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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America is eating its young. Maybe it’s time to get the hell out.

February 15, 2018

As parent, my gut instinct is to get my family out of America as soon as possible. There are lots of places this doesn’t happen. This country is fundamentally broken. If we didn’t address American males’ obsession with gun violence and the “right” to own weapons of mass carnage after the Sandy Hook massacre, we never will. That 2012 Connecticut shooting left 20 six and seven-year olds dead. Is my three-year-old safe in daycare today, or will find out on the news that some boy or man exercised his 2nd Amendment right by blowing her and her little classmates heads off?

Yesterday’s carnage in Lakeland, Florida is just the latest. Seventeen dead. People are offering the “thoughts and prayers” (accomplishes nothing) and #GunReformNow is trending on Twitter (accomplishes nothing). Pundits and presidents talk about how the shooter was “deranged” (accomplishes nothing) and it will be open season on anyone with a mental health issue (accomplishes oppression, because people suffering from mental health issues are actually less violent than the general population.) It’s the same circle jerk that will dominate the news cycle until the next “big story.” Stormy Daniels? Trump’s tweet? Another shooting? Does anybody remember the Las Vegas shooting? 2017? Hello?

When my co-authored book about suburban delinquency and gun violence, Teenage Renegades, Suburban Outlaws, came out in 2001 we were (like now) picking up the pieces of young gun casualties. The book addressed the lessons learned from the cluster of school shootings at the turn of the century that peaked with the 1999 slaughter at Columbine (13 killed). I was honored to be a part of the national discussion about toxic masculinity, bullying, and the easy availability of high powered weapons. We licked our wounds and went to work and school shootings declined.

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The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School yesterday dwarfed Columbine, something young males have been promising for 19 years. We’ve averaged about one of these events a week in 2018. (I wonder how bad next week’s shooting will be.) That this teenage shooter was linked to a white supremacist group also connects the body count to the elevated racist climate in Donald Trump’s alt-right America, where violent white males have become emboldened (God, I’m sick of using that word). But while we focus on the race of the shooter, we will miss the more important discussion about the gender of the shooter.

All these mass shootings are committed by males. There was a school shooting earlier this month in Los Angeles by a 12-year-girl but it was ruled unintentional. Except for the Brenda “I don’t like Mondays” Spencer case in 1979 (2 dead), girls don’t go on shooting sprees. I’ve written endlessly about the connection between masculinity and gun violence, including in this blog. Let me bring the message home.

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The same toxic masculinity that allows a boy or man to take an AR-15 to school and vent his rage at the world on some “soft targets” is displayed by our elected officials who think they are defending something by allowing that boy or man access to an AR-15 in the first place. There is a reason that women (and female politicians) are at the front of the sensible gun law cause. Women don’t need AR-15’s to make their dicks hard. Women, and men not suffering from EPE (Extreme Penis Envy), want sensible gun laws to reduce (not eliminate) the regularity of this horror. When it was black children being shot in America’s cities, their solution was just to lock everyone up (for anything possible) and put them to work in the prison labor industry. When the juvenile shooter demographic flipped to white, well, they must be crazy and you can’t really do anything about that. Do not expect men to fix this gun problem. Do not. It will be women who get this done.  But they have a mountain of patriarchal bull to remove first.

I’m sick of the gun “debate.”

I’m sick of hearing about “deranged individuals.”

As parent, I’m thinking it might be time to get out while we still can. America is sinking under the weight of its own testosterone. Our male politicians, funded by the gun lobby, have gerrymandered political boundaries to such an extreme that there is no longer much hope of compromise. Districts are permanently Republican or Democratic and moderates are jumping ship. We’re in permeant deadlock with a president who only cares about his ratings and applause from his sub-moronic base. Welcome to Idiocracy. You can pick up your kid after school at the morgue.

On the bright side, the contentious Baby Boom generation is dying off. If the Millennials can put down their phones (and their guns) long enough, this country might survive to its tricentennial. Your “thoughts and prayers” make me sick, but your action plans have my full attention. In the meantime, I’m exploring my options.

“America when will we end the human war?” – Allen Ginsberg (1956).

HOW TO TALK RATIONALLY ABOUT GUN CONTROL

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER MASS SHOOTING IN AMERICA

 

 

Our White Supremacist President

January 16, 2018

President Trump enjoyed his Martin Luther King Day off like he enjoys most of his days on, playing golf. Meanwhile, the rest of the country, those working and those not, were left wondering, just how racist is our president?

