of all time in the United States.  Her brilliant books question everything from racism to religion to budding sexuality.  Most of her loudest critics usually argue that children under the age of 18 should never read about masturbation or wet dreams, despite how many 10-year-olds are already wise to it.  Blume wants parents who object to her stories to engage their children in discussions about them, which is a stance I support.  Passionately.  But is any child of any age old enough for such discussions?  Was it censorial of me to be stunned when I found Zehn kleine Negerlein lying around in a Berlin pre-school in 2010?

 

 
Die Zeit insists that if we revise anything that is in any way offensive, then we must revise everything.  (Which will lead to a ban on any disagreeable characters who are female or black or gay or disabled… )  This could be true if we were talking about bringing the law into it, but we’re not.  As far as the law is concerned, anyone is free to adapt any artwork once granted permission by the copyright holder.  Otfried Preußler’s publisher began replacing the N-word from his texts after receiving approval from the author’s daughter.  As hard as it may be for artists to swallow, artwork in the public domain is free to be toyed with as anyone sees fit.  Almost every generation releases the classics with new illustrations, whether it’s The Jungle Book or a children’s Bible. 

But to be fair, the modern illustrations bear the name of the modern illustrator, while a redacted version of an author’s text bears his.  Which feels somewhat mendacious.  Posthumous revisions would best be noted in an afterword discussing the original language and why the publisher does not wish to replicate it.   Alternatively, the cover could indicate that the story is a retelling.  Like so many of my friends, I grew up on abridged versions of Victorian classics such as Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland Only a handful of us went on to read the original texts when we were older.  Just as we went on to discover the original versions of “Eeeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and the stanzas in the German national anthem that no one sings anymore.  

We should never seek to erase our xenophobic heritage – on the contrary, it is something we must own up to and learn from.  But it is no more appropriate for a young child to learn about Little Black Sambo than it is for them to learn about the rape version of Sleeping Beauty.  (Or the most graphic Mother Goose rhymes.  Or old television cartoons like these.)  She will be ready to hear it at some point.  Unfortunately, pinpointing the right point, the right moment, the right age will always be a problem.  Because racism is a problem.

 

 

The Year In Review

30 Dec

Hidden Object(Image by Hans-Jörg Aleff used under CC license via)

 

When I launched Painting On Scars at the beginning of this year, I had loads to say and almost as much worry that few would be interested in issues of disability and physical difference.  As the year comes to a close, I look back and see that the posts about ableism and lookism have generally been the most popular, followed by my spring article about family planning, reproductive rights, and privacy.  This hasn’t been the only surprise.

Lots of people find this blog by googling “dwarf + woman + sex.”  I have no idea who these people are.  They may be fetishists, they may be researchers, they may be women with dwarfism.  Your guess is as good as mine.

Since March, Painting On Scars has been read in over 100 countries.  To the surprise of few, no one in China reads it.  To the surprise of many, at least one person in Saudi Arabia does.  So have people in St. Lucia, Jordan, and Benin. 

Thanks to blogging, I’ve discovered there is a considerable online community committed to combating ableism with its own terms and tropes such as “supercrip” and “inspiration porn.”  I love such communities.  I also love bridging communities.  Because responses to my blog have shown me, perhaps more than anything has, that I want to talk to everyone.  And I really don’t care what your label is. 

I don’t care if you consider yourself Republican or Democrat or feminist or anti-feminist or religious or atheist or socialist or libertarian or apolitical or intellectual or anti-intellectual.  Well, okay, I do take it into consideration.  Somewhat.  But there is rarely consensus when we ask that everyone define these terms.  And none of them carries a guarantee against nasty personality traits like narcissism and defensiveness and aggression and cowardice.  Novelist Zadie Smith noted that we are told every day by the media and our culture that our political differences are the most important differences between us, but she will never be convinced of that.  When lefty comedian Jon Stewart was asked earlier this year if there’s anything he admires about right-wing hardliner Bill O’Reilly, he said, “This idea that disagreeing with somebody vehemently, even to the core of your principles, means you should not engage with them?  I have people in my own family that make this guy look like Castro and I love them.”

