That Pig is a She! Normality of normative maleness

March 22, 2017

My daughter, Cozy, is now 2 years and 7 months old. (I will not say she’s “31 months old.” I won’t.) Seven months ago she had a few words, in English and Spanish. Now she’s having full conversations and saying things like, “Dad, I want the vanilla yogurt” and “Let’s go up Montjuïc!” (Montjuïc is a steep hill in Barcelona and my nickname for the ungodly steep hill on our street.) While I was writing this, she said, “Daddy, you have a booger on your pants. Oh, no. It’s Honey Bunches!” (her favorite cereal). Then she ate it. She is a linguistic sponge. “What’s this? What’s this?” She can’t learn words fast enough.

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The feminist sociologist in me is reminded how language shapes our perceptions of the world. When little boys are told, “Don’t cry like a girl,” there are a bunch of negative messages packed into one little phrase. When I announce the arrival of the “mailman,” it means a “mailwoman” is something odd. (About 40% of letter carriers are female. Ours is named Anthony.) A big issue in language is normative maleness, something I’ve already written about. Male as norm.

One of the most obvious ways this plays out is the language binary around jobs. Actor and actress. Waiter and waitress. Poet and poetress. The female as less. I’ve tried to banish these gendered terms from my vocabulary. Meryl Streep is an actor, Mr. Trump. She’s not an actress. Not in this house. Cozy will hear enough about the “female as less” outside our home. Here, let the message be clear. Now, Dad’s gotta do some laundry.

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This concept was pioneered by French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir in her groundbreaking 1949 book, The Second Sex. Our general discussion of “mankind” is gendered. When we discuss people, we mean “men” with women as the exception. “There is an absolute human type, the masculine… Thus humanity is male,” de Beauvoir wrote. In academics, when it’s time to talk about gender, that’s often code for female stuff, as if men don’t have gender. (There’s a gang of us that specialize on research on masculinity as gender performance.) This filters into our everyday language. If we don’t know for sure that someone (or something) is female, we just assume that they are male. If somebody reads this he’ll learn about normative maleness. (See what I did there?)

This goes all the way to animals. We assume dogs, birds, and squirrels are all male. “Look at that squirrel in the tree. He must be looking for his nuts.” I grew up around horses, so you kinda know the sex of that one, but don’t ask me to tell you whether that sewer rat is male or female. And we all do this. Even radical feminists like me. Normative maleness has been so wired into my brain, I blurt out “he’s” without even thinking about it. We had a mouse in our bedroom this winter. My wife said, “You gotta kill him!” I didn’t even think to say, “Maybe it’s a her!”

How is hearing all these “he’s” impacting my word-sponge daughter? Is she learning that male is the norm and female is “weird”? The thought stops me in my tracks. It’s not a little thing. IT IS NOT A LITTLE THING. There is a massive ripple effect of hearing this little thing over and over again. Think about how both boys and girls process this repeated message about devaluing the feminine. “He” is normal. “She” is not. Seriously, think about it.

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Cozy and I went to Oregon Zoo this week and I tried to be mindful of this messed-up norm. I made a point of using feminine pronouns more than male ones. “Look at that hippo and how big her teeth are.” “That penguin looks like she’s doing a dance.” “Don’t bother that cougar. I think she’s taking a nap.” (OK, the last one was a lady on a bench.) Her main goal of the day the day was to commune with the flamingos but my main goal of the day was to normalize the feminine. We were looking at a parrot and I asked her if she thought it (I almost said, “he”) was a boy or girl. And she said “boy.” When I asked why she said, “Because he’s silly.” So I don’t know if I achieved my goal or not. It was a pretty silly parrot.

I had a professor at Emory who would switch pronouns each term. Fall semester he would use male pronouns and Spring semester he would use female pronouns. Nobody said anything during the fall class (or noticed it), but they guys really got upset in the spring. It was a brilliant way to make an important point. What were those male students so angry about? That they are also co-eds?

