Rape Culture and the Complexity of Consent

November 16, 2017

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I have to believe all these news stories coming out about sexual harassment and abuse are triggering some deeply held trauma by millions of women. As we know from Kevin Spacey’s reign of terror, not all the victims are female. (Terry Crews recent disclosure is a powerful example.) But it’s mostly women. We know this. For every Harvey Weinstein and Judge Roy Moore, there are countless women who must shudder each time this expanding story is reported. (Al Franken? Really, dude?) For some it takes them right back to that moment. Listening to Beverly Nelson’s account of Moore’s assault is like listening to someone frozen in a moment for 40 years.

I asked my wife how she was hearing these stories. Like most women, she has her own experience of abuse. I was worried it was bringing up difficult memories. Her emotional response was anger; that this sexual abuse was so widespread and that the conspiracy of silence surrounding it has allowed even more women to become victims. I wonder if that’s as common a response as the feeling of emotionally crumbling yet again.

A few years ago I was giving a lecture on the under-reporting of rape to my criminology students at the University of Oregon. It was a giant classroom in McKenzie Hall and I was being very social scientific about the reasons sexual assaults are not reported to the police, including the finding that 78% of rapists are known to their victims. In the middle of me laying out all these horrible facts, a young woman in the front row burst into tears and ran out the classroom. I never gave that lecture the same way again. I know when I’m talking about sexual violence, there are going to be victims in the room. I know there are victims reading this.

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I’ve written plenty about rape culture in this blog. From fraternities to #metoo, and probably too many references to Game of Thrones. As a feminist, I’ve lectured for decades that the normality of rape reinforces patriarchal power. To men, it’s an invisible reality. But to a female, every time they are in a bar, or walking to their car, or watching the local news (or Game of Thrones), there is a constant reminder that they are a potential target. And there’s a good chance that it’s already happened. Every woman understands the “rape schedule.” Few men even know what it is.

That’s why this blog post is going to push some buttons.

The complex nature of consent

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In the early 1990s, universities across the country were finally having real conversations about the epidemic of “date” rape on college campuses. As a graduate student at Emory University, I made “Fraternities and Rape on Campus,” by Patricia Martin and Robert Hummer (1989) required reading for my students. The mantra came down from on high that, “if she’s too drunk to consent, it’s rape.” It didn’t end predatory males from pouring 100 proof hunch punch down young women’s throats, but it planted the seed that the rapist isn’t just the stranger in the parking lot.

But after that clear and important message, it can get confusing.

Female agency and sex-positive feminism

Sally and Biff both get shit-faced at a party and then hook up. Did Biff rape Sally? Or did Sally rape Biff? Or was there just drunken sex with no rape? And can I even ask this question without forfeiting my membership in the National Organization of Women?

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Another book I assigned to my students, in the early-2010s, was Shira Tarrant’s Men and Feminism (2009). Dr. Tarrant was in Portland, speaking about campus rape at Reed College, so my girlfriend and I headed down to catch her talk. Reed had had it’s own issues with sexual assault by male students so the main theme was the revisiting of the “if she’s too drunk, it’s rape” mantra. Again, it’s in important message to get to young college students but I was in the middle of a much different situation with a stalker who was using her femaleness as a defacto victim status to upend my life. (Think Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (1987).) So, feeling like some complexity was needed, during the Q&A, I asked this question:

“My mom likes to tell the story of how my dad didn’t want kids. One night she cooked my dad a big dinner and opened a bottle of Chianti and got him drunk and that was the night I was conceived. My question is, am I the product of rape and should my mother have gone to prison?”

You could hear a pin drop and then you could hear heads explode. I should point out that this story isn’t exactly true (as far as I know), but the scenario introduces something debated in feminist circles, that women have their own sexual agency. I’ve had women tell me that they got drunk with guys as an excuse to have sex with them. “If it turns out bad, I can just blame it on being wasted.” I’ve had women tell me that they slept with their professors in college like it was a sport. “We all got points for bagging Dr. So-and-so in the English Department.” I’ve had many of these conversations but I didn’t want to share them with the audience at Reed College.

We took Professor Tarrant out for a beer afterwards and talked a little bit about my situation (and my question). She admitted that when talking to undergrads you really have to start at the beginning of the issue in an attempt to keep college women from becoming victims of date rape and the spiral of consequences that follow. The more nuanced stuff must come afterwards. I’m glad she’s out there on the front lines doing this work. I’m looking for the return of the sex-positive feminists to add to the discussion.

Assuming consent

Every time I kiss my wife, I’m assuming her consent in the matter. Am I wrong? Am I sexually harassing her? Does our marriage provided a “reasonable presumption of consent”? What about marital rape? Ivanka Trump alleged that her husband raped her. Was Donald just invoking a “reasonable presumption of consent” due to their marital status? In the wake of all the recent revelations, I’ve been think about this a lot. Deep in my heart I believe I’ve never been in a romantic or sexual situation that wasn’t completely consensual, but probably most of that was based on assumptions I made at the time. Was that wrong? I’ve been very explicit the last few weeks. “Dear, my I grab your ass?” All I manage to do is annoy her with the constant request for consent.

To be clear, the cases in the news are pretty clear, including the Al Franken case. These women clearly did not want this contact. The Lewis CK case is slightly more murky. And then there are lots of cases that might be put down to misread signals and honest mistakes. Those situations really need a closer look instead of the broad assumption that all men are abusers.