This is not to say that it’s all relative and I see no point to social justice or politics.  On the contrary, difference continues to be marginalized by the tyranny of the majority, as evidenced by the fact that the number one Google search term that has brought readers to my blog is “freaky people.”  And far too many kind people will more readily lash out at a person or group whose recognition demands they leave their comfort zone, rather than the forces that constructed and defined their comfort zone.  Well-intentioned friends and parents and bosses and classmates and leaders and partners and siblings and colleagues are capable of the vilest selfishness when they are scared of a power shift.  (As the Christian activists pictured above acknowledge.)  This is heart-breaking.  And it is not okay. 

But on the flipside, people are constantly smashing the prejudices I didn’t even know I had about them.  Every day friends and family and strangers demonstrate strengths that highlight all the mistakes I make, proving to me that politics are tremendously important but they will never be the most important element of a human being.   That may be a political idea in itself, but regardless of the divisions, most people on earth do seem to believe deep down inside that everybody matters.

And that’s what makes the struggle for social justice worth it.  If you are friendly and well-mannered and generous and honor your commitments and don’t let your self-doubt make you self-centered and try to listen as much as you talk and are honest about your problems without fishing for compliments and are big enough to apologize when you’ve screwed up, I respect you and admire you and am humbled by you.  I want to do the best I can because of you. 

 And since you’ve read this far, it’s more than likely you’re good at listening.  Thank you and happy new year!

 

 

Dragging Entertainment Into the 21st Century

21 Oct

(Via)

 

This week, humor site Cracked.com features a great article by J.F. Sargent titled “6 Insane Stereotypes That Movies Can’t Seem to Get Over.”  Alongside the insidious ways in which racism, sexism, homophobia still manage to persevere in mainstream entertainment, Number Two on the list is “Anything (Even Death) Is Better Than Being Disabled”:

In movie universes, there’s two ways to get disabled: Either you get a sweet superpower out of it, like Daredevil, or it makes you absolutely miserable for the rest of your life. One of the most infamous examples is Million Dollar Baby, which ends with (spoilers) the protagonist becoming a quadriplegic and Clint Eastwood euthanizing her because, you know, what’s the point of living like that? Never mind the fact that millions of people do just that every day…

Showing someone using sheer willpower to overcome something is a great character arc, and Hollywood applies that to everything, from learning kung fu despite being an overweight panda to “beating” a real-world disability. The problem is, this arc has some tragic implications for the real-world people who come out with the message that they are “too weak” to overcome their disabilities.

The result is that moviegoers think that disabilities are way worse than they actually are, and filmmakers have to cater to that: For example, while filming an episode of Dollhouse where Eliza Dushku was blind, the producers brought in an actual blind woman to show the actress how to move and get around, but the result was that “she didn’t look blind,” and they had to make her act clumsier so the audience would buy it.

Even in Avatar, real paraplegics thought that Sam Worthington’s character was making way too much effort transferring from his chair, but that’s the way we’re used to seeing it in movies. It’s a vicious cycle, and it isn’t going to stop until either Hollywood wises up or people with disabilities stop living happy, fulfilling lives.

I’ve examined Hollywood’s ableist problems several times before and there are still plenty to dedicate an entire blog to.  But, like The Daily Show or The Onion, Cracked has a long history of excellent social critique embedded amongst the fart jokes and it’s awesome.  Especially when considering that not only mainstream but alternative entertainment all too often can’t seem to let go of the tired stereotypes.  That Cracked is a site not officially dedicated to politics or social activism suggests that the comics writing for it believe calling out the industry for its embarrassing ineptitude is just common sense.

 

 

   

It’s So Easy To Take Peace for Granted

14 Oct

(Via)

 

The European Union has won the Nobel Peace Prize amidst the hardest year it has faced since its inception.  The E.U. founders certainly had no idea what they were building when they did—the goal was simply to control German coal and steel so that Germany could never rebuild its war machine—and the ensuing peace among member nations that is now over 60 years old was not something anyone would have bet on at the time.  Nor would anyone have imagined that E.U. membership would later mean abolition of the death penalty, but it has. 

I detest the austerity policy in place now during the economic crisis, but the E.U. is more than that, just as the U.S. is more than Wall Street.  The Euro Generation that emerged 15 years ago doesn’t identify with austerity but with European peace, universal healthcare, the welfare state, religion out of politics, and the determination to simultaneously open borders and promote multi-lingualism while protecting minority languages and cultures.  To them, nationalism is pointless at best and cataclysmic at worst.

