President Snowflake: How Trump’s fragile masculinity made me a better man.

November 19, 2020

If there was ever a time America needed a leader, it’s now as COVID deaths surge past a quarter million. But sad Donald Trump is in his bunker, tweeting madly that he won the election “by a lot.” No stimulus program for Americans falling into homelessness. No national mask mandate to save additional lives. Just Baby Donald having a temper tantrum and a circus of sycophants too afraid to tell the Emperor that the world is laughing at him.

The pathetic end of Donald J. Trump is not only a lesson in how not to be a president. It’s also a vital lesson in how not to be a man. Of course, Mr. “Grab’ em by the pussy” has provided that service for years.

The lockdowns of 2020 have certainly presented challenges for single people, but there have been challenges for those of us that are boo’d up as well. The pandemic has forced many of us married and “coupled up” (as they say on Love Island) to learn how to truly co-exist in a confined space, without the easy exit hatch of “let’s just go out.” There’s only so much Netflixing you can do. At some point, it gets real. And as if providing (finally) some kind of national service, there’s President Hissy-fit giving the men of America a perfect example of how not to handle this moment.

From the very beginning, Trump has made it all about him. From his word-salad lie-fests before his adoring cult crowds to his denial of the Biden victory, “America first” has always been code for “Trump first” and you almost feel sorry for the schleps that still fall for this con man. (“Quick! Donate to President Trump’s legal team so he prove those black votes in Detroit and Atlanta were illegal! We take PayPal!”) Trump always centers himself and you don’t have to look at Melania’s face to see that that’s his fatal flaw.

But this isn’t about Trump. It’s about all us men who do the same thing. We’ve been socialized to believe it’s a man’s, man’s, man’s world and women are there as our support system. (BEHIND every great man… is a woman who should be out in front.) The world is about our male hopes and plans and adventures and successes and failures and wet dreams. That’s why Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) resonated with so many women. It simply asked, but what about me? Arn’t I a person, too?

Sadly, the second wave feminist movement that Friedan helped launch did not fully humanize females in America. It made a lot of progress (Thank you, Title IX and hello Vice President Harris!), but it still looks like a penis-centered culture. At least American Ninja Warrior puts the the top two female contestants through to the finals. We can find plenty of reasons to find cracks in patriarchy. (I’ll credit Nancy Pelosi for keeping Trump’s nuts in a vice grip and the daughters of NFL fans for prioritizing Beyoncés BLM anthems over Go Daddy commercials and cheerleaders in halter tops.) We can see progress all around us (if we turn blind eye to the epidemic of rape in the country), but there are still people who want to make America “Father Knows Best” again.

We can talk about this on a societal level (RBG was right. We’ve had generations of all-male Supreme Courts. When do we get an all-female Supreme Court?) But this is about the personal journey of men stepping away from the destructive (including to men) effects of patriarchy.

More than that, this about me learning how to love my wife.

If patriarchy, on a macro-level, is about centering men’s voice and minds in society, on a personal level it’s about doing the same Goddamn thing in our relationships. Hi ladies, welcome to my world. Can you make me a sandwich? Feminist Dorothy E. Smith has written how women are given control of the “domestic sphere” so men can have pretty much everything else on earth. And that can include the space in a relationship.

Now, to be clear, I have claimed feminism as a core value in my life since the 1980s and proudly left my job to become a stay-at-home dad, inspired by my favorite househusband John Lennon. I can thrill you with stories of escorting women into abortion clinics past the screaming banshees of Operation Rescue and challenging students to accept that God is most likely female, but I still internalized patriarchy in the same sad way I internalized white supremacy.

That became most clear this year during long, under quarantine, conversations with my wife. Like most people, we’ve had our fair share of COVID-magnified conflicts; about money, about parenting, about who is going to wash the dishes. She was quick to point out how quickly I would go into defensive mode and try to “prove” my case, like we were on opposing debating teams. We’re on the same team! I forgot! But it became all about me and how I was somehow aggrieved.

