Change our communities, change our world

april coffeeLast Wednesday, I got to see my friend Dana for the first time in a few years. I was supposed to go to a concert with her, but I was still too sick. We ended up spending one lovely hour chatting at a coffee shop instead.

On Friday, I got to see my second Little Sister for the first time in seven and a half years. The last time I saw her, my oldest son, Li’l D, was a few weeks old. She was as big then as Li’l D is now. Today, she’s almost halfway through college, and our eyes meet when we both stand tall.

She and I hugged a half-dozen times before parting ways. As we did, her mom laughed at my Bernie 2020 bumper sticker: “He’ll be using a walker then!” I smiled as I replied, “It’s not really about Bernie. It’s about something much bigger–what he inspired, and a reminder to not be so forlorn about today that we stop trying to make tomorrow better.” Read more

When Feelings Kill

When my normally pleasant three-year-old gets tired or overstimulated, he gets feisty. He loses his polite words and starts throwing, or–less frequently–kicking, hitting, or spitting on his older brother.

If I witness this, I’ll holler, “Stop!” while making my way over to separate the boys. The moment I holler, my three-year-old throws himself on the ground and begins to wail at the indignity of having been told something like “no.”

In this way, he shifts the focus from the initial wrong he committed to how bad he feels about having to hear “no.” The conversation is no longer about what he did wrong, but about his feelings.

If I only saw this from three-year-olds, it wouldn’t be so bad. Sadly, I see adults engaging in similar behavior almost every single day. I wrote about this in a November 2013 Facebook post: Read more

On margin hearts

This morning, I finished William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite. I daresay I drew more hearts in the margins of its final chapters than in total throughout all the other books I’ve read this last year.

Most of what I read doesn’t really warrant being smattered with ♥♥♥. It’s mostly grim, and blunt, and important for me to keep reading no matter how much it hurts my figurative heart when I do.

Some of what I’ve read goes beyond describing what’s wrong and into envisioning what “right” might look like. It’s those visions of something better for all that inspire me to draw hearts in the margin of my non-fiction reads. My highlighter hearts are the opposite of all my furious, borderline hopeless margin notes, which speak to the hard work I’m doing with my head. Margin hearts, on the other hand, reflect the hard work that I’m doing with my heart: finding the chutes of green among the rubble of American inequity and militarism, searching for and attuning myself to voices of hope with dust still heavy in the air.

third shelf part.jpg

Books are oriented three different ways on my in-progress shelf. The leftmost books, with words falling down like rain, are books I’ve already finished reading. Books with words climbing upward are ones I’ve begun, but have set aside for the moment. The remainder, I’ve yet to start reading. Read more

That’s even worse.

Many years ago, someone I love asked me how I felt about another someone she loved very much. She knew I’d give a candid answer that might help her troubleshoot some recurring problems. Did I hate her?

After confirming she really wanted a candid answer (“I wouldn’t have asked you if I didn’t”), I answered. “I don’t feel much of anything, honestly. I don’t dislike her. I don’t like her. It’s just … nothing.”

“That’s even worse,” she told me.

I puzzled over those words for years. Even with explanation, it made no sense to me. Why was it worse for me to feel nothing for someone than to hate her? I didn’t answer the question so much as lose it to the noise of growing into my adult life.

Reading Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia (2010), I’m starting to understand what my loved one meant all those years ago.

I was just starting to build my adult life in 2008. The financial crisis I saw mentioned in fleeting headlines had nothing to do with me, I thought, and so I paid it no mind. Over the years, I picked up that (1) Alan Greenspan was, to put it kindly, an asshole and (2) some bankers had made some mistakes. These remained, more or less, the impressions I had picking up this highly readable book. (Seriously, Taibbi has a knack for illuminating complex matters in straightforward, comprehensible, even funny ways.)

With every page I’ve read, the knot in my belly’s pulled a little tighter. “Mistakes” is not the right word to describe the sequences of unethical, destructive actions taken. They were intentional, and involved actors at all rings on the ladder. There wasn’t one fault point; the entire ladder was a bundle of faults.

Going into this book, I imagined such bankers (and politicians, etc.) disdained the “little people.” Halfway through this book, though, linking it to everything else I’ve read so far, I reach a different conclusion: they genuinely don’t give a damn about people outside their spheres. What they care about is the money, and the game.

The lives, loves, and hardships of people who won’t be named in history texts (if we’re lucky enough to have a future that’s even capable of sustaining textbooks) don’t even factor into the equation. If we live, if we die, if we bleed as a consequence of their actions–who cares? It’s the money that matters.

To see evidenced that the word “humanity” doesn’t even register for many of these actors (“Does understanding it improve my balance sheet today? No? Moving on”) is deeply discomfiting.