Of course, bureaucracies are never as pretty as the ideals behind them.  And some of the criticism this week has been fair.  (Der Spiegel claims that awarding former E.U. leaders such as Jacques Delors would have more effectively spotlighted the ideals of the European peace project.)  A lot of the criticism has been ridiculous, if not offensive.  (Many on the far left are echoing the sentiments of critics on the far right, comparing police brutality in Greece and Spain to World War II.  Not helpful.)  The debate should keep going, but I’m personally taking the moment to remember how I felt 13 years ago when I read Eddie Izzard campaigning against Europhobia in the UK:

“I believe that we are on to something really good here, if it means that we stop rolling tanks across one another’s borders and stop killing each other. There are 800 million of us Europeans and we’ve been killing each other for centuries.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Playing Disabled

30 Sep

Miracle Worker

(Image by cchauvet used under CC license via)

 

Snow White and the Huntsman is out on DVD in Europe tomorrow. Unlike in most other Snow White films, the seven dwarfs are portrayed by average-sized actors, their bodies altered by digital manipulation. No one in the dwarf community is pleased about this.  Little People of America issued a statement criticizing the filmmakers’ failure to give priority to performers with dwarfism, while Warwick Davis argued, “It is not acceptable to ‘black up’ as a white actor, so why should it be acceptable to ‘shrink’ an actor to play a dwarf?” 

I don’t believe digitally generated dwarfism is on par with blackface and all that evokes, but it’s not too far off because there is a long tradition in cinema and theater of socially privileged actors portraying socially marginalized characters. And never the other way around. Blackface is a particularly hideous blemish on the history of entertainment because it was almost always used for mockery. Yellowface has a similarly horrid history: Until 1948, anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. banned actors of different ethnicities from kissing onscreen, so whenever a white actor portrayed an Asian leading man, Anna May Wong knew the role of the heroine was off limits to her, despite her being the most successful Chinese-American actress of the era. Meanwhile, as noted before, the circus freak show tradition that caricatures people with disabilities is still going strong today. 

To be fair, Snow White and the Huntsman does not create the illusion of dwarfism in order to mock it. This is why, to me, the blackface comparison seems overblown.  (A more apt analogy to blackface would be an actor inhaling helium to play a dwarf, as David Hyde Pierce did for laughs on an episode of Frasier years ago.) When a character matter-of-factly has a disability and the performer simulates their body type with artifice, is this not comparable to any sort of makeup or costumes? Danny Woodburn (whom you might know from Seinfeld) discussed it in an excellent interview on The Patt Morrison Show in June:

Directors, producers have every right to cast who they want to cast.  I just think this is something that merits discussion when the disability community—not just the little people community but the disability community—is so underrepresented in the film and television industry…

Others without disability portraying people with disability.  When producers, directors don’t actively seek performers with disability—[and they’d have to] because a lot of those performers don’t have equal access to casting, don’t have equal access to representation—when they don’t actively seek out those performers, then there’s a real slight against our society, I believe…

This is about making a stand so that there’s at least some due diligence… When you have a community of disabled that is about twenty percent of the population and less than one percent of disabled actors appear on TV. And some of the disabled characters, many of them are not portrayed by disabled actors.

Woodburn and Little People of America raised this issue ten years ago when Peter Jackson announced that he would cast only average-sized actors in The Lord of the Rings. As noted before, part of me was glad to see those magical creatures distanced from real-life people with skeletal dysplasias, but if Jackson had chosen to use dwarf performers to portray the Hobbits or the Dwarves, might someone like Woodburn be as famous as Elijah Wood is today? It’s hard to say. Famous actors create box office draw. Almost no famous actors are disabled and almost no disabled actors are famous. And that’s the problem.

If digital manipulation and theater makeup are someday used to expand roles to minority performers, allowing actors of any body type or ability to play the Huntsman or Prince Charming, it will then lose its exclusionary feel. I adored Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs growing up and, even though I was the only kid with dwarfism, I always portrayed the princess in the living room productions put on for my parents and their friends. But cinema has almost never swung that way. There is no history of ethnic minorities portraying famous white characters or disabled performers portraying physiotypical heroes and heroines. Plenty of ambulatory men have sat in wheelchairs to portray FDR, but no disabled man has been cast as JFK. And that stings a bit.