What I should have been doing is asking questions. Why do you feel this way? What can I do to help? I should have centered her and put my amazing wife first in the discussion, but instead  I retreated into “Randyland,” wondering why she had a “well, fuck this shit” look on her face. Maybe if I slept downstairs I could comeback, refreshed with an even clearer articulation of my position, complete with PowerPoint slides. Meanwhile, my wife felt more and more alone as I plotted strategies in my head instead of re-coupling (also a term from Love Island).

This is going to sound completely basic to many people (and maybe a few men), but I have literally burned through every relationship by doing this. By making it about me. That’s not how love is supposed to work. You’re supposed to put your partner’s emotional well-being before your own, but in patriarchal America I didn’t get that role modeling, not from my father and not from Starsky & Hutch. The result was relationships crashing and burning and me thinking that I was just a “psycho-chick magnet.” If they were psycho, it was because I centered myself instead of them.

There is a parallel phenomenon here with regard to race called White Fragility. America has the handbook and is starting to figure that out. (Thanks, Robin!) It’s not about you, Karen, so stop centering yourself and start centering black voices. Maybe, we need a book called Male Fragility: Why Men Get Their Panties in a Wad.

My wife is strong as hell and sure enough doesn’t need a guy like me who doesn’t put his partner before himself. I should have gotten that lesson a long time ago. I’m not the king of my castle. But somewhere, between long, hard conversations with her and watching Baby Trump center himself instead of the nation we hired him to lead, I got it. Don’t be like Trump. Hey Donald, it’s not about you. It’s about America. She’s trying to tell you how she feels. Please listen.

“I wish I was alive in 2020.” Witnessing History from the Frontline

July 22, 2020

You’ve heard it a thousand times. “If I was around in the 1960s, I would have been marching with Dr. King!” Or how about this one, “If I was around in the 1930s or 1940s, I would have been fighting the Nazis!” As if the moment you’re in right now doesn’t require you to pony up and join the frontlines in the fight against oppression. Your time is now.

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One of the great twentieth century sociologists, C. Wright Mills, wrote in 1959 that we tend to see our biographies as separate from the moments in history that we live in. We focus on the, often mundane, day to day parts of our lives and not our lives as part of a larger historical moment. Very few of the people engaged in the vibrant protests in 1968 thought, “I’m in 1968, making history!” They might have thought, “I’m going to this protest with my friend and then I need to pick up some milk on the way home.” We are making history because every day we are making history by merely existing. But Karl Marx once wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” However, there are times, like now, where we can actually alter the course of events.

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Portland is again at the epicenter of national events. The media from around the world (including China and Canada) has been calling me to ask what to make of federal forces shooting “non-lethal munitions” into the faces of protestors and grabbing them off the street in actions that look more like Argentina in 1980 than anything America could ever be. And now President Trump has ordered federal police into Chicago, Kansas City, and Albuquerque in what he has branded, “Operation Legend.” (I won’t psychoanalyze how that title fits Trump’s delusions of grandeur.) State and local leaders and well as senators and congress members have demanded the federal forces leave. Oregon Senior Senator Ron Wyden tweeted, “@realDonaldTrump get your jackbooted goons out of my city.”

The arrival of federal forces has completely altered the dynamic of the conflict. The protests had been geared towards Black Lives Matter and the systemic racial injustices that were highlighted by the May 25th murder of George Floyd. Even in Portland they were beginning to lose steam, as they had in Minneapolis, Washington, DC, and other cities. We were trying to move to a sponsored dialogue phase of the conflict. I was working with the Department of Justice on a plan to get protestors and Portland police to the table together. Then, in a bizarre attempt at political theater (and perhaps a distraction from the unending COVID-19 headlines), Trump sends in federal forces to throw a tanker full of gasoline on to the fire. If it was his actual intention to quell the protests, he failed miserably. People who have never engaged in protests are now manning the barricades; grandmothers, veterans, dads with leaf blowers, all willing to take volleys of CS gas to the face to make a stand.