There’s a 50/50 chance that animal your looking at or that person you don’t know is a female. If saying “he or she” seems like too much damn work, why not just say “she” to make up for all the years you’ve said, “he.”  I just hope that if someone reads this, she’ll think about the infinite power of language.

Chuck Berry told Jim Crow to roll over

March 18, 2017

Many times over the last several years I’ve reminded my friends that we live in the same world as Chuck Berry. Like people who lived in the time of Beethoven, we lived in a world where Berry still walked among us. Now some kid will have to sing, “Roll over, Chuck Berry.”

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There are people (and one President) who think America was great in 1954. We call these people “racists.” America was in the wicked grip of Jim Crow, slavery’s bastard offspring. Then on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court decided the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case and institutional racism of “great” America lost one important pillar. And three years later, skinny Dorothy Counts would be escorted into a high school in North Carolina while white students spit on her. But the writing was on the wall.

The summer of 1955 Chess Records released a single by an R&B singer from St. Louis named Chuck Berry who played guitar and wrote his own songs. He sang confidently and black legs spread wide. “Mayballene” hit #1 on the R&B charts and was the #3 song for the year on the Billboard chart. The world BCB (before Chuck Berry) was over. White kids were buying “race” records like there was no caucasian tomorrow. The children of the Baby Boom were smashing the wall of American segregation and “Johnny B. Goode” was their battle cry. I bet even some of those kids in the “White Citzen Council” who spit on Dorothy Counts would, sooner or later, own some Berry records.

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And it it wasn’t just American kids. The lads in the Beatles and the Rolling Stones sold their Anglican souls to become like Chuck, so much more than Elvis. Both played sets heavy in Berry-penned songs, including his B-sides. Listen to the Beatles’ version of Chuck’s “Rock and Roll Music.” John Lennon slyly changes the line, “It’s got a backbeat” to “It’s got a black beat” as they played in places where promoters wanted their audience to be racially segregated. (They refused to play segregated shows. They were playing a black beat, after all.)

Without Chuck Berry, there would be no Beatles or Stones, and perhaps no 1960s as we know it. Those 1950s white teenyboppers who snuck copies of “Sweet Little Sixteen” on to their parents’ hi-fi became the countercultural rebels of the 1960s, listening to John Coltrane albums and heading to Mississippi to register black voters that “Freedom Summer” of 1964, and then on to join SNCC and the whole movement to deconstruct the immoral order. You don’t have Lennon singing “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969 without “Mayballene” in 1955. And you don’t have anything that comes after. It would be 60 more years of the same, Truman to Trump.

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I was reflecting on this shortly after I heard the news today that Chuck has left us. As I am sometimes compelled to do, I scratched out some words as his first 1957 album, After School Session, blasted on from my turntable.

Earth BCB

There was a wall

Created by slave traders and Indian killers

One drop plus

The world was black and white

White against black

There was a wall

A partition between the waltz,

even the hillbilly one

and the boogie woogie

and a midnight rendezvous out back

One nation

Two halves of a whole

One race

Two people trapped

Walled off in a divided land

Then a back beat came

and the wall cracked

It had a black beat

and the white kids saw him

A brown-eyed handsome man

Out of a St. Louis shack

Give me Memphis Tennessee

Down to the delta

Then across the nation

A sound as black as coal

The wall fell

There would be no more before

The century turned on a dime

dropped right into the slot

Hail, hail rock and roll

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Chuck Berry goes back as far as I can remember.  My dad had a copy of “Johnny B. Goode” and I would visualize this strange character who could play a guitar just like ringing a bell. When I was 8, Chuck was back on the radio with his novelty hit, “My Ding-a-Ling,” but I already preferred his back catalog. I watched Chuck on the Mike Douglas Show with John Lennon, who said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” When NASA launched Voyager 1 into deep space forty years ago, I remember how smart they were to include a Chuck Berry record to demonstrate to some alien race that were an evolved species because we had Chuck Berry. (Leading to the hilarious Saturday Night Live Weekend Update tagline, “Send more Chuck Berry.) By the late seventies, Chuck’s music was rediscovered by punk rockers. His “School Days” was a favorite moment in the Ramones’ movie, Rock n Roll High School. And then in the 80s, thanks to Back to the Future, we learned that Chuck was first inspired my Michael J. Fox. Chuck Berry is the eternal time loop, up in the morning and off to school.