And what stings even more is the way in which privileged actors so often earn automatic praise for portraying minority characters in epic films, as if all minorities are opaque, mystical people only geniuses could begin to understand. John Malkovich as a mentally disabled man in Of Men and Men, Colin Firth as stammering King George VI, and Patty Duke, Melissa Gilbert and more recently Abigail Breslin as Helen Keller have all been lauded for their performances. They are all fine actors who have proven a wide range of talent, and the stories they tell are truly moving. But the public’s nearly kneejerk assumption that a minority role is a feat of greatness for a privileged actor can feel very condescending. 

In the very bizarre, direct-to-DVD film Tiptoes, Gary Oldman was digitally manipulated to take the role of the leading man with dwarfism. Peter Dinklage, who played the comedic supporting role (and, in my opinion, the only good moments in the film), said: “There was some flak. ‘Why would you put Gary Oldman on his knees? That’s almost like blackface.’ And I have my own opinions about political correctness, but I was just like, ‘It’s Gary Oldman. He can do whatever he wants.’ ” 

Fair enough, but when he was sappily introduced in the trailer as playing “the role of a lifetime,” I almost lost my lunch.


 

Biology and “The Imprecision of Stereotypes”

16 Sep

 

This week the British newspaper The Telegraph asks:

Ever wondered why men can’t seem to tastefully decorate a house?  Or have a tendency for dressing in clothes that clash?  And why, for that matter, can’t women seem to hack it at computer games?  Now scientists claim to have discovered the reason: the sexes see differently.  Women are better able to tell fine differences between colors, but men are better at keeping an eye on rapidly moving objects, they say.

Professor Israel Abramov and colleagues at the City University of New York reached their conclusions after testing the sight of students and staff, all over 16, at two colleges…

The authors wrote: “Across most of the visible spectrum males require a slightly longer wavelength than do females in order to experience the same hue.”  So, a man would perceive a turquoise vase, for instance, as being a little more blue than a woman who was looking at it too.

Abramov, professor of cognition, admitted they currently had “no idea” about how sex influenced color perception.  However, writing in the journal Biology of Sex Differences, he said it seemed “reasonable to postulate” that differences in testosterone levels were responsible…

Men can’t perceive colors as deftly as women can.  That’s why all the great Western painters like Van Gogh and Cézanne and Leonardo and Picasso and Renoir and Monet and Munch and Vermeer and Kandinsky and Matisse are female.  And all the major fashion designers of the last century like Hugo Boss and Karl Lagerfeld and Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren were women.  Oh, wait. 

Maybe the study meant to say testosterone only triggers color ineptitude when male ears register the words “home decorating.”  Or that male color perception improves when money is involved. 

Or maybe The Telegraph author was exaggerating just a bit.  Tacking jazzy headlines onto reports of scientific studies are all the rage these days, no matter how much they distort the findings.  In June, Medical Daily ran an article under the title, “Racism Is Innate.”  Innate means, according to my biologist father, “present at birth,” so this seemed like a call to toss all those No child is born a racist buttons onto the trash heap.  Except that anyone who bothered to read the article would discover that the study simply concluded that brain scans of adults show simultaneous activity in the centers that process fear and emotion and those that differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar faces.  The idea that fear of the Other can be neurologically mapped lends itself to a great deal of speculation and debate, but nowhere did the study claim that racism is present at birth. 

Such truth-stretching borders on mendacity, yet it pervades the science sections of so many newspapers.  Scientific studies are supposed to be free of bias, but the news media is severely biased toward publishing whatever will grab readers’ attention.  As several researchers have pointed out, differences between the sexes are currently considered a much more interesting discovery than no difference, so publishers often remain silent on an issue until they find a study that provides the juicier headline, no matter how numerous the contradicting studies are.  When the market is left to decide, it chooses salability over comprehensiveness.