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This is now about a lot more than Black Lives Mattering. This is about a shockingly rapid slide into authoritarianism. We don’t have go back 80 years to Germany, or even 40 years to Argentina. The parallel is the Philippines, where the 2016 election of “law and order” candidate Rodrigo Duterte turned the country into a police dictatorship in which the media are regularly imprisoned. In 2017, Donald Trump praised the dictator and invited him to the White House. The people who are protesting in America understand how fragile democracy is. The Philippines was a democracy. It is not one now. Those who mocked Antifa activists for warning about the threat of fascism in America are witnessing something that looks a lot more like fascism than it does democracy rooted in constitutional due process. When Fox New’s Chris Wallace asked Trump this week if he would accept the results of the election in November if he loses, his response was that he’ll “have to see.”

So here America is at a turning point. Will we move to civil war or an era of peacemaking and healing? Are the protestors who are risking their lives to drive the federal forces out of Portland lawless anarchists, American patriots, or both? My wife and I (who were tear-gassed at an earlier protest) have stayed up into the morning hours watching the nightly mayhem in a small area of the city, wondering what’s happening to this country. Whatever it is, it’s history unfolding before our eyes. You missed Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 but you can show up to Chapman Square in Portland in 2020 for a front row seat for tomorrow’s American History textbook.

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I’m lucky to have a wide range of friends that run the gamut from U.S. Attorney’s Office civil rights lawyers and police officers to members of the “Wall of Moms” and some of those “lawless anarchists.” I have to imagine all of us are aware that this is a true crossroads in U.S. history. It’s both exciting and frightening. It reminds me of the end of the Cold War and being in London clubs as newly freed eastern Europeans danced their asses off. But it could easily go the other way as Trump’s America continues to flirt with our most dystopian dark fantasies. Police riots and “law and order” rhetoric got Richard Nixon elected in 1968, extending the Vietnam War into the mid-70s, but I think America is in a different place in 2020. At least I hope so.

This is history. Future generations will debate what happened in America in 2020. This great transformation could be a wonderful act reconciliation or the death of America itself. Pay attention. You are not required to participate in this moment, but you are required to bear witness to it.

Do We Have to Burn Down America to Save It? Rethinking Rioting

May 31, 2020

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As rioters ravaged Portland Friday night at 2 am, a local news anchor lamented how sad it was that the Louis Vuitton store was being looted. I thought Luis Vuitton Incorporated would survive, unlike the man named George Floyd.

There was a time when the lure of an exciting riot would have drawn me to the street. The belief that social justice could be advanced by screaming at authority would have inflamed my voice. Then I learned how deeply social evils, like racism, were woven into our society and how broadly complex anything approaching a solution would be.

Let’s start with the obvious, the murder of George Floyd on May 25th was a racial lynching by police. It took Minnesota authorities four days to arrest one murderer, Derek Chauvin, the officer who had his knee on the neck of Floyd for nearly nine minutes, including three minutes in which Floyd was unconscious. The fact that in took law enforcement four days to arrest this murderer must have surprised a lot of black people that it was so hard to get arrested in Minneapolis. The other three officers that participated in Floyd’s murder, well, we’ll see, I guess. And arrest does not equal conviction; the track record favors the murderers in these types of cases.

But we’re supposed to have faith in the system. After generations of George Floyds, I’m not 100% sure why.

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I’ve written so much about this issue and I want to write something now, but I’m glued to the TV watching another night of America convulsing as it tries to marshal that antibodies to fight the pandemic of racism that’s ravaged its body since its birth. I’m trying to explain this to my five-year-old and trying to find evidence that anything will be different this time. My thoughts are disjointed. Do I support the rioters? Do I invite a cop out for beer and race talk? Do I make a bid on Ebay on a looted Louis Vuitton bag, a souvenir of the great uprising of 2020?

So here are some random thoughts as America burns. Again.

