What Do We Give the World?

March 29, 2018

We are a nation of consumers. We take things in; Smartphones, Cool Ranch Doritos, Netflix series, overpriced coffee drinks, tabloid gossip, and countless internet posts. It is all digested by our collective guts. We consume so much and yet produce so little. The question that hangs in the air is – what do you give back to the world? Are you a human trade deficit importing more than you are exporting?

If I have a life philosophy it comes from my Eagle Scout father who, when we were off camping, always reminded me to leave the campsite in better shape than I found it. I’ve taken that to have much broader meaning, especially now as a father. Put more in than take out. But what do I have to give? I have friends that house African refugees and write exposés about the criminal justice system. Big stuff!

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I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because my services as an “expert” on hate and extremism have become increasingly in demand, whether it’s consulting on murder cases or running anti-bias workshops for federal employees. I have an invited opinion piece out this week in Huffington Post on gender and white supremacy, which means a bunch of people are going to think I must know something about something. But do I? What is criteria by which one has taken in enough information that they are qualified to start exporting information out?

In academia, one measure is the drive to “publish or perish.” In my path to tenure, I published books and articles, but, although I made it all the way to the top rank at Portland State, “full professor,” it never felt like enough. (Some of my fellow criminologists are publishing machines!) I balanced my academic work with sociological fiction that I hoped would reach a wider audience than a journal article or overpriced textbook. Parenthood has now stolen much of my writing time. I’m currently working on a book on prison culture, a chapter on the impacts of hate crime on the local Muslim population, and a journal article on my research on prison visitation. I was going to get much of that done during Spring Break. Yeah, no.

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When you are young and hungry and moving up the ladder, obsession becomes your work ethic. I watched zero TV in the early nineties because I was too busy reading all the stuff you have to have read to be “knowledgeable.” I had to force myself to watch Melrose Place just so I could participate in conversations with my peers. You’re a sponge, taking it all in, and synthesizing it, and waiting for the time to be right to put your version out into the world for some other young upstart to consume.

Now that I’m older, I’m starting to take confidence in my ability to export my knowledge. All that experience has value, monetizable value. There’s no end to the learning. I certainly had a great lesson learning about white fragility this year. But the time is right to share these lessons and, when appropriate, get paid for it. Traditional cultures revere their elders for the wisdom they’ve collected. I might not be Yoda yet, but I’ve got some ideas to share.

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This popped up because I was recently invited to present my work at a workshop on violent extremism and gender in Abu Dhabi that is being hosted by the UN. I balked. First of all, the United Arab Emirates is pretty much on the opposite side of the planet. It’s a long way to go to talk for an hour. But also, why me? Am I really that much of an expert to merit these good folks to flying me to the Middle East (and putting me up for four nights)? Everyone told me to go, of course, and that if I could actually help people to understand this issue I really had to go. “If people will be helped by your experience, you need to get on that plane,” said one friend.

Every person is an expert on their own lives. As an ethnographer, I love to talk to people about their journeys and what they’ve learned along the way. Along my way, I’ve learned  that talking about what I’ve consumed and processed is not just about hearing the sound of my own voice, but exporting insight that can actually make a difference in this crazy historical period that feels like a giant backslide. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the “sage on the stage” role, but experience matters. Your experience matters and so does mine.

Before I fly off to Abu Dhabi, I fly off to Chicago, and after Abu Dhabi, I fly off to Oslo, Norway. It’s all to talk. Andrea made me a great website (www.randyblazak.com) so I can talk more. It might be okay to say that sharing what I’ve learned to make the world more livable is what I’m going to give back. We’ve got a campsite that needs to be cleaned up.

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Dad Love: An Open Letter to Non-Breeders

March 19, 2018

Note: We were lucky enough to be able to have children. Many of my friends can’t. My heart goes out to them. I hope their love still makes the world spin.

I’m from the generation that was in a panic over overpopulation. The mathematicians had crunched the numbers on their room-sized computers and figured the planet’s accelerated population growth would strip the resources until the day when there were more people than peanuts. It would be Soylent Green, then The Omega Man, straight through to Planet of the Apes. Only Charlton Heston would survive.

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This went through to the 80s punk-era when we devoted much vitriol for the “yuppies in the suburbs.” They were popping out kiddies faster than they could buy “Baby on Board” signs for their SUVs. (The U.S. birthrate did accelerate after 1980, as the  Millennial Generation started to arrive.) The Chinese were on to something,  limiting couples to two children. (I know, “ethical issues.”) More than two and you are taking more than you are giving and that’s evil; I don’t care what kooky offshoot of a mainstream religion you follow. How about none? “Who would want children in this over-populated cesspool. It’s gonna go all Road Warrior in, like, five years.”