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It seems like he’s always been there. I was born in 1964 (shortly after his release from prison) so I guess he was. Anyone born after today will will have never shared the planet with Chuck Berry. How will they know that this wasn’t just a guy with a guitar? How will they know that his black beat changed a nation still chained in Jim Crow apartheid? How will they learn about the jukebox jumping with records back in the USA?

It’s not a tragedy to die at 90, especially if some of those years were spent locked up. There will be plenty of salacious details rehashed. Maybe they’re relevant. I just know this world would not be as it is if not for one brown-eyed handsome man named Charles Edward Anderson Berry. Hail, hail.

(Photo:  Jazz Fest, New Orleans 1994 by BP Fallon)

Note: This isn’t meant to a feminist analysis of Chuck Berry’s life or his music. That can come another day. The father of rock and roll is dead and the mother was never even named.

(Re) Making the case for hate crime laws in Trump’s America

March 15, 2017

Earlier this week a neighborhood in Southeast Portland was covered in spray-painted swastikas. Swastikas on cars, fences, trees, and sidewalks. It’s been part of a rash of similar graffiti in the metro area this winter, including “Kill niggers” and other racist scrawlings at Lake Oswego High School and a swastika with a “Heil Trump” tag in men’s room at Portland State University. A report released today by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism-California State University, San Bernardino found a 22% increase in reported hate crimes in 2016 in ten large cities across the country (including Seattle). Is this the new normal in Trump’s America?

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I spent the morning testifying at the Oregon state capital in support of Senate Bill 356, that would refine the state’s hate crime law and add gender and ethnicity to the protected statuses. It was a chance to explain to our state’s lawmakers the “greater harm” of bias motivated criminality and why the nation started passing these laws in the 1980s. I began my testimony with the story of a woman named Loni Kai, who was born a male named Lorenzo Okaruru. Kai was brutally murdered in 2001. She was last seen hitchhiking on a main thoroughfare in Hillsboro, Oregon. Her body was found in a  nearby field the following day with her head caved in from a savage beating. At the time, the case could not be investigated and prosecuted as a hate crime because gender (and gender identity) were not included in the state’s hate crime statute. Almost 16 years later there still have been no arrests in the murder of Loni Kai.

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Since election day there has been a dramatic increase of hate crimes and hate incidents around the country. Hate incidents are acts that protected by the Constitution as free speech but are still hateful. After the election, there were numerous reports of high school boys telling Muslim and Latinx students that Trump was going to get them. It’s not uncommon to see cars and trucks in Oregon with swastika placards. Hate crimes are things that are already illegal (vandalism, assault, murder, etc.) that are committed because of a bias motive towards the victims perceived demographic membership. Yes, this includes kids who get beat up because they are white.

Hate Crimes as a form of terrorism

If I had the dollar for every time somebody asked me, “Isn’t every crime a hate crime?” I’d be a rich sociologist. Most crimes are motivated by financial gain, so I’d like to hear your argument that stealing a bike is a hate crime or burning down the business for insurance fraud is a hate crime. Hate crimes focus on the motive, a common thing in criminal prosecution. That’s why there is a difference between homicide and manslaughter. Did that guy break into your house to steal your gun or to just take a shower? Those are two different crimes.

Why don’t we consider the September 11, 2001 attacks 2,977 cases of homicide (or one case of homicide with 2,977 victims)? Because all of America was the target. And those who were around on that day can testify that every single person was affected. (I had an irrational anxiety about crossing large bridges for months – a real problem in Portland). The goal wasn’t to kill just the people on the planes, in the Pentagon, and in the World Trade Center. The intended victim was all Americans. Terrorism is a message crime targeted at entire populations. A swastika spray-painted on a Jewish family’s car is going to impact more than just that family. This is why these laws exist. Greater harm.