Such an irresponsible approach to science results in a gravely misinformed public.  I can’t tell you how many people have repeated the claim that our modern Western female beauty standards are “natural” because a round waist resembles pregnancy and triggers the male fear of cuckoldry.  No one seems to remember that several crosscultural studies discredited this idea years ago.  But how can anyone be expected to remember something the media chose not to promote in the first place? 

And forget about waiting until the study is corroborated.  In 2007, The Times ran a headline claiming that women are naturally drawn to the color pink because of our savannah foremothers’ need to gather berries while the men hunted.  The Times published the study without consulting any historians, who eventually pointed out that pink was considered a manly color as recently as 1918 until fashion trends changed.  Oops.

This doesn’t mean that we should, as Mitt Romney has demanded, “keep science out of politics.”  Science is impartiality and corroboration and the best method we have for sorting facts from wishful thinking—for preventing our emotional, egotistical needs from weakening our objectivity.  To me, science is the most humbling force in the universe because it demands we always admit what we do not know.  It prevents hasty conclusions based on flimsy evidence, gut feelings, and political agendas.  It questions crude stereotypes and discovers more complex structures. 

But according to pop science reporters and the researchers they choose to spotlight, nearly every single modern joke about the differences between men and women stems from millennia-old evolutionary adaptations.  (Indeed, the Telegraph article claims that the female proclivity for detecting color helped our foremothers with gathering berries.  Always with the damn berries… )  As stated in the graphic below, such reports all too often suggest that prehistoric society on the African savannah looked just like something Don Draper or Phyllis Schlafly would have designed:

Men hunt, women nest, and every macho social pattern we see today has been passed down to us from our prehistoric ancestors.  Even though historians find that these patterns, like our racial categories, are barely more than two centuries old, if that.  And that the gender binary is far from universal.  Misinterpreting scientific findings is just as dire as ignoring them. 

When it comes to what women and men can and can’t do, neuroscientist Lise Eliot notes, “Expectations are crucial.”  When boys and young men grow up in a culture that mocks their supposed incompetence in all things domestic (“Guys don’t do that!”), it comes as no surprise that only the most self-confident will pursue any interest they have.  Meanwhile, studies show girls perform as well as boys do in math and science until they reach puberty.  Maybe the onset of menstruation paralyzes our visual-spatial intelligence because we’ve got to get picking those berries, or maybe girls pick up on the not-so-subtle message that guys think coquettish beauty is more important than nerdy brains in the dating game.  (For more details on the sexism faced by aspiring female scientists, see Cordelia Fine’s excellent book, Delusions of Gender.)  In her research, Dr. Eliot finds only two indisputable neurological differences between males and females:

1) Male brains are 8% to 11% larger than females’.

2) Female brains reach maturation earlier than male brains. 

All other neurological studies that find major differences between the sexes are studies of adults: i.e., the people most shaped by their culture and society.  Only cross-cultural studies of adults can isolate nurture from nature.  In any case, Eliot is a proponent of neuroplasticity, the idea that the pathways and synapses of the brain change depending upon its environment and the neural processes and behaviors it engages in.  In other words, painting or gaming from an early age or frequently throughout your life will condition your brain to do these tasks and related ones well.  It explains why the gender roles of a given time and place are so powerfulwhy mastering unfamiliar tasks is an uphill climb for men and women but also why countries committed to equality have the narrowest gender gaps. 

“Plasticity is the basis for all learning and the best hope for recovery after injury,” Eliot writes.  “Simply put, your brain is what you do with it.”  For more, see her brilliant parenting book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—and What We Can Do About It.   

But I’ll never believe that a neuroscientist has all the answers.  I live in a country that showed the world the dangers of hastily trying to trace all social patterns back to biology.  As a result, the media here in Germany is usually much more reticent to casually toss around arguments like those in The Telegraph or The Times or Medical Daily.  Natural scientists have made discoveries like neuroplasticity and limb-lengthening that are crucial to progress, but social scientists have discovered that equality and empathy are crucial to any society that values peace and respect over power and greed. 

Or, in other words.

 

 

Interpreting History Part II: Oppression Has Never Been Universal

5 Aug

(“Samurai Kiss” via)

 

Nothing divides a country quite like a national holiday.  When I was studying in St. Petersburg ten years ago, there was as much apathy as there was celebration on the Russian Federation’s June 12th decennial.  German reactions to Reunification Day every October 3rd are anything but united.  And on the United States Fourth of July last month, Chris Rock tweeted, “Happy white peoples independence day, the slaves weren’t free but I’m sure they enjoyed fireworks.”