  • America was founded by rioters and looters (read about the Stamp Act of 1765), when they are white and want freedom they are called “patriots.” When they are black and want freedom, they are called “thugs.”
  • This not about George Floyd or “honoring his memory.” This about the thousands and thousands and thousands of George Floyds and the inability of black people to have a right to just be alive in America.
  • White people act shocked when black people let them know they are sick of this shit.
  • The “coded” language the president is well understood by people of color even if his base pretends that “MAGA loves the black people.”
  • I had a brief fantasy that the protestors in Lafayette Park stormed the White House and dragged Donald Tump out by his ankles, but then I realized he was probably hiding in a vault, crapping in his diaper.
  • There should be no doubt that Trump is a white supremacist, no goddamn doubt. But racism is woven into complex systems, including the police.
  • The economic strain of this pandemic has added to suffering of those who are marginalized day after day, and are understandably at their breaking point.
  • The history of police officers who are arrested for murder rarely leads to police officers who are convicted of murder (less than a third of cases). The history of riots often lead to tangible results, including Watts (1965), DC (1968), LA (1992), and Ferguson (2014).
  • If you feel like your city doesn’t care about you, why would you care about your city?
  • It seems like a lot of privileged violent white protestors, who call themselves “allies,” think they are “smashing the system,” while simultaneously bringing the heat down on the peaceful black protesters they think they are defending.
  • I worry about how right-wing extremists might exploit this moment or even be working as agent provocateurs to push their racist agenda.
  • There are so many police officers that were disgusted by actions of Derek Chauvin and his three fellow Minneapolis officers. I wonder if any are currently engaged in the police assaults on protestors I am witnessing on TV right now.
  • As hard as this is to explain to my 5-year-old, I can’t imagine how hard it is for black parents who must prepare their children for life in a white supremacist country that refuses to do the work to change things.
  • It would be nice to hear local reporters and anchors express as much concern for the historical trauma of black people as they do for Chase Bank and the Apple Store.
  • Someone said lawsuits filed against abusive police departments should collect their awards from police pension funds. That might get their attention!

I’ve spent a career a partnering with law enforcement to work on issues like hate crimes and domestic terrorism. I’ve worked on trainings for law enforcement and helped to develop policies that help police understand the trauma experienced by crime victims. I went from “cops are pigs” to “police reform” as I matured and understood the social work aspects of law enforcement and the healthy communities well-intentioned peace officers can help create.

But now I’m not sure that’s enough.

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While we still have departments that allow various choke holds, and don’t immediately arrest officers who are accused of the murder of unarmed civilians, and defend a macho police subculture, it seems like Eric Garner, and George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and all the others will just be names on an ever-growing list that only magnifies the trauma of black America. The murder of black civilians by police has not significantly decreased since Ferguson even with the important changes that have been made. Maybe it’s the very structure of policing in America that’s the problem. Maybe we should start figuring out how other countries keep the peace and chase the crooks. Maybe we should burn the old system down. Out of the ashes…

I really don’t have the answer. I just know it’s up to white people to do the work to end racism.

What is the feminist position on the COVID-19 pandemic?

May 19, 2020

The nice thing about having a “paradigm” is that there’s a formula to plug in to when challenging issues emerge. Liberals and conservatives, religious fundamentalists and scientists all have “narratives” they can utilize to make sense of the world. Similarly, feminists have a good starting position, that elements in society work to uphold patriarchal male power structures or challenge them. That’s feminist thinking in a tiny nutshell.

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So what’s the feminist position on the coronavirus?

Feminism is not monolithic. There is as much debate within feminist circles. Just mention Hillary Clinton. A liberal feminist, a radical feminist, a Marxist feminist, and an eco feminist walk into a bar… So rushing to a feminist position on a global pandemic is harder than it looks. Even after three months of pondering the matter.

While no feminist would celebrate sickness and death (that’s a male thing), there could be a feminist “I told you so” element to this mess. Mother Earth might be offering humanity a time-out for the bad behavior of waging war and dumping killing pollution. Eco feminists highlight the importance of healing and with endless wars and traffic jams on pause for a minute, we get to experience the joy of a planetary healing. There are sea turtles on Miami Beach and dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice! Will we really want to return to the nasty business as usual after this micro-organism mandated retreat? Regardless, the lesson remains that man does not control this planet.