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The research is clear. Hate hurts more. Nobody wants to be a victim of a crime. It straight up sucks. But hate crimes tend to be more violent, like baseball repeatedly bashing a skull violent. Like Osama bin Laden, hate criminals want to send a clear message to a larger population. Get out of my land. If hate crime victims survive, they are more likely to need reconstructive surgery and long term-therapy compared to other victims of violent crime. We know that hate crime victims have deeper psychological scars and suicide attempts. When someone beats you for your gender identity, it’s deeper than someone beating you because they want your debit card. Victims of hate tend to withdraw and then the cavalcade of problems continue; at their job, in their family, and with their community.

It doesn’t end there. The target community also suffers. Who is going to be the next victim? Is this attack a reflection of wider beliefs? If there is a gay bashing in Portland tonight, all members of the LGBTQ community in Portland will experience the wave of anxiety and impulse to withdraw. The 1988 murder of Mulugeta Seraw in Portland by racist skineads created a wave of fear in the city, and not just among the local Ethiopian community. Many people of color shut their doors and focused on their and their children’s safety. Like how Americans felt after 9/11, but just think of a 9/11 after 9/11 after 9/11.

Wait, there’s more! Researchers have found that whole communities suffer after a hate crime. People start wondering what side their neighbors are on. Vibrant networks are strained as distrust grows. Yusef Hawkins was a 16-year-old black boy who was murdered by a white mob in Bensonhurst, New York in 1989. In the aftermath, the community erupted into months of racial conflict and violence. To this day, you can’t hear the name “Bensonhurst” and not think of how bad we can be to each other.

Officials gather near the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek in Wisconsin

That leads to the last harm, the place itself. Like Bensonhurst, what do you think of when someone says Jasper, Texas or Laramie, Wyoming? There’s a good chance you recall the brutal 1998 murders of James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard. Places become stigmatized by the hate crimes that occur there. Many people across the world still think of the Seraw killing (29 years ago!) when someone says “Portland, Oregon.” I’ve had numerous people ask me, “Is Portland safe? I’ve heard about these skinheads.” And pity the poor state of Idaho. Nobody is looking at brochures from the Chamber of Commerce these days. They’re using Google and guess what they find when they look up Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

I am not your white person

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In the Academy Award-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, the late African-American author James Baldwin asks us to take a real look at the state of race in America. Not a Hollywood version, but a real hard look. And by “us,” he really means white people because everybody else pretty much knows what’s up. I’ve learned that most white people don’t like it when a person of color holds a mirror too close to their face. They’ll call them “racist” for trying to show them their own unstated racism. They’ll accuse them of “stirring up trouble” (as a white friend from Georgia said on my Facebook page today about Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. John Lewis). Looking is uncomfortable. The airbrushed version of myself is so much prettier.

The ugly reflection is that hate crimes are on the increase in America. Bomb threats at Jewish Centers, Muslim-Americans being assaulted and told to leave the country, Latinos being beaten by self-styled vigilantes, gay and trans kids being bullied, and, yes, even some white folks getting beaten up just for being white. This is the civil war our current president has no interest in rectifying. In fact, he has only fanned the flames of hatred.

In Oregon, we are trying to take a stand against both the history of oppression and the current effort to take us back to “again,” when, for some people, America was “great.” Never again. I’m proud to be a part of that effort.

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Interviewing Neo-Nazis has taught me how to talk to Trump supporters

March 9, 2017

Riding on a Portland bus one time, I was talking to one of my PSU students and said, “I was at a Klan rally once…” and I think all talk on the bus stopped. My student knew I was referring my years of undercover work in the white supremacist world, but the passengers on the Number 8 likely thought I was one of the racist recruiters that pop up in the city looking for fresh cuts for the coming race war.