Amid the outbursts of “unpatriotic!”, conservative blogger Jeff Schreiber shot back, “Slavery existed for 2000yrs before America. We eradicated it in 100yrs. We now have a black POTUS. #GoFuckYourself.” 

Schreiber has since written a post on his blog, America’s Right, apologizing for cursing and conceding that the slave trade was unconscionable.  But for all his insistence that he never intends to diminish the horrors of American slavery, he adds that President Obama’s policies are now “enslaving Americans in a different way.”  (Real classy.)  And for all his reiteration that slavery was always wrong, he still hasn’t straightened out all the facts skewed in his Tweet.

“Slavery existed for 2,000 years before America.”  He uses this supposed fact to relativize the oppression, as if to shrug, “Well, everyone was doing it back then.”  His tweet implies that the ubiquity of the slave trade makes America’s abolition of it exceptional, not its participation.  This argument hinges on fiction.  Slavery did not exist for 2,000 consecutive years.  In the West, it was pervasive in Antiquity and the Modern era, but it was downright uncommon in the Middle Ages.  (While anathema to our modern ideas of freedom for the individual, medieval serfdom was not slavery.)  Slavery was re-instituted in the West roughly 500 years ago with the advent of colonialism.  And the United States held on to it long after most other colonial powers had abolished it.  Critics can say what they want about the effectiveness of Chris Rock’s rain-on-a-parade tactics, but his argument did not distort history.      

In my last post, I argued the risks of concealing the human rights abuses of the past for the sake of nostalgia, if anything because it is the height of inaccuracy.  But portraying history as an unbroken tradition of straight, white, able-bodied male dominance like Schreiber did is also inaccurate.  The universal human rights movement in its modern form is indeed only a few decades old, but the idea of equality for many minorities can be found all over in history at various times and places.  The Quakers have often been pretty keen on it. 

And almost no minority has been universally condemned.  People with dwarfism appear to have been venerated in Ancient Egypt.  Gay men had more rights in Ancient Greece and in many American Indian societies than in 20th century Greece or the United States.  Muslim women wielded the right to divorce long before Christian women.  English women in the Middle Ages were more educated about sex than their Victorian heiresses.  Much of the Jewish community in Berlin, which suffered such unspeakable crimes culminating in the mid-20th century, were at earlier times better integrated into the city than Jewish people were in many other capitals of Central Europe.  In short, history does not show that racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, and our current beauty standards are dominant social patterns only recently broken by our ultra-modern culture of political correctness.  The oppression of minorities may be insidious and resilient throughout history, but it has never been universal. 

Downplaying the crimes of the past by claiming everybody did it is both historically inaccurate and socially irresponsible.  It is perverse when such misconceptions fuel arguments for further restrictions on human rights.  In 2006, Republican Congress member W. Todd Akin from Missouri claimed that, “Anybody who knows something about the history of the human race knows that there is no civilization which has condoned homosexual marriage widely and openly that has long survived.”  Even if this were true, the argument is absurd.  (It appears that no civilization has regularly chosen women with dwarfism for positions of executive power, but does that mean it’s a bad idea?)  But the argument collapses because it relies on facts that are untrue.

Granted hyperbole is a constant temptation in politics.  Stating things in the extreme is a good way to grab attention.  In an earlier post on sex, I asserted that mainstream culture assumes women’s sex drive is lower than men’s because female sexual expression has been “discouraged for millennia.”  Patriarchy has certainly been a major cultural pattern around the world and throughout history, and we cannot emphasize its power on both the collective and individual psyche enough.  But patriarchy is by no means a cultural universal.  Ethnic groups in Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal continue to practice polyandry into the present day, while history shows many others that have done the same at various times.  These exceptions question the biological theory that heterosexual male jealousy is an insurmountable obstacle to sexual equality.  And prevents any conservative excuse that insists, “Everybody’s been doing it.”    