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And here’s a little “gender equality amid pandemic” point that my wife brought up; Zoom as a great equalizer. Zoom and other remote meeting platforms have become the new way to exist publicly. My classes have weekly Zoom meetings. On these platforms every person has an equal space, both in terms of the size of their video box and their volume. (“Everyone on mute?”) Since we are working and learning from home, the impression management is way down. Women don’t have to do their makeup and men don’t need a tie. We’re all equally casual in our Brady Bunch grids. I’ve done lecture videos after waking up from a nap and done interviews with a beer in my hand. There’s no judgement in a pandemic. We’re all in this bad hair day together. And if a woman is Zooming in to work with a toddler climbing on her neck, all respect for her for even bothering to unmute her video.

The other side of the ledger is less hopeful. There’s plenty of reasons to see this nightmare as another opportunity for patriarchal power grabs. The first thing to come across the wire when all this started was the impact that the lockdown was having on women who were in domestic violence situations, trapped in spaces with their abusers. By April, reports of calls spiking to domestic violence around the globe made the sad trend undeniable. Women began passing desperate messages in code to pharmacists, hoping for a lifeline away from the violence. Similarly, young LGBTQ people who are stuck at home with homophobic adults must be praying for the moment for this whole thing end.

The women on the frontline of the pandemic have taken the brunt of the risk. Working in health care and food services, taking care of the elderly, they are the most essential of workers, and the most expendable when the crisis hits the fan. They clean the bedpans of the infected, while Ivanka fixes her father’s make-up.

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As is the norm these days, Donald Trump simplifies things for us. Watching him puff up his chest in his daily performance as the manly man in charge (He don’t need no mask!), is just a lesson in the absurd limits of masculinity. (The fact that he’s claiming to take hydroxychloroquine just adds to his soft orange underbelly.) But it’s not his buffoonery that props up patriarchy, although if a female leader demonstrated such incompetence, with nearly 100,000 Americans (so far) dead, she would have been eaten alive.

It’s Trump’s “war-time president” rhetoric that’s the big gender reveal. While things are cooling down on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen, look at how quickly we long to be going to war against something. And like those wars, it’s always futile. The War on Poverty, the War on Crime, and the War on Drugs didn’t end poverty, crime, or drugs either. And some would argue that they made those problems worse. Likewise, the war on Trump’s “invisible enemy” won’t “defeat” COVID-19. We learn to live with disease, and adapt to the coexistence. If you’ve ever gotten a flu shot or worn a condom, you have participated in that adaptation. Trump’s war has inflated the curve, not flattened it.

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When he refers to the “invasion” of the “Chinese virus,” (most infected folks entered the U.S. from Europe), he’s playing into the “Us vs. Them” binary that masks the naturally complex path diseases take. But he has to keep it simple for his simple base. This has involved the president of the United States of America sending tweets to quasi-domestic terrorists. His call to “liberate Michigan” (governed by “that woman,” as he calls her), and other states governed by Democrats, has triggered the anti-government militia men. Armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers (seriously) these “freedom” lovers in MAGA hats (and a handful of “their women”) have been seen on state capitals, spreading their germs and threatening to launch a civil war if they don’t get back their God-given right to go to the mall to buy camo wife-beaters.

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The “War on” rhetoric is tired but it works. It gets boys to men ginned up to go in to battle. And like all battles, there are casualties. The workers in the meat packing plants in Iowa who have died with ventilators down their throats are just abstract statistics to his base. And mostly brown statistics, at that. Ivanka is still healthy and the family stock price in hydroxychloroquine is only going up. As Sartre once wrote, “When the rich wage war it’s the poor who die.” Trump, the four-time draft dodger, is great at pretending to be a warrior (remember his celebration of “his generals”?), but the men, women, and children who will suffer and die because of his hubris are evidence of dire limitations of the blade and the perils of unchecked toxic masculinity.

So has this virus reinforced patriarchal power and the oppression that comes with it?