When the discussions about consent and date rape started hitting college campuses in the early-1990s there was, of course, some blowback. The “masculinists” were lining up to shut down feminists. I remember one “consent” document that hit the Emory campus that laid out each of the four sex bases and required a signature from each participant on each base before moving forward. “Do both parties consent to moving to second base? If so sign here.” Talk about taking the fun out of life, liberty and the pursuit of shama-lama-ding-dong. It looked like soulless feminists were out to ruin the joy of sex. Of course it turned out the form wasn’t from the university HR department, but some dudes in a frat. Well played, assholes.

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Human sexuality is incredibly complex. Some (male/female) people like to be aggressively taken and bent over the office desk. Some (male/female) people are gold diggers or just want to bed (male/female) people who are more powerful than they are. Some (male/female) people want to have sex with (male/female) people they admire and others prefer (male/female) people that repulse them. That’s called the Louis CK dynamic. If it’s consensual, who cares? Every relationship has power dynamics at work. (How many times do I have to say that?) Philosopher Michel Foucault wrote a great deal about how S&M mocks the power-dynamics in “normal” sexuality, but it’s easier to find a dominatrix than it is a dude to whip you. (Safe word: post-structuralism)

Keep your dick in your pants, just for a minute

This is in no way meant to delegitimize the deep trauma from years of abuse that has been brought into the light this fall. Harvey Weinstein needs to go to prison and Roy Moore and his creepy “evangelical” crowd needs to be shunned by the nation as a whole. (Please Neil Young, give us a new song about Alabama). And every man in this country needs to take a deep inventory of his past behavior to figure out if there some “me too” stories that are being told about him.

I know you dudes might feel emboldened. You’ve got a president that brags about grabbing women “by the pussy,” and alt-right Proud Boys who have declared open war on feminism, but here’s the secret I leaned along the way. Listen to women. Before you  unzip your pants and start masturbating in front of your dinner date, listen to women.

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Women seem so much better at reading the clues in intimate situations. Maybe it’s having to have their rape-threat radar on 24-7. But women are in the game that most men only think they are. I know it’s hard for men to ask for directions and shit, but just keep you dick in your pants for a minute and follow her lead. Try it. If she wants you to throw her up against the wall and go all 9 1/2 Weeks on her ass, she will make sure you know. It’s worth it, bro.

There was a moment in the 1990s when it felt like the third wave feminist movement was fully present. Power feminists, like Naomi Wolf, were taking “victim feminists” to task for negating female agency and erasing women’s sexuality. And Madonna gave them their soundtrack. (Ready to feel old? “Erotica” came out 25 years ago.) I think they hadn’t yet dealt with the intransigence of rape culture and the real rape (and rapist presidents) it has produced. Bill Clinton’s icky-ness might have given us an “opportunity” to talk about power dynamics but Donald Trump’s cult has no time for any of this “political correctness.” Maybe after we get through this new opportunity to cut the rapists and sexual harassesers off at the knees, we can at least again have this conversation.

 

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It’s time to tax men: Shutting down gun violence

November 7, 2017

I’m so sick of this. I’m so sick of another mass shooting. I’m sick of the gut-wrenching stories of survivors. I’m sick of “thoughts and prayers.” I’m sick of writing another blog about it. I’m sick of doing interviews about it and saying the same damn thing every time. If America wasn’t sick of it after Sandy Hook, it never will be. But I’m sick of it. Feel free to call the shooters “deranged individuals” (if they are white) or “terrorists” (if they are not). But don’t talk to me unless you are willing to say what all these shooters are.

Men.

Boys and men. I’m not saying all boys are men are bad. Certainly the majority of boys and men aren’t opening fire on innocent people. And many men and boys are actively trying to stop the violence (including a few with guns!). This is about masculinity. The toxic masculinity that has been created in our culture that defines gun violence as an appropriate way for men in crisis to express their rage. Men in extreme crisis in Japan hang themselves. The same men in the United States use guns and many decide to take as many people with them as they check out. “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” American masculinity does not allow you to fall to your knees. Not when there is amble firepower available to guarantee a dramatic exit.

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Male violence plagues us. The violence of Devin Kelley shooting five-year-olds in the head in a church in Sutherland, Texas or the violence of Harvey Weinstein’s low-grade war on women. It all has a cost. From coroners to lost work hours, every aspect of violence by boys and men sucks resources out of our society. What is the financial impact of having a family member killed? How about the emotional impact? The makers of pain killers and pain numb-ers might profit, but the rest of us are paying for it in tax-dollars, insurance premiums, and the erosion of the quality of life. What if the evening news reported on a great new work of art at the top of the hour instead of the daily body count? We are less human because we have normalized male violence.

One study in Minnesota found that gun violence in the state came in at a about $2.2 billion dollars in direct costs due to the 900 gun deaths that year. This doesn’t include indirect costs like lost property value and lost business. The famous 2015 Mother Jones study put the cost at $229 billion a year when you factor in the cost of prisons and lost wages. Each gun homicide costs the country $400,000 and we average about 32 gun murders a day.  Just as a point of comparison, the 2018 budget for Trump’s Department of Education is only $68.2 billion.

