Ben Carson is not retarded: The language of marginalization

February 23, 2016

When our daughter Cozette was on her way to us, we had all the usual concerns new parents have. Were we emotionally and financially ready? Would our lives become unrecognizable? And of course, would our daughter be born a healthy baby.

The statistics are daunting. One in 33 babies born in the U.S. has a birth-defect of some sort. Of course, you would love that child regardless but the issue adds another level of challenges to the already challenging task of parenting. Many of those disabilities are mental in nature. For example, 2.5 to 3% of Americans experience some form of mental retardation. That’s about 7 million people. Neither Andrea or I smoke tobacco or crack so we felt the odds were in our favor.

When Cozy when was born, we counted her fingers and her toes. After a year and a half, she seems to be perfectly healthy and mentally awesome. And we often stop to think about those parents that have the challenges we escaped, maybe just because of a roll of the cosmic dice.

All this is to make a case about the language we use to marginalize those with disabilities. When I was in high school we had (secret) nick-names for many of the kids with disabilities, to quietly bully them behind their backs and make ourselves feel normal. I carry a lot of guilt around about that. If you are going to high school in 1970s Georgia in a wheelchair, you deserve a fucking Nobel Prize, not ostracization from kids who were a little bit luckier than you.

When I started studying the world of hate, one of the fist lessons was that Hitler targeted Germans with disabilities before he went after the Jews. He wanted to create a genetically pure race and forcefully sterilized up to 400,000 Germans who suffered from mental retardation, schizophrenia, epilepsy and other disabilities. The treatment of the disabled by the Nazis is one of the under-told horror stories of the Holocaust. Of course, there were similar eugenic practices happening in the U.S. at the time.

So, when I teach about hate crimes and hate groups, I also talk about the language of hate. I talk about the dehumanizing effect of calling people (PEOPLE) fags, wetbacks, bitches and niggers. When I talk to high school students, I especially discuss the trend of calling people “retards,” or saying, “that’s so retarded.” It’s not to shame or punish those kids that do it, it’s to enlighten them to the fact that words can hurt people who are already hurting. Instead of “punching down,” find another word in your growing vocabulary.

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The impetus for his blog post is because, being an imperfect being, I don’t always follow my own advice. I was watching the GOP debates and the Bizarro World candidacy of Ben Carson. This alleged brain surgeon who may be wandering on to stage near your has talked about the Egyptian pyramids being grain storage units, joked about poisoning gay wedding cakes and believes going to prison can turn you into a homosexual. In the debates he seems stoned, at best, and maybe a little touched in the head (as my mother was fond of saying).

So as I was tweeting my witty tweets, letting the impulsive thoughts go straight to 160 characters for the entire planet to read, I wondered aloud if Ben Carson might be “retarded.” At the time it seemed like a rational explanation for his behavior. Of course, that would make him the first mentally retarded brain surgeon in America and therefore deserving of some highest of high honors (besides the White House).

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I was busted by a Trump follower who asked if that was an appropriate tweet from a PhD. I don’t often agree with Trumpies, but she was 100% correct. I finally deleted it and any other reference to Carson being “special,” that might be seen as disparaging to my mentally disabled friends and family in the past, present, or future. I suddenly saw teenage Randy and modern Randy (who complains about trolls) standing there in the same spot. So much for growth, right?

And this isn’t about “political correctness.” Donald Trump and his thugs complain about political correctness because they don’t want to have to think about the hurtful nature of their rhetoric. They don’t want to worry about whether or not they are being bigoted because they are already bigoted. Being challenged on it undermines their able bodied-straight-white-Christian-male privilege. My job as a privileged person is to dismantle that privilege.

People should be taken to tasks for the choices they make and the things they say. That’s still fair game in a free society. But we can also be kinder towards the people we disagree with and the people who have traditionally been the butt of the jokes. My Polish family members would appreciate that.

Some of my fondest memories of my time at Emory University were volunteering for the Special Olympics. Those kids have such great hearts. It’s hugely humbling. I have been a supporter ever since. So, when I got called out on my silly comments, I felt that same guilt that comes with anybody who is aware of their privilege. The history of people with mental challenges is full of great heroism and courage. As someone who has dealt with depression, I have a tiny, tiny window into those struggles.