They haven’t been.  Xenophobia has never been universal.  Humans may have a natural fear of the unfamiliar, of what they perceive to be the Other, but our definitions of the Other change constantly throughout time and space, as frequently and bizarrely as fashion itself.   This makes history craggy, complex, at times utterly confusing.  Like the struggle for human rights, it is simultaneously depressing and inspiring.  But whatever our political convictions, we gotta get the facts straight.

Despite what Stephen Colbert says.

 

 

Interpreting History Part I: Count Me Out

29 Jul

alter ego(Image by Bob May used under CC license via)

 

Anytime my partner and I don’t know what to do or say, one of us asks, “What’s in the news?” and we dive into a political discussion.  So it’s no surprise that we’ve become somewhat embarrassingly addicted to Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.  The news media has been (unsurprisingly) critical of a show founded on the idea of chastising the news media.  Feminists have been (sometimes rightly) critical of its portrayal of women.  The show has almost countless strengths and weaknesses, but I find myself still obsessing over the brilliant, captivating opening scene that kicked off the series.  If you can’t this clip, it basically boils down to a flustered news anchor named Will McAvoy overcome with disgust at the state of the nation and nostalgia for the 1950s and 60s: “America’s not the greatest country in the world anymore,” he sighs.  “We sure used to be.”

We stood up for what was right.  We fought for moral reasons.  We passed laws, we struck down laws for moral reasons.  We waged wars on poverty, not poor people.  We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors.  We put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chests…  We cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy.  We reached for the stars, acted like men.  We aspired to intelligence.  We didn’t belittle it.  It didn’t make us feel inferior…  We didn’t scare so easy.     

“Nostalgia” literally means “aching to come home.”  It’s the temporal form of homesickness, time rather than place being the source of pain.  We all do it.  It can be oddly soothing at times to be in awe of another era, especially the one you were born in.  But Will McAvoy should watch Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris for proof that nostalgia is an ultimately futile pastime that every sad sack of every era has hopelessly indulged in.  (If “things were better back in the day,” then how come every generation says this?)  But since McAvoy’s nostalgia is an earnest, political battle cry, heaping laurels on the good old 1950s and 60s when the leaders of the day did their job right, I’m more inclined to have him watch Mad Men.  Or just open up the 1960 children’s illustrated encyclopedia I found at my great aunt’s house, which states, among other things: “The Australian aborigine is similar to the American negro in strength, but less intelligent.”  Didn’t scare so easy, indeed.     

The problem with nostalgia is that it is far more emotional than intellectual and thereby lends itself to inaccuracy all too easily.  America was indeed doing great things sixty years ago.  And reprehensible things.  We hid our disabled and gay citizens away in institutions, asylums and prisons.  We enforced the compulsory sterilization of mentally disabled and Native American women.  We took decades to slowly repeal segregationist laws that the Nazis had used as models.  We maintained laws that looked the other way when husbands and boyfriends abused their partners or children.  In short, we handed out privilege based on gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, physical and mental capabilities with far greater frequency and openness than we do today.  Perhaps we were the “greatest country in the world” compared to the others.  (Europe and East Asia were trying to recover from the devastation of World War II, after all, while other nations were trying to recover from the devastation of colonialism.)  But McAvoy’s wistful monologue is much more a comparison of America Then with America Now.  And that is hard to swallow when considering that a reversion to that society would require so many of us to give up the rights we’ve been given since then.   

Am I “another whiny, self-interested feminist” out to bludgeon the straight, cis, WASPy male heroes of history?  Am I “just looking to be offended”?  No, I’m struggling.  Next to literature and foreign languages, history has always been my favorite subject.  And pop history always touches upon this question:

“If you could go back to any period in history, which would it be?” 

From an architectural point of view?  Any time before the 1930s.  From an environmental point of view?  North America before European contact.  From a male fashion point of view?  Any period that flaunted fedoras or capes.  From a realistic point of view?  No other time but the present.  Because if I am to be at all intellectually honest in my answer, there has never been a safer time for me to be myself. 

Last year, I read The Lives of Dwarfs: Their Journey from Public Curiosity To Social Liberation by Betty Adelson.  Despite my love of history, I hated almost every minute of it.  Lies my Teacher Told Me by James Loewen had helped me understand how so many black American students feel uninspired by U.S. history and the figures we hold up as heroes because so many of those men would have kept them in shackles.  But it wasn’t until I read The Lives of Dwarfs that I understood how nasty it feels on a gut-level to face the fact that most of history’s greatest figures would more likely than not consider you sub-human. 