I thought disdain was bad, but not even caring enough to disdain?

That’s even worse.

(Better can and must be done, and so: I’ll keep reading, searching for questions and answers that might help me take part in steering this ship a different direction much kinder to all.)

We can live with that.

This time last year, I was a lifelong U.S. Democrat. I believed my party was the party of peace, an illusion well and truly shattered before I cast my presidential vote in November.

I understood I’d been mistaken after gathering and assessing information from hundreds of articles and several books. I can’t recreate the entire progression here; doing so would take huge amounts of time and energy, stealing from me resources I need for other things these days.

What I can tell you is that it’s no shock that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumerquickly praised Trump’s bombing” of Syrian government targets a few days ago. Neither did my jaw drop to discover Hillary Clinton was gunning for an airstrike just hours prior to the actions. When my husband told me about the strikes, well before I’d heard about Clinton’s comments, I replied, “We’re getting here about two and a half months later than we would’ve under a Clinton presidency.” What did I mean by that?

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The Language of Politics

Have you ever listened to a politician speak and wondered, “What are you even saying?” or “Why are you even talking, since you’re not actually communicating anything?” I have, and often. In fact, there’s an almost 100% overlap between my hearing a politician talk and asking myself these questions.

Until now, I’ve assumed this as a universal, historical given. Reading Geoffrey Wagner’s essay “The Language of Politics” in Language in America (1969), I was astonished to see laid bare the chasm between what is (ambiguous nonsense presented with gusto) and what could be (practical, clear statements of intention and planned action).

Now, in the rare case where I do bother listening to American politicians speak (generally a waste of time; see first paragraph), I’ll listen carefully for answers to questions like:

  • When you say you’re “bringing democracy,” what exactly do you mean by “democracy”?
  • What are the specific actions you’re planning on taking?
  • What are the estimated dates for these actions?
  • Do you have the consent of a majority of those who’ll be most impacted by these actions?
  • What specific assessments went into establishing these?
  • What does the best case scenario look like?
  • What is the worst case scenario?

Unless any politician answers questions with specifics and then routinely (1) publicly follows up with specific facts capable of independent verification and (2) commits to being held accountable for deviant outcomes, they’re not worth the time of listening. They’re speaking with the intent of avoiding accountability.

American politicians’ track record stretching at least decades back is far too abysmal to trust without verification. Most have routinely, tactically used language to create illusions of trustworthiness via language ambiguous enough to be interpreted many ways. Indeed, it “is because political utterances about democracy and so forth demands to be translated that politicians choose wooly language, on a high level of abstraction, behind which they may maneuver.”

Quotes to ponder:

  • “Orwell condensed this well: ‘In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.'”
  • “The word peace is totally fractured when it is forced to contain within itself children and old people horribly burned and maimed.”
  • “The nicety of being anointed with incendigel rather than napalm must seem to an Asiatic peasant the luxury of a very rich society, indeed. He has still been burnt raw by gelled gasoline fluid.”
  • “Pentagonese is an insulating attempt to create another form of language” (its euphemisms protect its agents, and no one else)
  • “Used as they have been in the past decade, words like democracy and freedom end up as no more or less significant than so many street cries, or the sounds of engines.”

 

 

 

 

A professor well worth hearing

Unable to sleep through all my coughing last night, I made the best of a bad situation: I listened to several Mark Blyth videos.

I first heard of Blyth, a Political Economy professor at Brown, in a mid-February The Dig podcast. I was surprised to burst out laughing almost immediately; I don’t usually expect chuckles from podcasts entitled things like “How Austerity Brought Us Donald Trump.”

Blyth kept me laughing through the whole podcast, but I didn’t think of him again until a few days ago. Looking at the Current Affairs section of my bookstore, I saw copies of a book entitled A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America. I flashed back to Blyth talking about how Boomers are the worst, and then picked up a copy of the book in case it could shed more light.

Afterward, I listened to Blyth’s The Dig podcast again. I enjoyed the repeat but mostly stayed tuned for his Boomer comments. He mentioned Boomers outright a few times: Read more

The journey as joy

I began blogging in June 1995. I wrote about anything and everything, wanting my website to be more than a collection of links. Several times, I got in trouble for things I’d written, but didn’t bother changing what or how I wrote until I got a threatening letter in 2001.

My voice has changed some since I began blogging, but one common thread has run through: me, me, me. This seemed both natural and inevitable until I began learning to speak Politics. I began feeling unsettled by this emphasis on me, me, me. I wondered if I wasn’t losing sight of a bigger picture by always focusing on my infinitesimal piece of the universe. 

How else would I write, though? With more than three decades spent focusing on my personal experience without much regard for its context(s), how was I supposed to change not only my vocabulary but the whole orientation of my words? How could I write about collectives of which my experiences are the merest fragment, when I’d spent so long just focused on me?