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I don’t think Ben Carson is retarded. I wish I had found a better word in my “PhD vocabulary” to express my concerns about this man’s mental state. Experts have diagnosed Trump as having a narcissistic personality disorder. Pundits have wondered about Carson but it’s not my place to make a claim. I just hope he goes away soon so we can focus on the real threat of fascism that Trump represents. As someone who gets called a “libtard,” on a daily basis, I’d like to elevate the level of discourse that, in a tweet, I lowered.

We don’t win hearts and minds by marginalizing human beings who are different from us. We evolve by developing empathy with them. The Anti-PC crowd fears that challenging task. I want to encourage people to embrace it. I want to encourage myself to embrace it.

We now live in a “Live by the tweet, die by the tweet,” society where people, at their impulsive worst, are not allowed to make mistakes. Someone has taken a screenshot of your little blurb so be prepared for it to haunt you. I just wanted to apologize for mine.

 

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18 thoughts for Cozy’s 18-month birthday

February 17, 2016

 

How did we end up with a child who is a year and a half old? While she’s watching Sesame Street, let me quickly jot down these thoughts.

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  1. One does not simply “just leave the house” with a toddler.
  2. Whoever invented the packaging for cheese sticks needs a very long Time Out.
  3. Only here am I allowed to ask, “Can I smell your butt?”
  4. If the kid eats food off the floor, she doubles as a pet.
  5. So what if her two favorite words are “Dada” and “cracker”? White dads lives matter.
  6. If she doesn’t get what she wants she bangs her head against the wall, getting what she wants.
  7. She’s very helpful loading clothes into the clothes into the dryer. Along with my tools.
  8. This girl is a dancing queen with moves that might be an alien version of crunking.
  9. She loves her mama and dada almost as much as she loves Elmo and Ellen Degeneres.
  10. If she likes you, she will blow you a kiss goodbye. She likes the checkout ladies at Fred Meyer especially.
  11. When she eats an apple, it’s not to the core, it’s and the core.
  12. She has her own language which is a mix of Spanglish, ASL and (I’m guessing) Icelandic.
  13. There is great joy when the kid sits on her potty and grunts.
  14. She was barking like a dog before Hilary Clinton made it a thing.
  15. She likes to sweep the floor, unlike her mother.
  16. The moment when she took “Wheels on the Bus” off her CD player, put Radiohead on and started space dancing.
  17. She thinks the move of Sesame Street to HBO is a complete betrayal of the whole purpose of public television.
  18. This baby is not a baby anymore.

 

A Valentines Poem for My Beloved Wife

February 14, 2016

The Song of Sirens

I am a child of Daedalus

Who designed the Labyrinth to imprison our monsters

With wax and feathers attached to our arms

He told me not to fly too low

The sea would pull me into its waves

He told me to not fly too high

The sun would melt my wings

 

But I saw your face in the sky

And I reached up for your cheek

As I could feel the wax melt

Burning my legs

I only wanted to reach up, up, up

And I fell to earth

I fell below the earth

 

The Sirens collected me from the waves

And sang me your song

“The sea and sky are only blue

They are both too small for you

The time as arrived to be free

Spread your arms and

Come with me.”

 

Falling and flying at the same time

Detached from the profane world

Into your bosom

The warmth healed my bones

Your breath filled my lungs

In your eyes were cosmos

Give me infinity to explore

 

You are the great mother of creation

I am humbled before your power

You are the sad daughter of colonization

I want to nurse your soul to bloom

You are the honored judge of mediation

I am schooled by your soft wisdom

You are the seductive goddess of fascination

I want to dream inside your womb

 

Like a wanderer who steps off a cliff

I chose to depart the muddy road

Toward the glow of your beauty

My right arm grabbed by the archangel Raphael

And lifted to a new heaven

I leave the mortal pain below

To be born again in your resolute love

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Pushing back against trolls

February 10, 2016

My mother once called me here in Portland and said, “Randy, I just Googled you. There are some people who really HATE you!” Hi mom, welcome to the Age of the Internet Troll. She had stumbled across a white supremacist website where racists were having a field day bashing me. I have dedicated my life to studying them and their impact on the world so they don’t like me much. I have been branded by them as a “race traitor” and among other things (Jew, homosexual, pedophile, Yankees fan). It’s hard to go to an actual Klan rally these days so these rocket scientists spend all their free white time on the internet.