It’s not a matter of “if” anymore. And it’s not one comment here or there about African shitholes or Haitians all having AIDS. It’s his entire life. In 1973, Trump was sued by the Nixon administration for refusing to rent his properties to black tenants. His very public campaign for the execution of the black and brown teenagers, known as the “Central Park 5,” who were later exonerated through DNA evidence, wasn’t met with an apology by Trump. Instead he doubled down on his belief in their guilt. And of course there was the bizarre “birtherism” campaign he led to “prove” America’s first black president wasn’t actually American.

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There are numerous examples of this even before his 2015 campaign declaration in which he proclaimed that Mexicans were “criminals, drug dealers, and rapists.” That was the the moment, from my little room in Mexico, I wrote the piece “Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy” that helped put this little blog on the map. It might be inappropriate to say the world has given Trump enough rope to lynch himself, but, good God, how much evidence is enough? His caricatures of Chinese businessmen? No? His Muslim ban? No? His demanding that those black “sons of bitches” in the NFL stop protesting and get back to performing? No? His proclamation that there were “fine people on both sides” of the Nazi/Anti-Nazi clashes in Charlottesville? No? How many examples do you need of him devaluing non-white people and their lived experiences with racial injustice?

I’ve been asked numerous times, including by the media, if I think Donald Trump is a racist. I always try to side-step the question. Honestly, I don’t know what in the man’s heart, other than Big Mac residue. I try to make the point that he’s just ignorant of the reality of racism in this day in age. He’s lived his life in a bourgeois bubble and the only brown noses he knows have been firmly placed in his ass. He hasn’t had to know about the persistence of racism and, like many white people, probably thinks the problem was solved at some point in the 1960s by nice negroes and the benevolent white people who took pity on them.

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But screw it. No more pussyfooting around. I’ve been doing this work long enough to know it when I see it and Trump’s obviousness about this is as big as the Stay Puft Man in Ghostbusters. He’s not only a racist, he’s a Stay Puft white supremacist. And the people that still defend him are his racist enablers. This isn’t just a sad statement of the president’s bigotry. This man has power over people’s lives. Just witness how he threatened to deport the brown children and young people in the DACA program while he threw a tantrum over his racist comments being leaked to the press. I don’t doubt that he thinks lobbing a few nukes at North Korea will help him bounce back in the “ratings.”

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The revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s saw upwards of six million members across the nation (including here in Oregon). Their main rallying point was not the “negro problem,” but immigration. They promoted  “100% Americanism” and opposed immigrants “flooding” in from non-white countries as well as Jews and Catholics arriving from Eastern and Southern Europe and Ireland. The Klan was a powerful political force in America, electing congressmen, senators, and governors (including here in Oregon). Their great victory was the Johnson-Reed Act, also known as the Immigration Act of 1924. Johnson-Reed put strict quotas on immigration from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, while encouraging immigration from Northern European countries like Norway and was on the books until it’s repeal in 1965. In a 2015 interview with Steve Bannon in Brietbart, future Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions praised the 1924 law as an effective immigration plan. So, to be clear, the 1920s Klan wanted less immigrants coming from “these shithole countries” and more coming from Norway. Does that sound the least bit familiar?

This isn’t just me jumping on the shithole bandwagon. Trump is a textbook racist in so many ways that future textbooks on racism will be dedicated to him. But I’d like to focus on just a few, what I call Triple D racism; denial, defensiveness, and denigration.

“I’m the least racist person there is.”

Usually, when someone says, repeatedly, that they are not something, they are. But this is more than that. People who are actually anti-racist do not say they are not racist. We grow up in a racist society and we internalize that racism. I never say I’m not racist. I oppose racism but I still have racism in me and I am actively working to purge it. Like a recovering alcoholic who never says they are not an alcoholic, I will always be a racist.

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The least racist person there is would never say they are the least racist person there is. They would say they are racist but they are working every single day to rid themselves and their world of racism. Have you ever heard Trump discuss his white privilege or his implicit biases? No, of course not. What has he done to dismantle institutional racism or even his own internalized racism? I mean besides eat a Taco Bowl on Cinco de Mayo. Anyone who believes Trump’s claim to be the least racist person is as ignorant as he is about how racism actually works.