With the exception of Ancient Egypt, my own lifetime has been the only period wherein someone with dwarfism could have a fair chance of being raised by their family and encouraged to pursue an education and the career of their choice, as I was.  At any other point in Western history, it would have been more probable that I would have been stuck in an institution, an asylum or the circus (the Modern Era before the 1970s), enslaved by the aristocracy (Rome, Middle Ages, Renaissance) or left for dead (Ancient Greece).  Of course inspiring cases like Billy Barty show that a few courageous/decent parents bucked the trends and proved to be the exception to the rule, but that’s what they were.  Exceptions. 

I am fortunate to have been born when I was and for that reason, nostalgia for any other period in time can never be an intellectually honest exercise for someone like me.  The moment someone says, “Yeah, well, let’s not dwell on odd cases like that.  I’m talking about the average person,” they’re essentially saying, “Your experience is less important than mine.”

Everyone is entitled to have warm, fuzzy feelings about the era in which they grew up.  If any period can put a lump in my throat, it’s the 1970s.  The Sesame Street era.  The boisterous, primary-colored festival flooded with Williams Doll, Jesse’s Dream Skirt, inner city pride à la Ezra Jack Keats, and androgynous big hair all set to funky music can evoke an almost embarrassing sigh from me.  Donning jeans and calling everyone by their first name, that generation seemed set on celebrating diversity and tearing down hierarchies because, as the saying goes, Hitler had finally given xenophobia a bad name.  Could there be a more inspiring zeitgeist than “You and me are free to be to you and me”? 

 

But I’m being selective with my facts for the sake of my feelings. 

Sesame Street and their ilk were indeed a groundbreaking force, but it was hardly the consensus.  Segregation lingered in so many regions, as did those insidious forced sterilization laws.  LGBT children were far more likely to be disowned back then than today—Free To Be You And Me had nothing to say about that—and gay adults could be arrested in 26 states.  The leading feminist of the time was completely screwing up when it came to trans rights.  Although more and more doctors were advocating empowerment for dwarf babies like me, adult dwarfs faced an 85% unemployment rate with the Americans with Disabilities Act still decades away.  And Sesame Street was actually banned in Mississippi on segregationist grounds.  When the ban was lifted, its supporters of course remained in the woodwork.  We have made so much progress since then.  It would be disingenuous for me to ignore that simply for the sake of nostalgia. 

To be fair to Sorkin, it’s a hard habit to kick.  We have always glorified the past to inspire us, no matter how inaccurate.  Much of American patriotism prides itself on our being the world’s oldest democracy, but we were not remotely a democracy until 1920.  Before then, like any other nation that held free elections, we were officially an androcracy, and of course we didn’t guarantee universal suffrage until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  That my spellcheck doesn’t even recognize the word “androcracy” signifies how little attention we afford our history of inequality.  But we have to if accuracy is going to have anything to do with history.  A brash statement like “We sure used to be [the greatest country in the world],” as a battle cry for self-improvement is asking to be called out on the inanity of this claim. 

Everyone is entitled to appreciate certain facets or moments in history, just as everyone is entitled to look back fondly upon their childhood.  Veracity falters, however, with the claim that not just certain facets but society as a whole was all-around “better.”  This is never true, unless you’re comparing a time of war to the peacetime preceding it (1920s Europe vs. 1940s Europe, Tito’s Yugoslavia vs. the Balkans in the 1990s), and even then the argument is sticky (Iraq during the insurgency vs. Iraq under Saddam Hussein).  In the words of Jessica Robyn Cadwallader, concealing the crimes of the past risks their reiteration.  Whenever we claim that something was socially better at a certain point in history, we must admit that something was also worse.  It always was. 

But such a sober look at the past need not be depressing.  It reminds me how very grateful I am to be alive today.  My nephews are growing up in a society that is more accepting than almost any other that has preceded it.  That is one of helluva battle cry.  Because what could possibly be more inspiring than history’s proof that whatever our missteps, things have slowly, slowly gotten so much better?