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In the late 1990s, I began assigning June Stephenson’s book, Men Are Not Cost Effective: Male Crime in America to my criminology students at Portland State University. She forwards the case that, because of the high cost of mostly male crime on our society, it makes sense that all men pay a “sin” tax to cover the cost of policing, prosecuting, and incarcerating male criminals. When we look at the research on female violent crimes, it’s typically the case that women are brought in to criminal enterprises with their male counterparts (“I was just attracted to bad boys, I guess.”) or are responding violently to their male abusers (“Goodbye, Earl!”). Some of the men in my classes balked at the assertion, but the women generally thought it was a smashing idea. And there are more women than men in this country (because men keep killing each other off).

Maybe it’s time to revisit Stephenson’s “man tax.” If shooting kids in a kindergarten class or church at point blank range doesn’t wake men up to the toll of “going out like a man,” maybe grabbing their wallets will. America is prevented from being a more perfect union because of all the economic and emotional resources devoted to dealing with male violence. If we want to make America great, I say let’s hit ‘em where it hurts. Maybe then men will care about how they do maleness.

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We could start simple, perhaps a sales tax on dumb men things, like bullets, Call of Duty video games, and UFC pay-per-view matches. Then we can expand it to anyone with a Y chromosome. And the earlier the better. In the 1998 school shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas that killed five and wounded ten (all female victims), the shooters were 11 and 13 years-old. As soon as a tween boy walks into a 7-11 to buy a Big Gulp, hit him in the nuts with the man tax.

Then, as boys and men start to get it and gun violence starts to decline, there can be subsequent reductions in the tax. Hey, nobody went postal this month, the tax on camouflage pajama pants is temporarily suspended! How else are we going get men to stop killing us? What politician that isn’t busy licking the NRA’s ass will be bold enough to propose this approach? I’m guessing it won’t be a man.

Other posts on this endless topic:

How to talk rationally about gun control (October 4, 2017)

Owning My White Privilege: Stories I won’t (have to) tell my children (September 21, 2016)

Another Day, Another Mass Shooting in America (October 2, 2015)

White Boys to Terrorist Men: Pointless Male Violence and Charleston (June 19, 2015)

 

Baby Brain 3.0: The cognitive space between baby and baccalaureate

November 3, 2017

I’ve been on traveling way too much: Spokane, New York City, Atlanta, Birmingham, Oxford, Georgia and beautiful Lansing, Michigan. Each stop away from my family was an opportunity to remember how much I love them. But I have to admit that sleeping in a hotel bed without a three-year-old climbing under the covers at 4 AM was pretty nice. (If I look like I just rolled out of my bed for my CBS News interview in New York, it’s because I slept in to the last possible minute.) But upon each return, our daughter Cozy seemed like a completely new person.

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There are lots of moments when you realize that baby you swaddled is long gone. The other day Cozy climbed on the toilet all by herself, took a dump, and told us she didn’t need her kiddie potty anymore. (Yes, I wept.) A few weeks ago I was trying to get her to hurry up the steps of her preschool and she responded, “Whatever.”  She has numerous funny voices for different roles she plays. There’s her princess voice and her Hulk voice. We took her to Disney on Ice and she went as Elsa from Frozen and she was totally cool that there were a few thousand other Elsas there. Let it go. It was like she had found her tribe.

Childhood brain development is endlessly fascinating. Cozy seems to have sped through Freud’s anal phase and is almost a year early for the phallic phase. (More on that later.) In Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, she is firmly in the Pre-operational Stage. She is still egocentric, but learning how to see things from others’ perspective. She wants to know why sometimes Abigail pushes her. She’s started using similes. “I can run like a cheetah.” Her language skills are rapidly expanding and she relates most things to yoga poses. Her pre-school had an earthquake drill and the teacher told the kids to climb under their desks and pretend they were turtles in their shells. “Oh, that’s turtle pose,” Cozy said. Her teacher told me that in the middle of an earthquake Cozy had all her classmates doing yoga.

When I look at the characteristics of young preschoolers (age 3-4), some of it seems like old news around her.

  1. Beginning to count objects. (“I want seven quesadillas.”)
  2. Noticing properties of objects and able to sort them. (“Daddy, I put your dirty socks in the garbage.”)
  3. Problem-solving skills like planning and baking. (“Let’s go get ice cream before dinnertime.”)
  4. Interest in their bodies and other living things. (“The cat’s butthole is funny.”)
  5. Understanding the order of events of their day. (“You have to read two stories before I go to bed, not one.”)
  6. Ability to take items apart and attempt to put them back together. (Mom’s make-up kit has been disassembled numerous times.)

On a daily basis I’ll have a “How do you know that?” moment. We were carving our Halloween pumpkin and I was trying to cut a circle in the top so we could scoop out the guts and she said, “Dad, that’s a hexagon.” Seriously, WTF? It’s like the Great Leap Forward of cognitive development. It’s more than a window into what College Freshman Cozy will be like. Her personality seems pretty complete, although I know we’ve still got some work to do. She’s just now started recognizing gender. Yesterday she told me that there are two girls and one boy in our family. I can’t tell what that means other than the boy in the family is not interested in make up, but the two girls are. Cozy and her lip gloss, lordy.

I have to think staying at home with her these three years has helped her brain development. There’s lots of stimulation, between our hikes in Forest Park and trips to the OMSI science center (and okay, the occasional binge on Nature Cat on PBS). Studies have shown that abused three-year olds have significantly less brain mass and fewer cognitive connections. A healthy environment this early will have lifelong benefits. There are still plenty of issues (Please eat what I made for dinner. Please?), but suddenly there’s this third person living in our house who has plenty of opinions and doesn’t need your kiddie potty anymore.