He should spend sometime with real white allies in the struggle against white supremacy if he wants to know how to sound less racist. He’s not even a good con artist.

“So much Fake News is being reported.”

Trump is a big baby. An orange snowflake. Instead of doing the people’s work, he spends his time on Twitter whining. This is a common reaction when white people get called out on their racism. They (we) reactively go into defensive mode. “I did not say that!” “I’m a good person!” “You’re lucky to have me!” This guy doesn’t see the opportunity he has. He’s too busy circling the wagons so he can kill some injuns.

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Racism is a deeply rooted facet of our society. Each time it appears in front of us there is a learning opportunity. Remember when President Obama hosted the “beer summit” after a white cop thought black Harvard professor was breaking into his own house? That’s how you do it. Trump could have made serious points here but instead he read through some staff-written script to honor MLK and then split for the golf course.

White people, listen to me! When you are accused of being racist don’t get all defensive and shut down the dialogue. Repeat after me. I’m sorry. Please help me to see this issue the way you see it. I want to understand this complex and traumatizing issue through your eyes. Thank you for helping me to grow and be a better person.

Can you imagine Trump saying that this week? There’s a better chance he’ll release his taxes.

On the attack

Of course what Trump does best is go on the attack and hit back “ten times harder.” A year a go he was attacking civil rights icon John Lewis for failing his “crime infested” congressional district in Atlanta (which we Atlantans know is one of the nicest, most livable parts of the entire South). Now he’s going after “Dicky” Durbin for spilling the beans on his latest locker room talk. Remember when, during the debates, Hillary Clinton accused Trump of being a Russian puppet. His response was, “No, you’re the puppet.” That’s the third-grade level of thinking going on here. Na na ni boo boo, stick your head in doo doo.

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Trump and his troll army at Fox News are deft at attacking their critics. Unleash the MAGA drones and make all opponents’ lives hell. (It’s the main reason I declined to appear on the Tucker Carlson show last month.) It serves to silence dissent and protect his authoritarian approach to governing. Trump is already pushing to revise federal libel laws so he can go after tell-all authors like Michael Wolf, whose best-selling book, Fire and Fury, paints a more than unflattering picture of Trump and his dysfunctional White House. Hell hath no fury like a small-handed rich guy scorned.

Getting it

It’s crystal clear that, when it comes to race, Trump just doesn’t get it and doesn’t want to get it. This a guy who in 2014 tweeted, “How is ABC Television allowed to have a show entitled “Blackish”? Can you imagine the furor of a show, “Whiteish”! Racism at highest level?” Um, you could totally have a show called Whiteish. How awesome would it be to have a sitcom that confronted issues of white privilege? (ABC, I’m available to write it.) But Trump’s brain farts are a great example of dichotomous lower-revel thinking.  Nuance must just sound “French” to him. As a rich white guy, he doesn’t get the race problem because he’s never had to and as president he could, but he’s got a tee time at 1 pm and then there’s all his “executive time”  he needs to catch up on Fox & Friends. Courting his racist base makes him feel more secure in his own racism. Merry Christmas!

Both Bill Clinton and Barak Obama promised more dialogues on racial reconciliation under their administrations and both failed miserably. But just the idea that white people need to take part in exploring how they benefit from racism, even if they are the “least racist person you ever met,” was a start. The white people who don’t want to be bothered with such silliness are now driving the nation. An NPR/Harvard poll last fall found that 55 percent of white Americans now feel whites are discriminated against. This is Trump’s base and they want to make America 1924 again.

If we hope to move forward, we’re going to have to talk our way out of this shithole. The sad part is that our president is an obstacle not an ally in our struggle against racism.

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Let’s End Duality: Make America Grey Again

January 4, 2018

To start off 2018, I’d like to take us back to a moment in 2004 when Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama said these words:

“The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”

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It seemed like a shift away a from the Bush-era divisiveness and surely played a role in Obama’s election in 2008. It’s worth pointing out that 14 percent of registered Republicans voted for a black Democrat in that election. It seems unimaginable now as we tweet and post from our red and blue state fortresses, rejecting anything that requires acknowledging the complexity of these issues. Remember Donald Trump in February saying,  “Nobody knew that healed care could be this complicated.” Oh, they knew.