I rejoiced when I read Angela Davis, who wrote as I’d only abstractly envisioned as possible. She’s been working at doing so for decades, so that her experience shines through. Maybe someday, I’ll be half as skillful as she is now.

Already concerned with technology and (my own) narcissism, I then began reading Neil Postman. In his writings were all kinds of contexts, and histories about things I’d never imagined could have their own history. I found answers to other questions, and more than that, pure delight to have discovered someone who taught not what to think, but how to ask questions to reach my own conclusions.

Postman’s Technopoly was–laugh if you must!–a revelation. Years before I began worrying about technology’s impact on humanity, he’d already written on these matters with humor, wisdom, and compassion. His entreaty to readers to consider how we’re being used by technology, instead of simply using it, opened up new venues of inquiry and possibility for me.

Last week, I ended up reading another Postman piece that helped me change the question I was asking myself. I stopped asking, “How do I begin reflecting this seismic shift in internal meaning on my blog?” Instead I asked, “Do I even need to keep blogging as I always have, just because I always have?!”

The answer was an exultant no!, straight from the heart.

This blog isn’t about me, me, me, the same way my old one was. This is about my journey to understand something bigger than me, and situate myself within it instead of smack-dab in the center of my own personal universe; to keep pushing myself to seek that something bigger, and grasp how it cradles all things, even if I never do learn how to articulate its connections with any nuance.

What will the end result be? Will there be an end result? I don’t know, and that’s okay.

The journey itself is a joy.

She lived

I’ve heard Kitty Genovese’s name dozens of times, most frequently in college. Tonight, my husband brought her up as we discussed the book I just started reading.

“She was raped and murdered while nobody called–” Anthony began, pausing when he saw the stricken look on my face.

“Oh, my God,” I replied. “We talked about her all the time in college classes, but not really about her–always about how she died and what we could learn from how she died. Fuck, dozens of times I’ve heard about her death, but never about her.” I got my phone and began looking into who she was, so that when I hear her name in the future I can know her by some of her life instead of its last 30 minutes.

She didn’t just die. She lived.

After I set down my phone, I apologized to my husband for bailing on our earlier conversation. He shook his head to dismiss my apology, saying, “You wanted her to be more than a factoid.”

I wish I could have five minutes with Kitty herself, to hear about her life as she lived it instead of as others witnessed it.

These are some of the things I wish I could ask her:

  • What’s your favorite kind of ice cream? What’s your favorite memory of eating ice cream?
  • What was the most annoying thing any of your siblings ever did? 
  • If you only were allowed to read one book for the rest of forever, which book? Why?
  • How did you like bartending, compared to clerical work?
  • What’s the kindest thing anyone ever did for you? That you did for someone else?
  • What’s the worst trouble you ever got in? What didn’t you get in trouble for because no one caught you?
  • Tell me about your first kiss!
  • If you got to choose one thing people will remember about you, what would you choose?

Not a fixed state

This morning, I read an article on business “culture.” Its author wrote about this in a way that demands quotation marks be placed around the word. Is “culture” really some fixed thing, perceived and experienced the same way by everyone?

As I read, I imagined the author conversing with Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, authors of the 1969 book Teaching as a Subversive Activity. The book is less about teaching than assumptions, and specifically learning to explore and challenges one’s own assumptions, including those shaped by a specific language. One of my favorite passages is about “the mind”:

Even the words “the mind” are subtly metaphoric. Think of those words for a moment. Why the mind? Why a noun? Why a “thing”? As John Dewey and Arthur Bentley observed, we would come much closer to actuality if we spoke of “minding” (as a process) than of “the mind” (as a thing).

With that passage in mind (ahem), I chuckled at the idea of “a culture.” Why does English treat it as a thing, not a process? It’s dynamic and evolving, shaped by many factors and influences, not a point in time! It seems more apt, then, to think of “culturing” than of “culture.” Every day, through countless acts and interchanges, the people who participate in a company or community are shaping it. They might be said to be “culturing,” rather than “impacting ‘the’ culture.”

I have no answers to these questions, but I do love reflecting upon them. Before last month, I’d never really considered how language shaped my world instead of simply helping me describe it. Now, I see dozens of examples of this shaping every day. It’s fun exploring these questions I didn’t even realize were questions a few weeks ago.

If this isn’t enough for you to mull over, here’s a parting consideration I’d do well to hold in mind keep minding: “You cannot avoid making judgments, but you can become more conscious of the way you make them.” This is important because judgment can make us “behave in response to our judgments rather than that which is being judged” and because: “People and things are processes. Judgments convert them into fixed states.”

I’m not a fixed state. Are you?