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There was a moment when we were trick or treating that Cozy confidently walked up to a stranger’s door and knocked. Now the reward for that courageous action was a handful of candy but still, I felt like she was already off on her own and was going to be just fine. Baby brain bye bye.

The purpose of this blog post is to document where we is vis-à-vis Cozy’s noggin.

Me, too, Harvey Weinstein, me, too: Undoing the Normality of Rape Culture

October 24, 2017

Women in Manhattan seem immune to the world’s noise. I’m back in New York, parked at Patti Smith’s haunt, Dante’s on Macdougal Street in the Village. I’ve been trying to shake the weight of daily news but I just happen to be here to do an interview for CBS News. Seeing New York women, badass in black, feels like an opposite reality from the exploitation capital of Los Angeles, but I don’t doubt that most of these women (Is it okay to use the term “broads” in NYC?) have plenty of #metoo stories, as well. Isn’t this the birthplace of the catcall? Or was that Mainstreet USA?

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, one thing is clear. Okay, two things are clear if you count how right-wingers have used Weinstein mess as a sociopathic attempt to go after Hillary Clinton while pretending to care about the victims. Where were these faux feminists when the similar charges were being levied at Donald Trump and half the male personalities and leadership at Fox News? Liberals in Hollywood ran Weinstein out on a rail and the National Organization of Women is demanding his arrest. Bill O’Reilly paid out millions in settlements and is still a conservative hero. And Trump. Oh, all those women (going back at least to 1992) must all be lying.

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But the other thing that is clear is that, once “Me, too” started popping up on people’s Twitter and Facebook feeds last week, this issue was not just a Hollywood casting couch story. It was an American story. I don’t think I have a woman in my life that doesn’t have a sexual harassment horror story, including my own mother. Nearly as many have rape and sexual abuse stories. If anything, thanks to social media and a hashtag, the lid has been blown off the worst kept secret in America. The disempowerment of women and girls by men and boys might be systemic, but it plays out daily on a personal and personally devastating way with no systems involved.

I have no way of knowing how much of a sea change this is. It feels huge. Just hearing conservative women say, “Me, too” is significant. My hope is all those anecdotes are being read, heard, and processed by the boys and men whose eyeballs they pop up in front of. It’s certainly impacted me. There is the anger, of course. My wife posted a story of a male friend who tried to take sexual liberty with her in Seattle. We had just started getting to know each other, but I hopped in the car and drove three hours so she didn’t have to ride back with the creep. Not a rescuer, more like a dude who doesn’t mind three hours on I-5 to help a friend. I’m far from a heroic knight. My armor is tarnished.

That’s because the other emotion has been shame. In the Weinstein stories and the “Me, too” posts I’ve heard echoes of my former self. Nothing as extreme as Harvey whipping out his schmeckel and masturbating into a potted plant or O’Reilly offering to give a sexual massage with a falafel, but there might have been a moment here and there when I assumed consent, reading the subtle signs in the dance of intimacy. There were certainly things I shouldn’t have said, that, upon reflection, were probably a bit creepy or suggestive in the wrong context. And no doubt there was the minimizing of women’s concerns and a few “Don’t be so crazy”s. The fact that I can’t remember any reflects more about the normality of that kind of behavior. Weinstein tried to frame his abuses by writing, “I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.” He got a lot of shit for that (as he should), but if you were there (or even if you just watched the first season of Mad Men), you know he’s sorta right. That was the (rape) culture then, and that’s it now. But the times they are a changin’.

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My late teens until about 30 when I began dating my first wife, I was pretty much a heat seeking missile. As a kid who grew up learning that sex was the end goal, once it became available, it seemed like there were few limitations. My freshman dorm was the center of a lot of young men and women unchecking their libido. There was a sense of liberation from parents and the sexually repressed Southern culture on the skids. Then the punk rock scene, then going on tour with a band who, once a video became a hit on MTV, had groupies. I’ll never forget kicking a young woman out of our hotel room in Minneapolis who screamed, “You can’t kick me out, I’ve been with Winger!” That was a more clear-headed act in a world with a lot of the opposite.

I’d like to think I was the sober, respectful guy through all that, but was I? What if there was a woman who posted “Me, too” last week and her story is about an asshole she met at a show in Asbury Park, New Jersey who was relentless until she gave in? Again, I don’t think so, but maybe.

I became single again in my late-30s and forties and still had that 20-something drive as I rejoined the world of dating, hooking up, and “Hey, do you want to stay over?” As an academic feminist, I was keenly aware of power dynamics and the unspoken reality that a lot of my fellow feminists won’t acknowledge – Every single relationship has a power dynamic at work. In patriarchal culture, there is always a power dynamic between males and females. Even two same-gender twins will have a power dynamic. Just ask the one who was born second. You cannot avoid power dynamics. Sorry HR people. The issue is how you respect those power dynamics. Do you leverage them to your advantage? Harvey Weinstein sure did. But did I? Ever? Just because there were broken hearts on both sides doesn’t mean I wasn’t a dick at some point. Often?