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Queer Theory has been instrumental in helping people break through their binary thinking. When we are young we are taught that the sexes are “opposite.”  We are brainwashed in gender attributes that are mirror reflections. Boys are strong, girls are weak. Boys are stoic, girls are emotional. Boys are active, girls are passive. And on and on. It continues into adulthood. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Men care about foreign policy and women care about education. Most adults figure out that we have more in common that in opposition. “You have a pancreas? So do I!” Gender is not black and white. It’s many shades of grey. (A little bird told me that Vice President Mike Pence wears frilly pink panties and Donald Trump actually has a mangina.)

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I was thinking about the persistence of this bullshit dichotomy over the holidays when I read my old pal Bono kavetching that today’s music was “very girly;” that there wasn’t enough loud rock ’n’ roll like when he was a teenage boy. I flashed to the moment that a local Atlanta rock star I worked with in 1981 described the first U2 album as “whiney.” He should try saying music is too girly to Joan Jett’s face. Bono might turn off the Taylor Swift and check out bands like Savages, Diet Cig, Daddy Issues, and War on Women. There’s an explosion of women in rock right now. When I was 13-years-old I thought Kiss rocked and then I heard The Runaways’ Queens of Noise album. I’d put “Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin” against any of U2’s “guitar rock” without hesitation. If that’s girly music, give me more. The girls I know love the loud guitar. I’m a huge U2 fan but Bono is stuck in an antiquated binary.

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We don’t live a black and white world of evil doers and God’s pious peeps. We’re all sinners. One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. Context matters. The yin-yang symbol makes for a cool tattoo, but Buddhism does not reduce the world into a simple duality. Taoism is based on the paradox of simultaneous duality and unity. God vs. man? The Gnostic Texts excised from the Christian Bible, make the case that Christ ends that duality. The kingdom of heaven is within you. But you don’t get that message from the Christian Church. Man keeps constructing boundaries. Here’s how you get through heaven’s gate…

Duality makes sense in the abstract world of Boolean algebra, but here in reality things are rarely occurring in opposites. It’s only freaking Thursday?? And yet it’s 2018 already! Time can move fast and slow simultaneously. Even the distinction between life and death is a blurry line at best. We let those man-made boundaries define us. A person can be born with a penis, see themselves as a female identified person, AND be attracted to women. And maybe men occasionally.

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The issue of gender queer persons makes binary thinkers’ heads explode. You have to fit into a nice socially constructed category. It’s either/or not whatever. You have a penis? You belong in the heterosexual male box. Anything else is a “transgression” against nature, or God, or that old Oxford English dictionary your grandmother gave you for your ninth birthday. Those boys and men who stray into the pink zone must be punished. You’re watching The Crown instead of the Sugar Bowl? Smear the queer! I remember it well.

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The same is true with race. You’ve got a box to fit in and that’s who you are. You are either white or non-white. Again, reality has other plans. In the 2010 U.S. Census, 2 percent of Americans identified as two or more races. That’s 9 million people. In fact, multiple-race Americans grew at a faster pace than single-race Americans (32% vs. 9.2%). More and more Americans do not fit nicely into a demographic box. Is my half-Mexican daughter “white” or “brown”? Well, when she is applying for college scholarships, she’s gonna be “Latina” when it helps. But her light skin will privilege her the majority of her “white” life.

But here we are are, in a world where the President of the United States tells transgender Americans they are not allowed to serve in the military. (Another of his many failures in 2017.) Lower-level dualistic simple thinking rules the day. Either you are with us or against us. America, love it (our way) or leave it.  Sorry, simple people; it’s just not that simple.

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The reason this is the first post of the year is that I’ve noticed a creeping problem in 2017. Both sides are stuck in a binary deadlock. If you are a conservative, anyone who identifies themselves as liberal is just a “libtard” and anything they say will be dismissed out of hand. The other side is not much better. “You voted for Trump? You must be a complete moron and incapable of rational thought.”

Americans are not red or blue. They are mostly purple. Numerous surveys show that, despite political polarization, most Americans hold both liberal AND conservative opinions about things. Not only is it a scale, it’s a sliding scale. I imagine people get more conservative as April 15th approaches and more liberal over the holidays. Some people are socially liberal and economically conservative or vice versa. Some may change their political position after a good movie or a bad arrest. I spent much of my college years hanging out with Marxists, but I don’t want to live anywhere that looks like North Korea. I think capitalism is inherently corrosive but I appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit of my local Portland businesses. I even bought something in a Wal-Mart last year. (Long story.) Am I a hypocrite or just a complex person? Most people are complex. People who voted for Obama also voted for Trump and might vote for Elizabeth Warren in 2020. My dad likes to say he’s a “Republicrat.” Make your case. He’ll listen.