We’re still racing to 8 billion people on the planet but the green revolution bought us some time, staving off the Malthusian tipping point when your town becomes The Road. Nevertheless, I am a product of my environment. Whenever I thought I might make a good parent, I would hear Lydia Lunch’s epic rant about children as vanity items, born of unrestrained egos. Children that grow up to destroy their creators. No thanks.

I don’t know if men have anything akin to a biological clock. When I hit my forties, some of friends from my youth were already becoming grandparents. Do the math. You have a kid at 18, and your kid does the same, you are a 36-year-old Mee-Maw. The thought started to re-enter my head and then after one week of dating Andrea, I knew we were going to become parents together. It was a cosmic message I’ll attribute to her goddess radiance (and a few whiskey gingers).

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I am now a breeder and I’m sorry it took so long to join the club. Yeah, I worry that our daughter will inherit a world that makes Black Mirror episodes look like My Little Pony. Or that the current idiot regime will end up selling America to China in some “art of the deal” maneuver and she’ll be working in a factory selling crap to be sold in a Beijing Walmart. But I have a feeling parents have had the same worries for a millennia. It always seems one generation away from end-times. It’s 2018 and we’re not eating soylent green. (Although I’m not 100% sure of the complete composition of Nutella.)

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I have a three-and-a-half year-old and every day is crazy bliss. The world could be on fire but I will be laughing hysterically because she just said, “Daddy, come in here and wipe my butt.” I still watch her sleep in complete marvel that we made this perfect creature. There are maybe half a dozen pictures of me at 3. There are a good 10,000 of our Cozy. Every milestone is celebrated. The first day she could open the front door, I panicked but now she asks to play outside. She now dresses herself, loves Tchaikovsky,  and says things like,  “I have a hypothesis” and “You have to stay hydrated.” It’s an endless sense of amazement every single day. Non-breeders must be disgusted by all our drooling and I could care less. I’m in a dopamine induced dream-state and each day brings a new high. As I write this she is putting on her ballet clothes because she wants to do a “beautiful dance” to the Kate Bush album I’m playing. Top that, hipsters.

On a side note, I don’t understand people who are not connected their children. There must be a dislodged silicone chip inside their heads. I have no doubt that I would take a bullet for this kid and am more than happy to know my life now is about serving her. I don’t mourn the loss of the guy who could spend an hour waiting in line for Sunday brunch. We’re making oatmeal with blueberries. When we fly together and the flight attendant says, in case of emergency, put your air mask on before you put one on your child, I have to really think about it. I can hold my goddamn breath, okay?

For a long time, I was a militant vegan. I would tell people, “Meat is murder!” Then I had sushi for the first time and I shut up about that meat is murder shit. Sorry, I just didn’t know. If you haven’t ever had a glass of really expensive wine, you can;t knock people who drop $100 on a bottle of pinot noir.

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I get the snark about breeders. Eight billion people is a lot of assholes. Sometimes I wish a virus would cover the earth and just wipe out dudes named Lance. We gotta get this down to a manageable 5 billion, but, hey, that’s not up to me. But I get the attitude. That was me until it wasn’t. Now I’m on the other side. I go to birthday parties for four-year-olds and talk to parents about the joys of potty training and cognitive development and joke about possible arranged marriages for our kids.

I look at my child and I see all the joys and sorrows of the world. I see babies being bombed in Syria or the toddlers being carried through the swaps of Myanmar. But I also see every child who looks up at the sky and dreams to fly. Cozy recently told me, “Daddy, I have I have something to tell you. I really love you and the moon. Can we go there someday?” I used to read the weeklies, looking for the next hip thing. Now I just look at her and wonder what took her so long to arrive in my life.

I’m not saying you should join the breeders club, but if you do, you will ask yourself the same thing. How did I not know?

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Masculinity Isn’t Toxic. Toxic Masculinity Is

March 9, 2018

I first started writing about toxic masculinity five years ago. I presented a research paper entitled, “Two Hours Without My Game Face: Inmates Discuss Prison Visitation and Toxic Masculinity” at the annual convention of the Pacific Sociological Association in lovely Reno, Nevada. The term was new and mostly academic. In the wake of the Parkland, Florida mass shooting, suddenly everyone is talking about toxic masculinity and that’s a good thing. Toxic masculinity is about the corrosive effects of the performance of a certain type of male role. It’s not about all men. But trying to explain that gender is a performance makes some people’s heads explode.

Just like the blowback from those who don’t understand the concepts of white privilege or implicit bias (Mike Pence, I’m looking at you), the howls from the right have been predictable. “Masculinity is not toxic!” “It’s open season on men!” “Toxic masculinity is a myth!” Blah, blah, blah. Fragile masculinity at work. I hope these snowflakey blokes don’t own AR-15’s.