Founding sociologist Emile Durkheim argued in 1897 that is deviance is functional because it allows for the evolution of society. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil disobedience and criminality facilitated the national conversation about civil rights and allowed the country to evolve. We should thank him for breaking unjust laws. Weinstein is no King, but this national conversation he has caused will help us to evolve away from the normality of sexual harassment. “Hey, asshole, don’t be a Weinstein!” I can here it now (and I might have needed to hear it then).

The men who hear and read “Me, too” need to more than say, “That sucks,” or post a sad-face emoji. They need to reflect how they have participated in similar harassment and sexual aggression, perhaps without even recognizing it. And certainly how we excuse our male peers from the ease of sexual domination. A big part of (male) privilege is that the behaviors that reinforce it are often invisible to those who do it (but not to those whom it is being done to). But when the recipients of that aggression, backed by the weight of centuries of male power, are half of our species, it’s time to see it, acknowledge our part in it, and stop it. Just stop it.

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The emotional fatigue of looking for work

October 19, 2017

I had no idea it was going to be this hard. When I jumped ship from Portland State University in 2015, I thought I could just spend some time being a writer and taking care of my daughter while my wife went back to work. I had a small publishing advance, a book optioned in Hollywood, and a nice nest egg I had built for a rainy day.

It needs to stop raining.

The hope was, with my credentials, I could just hop into another gig when the time was right and the opportunity was meaningful for the work I do. It hasn’t played out that way. I’ve had a couple of close calls, including a great job opportunity at CUNY in Manhattan that I probably priced myself out of. (NYC is  expensive! Especially for a family.) There was a job with the city of Portland as a “hate crime program specialist” that looked like I had written it for myself. I didn’t even get an interview even though I’m already doing this work in the community. A longtime city employee told me it’s often the case that the city already has the hire identified and the applicant search is just an empty, but required, formality. Great. Thanks for getting my hopes up.

With a mortgage and a kid in daycare (and two maxed-out credit cards), I’ve suddenly realized that I’m the downwardly mobile American I’ve been lecturing about since I started interviewing skinheads in the Reagan years. Matching my old salary would be fantastic. Meaningful work is vital. But at this point, I’m starting to wonder what UPS drivers make during the holidays. I’ve been picky, hoping to stay in Portland or, if we have to move, some exciting Mecca of culture. God bless, but I’m not applying for the open position at South Dakota State University. My work requires gangs of disaffected youth and stellar coffee shops.

I’m writing this because I’ve learned that a lot of my friends are going through the same thing. Finding the “perfect job,” writing a compelling cover letter, and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t know how many trips I’ve planned with my wife after I get back to full time work. The excitement for Cozy to be in her pre-school five days a week. An end to the sporadic income from consulting work. Benefits! A kitchen remodel! Work clothes! And then the “Thanks, but no thanks” email pops up in my inbox and bursts that bubble. Again. It’s an emotional roller coaster. And there’s typically one moment each day when I wonder what happened to my financially secure life and how the hell am I going to get out of this.

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Don’t get me wrong. I’m plenty busy. Between conferences in Spokane and Birmingham this month, CBS is flying me to New York City for an on camera interview. After I take Cozy trick or treating I’m being flown to Michigan to give a keynote. It’s exciting but it’s not the steady income a parent needs to provide for his child. Plus, Andrea says when I get back to work full time, she’s just going to stay home and make Mexican food. So there’s that. At 53, I should be fully able to provide for my family, but a Gen X mid-career change in a Millennial world has obstacles I didn’t foresee. You start to see why some men going on shooting sprees.

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As someone who has written a lot about masculinity (and its connection to violence), the upwardly mobile ethos is woven into my self concept. Male depression is acutely connected to lost economic status. I flash to that image of Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness where he’s clutching his son in a train station bathroom where they are basically living. I think about that scene all the time. I know that won’t be Cozy and I, but I don’t know that either. I know I’ve got a great skill set to offer, but why am I not working full time?

 

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Middle-aged men are the fastest growing demographic for suicide. There was a 43% increase between 1997 and 2014 for men between 45 and 60. Much of it is related to economic stress. I had my bout with suicidal ideation in the late 1990s. But a two-year-long prescription to Zoloft and writing my first novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart (about suicide), got me back on track. Now, as a father, I can’t imagine doing that to my daughter. I hope Frances Bean Cobain curses her father, Kurt, once in a while for abandoning her that way. It doesn’t mean the thought doesn’t creep into my head occasionally, as the ultimate F.U. to the people that ripped away my career. But it’s better to be here and broke then not be here at all. Being an agnostic, I don’t rely on the belief that after I’m dead I can just sit on the cloud and watch all chumps cry, “We should have given him that job!”

I’m pretty lucky. My child is healthy. My marriage is strong. My roof isn’t leaking. And thanks to Obamacare, we (still) have health insurance. But it’s really hard sometimes. The uncertainty. The wondering what I can sell to pay a bill. The wear and tear on my wife as she shoulders the economic load and wonders when the old “full time and fulfilled” Randy will come back. It can double a soul over. I think all my fellow jobseekers probably have a certain Tom Petty song on a loop in their heads.

Well I know what’s right

I got just one life

In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around

But I’ll stand my ground

This blog is partially about men coming to terms with their vulnerability without resorting to the tired and destructive tropes of old school masculinity. So a message to those trying not to lose too much while they build something new – Hang in there. Everything is in the rearview mirror at some point. The sacrifice will be worth it.