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I’ve written about the need for political civility in this blog. But this is something bigger. This is about breaking away from the us vs. them lie that’s been fed to us. I’m a post-modernist. I want to destroy these artificial barriers that confine us politically, sexually, spiritually, and any other way. We are trapped in our dogmatic partisan perspectives, fearful of the natural complexity of things. This is nothing new in this country. Our founders divided themselves into federalist and anti-federalist camps. Surprise, surprise – the best reality was somewhere in the middle.

There are things we can do to break through this artificial dichotomy. Ask questions of people making opposing arguments. Find the shades of grey you can work with. Keep an eye out for polarizing language. I tell anyone who uses the word “libtard” in a Facebook debate that there is no point to engage after that. Others should do the same when I use the word “moron.” Don’t make assumptions about people in different camps. You probably have more in common than you know. Instead of trying to “beat” them, help them to understand your position. Break out of your bubble. Diversity is good for plant life and party conversations. Don’t be afraid of encountering strong arguments that undermine the position you’ve taken. Don’t be afraid.

2018 is going to be a hell year. Perhaps the most important mid-term election in this nation’s history is only eleven months away. It’s going to be emotional and people are going to be combative, defensive, and needlessly inflammatory. We could divide ourselves into two opposing factions, a new civil war. Or we could reject the red and blue traps we’ve created for ourselves and make America fully human for the first time. “Hi, I’m Ying Yang, Yeah, it’s complicated. Get to know me.”

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Look out, I’m about to use the “N” word. Appropriately???

December 15, 2017

So much of this year has been about checking myself instead of wrecking myself. Maybe 90% checkin’ Donald Trump, 10% checkin’ myself. Is my implicit bias in play? Am I playing my male privilege card? Am I making heteronormative assumptions? Is my allyship performative? Am I expressing internalized racism? It can drive a nigga crazy.

Much of the work in 2017 has been confronting the rise in “polite racism” in the mainstream, from the “white nationalist” bullying by the alt right to the plantation talk of our more orange-than-whte president. But some of it has been done in the mirror. I’ve been thinking a lot about the use of the “N word,” not by Trump supporters or racist skinheads or rappers, but by me. I don’t ever us it as a pejorative. I was called “nigger lover” often enough as a white kid in Georgia who refused to board the cracker train to know when that word is used to hurt. But just the fact that I could use it in that sentence I just wrote, points to the shield of my white privilege.

There’s also a lot of talk this year about “triggers.” I’ve discussed it with regard to rape culture. A rape victim is not going to watch Saturday Night Fever (or Game of Thrones) the same way a non-rape victim will. We are better now at understanding the reality of collective trauma holding people back in their footsteps. Assholes call people who care about such things “snowflakes.” Decent people understand that being aware of triggers is practicing empathy. Well, I’ve been a bit slack with the n****r trigger. My white privilege says it’s not my problem. It’s just a man-made word.

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Because I’m an academic who studies racism and, specifically, white supremacism, I assume people know my anti-racist agenda and that that somehow permits me to use racist language when I am “making a point.” I remember one time in a criminology class I was teaching at Portland State when I was going off on how horribly sexist and misogynistic it was that the term “pimp” was being exalted in pop culture. This was somewhere between the time of Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’” and “Pimping” your MySpace page. I was trying to make the point that the sexual exploitation of women by pimps was not that different than the dynamic of slavery. So I said, “Pimps have their ho’s, just like slave masters have their niggers.” Yep.

Two young African-American male students looked at me like I just pushed a TNT plunger. Now, aside from the fact that there is a world of sociological difference between a poor black street hustler and a wealthy slave-holding plantation owner, I thought I had carte blanch to use that word, because I’m, you know, down. In my Intro Class at Emory I’d make students mix tapes with The Last Poets’ “Niggers are Scared of Revolution” or would bust into random lyrics from NWA’s “Fuck the Police.” “A young nigga on a warpath, and when I’m finished it’s gonna be a blood bath.” Because I was making a point. About racism! John Lennon and Patti Smith recorded songs in the 1970s using that word, why couldn’t I use it too? (Answer: They were established artists making powerful statements to large audiences. I was a grad student.)