There is a neo-Nazi version of Wikipedia called Metapedia. For a long time they had an entry on me that described me as a “wheezing Ashkenazi Jew,” promoting a “Zionist curriculum” at “Portland College.” I’m sure my Presbyterian parents would get a kick out of that.

Racists have posted my office number and pictures of my house on line, but it never really bothered me. It meant I was doing something right.  It’s the character assassins that I worry about. Behind their anonymous devices the trolls can take you down out of sheer boredom.

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I was trying to track the traffic to this blog last night and Googled; blazak feminist blog. The usual stuff comes up and then a link to an article entitled, “Dirty Jew Perv Info.” It is a pretty extensive thread accusing me of sleeping with students for grades (and being a Trump hater). I almost threw up when I read it. There are a number of fake Rate-My-Professor entries from supposed students who supposedly had to have sex with me to pass a class. They were all posted the same day, the fall of 2015, more than year after my last class at PSU. It’s pretty obvious that they were created by one person but there’s a lot of people who believe whatever comes up on their screen. (No, Michigan did not outlaw gay sex.)

I’ve been teaching college classes since 1989 and ever since then I have had to deal with the rumors that I sleep with my students. So let me put this to rest right fucking now. 1) Nobody has ever gotten a grade in any of my classes for any other reason than an objective evaluation of their class performance. There is no favoritism for anybody. This is the sacred relationship teachers and students have and I am honor-bound to respect it. 2) I have dated  handful of former students (aka adults) in my over 25 years as a teacher, after they had been in one of my classes (not during). People often meet at work and that’s where I work and if everyone is a consenting adult, nobody should care. As I have mentioned, Andrea was in one of my large intro-level classes and we barely even spoke until after the class was over. We are blissfully married and I feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t believe in the incredible power of the love gods to connect two people who were meant to be together.

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That doesn’t stop tongues from wagging and fingers from typing. Some of my (overwhelmingly positive) Rate-My-Professor reviews hint at this alleged favoritism and it pisses me off to no end. There is no actual human being that can say, “I got a better grade because I did this naughty thing for Blazak.” There are plenty of fake human beings it seems, but no real ones. There’s even a horrible website that is used to cyber-bully people called The Dirty. It has a post called, “Slept with the Old Teacher at PSU for an A.” First of all, I’m not that old. Second of all, the woman in question was my girlfriend for over two years and the pictures are from our Facebook pages. But it’s one of the top hits that comes up when you Google me. Great.

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I’m not sure why I’m such a target. I understand why the Nazis and Trump thugs hate me, so maybe it is just coming from them. (Just look at the 519 comments on one of my Trump posts.) I also think the fact that I’m a man who embraces feminism makes me an easy mark. I know there are many women who think men can’t be feminists and I understand that. There are also men who see me as a “gender traitor” for espousing feminist values.  I’ve been accused of “using feminism” to lure mindless females into my sex trap. I’m not even sure how that would work. It sounds like a movie on the Lifetime Channel.

I bring this up for a couple of reasons. The first is that now that my wife and I have a daughter, I really have to think about her safety. These trolls have put our home address on the internet and I have made it my business to know what unstable people are capable of doing. I’d also like to protect my legacy for her. There’s a good chance for a large chunk of her life I won’t be around to respond to the troll narrative and I would prefer her not to think I was a scumbag. I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my life but I’ve worked hard to be respectful of even people I passionately disagree with.

Second is the impossible task of managing your online reputation. Will Rogers once said, “It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but you can lose it in a minute.” Or the half second it takes to spread one career destroying rumor. I don’t doubt that the HR ladies who came after me so hard were using this manure as their fuel. It would never stand up in the court of law but their’s is a court of hysteria that’s becoming more and more of an issue. As someone who is back on the job market I don’t feel comfortable telling people to just Google me without forwarding this blogpost first.