The emotional fatigue of liberation work

October 13, 2017

Sometimes I have to remind myself of my own advice. When we are trying to be allies or accomplices in liberation movements that are not about our liberation, there’s gonna be some big bumps in the road. It you’re a man who cares about smashing sexism or a white person who wants to dismantle racism, don’t expect to be welcomed with open arms as the great savior. I advise people to be prepared for uncomfortable situations and let folks know that they’re going to be mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up too much. Just stay on the path.

Most of my classmates at Emory University went off to Wall Street, or law school, or medical school and are now making six and seven figure incomes and probably vote Republican. I chose a different path. My road has been to dedicate my life to unmasking and upturning forms of oppression in my world. It started the day I turned my back on the Klan town I grew up in and really took off when I began my undercover research in the white supremacist subculture. That path may have earned me a PhD and some media notoriety, but I’ve also got over 30 years of committed racists threatening to kill me and attacking me in ways that have severely impacted my family.

A white activist friend recently said we do this anti-racism work because we have to and she was exactly right. This work is woven into my being now, but I still have a lot to learn. For my senior high school ring I chose Mother of Pearl for the stone as a subtle nod to the “white power” vibes in my school. That was 1981. By 1984, I was working on Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. I just needed that first sociology class to help me understand how I had become an agent of others’ oppression. I cast off that yoke but all these years later, there is still more to learn and it gets hard at times. I can’t count the number of racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, agist, classist (and whatever the body-shaming “ist” is) things I’ve done or said over the years.

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To do this work is to deal with emotional fatigue because you never “win.” There’s always another battle and you wonder (especially with a president who today is speaking at a conference of an actual hate group) if any progress has been made. I was at the Portland Max train station last a May after the brutal attack by an alt-right racist that left two men dead and a third clinging to life. I was taking in the candles, flowers, and messages in what had become a makeshift memorial to these three Portland heroes. I suddenly was overwhelmed with desperation. What was the point of my decades of work on this issue if people are still being murdered by Nazis? Had I wasted all this effort? I was going to be a dentist. It was 2017 and the hate mongers were stronger than ever with an ally in the White House. I walked towards some shadows so I could bawl my eyes out.

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I do regular educational tours with the Fair Housing Council of Oregon. We put a bunch of people on big Blue Star bus and drag them on a tragical history tour of Portland. Here’s where the black community was redlined, then displaced by “urban renewal” and gentrification. Here’s where Japanese-American men, women, children, and babies were imprisoned as “enemy aliens” after Pearl Harbor. Here’s where a community of working class people were wiped out by a catastrophic flood. We visit the spot where Mulugeta Seraw was beaten to death with a baseball bat by racist skinheads in 1988, and around the corner is the Hollywood Max station, site of the 2017 version of the same damn thing. We finish at Clyde’s Prime Rib, the great jazz bar and restaurant that in the 1940s was the Coon Chicken Inn. After the four hour tour, half of the bus riders look like they want to slit their wrists. It’s draining and deflating.

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In this work, I’m used to being attacked by people on the right. It comes with the territory. White supremacists have labeled be a “race traitor” and were doxxing me long before that was even a word. Conservatives call me a “libtard,” and a communist and are convinced that white privilege is a hoax and that discussions of implicit bias is a liberal tool to generate a false white guilt.

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It’s the attacks from the left that are more debilitating. It’s very in vogue for self-proclaimed radicals to bash “white liberals” these days, and much of it (as a self-proclaimed radical) I must say is deserved. As James Baldwin once said, “White people are trapped in a history they don’t understand.” But my work is about bringing people into liberation movements, so I worry attacking the people who are trying to be part of the solution will have an opposite effect. The (young) left can be very dogmatic and humorless, not allowing people to find the most effective path for themselves on this collective path. “Oh, you made an inappropriate comment? You’re out and I’m going to get my righteous posse to kick your ass out the door. Whose streets? Not yours.”

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I was on a panel this week for an amazing program called Race Talks; monthly community conversations about issues related to race and racism. This month’s talk was about how to be a white ally. The organizer called me and asked me to participate and who else should be on the panel. I suggested a young African-American activist who had recently been on my podcast. His position on the issue was provocative but important. My interview with him really helped me grow. So I was excited when we were all up on the stage together in front of a crowd so big they had to create an overflow room. I was prepared to talk about lessons learned about being a white ally and how to take a back seat in others’ liberation movements. I even wrote some notes. I never got to use them.

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Instead of the the woman who organized the panel moderating the discussion (as she had planned), our one black panelist, the young activist, decided he would ask the questions (in what could be framed as an act of male privilege). Questions like how the white people on the panel had burned people of color with their efforts to “help” and what reparations were we paying to make amends for our white privilege. I told you he was provocative. And these were important, valid questions. I’m not sure how it helped the standing-room-only crowd learn to be racial allies (in fact it probably scared a few folks away from the whole idea), but it certainly gave me one of those uncomfortable situations I encourage people to put themselves in.

One of his points is that his time is valuable and he should not be expected to help white people with their racism without compensation. I totally agree. Before the event, I messaged him and said I was looking forward to the panel. I wanted to thank him for taking the time to  be on my podcast. In the South we do that by buying folks beer.

Me: I owe you a beer. Let me buy you one tonight.

Him: I don’t drink. I accept cash though!

Me: How about a salad. LOL

Him: I find salads offensive.