The thing is, I have never heard that word the way my black students heard it. And they were hearing it from the mouth of a white man. It’s gonna sound different. It’s gonna carry more historical and cultural weight. It’s gonna hit harder. Somebody on Facebook can call me an idiot and whatever. If my father calls me an idiot, it’s gonna be a gut punch. Context matters, even if you are a dope-ass woke white brotha. You don’t get a pass. Even if you went undercover to study racist hate groups, you don’t get a pass. Even if you voted for Obama (Twice!), you don’t get a pass.

I would justify it by saying these obviously smart black students understood the role of context, the point I was trying to make. I make a similar case about the “F word.” If I say, “F word,” nobody is thinking, “Gee, which F word does he mean? Fellatio? Feminism? Furby?” No, it’s fuck. So if I say, “the N word,” the word “nigger” is magically placed inside people’s heads, so why not (in the proper context) just say it? The reason is that is sounds differently in one’s head when it came out a white man’s mouth first.

 

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I always loved the bit from comedian Lenny Bruce from the early 1960s about the “N word.” It was recreated brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman in the 1974 movie Lenny. Bruce just starts using the word in front of a live audience at a comedy show. Then he starts adding other racial slurs, kike, mick, wop. His point is that it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power to hurt and maybe we should take those words away from the racists.(Paging Dr. Foucault.) Comedian Richard Pryor did that as well. When I was a kid in Stone Mountain, we’d secretly listen to his comedy albums, including That Nigger’s Crazy and Bicentennial Nigger. The difference was Pryor was black, Bruce was not. Then, in 1979, Pryor went to Kenya and wrote, “There are no niggers here. … The people here, they still have their self-respect, their pride.” And he vowed never to say the “N word” again.

A lot of white people wonder why black people can use the word when they can’t. They want to rap along to the same Kendrick Lamar songs but they might have to censor themselves if in mixed company. “I’m the realest uh huh after all. Bitch, be humble.” Again, context matters and it’s complicated. Part of if is black people reclaiming the word from racists and getting a slice of privilege because whites can’t say it. Lenny Bruce was right. You can reduce it’s power to hurt, but you can’t remove it. The other thing is that things are different inside the family. I used to call my little brother names all the time, but if you called him names, oh, we were going to have a problem. Whether it’s “nigger” or “nigga” (Tupac turned it into an acronym for Never Ignorant About Getting Goals Accomplished), context matters. Whose mouth it is coming out of matters. Intent matters.

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When I was in grad school, I read the the late great Dick Gregory’s 1964 autobiography, Nigger. It’s about the struggle to overcome the worst Jim Crow America had to offer. In it he writes, “Those of us who weren’t destroyed got stronger, got calluses on our souls. And now we’re ready to change a system, a system where a white man can destroy a black man with a single word. Nigger.” I began assigning another autobiography to my students soon after that, Malcolm X’s. One of the most powerful lines in that 1965 book was when Malcolm asks a black audience, “Do you know what they call a negro scholar? Ph.D.? Professor? They call him a nigger.” This is not just a slur. You can’t even compare it to “kike” or “wetback” (also assaultive words). It’s a word with centuries of brutal oppression woven into its six letters. You just don’t throw a word like that around.

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In 1990, my roommate and I went to go see Public Enemy perform in Atlanta. (Opening acts: Heavy D & the Boyz and MC Hammer). Two white guys at the Omni Colosseum in a sea of black hip hop fans. We heard, “Hey crackers!” a few times. My first thought was, This what it must be like for a black guy to be at a Garth Brooks concert. But then I realized those two words are in no way equivalent. One word was sort of classist, and the other had centuries of genocidal violence and institutional disenfranchisement behind it. There were no black nightriders burning down the homes of cracker families to discourage then from getting too uppity.

I’m teaching two sections of Intro Sociology at Portland Community College this winter and I’m assigning The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I thought that, in the wake of Black Lives Matters and Trump’s racist plantation rhetoric, it was time to return to its vitally wise pages. But I won’t be using the “N word” to make any points. People of color are experiencing enough collective trauma right now in Trump’s America, enough deja vu, with out me adding one more pin prick to the daily tally of micro aggressions and macro assaults. They’re not snowflakes, but enduring humans. My apology for using that word, even in “context,” doesn’t make up for the cumulative impact of the result. I’ll quote a white guy who once said, “Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.” I know there are some white people who are just so sad they can’t say it. It’s complicated. If you can’t figure it out, best leave it alone. Just don’t say it. Now about that “B word.”