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It’s impossible to count the number of white supremacists I’ve interviewed over the last 30 years. Over 200, for sure. Some of that was at covert Klan rallies in Georgia, in dark strip bars in Oregon, and in the bright light of the mainstream media. (Somebody please put my appearance on the Sally Jesse Raphael Show on YouTube. It’s a Klanriffic hoot!) I’ve interviewed anti-government militia members in a cabin in Montana and Aryan murderers in a Texas prison where I had to wear a Kevlar vest (to protect my vital organs, the guard said). And I’ve interviewed grandsons of real Nazis in Berlin, standing next to the rubble of the wall.  And I’ve heard it all.

In qualitative research we call it “data saturation.” When you start hearing the same thing over and over again, you’ve probably got enough information to start building a theory. Did you know the world is controlled by a secret Jewish cabal? Did you know that Jews in the music business want white kids to listen to rap music so they won’t listen to their own “white” music? (Yodeling, perhaps.) Did you know that if a white woman has intercourse with a black man, his sperm is so potent, any child she has after that will be part black? (I always thought that one was a pretty good case for black supremacy.) These people were mastering alternative facts before Sean Spicer knew how to chew gum.

People often ask, “How can you sit down and talk to these Nazis?” Well, beer helps. And growing up in a Klan town, like Stone Mountain, Georgia, doesn’t hurt. Many of these “extremists” are a lot like the people I grew up with, a few who went off and joined the Klan or other racist groups. They are, at their core, human beings who are trying to make sense of the world with the tools they’ve been given. And that’s why there is hope.

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When I started interviewing racist skinheads in the 1980s, people would ask me, “What happens to these people when they grow up?” And I’d say, “I don’t know. Talk to me in 30 years and I’ll tell you.” Now there is a whole world of former racist activists who are actively engaged in the other side, working to undue the hate they once spread. They have written amazing books, like Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, and formed vitally important organizations, Life After Hate. Individually and collectively they talk to young people about the mistakes and thinking errors they made that caused them to burn up valuable time in their lives while undermining the essential peace in our communities. The best person to talk about the problems with living in the extreme right-wing is somebody who used to live in the extreme right-wing.

When Trump launched his political campaign in 2015, it was painfully clear he was borrowing the playbook from white supremacists. My blog post on the parallels of Trump’s rhetoric and what you’re likely to hear at a KKK rally has over 270,000 reads and has been posted across the world. (I was even interviewed by a newspaper in Spain about its assertions.)  In the time since then, I’ve written about how a good number of his followers share many qualities with the rank and file followers of neo-fascist subcultures.

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I’ve been honored to help many people leave the world of hate. They use their experience as both a source of reflection and advocacy. I have to think the same will be true with many Trump followers. That as the true agenda of his administration becomes clear, many of those people who voted for him, including people in my family, will see the thinking errors and reject his dangerous demagoguery. The best people to talk about the dangers of supporting Donald Trump will be people who used to support Donald Trump. Just like inside every white supremacist is a potential committed anti-racist activist, inside every Trump supporter is a potential social justice warrior. The threat of Trump to core American values is just too serious to not try.

I want to briefly outline a few traps that both white supremacists and Trump fans (and plenty of liberals) get caught in. Maybe these issues can be addressed when attempting to appeal to the humanity of either. (By the way, I could write a book on each of these. But here are 3 quickies.)

Low-Effort Thinking

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When we are young we learn in opposites. Up/down, good/bad, hot/cold. It’s been something of a miracle that I’ve convinced my 2-year-old daughter that there is a category called “warm.” But when we’re kids, the Good Guys are always good and the Bad Guys are always bad (and look it). Similarly, we think of gender as “opposite sexes.” As we get older, things become more nuanced and endlessly shaded in grey, depending on context. Are those guys terrorists or freedom fighters? It depends what side you are on. Is that person male or female? Try asking them how they identify.

Many of the people I studied never graduated to shades of grey. Figuring out the context was too much work. They’d say things like, “How come black people can use the N word but I can’t?” Everything associated with white was good, and non-white was bad. Men were men and women were girls. Their leaders were infallible (until they weren’t) and anything outside their tiny subculture was perverted and corrupt. Stereotypes were absolute and they actively looked for anything to confirm them (“Did you hear about that black guy who raped the white girl?”) and ignored anything that invalidated the stereotype (like their own white criminality).