I thought the cash line was a joke so I made a joke about the salad. Apparently, I offended him. He trotted out this interchange to the packed room (and streaming on line) about “this white man” offering him a salad. I apologized for the offending comment and took it as a cue that I should probably think about my use of humor, something that has gotten me in trouble before. (I tried to acknowledge his point by getting out my wallet that only contained 3 bucks, which I placed on the table in front of him. In retrospect, that was probably seen as being a bit rude.) After the talk, I went to the ATM and got out $20 to give him because I really do think his point about being compensated for his efforts is valid. As the crowd thinned, some of the older African-Americans in the audience asked if I was okay. One said it was unfair that I had been ambushed like that. But I want to grow on these issues, so I’m trying to not go into a defensive mode and take everything as a learning experience.

I was still bruising when I got home and in true Trump fashion turned to Twitter and posted something that I would have not posted if I’d gone straight to bed.

“Tonight I learned my white guilt cost $20.”

He screen-shotted it and posted on his Facebook page and it became open season on me from his fan base. But I engaged in the conversation that lasted into the following morning. I learned a lot, including about the meaningful discussion of reparations. The income gap between whites and blacks due to generations of oppression is real and continues to widen. I believe that any reparations should come from the government (the collective “us”). It’s unfair to expect some poor white person to shoulder the responsibility. But there are lots of ways white people can participate that are meaningful.

Reparations site asks people to ‘offset your privilege’ with acts of kindness

I mentioned that I would address this issue in my blog and included a link to a recent blogpost on white privilege. I desperately wanted these fellow ant-racist activists to see I was not the enemy, just in a parallel lane on this journey. I got accused of invading a “black space” to promote my blog. It seemed anything I did or said, I was already convicted of being the bad guy. I was trying to understand their landscape, but I was somehow now the enemy. I offered to link my interview with this young activist to his PayPal account in hopes that people that listened would consider supporting his work through contributions. He said no. “I have been severely traumatized by your self-promotion over the last few days,” he wrote.

Sometimes you feel like you just can’t win. It sucks not being perfect in the eyes of others who apparently are perfect. Sometimes you are tempted to give up and let others do the work. When I was in grad school, I almost did my masters thesis on Appalachian quilt makers instead of Nazi skinheads. Think how different my life would be. Think of all the quilts I would have! But this is my life’s work, so I soldier on, learning from my mistakes.

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In the last few years I’ve learned the concept of “self care” and that it’s okay to be mindful of how hard this work can be and sometimes it’s okay to take a day off the fight and gorge on ice cream. One of the other panelists from that night, No Hate Zone founder Sam Sachs, called me to make sure I was alright after the panel/Twitter/Facebook public thrashing I got from my friends on the left. He told me my work is vitally important and has changed lives. It was just what I needed to hear.

To all those engaged in the struggle for human liberation, it is important that we keep each other’s feet to the fire, so we come from a place of empathy and not ego. It is also important to remember that we are all imperfect in our humanity and in our path to our common goals of equality, so treating each other with kindness and love is key. I am not one to suffers fools gladly, even when that fool is me. We can be hard on ourselves for our imperfections and mistakes and our failures. The moral arc of the universe is long, but we’ll get there. Give us a break.

And since this will likely be picked up by some of those young radicals who will confidently accuse me of being a “self-promoting” asshole, let me just say I love you and will see you a little further down the road.

Super important endnote: No matter how much fatigue a white person feels doing this work, it’s always going to be more fatiguing to be black in America. People of color don’t get to take a “self-care” day off.

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How to talk rationally about gun control

October 5, 2017

The slaughter in Las Vegas on Sunday was the largest since the 300 slaughtered at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1890 or the 250 slaughtered in the 1921 attacks in Tulsa, Oklahoma (or any of the other slaughters in which non-white Americans were the victims). The carnage has America in a brief moment of refection. Why does this keep happening and what are we going to do about it? The answer to the second question is probably nothing. If we couldn’t find the will to amend our gun laws after Sandy Hook in 2012 when Adam Lanza shot 20 small children to death, we never will. There will be many more shootings, some will be bigger Stephen Paddock’s death toll of 58 (so far), and we still won’t do anything.

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The sad reality is that our congress is owned by the National Rifle Association. They pimp out mostly Republicans but a lot of Democrats as well. (Here in Oregon, both Republican Rep. Greg Walden and Democrat Rep. Kurt Schrader have taken NRA donations.) The NRA is fiscally invested in widening the sale of all types of guns, as well as silencers and “bump stocks” that Paddock used to modify his assault rifles into automatic machine guns, greatly increasing his casualty rate. In 2015, the NRA supported the unbanning of armor-piercing bullets that have been used to kill police officers. And old white guys get angry at rap music.

We will see plenty of NRA puppets say it’s “too soon” to “politicize” the murder in Vegas. But there is another mass shooting just around the corner so it will always be too soon. So stop using that excuse. Stop using excuses period and do something.

I’ve written about the connection between men and gun violence. (It’s always men doing this. Always.) I want to talk about how to talk about gun control with two simple points.

The Second Amendment, like all rights, is negotiated.

The First Amendment is not absolute. Go into a crowded movie theater and shout “Fire!” or onto an airplane and say, “I have a bomb!” and then claim “free speech.” I dare you. Or try writing something libelous or post on your Facebook page that you are going to kill the President and try and hide behind the First Amendment. I dare you. Your goose will be cooked.