The work on toxic masculinity comes out of the research on the experience of men in correctional facilities, most notably by Terry A. Kupers (and later, my own work). Kupers highlights the seven characteristics of toxic masculinity:

  • Extreme competition and greed
  • Insensitivity to others
  • Strong need to dominate and control others
  • Incapacity to nurture
  • Dread of dependency
  • Readiness to resort to violence
  • Stigmatization of women, gays, and men who exhibit feminine characteristics

These characteristics are common among men who are incarcerated. The predatory environment of prison encourages men to be on-guard and ready to fight 24-7. If you are not victimizing someone, you are more likely to be victimized by others. I noticed it among my interview subjects who would put on their emotional armor before reentering the prison population where they never let their guard down or unclenched their fists, even while they slept. It’s emotionally taxing but requires an emotionless willingness to be viscously violent at a moment’s notice.

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These same characteristics are now being used to describe the hyper-masculinity of school shooters. No, their violence was not caused by violent video games, but their obsession with violent media, including video games, is a symptom of this obsession with carnage, devoid of empathy. There are a number of red flags for the boys and men who become mass shooters and all are represented by Kupers’ characteristics of toxic masculinity. Nobody has ever accused a man or boy who has shot up his workplace or school of being a “nurturing” individual.

Most boys learn some version of toxic masculinity the minute they are told not to cry “like a girl,” or throw “like a girl,” or do anything “like a girl.” The devaluing of all things feminine sets boys up on a path of increasingly alienating choices. We encourage girls to be more like boys because that is seen as a path to empowerment but it might also be a path to suppressing what females have to offer, only to have it erupt in the same wanton violence males commit. (When 50% of school shooters are female, will that be heralded as “equality”?)

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Contrastingly, any boy who even starts to “act like a girl” is castigated as a sissy. “Don’t tell me about your feelings, tell me whose ass you want to kick.” “What? You want to be a ballet dancer? Quick! Buy this boy a gun!” Given the fact that women, on average, live seven years longer than men, maybe we should encourage our boys to act more like girls. I mean, if we love them.

Fortunately, there are other masculinities besides toxic masculinity. This includes peacemaking masculinity, integral masculinity, and queer masculinity. Boys don’t have to become cartoon characters of unfeeling macho men, solving problems with their fists. The easiest example is the difference between bourgeois masculinities (“Tennis, anyone?”) and working class ones. And not all working class masculinities are brutish thugs, screaming “Stella!” (Just think of Dan Conner on the sitcom Roseanne, returning to a TV near you.)

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We men have a lot to learn from women who are more relational and less self-repressing. Women suffering from mental distress don’t go on killing sprees. Research shows that women tend to be better problem solvers, facilitating team resources as opposed to men who declare, “I got this!” and then walk off a cliff. Women listen while men are talking out of their asses. Michael Kimmel, in his vitally important book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, urges parents to, instead of raising young males as “just boys,” raise just boys; boys whose masculinity is defined by their concern for social justice.

This country is turning a corner. The #metoo movement will drive out our rapist president and his “bros before hos” alt-right henchmen. The antifeminist Proud Boys with their “We venerate the housewife” bullshit will cave in from their own toxicity. Patriarchy still has plenty of sexual harassers and school shooters to offer, but the more we can raise our boys to think and act like girls, the healthier everyone will be, especially the people who won’t be dead because they weren’t shot by some boy or man having an emotional meltdown because their dad once told them not to cry “like a girl.”

My Conversation with Gloria Steinem

March 2, 2018

New York City is always filled with unexpected moments and celebrity sitings. This week my wife saw Robert DeNiro walking down MacDougal Street in the Village while was I was staring at my phone, texting a friend. My moment was when feminist godmother Gloria Steinmem walked into an event that I was scheduled to speak at on Tuesday and suddenly this woman, whose pictures I had pasted into PowerPoint slides and classroom handouts on feminist history, was standing in a room with me. There are few people, living or dead, who are more associated with the modern American feminist movement than Ms. Steinem.

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We were in the Big Apple to help launch Michael Kimmel’s new book called Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get Into-And Out of-Violent Extremism. Kimmel is one of the leading scholars on the pitfalls and promises of masculinity. His 2008 bestseller, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, was required reading for my Social Theory students at Portland State. Healing From Hate follows the story of men who have left the hate movement and it recognizes that it wasn’t hate that brought them in but a deep pain associated with a crisis in their gendered expectations of how the world should be. The event was held at the downtown campus of Fordham University, which is part of Lincoln Center. There was wine and spanakopita, and Gloria Steinem.