Numerous studies have backed this up. Feminist Patricia Hill Collins has long examined how dichotomous thinking fosters racism and the research supports the idea that people who see the world in black and white have a hard time empathizing with people they don’t see as members of their group. A 2012 study found this type of “low-effort thinking” pushed people towards the conservative end of the political spectrum. It’s just easier. John Wayne never worried about “nuance,” right?

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Of course this is the hallmark of the Trump supporter who hates Obamacare but wants to keep the benefits gained under the Affordable Care Act. (Anything associated with Obama is “bad.”) In Trumpland, you are either with us or against us. America first! There’s no need for diplomacy when your arsenal is bigger than theirs. Trump was the guy who said the show Blackish was racist because you couldn’t have a show called Whiteish (which would be 98% of the shows on TV). And Ben Carson’s goofy comments about immigration and slavery are no different than Obama’s. Don’t ask me to look at the “context.”

On its surface, it seems moronic, but we all engage in some type of low-effort thinking. I still think anyone who plays for the New York Yankees must be care more about money than the game. Could I be wrong?

It’s a conspiracy, I tell ya!

That low-effort thinking paves the way for conspiracy theories. Nazis are the master of this. It all goes back to their hackneyed belief that events across the planet are controlled by a secret gang of Jewish rabbis. Why is circumcision the norm in the United States? Those rabbis want to lob off gentile foreskins to force the goyim into submission. They’ve got a million of these.

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The conspiracy theory orders their world and simplifies it. A white student fails social studies? It’s because he or she is being forced a “multicultural curriculum meant to make whites feel guilty.” A white dude can’t find a girlfriend? It’s because the Zionist Occupation Government gets non-white women to die their hair blonde so you can’t tell who is truly “white.” (A Neo-Nazi once shot up a bunch of beauty parlors for this exact reason.) The theory explains literally EVERYTHING. No context or thinking required.

You have to think Joseph Goebbels would be proud of Donald Trump, the modern master of the alt-right conspiracy theory lifted straight from Alex Jones’ Infowars. From “Obama’s birth certificate” to “Obama tapped my phones!,” it’s an endlessly fact-free world and his supporters love it. The Mexican government is conspiring to send its rapists across the border and the “fake media” is conspiring to make him look bad. The definition of “fake news” has been repurposed to mean anything that’s not favorable coverage of his ego-driven administration, sending his loyal troops to get their information from “real news” sources, like Breitbart and the National Enquirer. Conspiracy theories about Muslims and refugees and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s the dumbing down of America. Where have we seen this kind of cultural thinking before? Hint: You won’t find the answer at Breitbart.

Inside the bubble

All this leads to something we’ve been hearing a lot about lately, life under the dome. (And not the cancelled CBS show I was briefly addicted to.) Hate groups work a lot like cults. The flow of information inside the bubble confirms all biases and anything outside the bubble must be avoided, including that gay uncle and cousin who dated a black guy, as well as the classmate who went off to college and was brainwashed by the liberal Jewish (or Jewish liberal) education system. Under the dome their is complete accord – that everyone outside the dome sucks.

That echo chamber is a powerful force on social media where it’s easy to mute a noisy neighbor who has upsetting viewpoints. I’ll admit I’ve blocked a few Trumpies this past year, mainly because I don’t want to waste time arguing. I’m happy to engage, but anytime I see the word “libtard,” I just close my laptop and make a sandwich. That’s not a person who wants a reasoned conversation.

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While there are echo chambers on both the right and left, research shows conservatives are more likely to seek out news sources that confirm their own political positions while liberals are more likely to seek out opposing views. (I always enjoy a quick dip in the Fox News crazy house.) Conservatives tend to be more distrustful of anything coming from outside their bubble. There’s little chance for an alternative perspective if your Trump-loving dad thinks the New York Times is “fake news” and would rather proclaim, “Ditto, Rush!”