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The Supreme Court is in charge of determining what is constitutionally protected and what is not. In Virginia v. Black, the high court, in 2003, ruled that burning a cross was protected speech, unless it could be proven that it was intended to intimidate others. Our rights are constantly negotiated. They aren’t absolute and they aren’t “sacred.” The U.S. Constitution is a living document, written by humans, that the humans of the judicial branch are constantly interpreting and defining.

Case in point; the Second Amendment. It states, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” There is certainly a difference between “a well regulated militia,” and an angry 64-year-old real estate investor with 47 firearms in his possession, but let’s focus on the second part; the right to keep and bear arms. The Bill of Rights was written in way back in 1789. I used to tell my criminology students at Portland State that there were only two ways to interpret its second amendment.

  1. The Historical Interpretation: When the founding fathers wrote the amendment, they were thinking of the arms that were available to people in 1789. This would be pistols, flint lock rifles, muskets, canons, and maybe those bombs where you light the fuse and chuck them at people. And the founding fathers wrote the Constitution for white male property owners. (Jeez, women weren’t allowed to even vote until 1920.) So the the Second Amendment says white men can own muskets and that’s it.
  2. The Libertarian Interpretation: The Constitution applies to ALL Americans, including children, the mentally ill, convicted felons in prison, and, yes, even women. And the Second Amendment applies to ALL arms, including machine guns, flame throwers, nuclear missiles, and weaponized anthrax. So the Second Amendment says psychotic American serial killers have the right to own intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Obviously, the reality has been negotiated to be somewhere in between those two interpretations. Automatic assault weapons were banned in 1994 under the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act. In February, President Trump signed a law to make is easier for mentally ill people to purchase guns. SCOTUS didn’t even recognize an individual right to possess a weapon until 2008 (District of Columbia v. Heller). It’s a constantly evolving landscape of what the Second Amendment actually protects and prohibits. It’s never been static. So why think it’s set in stone now? It’s set in pudding.

It’s all about reducing harm

I love it when the the gun control debate pops up, the trolls say, “Well, if you outlaw guns, people will still kill each other. With guns! And knives!” Look, you can kill a person by pushing them off a cliff. Nobody wants a law banning cliffs. This about reducing harm. After a horrible 1996 mass murder in Australia, the country passed real gun control and both murders and suicides dropped dramatically. Obviously, there are still murders and suicides in Australia, but there are significantly fewer victims. So don’t give me this, “if you outlaw guns there will still be murder” crap.

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Conservatives are stuck in this binary thinking. Either a gun law eliminates all gun crime or it’s pointless. Look, we just want to reduce the body count. We’ll never eliminate it. Gun-related homicides dropped 59% in Australia after they changed the gun regulations.  If your loved one was one of the people who would have been killed in the 41% of murders that didn’t happen, you’d think that the gun law was the best fucking thing to happen since sliced kiwi. Here, the NRA-check cashers in congress don’t care about the 93 Americans that are killed by guns every single day. Sure, they’ll send their “thoughts and prayers,” which is the polite way of saying they’re sending smoke up your ass.

Laws save lives. The seatbelt law has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Not everybody wears one, but the tally of 33,000 people killed in crashes each year would be vastly greater without the law. A gun law that clamps down on internet gun sales, or limits ammunition sales, or makes it harder for wife-beaters to buy handguns won’t stop crime, but there will be fewer casualties. If that means someone you love won’t get shot, I bet you’d think that law was worth pissing off the NRA and their deep pockets.

We don’t want to take your guns away

The hysterical right love to play this old song that somehow liberals want to take their guns away. “Out of my cold dead hands,” they bleat. Plenty of liberals and/Democrats have guns. They want to protect their families and go hunting, and shoot trap (whatever that is). I’ve shot plenty of guns. I used to keep a shot-up gun range target in my office, hoping to intimidate any grade-grubbing undergrads. Some of my shooting has been pretty high-powered. I did a weapons training course with the FBI in 2005 and scored this hot pic of me squeezing off a few rounds from an MP5. I don’t own a gun (as far as you know) but I have fired two Glocks from each hand, Matrix-style. Definitely not like the movies. I respect guns. I want to keep these things away from lunatics.

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The majority of Americans want stricter gun control laws. According to the most recent Gallup poll on the topic taken last October (you know a new one is coming any minute), 55% of Americans want stricter gun laws and only 10% want less strict laws. You’d never know that this week as congress is expected to loosen access to gun silencers. What Americans want is some reasonable legislation that keeps the Second Amendment somewhere between white property owners with muskets and convicted felons with nukes. Something that might drop the body count by any meaningful percentage.

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Gun nuts often say that gun laws only serve to punish law abiding gun owners because of the actions of a few criminals. It’s worth pointing out that most murderers aren’t actually criminals until they choose to commit murder. Stephen Paddock, 64, had no criminal record until he smashed out the windows in his suite on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel and unloaded hundreds of rounds into a crowd of concert-goers, in the greatest act of single shooter mass violence in our lifetime.

How do we stop the next mass murder? The answer is complex, but a slack legal system that allows an individual to assemble an arsenal of high power weapons, that have nothing to do with home protection or hunting, has to be addressed. It’s time to, again, revisit what the scope of the Second Amendment means and what we can do as a nation to reduce the body count in this war against Americans, NRA be damned.

Support: Everytown for Gun Safety