I ran into the auditorium to tell Andrea who was in the house. “Go talk to her!” she said. “And get a picture.” It turns out she’s friend of Michael Kimmel’s and came to support him at his event. “Did you see Gloria Steinem is here?” he asked me. I just made some sounds that were not actual words and then, not wanting to wait until she was mobbed made a beeline to talk to her.

“Hi Gloria, I’m on the panel tonight and I just wanted to say hello.” I said something about being a feminist criminologist and I wasn’t nervous about speaking that night until I saw her arrive. She said something to the effect of “thank you for your service” and that we’re here to support each other and that I shouldn’t be nervous. I immediately relaxed and just noticed how, at almost 84, perfectly she had aged from the young firebrand infiltrating the Playboy club, to the founder of Ms. Magazine, to now, the elder states-person of American feminism. So I blathered on a bit about how I fell into feminist theory through my research on racist skinheads and now study the toxic masculinity in prisons. Then I thought, Holy shit, I’m talking to Gloria Steinem. I need to ask her a question.

“Okay, since this is rare opportunity for me. I have to ask you, what the hell is going on in this country. What’s your take on the whole Trump thing?” And then she laid this goddess wisdom at my feet.

“You know when a women is at most risk of being killed by her abuser is the moment she tries to escape him. When the battered wife tries to leave, that’s when he is his most violent. That’s where we are. We are finally escaping our abuser and he is violently attacking us. But we can do it. We can finally break free.”

Bam.

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That said it all in one elegant but ugly analogy. When Trump was elected Steinem’s sister in the struggle, Angela Davis, called the shocking election the “last gasp of dying white male supremacy.” Trump and his bullies want to drag us back to before Gloria and the feminists upset the applecart. He says he is not a feminist but is the “greatest supporter” of women and even claimed to break the glass ceiling “for” women. The man does not know what feminism is and the past year of Trump policies have been a executive version of a drunk husband in his “wife beater” telling the Mrs. to get back in the kitchen. The Alt Right shock troops and their president excusing domestic abusers (“He’s a great guy!”) are all connected. Hell, Trump would have raced into that school shooting even without a gun. He’s THAT macho. America is great again! Now make me a sandwich.

So we talked a bit more about her hopefulness and I added that the kids in Florida are the indicator of where we are headed and that I had a theory about the fourth wave of feminism.

“Oh, I don’t buy any of that stuff about waves. It’s all just one wave,” said the Second Wave poster child.

“Okay, then I guess I shouldn’t tell you my theory.”

“No please, go ahead,” she said nicely, as if I could offer any insight on feminism to the woman who wrote the book.

I told her the next step was what our friend Michael Kimmel was doing, to encourage men to embrace feminism and see it as not only an act of social justice but a way to liberate themselves from the limitations of patriarchy.

“Men, have been doing that since the sixties,” she said, alluding to the men’s groups that pioneered consciousness raising but remained fairly isolated on college campuses and places where white men had the resources to “dialogue” in “rap sessions.” My campaign to expand that discussion to young and diverse men got a positive nod.

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“This generation of boys is really different,” I said, explaining how I often go to high schools to talk to classes about these issues. “I love to tell young men about how when I was their age  someone started telling us that ‘Real men don’t eat quiche,’ which I hated because I loved quiche. I tell them real men go to the store to buy tampons for the woman in their lives. Half of the teenage boys squirm and respond in horror but the other half say, ‘I already do that!'”

She laughed and told me about how her date that evening had written a piece in the early 70s about how different things would be if men could menstruate (which she rewrote for Ms. in 1978). I felt like I was carrying her torch. That we were parallel lines and it was cool as hell. We got a few pictures together, which I immediately uploaded to Facebook. Even though taking my wife to New York for a few days was an epic treat, that picture will go up on the mantle.

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The event itself was incredible. Michael discussed his book and how racist men don’t stop being racist because someone told them their racism was stupid. An excerpt from an upcoming film about the topic by documentarian Peter Hutchison was shown. I’m in it so I wasn’t sure how to react when my face appeared up on the big screen. And then an assembled panel of former racists, representing the organization Life After Hate, and researchers spoke. The two researchers were myself and Kathleen Blee, who has done some amazing work on women in organized racist movements, including the Ku Klux Klan. Gloria sat in the front row and every time I tried to bring the conversation back to gender I’d look at her as if to say, “You’re the reason I’m talking about this.”

I know things like this happen in New York all the time, but there can be magical moments when you connect with someone, human to human, who has inspired you. I’ll always hope I didn’t come off as an annoying fanboy and I’ll sit with the fantasy that maybe she was actually inspired by something I said that night in Manhattan.

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