Learning from ex-Nazis

The path out of the white supremacist world is often a very personal one. I’ve published about male racists connecting with females who impressed upon them the value of empathy and their own potential victim status as women. Frank Meeink, former racist skinhead leader, has written about how life routinely put people in his path who shattered all his stereotypes. One of my friends was involved in a notorious racist murder in Portland and her conversion started when she befriended her black cellmate and began listening to stories from outside her bubble.

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Even the most hard-core Trump supporter has potential of moving to a radically different position. We’re already seeing scores of disillusioned Trump voters who see that they’ve been duped. If we can help move others out of the black/white thinking, away from the simplistic conspiracy theories, and out of their echo chamber, the possibilities are endless. They’ll reflect back on the days when they were chanting, “Build a wall!” and “Lock her up!” and shake their heads. Instead of pushing them further into a dark corner, we can walk them out to the light.

This piece is dedicated to my family and friends who voted for Donald J. Trump in 2016. It’s 2017 and the door is open.

The Art Teacher Was a Lady

March 2, 2017

Art Lady, you saved me.

It was big thrill when we got out of our usual elementary school routine to go to art class. It may have been for only one hour once a week, but it gave the kids a chance to use a different part of their brains. The teacher was usually a lady with crazy make-up and funky clothes (a big deal in 1970s Georgia), but we were happy to be unleashed. I seem to remember making a lot of crappy ashtrays for my parents who didn’t smoke. But whoever she was, Ms. Art Teacher always let us do our own thing. And I don’t ever remember any Mr. Art Teachers.

There was a coded message that art was feminine. Men taught math, even football coaches, and women “let you” do art. History (as the history of wars) was necessary, but art was extracurricular. When President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law in 2002, public schools saw a dramatic defunding of “non-essential” arts and music programs (as well as history and language classes) to shift resources to math and English. Once again the feminine was devalued. So the millennials got even less time with the Art Lady then we did. Gee, what could go wrong?

There are a truckload of studies that show the benefits of exposing kids to arts in school. Students that have arts, music, and dance in school score better in reading, writing, and math and have higher graduation rates. Kids with an art background become better citizens and add to community cohesion. Schools with art programs have fewer disciplinary problems. Students who take art classes even have healthier brains. And the findings go on and on. But why waste our time with artsy fartsy arts when we could be teaching our youth to find the value of x?

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I’ve been reflecting on my own arts education, or lack of it. The elementary school arts teacher didn’t follow us into high school. (There was no middle school in Georgia in the 1970s). There was a small arts club at our school but not much beyond that. (The Industrial Arts Club had more members.) Certainly if you showed any affinity for the arts you were called a “fag.” This was especially true for boys. I’ve written about my short tenure playing high school football as simply a performance of the narrow definition of high school masculinity. I was riding the bench when I would have rather been reading and listening to records. It wasn’t until the arrival of punk rock to rural Georgia that I found righteousness in being bullied. Iggy Pop saved me from a life as a half-assed jock.

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I was one of the lucky ones. My parents were from Cleveland, not Stone Mountain. My mom played saxophone in a jazz band and got to hang out with Louis Armstrong. Her mother was a globe trotter and brought us musical instruments from all over the planet. (I used the balalaika to mime to Kiss songs.) My dad traveled for business and brought the outside world back with him. We had a baby grand piano in the house and regularly gathered around and sang the songs of old. I liked to act in school plays. (I was Mr. Grumpy in Mr. Grumpy’s Toy Shop, dammit!) My great love of literature was nurtured at home, so while my friends were off getting drunk in a field, I was reading George Orwell, Jim Carroll and barbarian stories by Robert E. Howard, while listening to Blue Oyster Cult albums. My cohort seemed to reject anything connected expression, by themselves or others. (Although there was a brief moment in 1980 when it seemed that half of Redan High School was reading Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire.) The mission, as it is in every high school, was to manage conformity. And anyone a few steps outside of normal had to be punished.