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As a feminist there are a ton of issues to unpack here, including the nature of power imbalances in relationships. I have to state very clearly that there is a power imbalance in EVERY relationship, especially between and a man and a woman in a patriarchal society. Two twins could be dating (I know) and the one who was born first would have power that the other wouldn’t. It’s how you manage that imbalance that matters. Is it coercive or cooperative? And this thing of treating women in college as “girls” who have no mind (or libido) of their own is inherently anti-feminist, denying women their own agency. So if someone gives me the exact criteria in terms of what age differences is “abusive” let me know and I’ll call Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones and let them know if they are safe from the Sex Police in the Hollywood HR office.

Can you tell I’m a little pissed off? I’ve worked hard to build a career that makes a difference. I’ve certainly posted things on the internet that I regret, including when I was mad. It’s a medium conducive to impulsivity and verbal diarrhea. There’s lots I’d like to scrub. But this troll trend is scary. If you can’t build yourself up you tear somebody else down with zero blowback. It explains why good people don’t want to run for office.

It may be a problem of my own creation. I’ve made a career out of provoking people. Most of the time it’s in hopes of opening up larger discussion about things like white privilege and rape culture. But I’ll admit it, sometimes it’s just for sport and I should reel that shit in. I love my wife and daughter with a force that is mighty so I want to protect them from this completely pointless noise. Maybe it gives me a little insight into how Hillary Clinton feels. As someone who occasionally wrestles with depression, I have to remind myself that the people who actually know me actually know me and good people don’t believe everything that they read on the web.

Somedays I think the internet should just be unplugged for good.

NOTE: I recognize that not all trolls are Nazis or Trump supporters. Some have advanced degrees of education and work in universities.

Violence is the answer: I’m over football.

February 2, 2016

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I give up. I was ready to give up on American football before Concussion, the recent Will Smith movie that focuses on the NFL hiding the issue of the staggering number of serious head injuries among players. I was ready to give up before the endless stories of boys in high school who have died while playing football. I was ready to give up before the continuous stream of stories about college and professional football players beating the women in their lives. I was even ready to give up before Justin Timberlake ripped Janet Jackson’s bra off at Superbowl 38 and the controversy was more about almost seeing her nipple than it was about the implied sexual aggression against women. You can have it, but I’m giving up.

I was ready in 1978, the day I sat on the bus after a B-team football game with the rest of the members of my team at Redan High School. We had lost the game and I took it in stride. But I questioned another player who was in tears. He said, “If you don’t care about this team to cry when we lose then you don’t belong on the team.” And then he beat me up. I quit the next day and joined the punk rocker team.

It might surprise some folks that I was a huge football fan as a kid. I was obsessed with the Miami Dolphins in the early 1970’s and can still name the starting offensive team (including kicker Garo Yepremiam). In 4th grade I wrote a letter to coach Don Shula asking him why the Dolphins never played my hometown Atlanta Falcons. After that the O.J. Simpson poster was on the wall right next to Farrah. There was nothing more blissful than a Sunday watching the NFL highlight reel and all the great tackles shown in slow motion.

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In my podunk Georgia county (Dekalb in the 1970s), there were no middle schools. So 8th grade was the first year of high school. You want to feel small? And I skipped 5th grade so I was essentially a 7th grade kid in high school. The only way for a 12-year-old boy (or any boy) to stake his claim for Southern masculinity was to join the football team. No cuts. You show up to practice in the sweltering Georgia sun and you are on the team. You might be tenth string but you get to wear the jacket and be in the team picture and sit in the front at pep rallies. Oh, and you get cheerleaders cheering for you. And the only people that get to beat you up are your teammates.

So I rode the bench as an outside linebacker (#53) for three years. I was skinny but fast so when I did get to play I channeled those NFL films and did recover a fumble in one big game against Cross Keys High School. At most of the games me and the other sideline jockeys would smack our helmets against the bleachers to make it look like we got in some good hits. When I left in 10th grade I was happy to let the jocks have their game and get out without a serious injury. (The first year I broke my tailbone. The second year I broke my thumb. The third year I ripped a muscle in my back and got to sit in the hottub during afternoon practices.)