NOTE: I’ve already gotten shit from well-meaning white people for using the “N word” in this post. I’m gonna guess that 100% of African-Americans reading this will get the point. White radicals, I’m shooting for a 65% comprehension rate.

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Watching the Wheels Turns 3: Thanks and Resistance

November 23, 2017

As you get older, measuring years in a life seems more difficult. The difference between my year as a 15-year-old and Randy at 16 seem like distinct chapters of a very logical book. I couldn’t begin to tell you how 46 was different from 45. But having a child puts you back on the clock. We’re not giving Cozy’s age by weeks anymore. (It’s 170 weeks today, if you care to know.) But the transition from 2 1/4 to 3 1/4 has been pretty grounding.

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It seems like a moment ago I was starting this blog, fully employed as a full professor at Portland State University, while the baby slept and my wife returned to work at her job at Planned Parenthood. Now we have a kid who runs the board on Candyland and likes to tell me what things really mean. Her sense of humor is as warped as her father’s. She likes to complain about our car being “stinky.” Yesterday, from the backseat, she said, “Daddy, can I tell you something crazy? If there was a stinky man here he would say, ‘I really like your car!’” I laughed so hard I almost ended up on the sidewalk.

Another year watching this child evolve as I’ve watch my country devolve. A year ago, I still was hoping that the election was just a bad dream. Now were racing towards either a version of The Handmaid’s Tale or Idiocracy. I can’t tell which is coming first. Last November, I was in New Orleans at the annual convention of the American Society of Criminology. One of my esteemed colleagues who also studies hate grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “This election might be bad for the country, but it’s going to be good for us.” Who knew how right he’d be? From the dramatic rise in bias crimes, Muslim bans, the rise of the alt-right fascists, Charlottesville, and Trump cultist who say they trust their pussy-grabbing leader more than they trust Jesus, it’s been one quick death slide of a once great country. But anybody who says the emperor has no clothes on is branded “fake news” by the MAGA police.

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It’s certainly kept me busy. I’ve done more interviews on hate crimes, the alt right, and mass shootings this year than I can count. CNN, NPR, Al Jazeera, flying to New York for CBS News (Yes, I saw Charlie Rose). I think the most surreal moment was doing an interview in a Portland hotel room with a former racist skinhead for a Canadian film crew doing a documentary on Trump-era hate and having to take a break to do an interview on Trump-era hate, via Skype, for live TV in Turkey. The world wants to know what the hell is happening in Trump America. I’ve been researching this issue for 30 years, so I guess it’s my time to join the global conversation. Hopefully, my words will help sound the alarm.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for a few things. I’m thankful that the resistance to this swing to the moronic and hateful is being countered by a growing number of Americans, including traditional Republicans. The opposition to this thing that looks more and more like fascism is sometimes noisy and annoying and might veer off message or attract its own knuckleheads, but it is vital to the salvation of the core American values. Let’s be clear, Trump and his alt-right thugs want to destroy America and remake it in their hateful image. There would be no antifa (anti-fascists) if there weren’t fa (fascists). And there are fascists. I’m thankful that people are standing up to any form of authoritarianism, including those standing up to sexual harassers and abusive police. Maybe we needed the Trump nightmare to finally ignite the red blood cells of this country.

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Most of all I’m thankful that everyone in my family is safe and healthy. We are growing in spite of this assault. My wife has to keep her green card handy and we know that the GOP, under their dear orange leader, is hellbent on taking our daughter’s healthcare away from her. But so far we are holding strong. Cozy is doing great and we are thankful for her Obamacare-funded vitamins. Knock on wood, she seems perfect in every way and doesn’t even need diapers anymore. (Thank you, Frozen undies!) A friend recently had a stroke and I know how quickly all that can change, but we are strong and ready for the winter. Our little family is mighty.

In three years this blog has engaged in discussion in lot of issues, from baby brain development to football violence, and tried to keep the feminist lens in focus. A year ago, I was writing about the children of Aleppo (who are still being bombed, btw) and lord knows what I will be writing about a year from now. (2018, make America smart again?) But I am thankful to be able to share my family’s life and my random thoughts about the state of the world. And I’m thankful that you’re here as well. Unless you’re a troll.

4 Novembers

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.