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By my senior year there was a small group of us punk kids and it was brutal. We’d get physically attacked by boys who demand that we stop listening to “fag rock” and “go buy some Nugent.” Gender conformity extended to even music. (I actually had Ted Nugent in my LP collection, between the New York Dolls and Gary Numan.) Thanks to rock magazines, like Creem and Circus, I got into the Australian band AC/DC long before they broke in the US. But I knew if I wore my AC/DC t-shirt to to RHS in the 70s, the reaction from the rednecks was like the drool of Pavlov’s dogs. “Hey, Gayzak! AC/DC? That means you’re a fucking faggot! Ha, ha!” Two years later they would worship this band, but they had to make it to the overground first. Anything from the underground was associated with “fairies.”

Of course, for me, the underground is where I wanted to be. I wanted to escape to the Lower East Side of NYC and hang out with Patti Smith and the Ramones. Or San Francisco and sip cappuccinos with the bastard children of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Or the Sunset Strip in LA where I could have a funny haircut and hang out with actors. There was one store at Lennox Square Mall in Atlanta called Rain that sold “new wave clothes,” and once I got my drivers license I was a regular customer, fully knowing that identifying myself as “other” would lead to more beat downs from the boys. Saint Iggy, protect us.

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The world of art was my escape. I was never told by the people that mattered to me, including parents, teachers, and rock stars interviewed in the sacred pages of Rolling Stone, that I should not search for my own voice. When you’re a kid, it’s mostly consuming to find the idiom that most speaks to you. Am I a realist, surrealist, goth, or mod? And then you start, in bits and pieces, and five-line poems and napkin sketchings, to externalize your own internal chaos. For me it was discovering the teenage poetry of Liverpool writers, like Roger McGough and Adrian Henri, that got my #2 pencil moving. “In forgotten graveyards everywhere the dead will quietly bury the living and you will tell me you love me, tonight at noon.” They opened the door to bebop jazz and the world of bohemia. My mind was gone and my body soon followed. Out, out, out of Stone Mountain.

I’m reflecting on all this because the strange world of Facebook has given me a fascinating (and totally unscientific) longitudinal data set. It’s allowed me to reconnect with my high school peers and peek in on their trajectories over the last 30+ years. Those of us who hung out on the fringes of conformity, the formerly despised “art fags,” generally ended up in some pretty cool places and are still rooted in a cultural defiance that others never got to enjoy. The Nugent-crowd still has a vested interest in the status quo. (“Give Trump a chance. Get rid of those illegals. Religious freedom of cake bakers to discriminate!”) There are certainly exceptions to this, but the art-averse climate of my little Georgia Klan town is not that dissimilar to the defunded arts program world that gave us Trump and the “mandate” to not offer protection to transgender kids who need to use the goddam bathroom.

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At what point did we become truly human? One could argue that it was when Paleolithic people first began making art. Artifacts dating as far back as 50,000 years show our attempt to translate our experience for others. The 10,000 year-old cave paintings in France are vivid depictions of not only the real but the spiritual. What is life? There is a direct link from a cave dweller banging out a new rhythm on a hollow log to the latest Ed Sheeran song. (Well, I’m guessing cave drummer didn’t see the beat as “product,” but you get what I mean.) The arts tell us we are unique and have our own voice. You don’t need Ted Nugent to speak for you.

It’s funny how the arts are framed as feminine. All the most famous artists are male. Name one female painter other than Frida Kahlo. Meanwhile girls and women are creating amazing works because it is an innately human act. It’s like how cooking is a “feminine art,” but all the highest paid chefs are men. Casting the wide world of the arts, whether it’s playing a cello or writing a memoir, as a feminine world allows it to be marginalized. Artists are in touch with their feminine side and soldiers are in touch with their masculine side. And we wonder why ISIS blows up libraries and Donald Trump wants to defund the National Endowment for the Arts to help pay for record build up of the military.

Our future as humans depends on fostering the arts among our youth. I bet the Art Lady would agree.

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