But it’s hard not to be a casual football fan with all the billions spent on hyping college and pro football. Even last year I wondered if feminism and Super Bowls could exist side-by-side. Football is the only major sport where there is not some reasonable equivalent for females. (And don’t you dare say, “Lingerie Bowl.”) At least Major League Baseball has women’s softball to narrow the gap. If my daughter wants to become a part of the NFL, her best option is to become the wife of a player and risk abuse that comes from a guy who is being exploited and has been hit in the head too many times. Or she can be a cheerleader, cheering on the guys and getting paid minimum wage. But who cheers for the cheerleader? Even management in the NFL is an old boys club. What’s a female football lover to do?

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The abuse of women by players (and fans) is an old sad story. The new wrinkle to that story is the growing understanding of the cumulative effect of countless head blows that players get as part of their job description. And this starts when they are unpaid players in school. Yet people are still making millions off these young men killing themselves for our entertainment. A few will make it to retirement with a nest egg but more are just chewed up by the machine. There is even a Wikipedia page for NFL players who died while still playing and you have to stop wondering when you see all the suicides. But go team!

There is, of course, a racial and class element to this as poor boys from inner cities and rural communities are told their one way to the American Dream is through professional sports, especially the hyper-masculine world of football. They can have everything they see dangled in front of them on ESPN, including super-model wives. All they have to do is sell their soul (or brains, ACLs, and spines) to the game and hope they are one of the few that has a post-career life worth living.

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This issue is finally getting some attention. The NFL reports that this season there were 317 reported concussions of NFL players. (Who knows how many are unreported?) And that number may be down because of better helmets for teams that can afford the latest, most expensive protective gear. I doubt the inner city high school team is in line for the new top-of-the-line Xenith helmets any time soon. And there is a new effort to decouple the violence on the grid iron from the violence in the home front that is encouraging. You just wonder if the neurology of football can counter a few well-meaning PSAs. But I have to say I have a big ol’ man-crush on former LA Ram Terry Crews and his efforts to bring these issues to the audience that needs to hear it the most. There are feminist football players, y’all.

In a society that claims to preach, “Violence is not the answer,” why do we still obsess over the macho violence of football? In football, violence IS the answer, and the harder the better. I’m not immune to this. As a kid in Georgia I would go to stock car races and PRAY to see a big crash. The game itself can be fascinating and artful and (in those slow-motion NFL films) can look more like ballet, than war. But there is a growing body count that is part of the cost. And that includes battered women who are beaten by brain-damaged players and former players.

I’m just not sure it’s worth all the hype. Sure it’s fun to meet friends to watch a big college bowl together. Maybe you even went to that school 100 years ago. And I know some people want to watch the Super Bowl “for the commercials,” but your are going to see every single one of those commercials a thousand times over the next three months (including whatever sexist crap GoDaddy and Carl’s Jr will throw at us). There certainly is a thrill to watching a live sporting event as it happens, and not TIVO’d (or like with the last Olympics, on a 3-day tape delay). To share in a global experience can be unifying and exhilarating. (Just witness my freak out for the World Cup every four years.) It crosses political, racial, class and even gender lines. I bet even Bernie Sanders has a pick for the big game. (I can hear him say, “I’m quite impressed the the Carolina Panthers ability to reduce the inequity between the salaries for its support staff and its management.”)

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I won’t hold it against you if you are all in for the sport and Sunday’s Super Bowl. I’m out. I’ve devoted enough time watching reruns of players getting folded, spindled and mutilated and just thinking, “That’s awesome!” This year, out of respect for the dozen boys who died playing high school football in 2015, like 17-year-olds Luke Schemm and Andre Smith, I’m going to spend Sunday hanging out with my daughter. Maybe we’ll go to the duckpond or go shopping. And I’m trying to teach her to play catch so she can play softball someday.

Edit: I’m supposed to watch this Frontline story: League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.