While we take a break from mass shootings and realize the great labor of all the women who stayed home with the kids without pay, I’m hoping we can use this moment to deflate the dumb puffed up chests of male rule. We have a moment to just talk to each other. Just think of all the conversations husbands are having with their wives because there is no basketball on TV. If ever there was a time to listen to women, it’s now. Maybe, anti-government/pro-Trump “protestors” aside, the earth is turning the corner. We’re ready for a paradigm shift.

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Protecting Our Children from the Trump Virus

March 24, 2020

I’m not sure what day of the self-quarantine this is. I know it’s the second day of Oregon’s “shelter in place” order but the streets of Portland have been increasingly empty for over the last ten days, since the governor ordered all the schools closed a week before spring break, dropping thousands of kids in the laps of trying-not-to-panic parents. We don’t know what’s happening. I wonder if they do.

Our Cozy, at 5 and a half, is pretty smart. She rides around the car with me, secretly listening to NPR (I thought she was staring out the window, thinking about unicorns). Like most, I’ve been a little too addicted to the news about the advancing Trump virus. “Hey, Coze, where do you think this coronavirus came from?” I asked, trying to gage her comprehension of the global slowdown.

“It’s from sick bats in China,” she calmly said. I was expecting some kindergarten-level theory about it coming from flying monkeys hiding inside rain clouds. She’s probably been checking the infection rates on the Johns Hopkins website.

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But the reality of the impending sense of doom as the Trump virus shuts down the world she knows lurks like a monster in the closet. Our spring break tradition includes a trip to the super weird and wonderful Enchanted Forest amusement park, south of Salem. Closed due to the virus. We had planned a trip to Joesph, Oregon to hike around the eastern part of the state. Prohibited. Play dates, ice cream shops, jungle gyms, The Old Spaghetti Factory, all her favorite things are off limits for now and we don’t know when they won’t be. She doesn’t care about the stock market, but the fact that she can’t hug her friends is a red flag that things have changed drastically.

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This might be every parents secondary concern right now (the first being how to protect their children from contracting the Trump virus). How do we keep the kids from being infected with our generalized anxiety? Things are about to get even worse, but I don’t want my small child to know. She’s got washing her hands to “Happy Birthday” twice down pat, but does she realize that she’s not returning to her kindergarten class? The next time she goes to school she will be a first grader (God, please) and everything will be different. I keep thinking of that 1997 movie, Life is Beautiful, where Roberto Benigni and his young son are in a Nazi concentration camp and he convinces his son that they are actually in an exciting game to keep him from being completely traumatized. Dad is murdered by the Nazis in the end.

I’ll be honest, this Dad has been struggling. The Trump virus has upended the economic stability I started to find in 2019. It’s put my 70-something parents at risk. I’ve got an old friend in the ICU in an Atlanta hospital with a COVID-19 infection, and the dumbass Spring Breakers at the beach are not exactly flattening the curve. I feel like I’m inside a Joy Division album. Cozy is frustrated that Dad spends so much time watching the news or checking in on line. What to do, as we slide deeper into the social distance?

As usual, my bad ass wife snapped me out of the funk. She reminded me of all the positive things that are happening in this moment, most importantly all the wonderful family time that we’ve been gifted that will have a huge impact on our daughter. We’ve gotten to be homeschoolers, play dates, and creative time passers. (Andi has already given Cozy a haircut, two (henna) cat tattoos, and lots of weekday attention.) We’re planning some family art projects and Cozy and I are committed to learning how to play chess before this thing is over. We’re also catching up on Disney movies (Thank you, Disney+ for releasing Frozen 2 three months early!) And we’ve got a daily calisthenics routine we do on the sidewalk, to the delight out our neighbors.

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I’ve been running daily (now that the gym is closed) and reconnecting with the music of my youth. (You can run really hard to Van Halen). In the process, I’ve noticed neighbors and strangers seem more friendly, waving from their bubbles. The explosion of live music coming in from my social media platforms has put me in the room with some of my favorite performers, including Patti Smith, Michelle Malone, and Ben Gibbard (every day at 4 pm!). Something is happening. It’s like a government imposed artist retreat (as Patti called it) that’s also producing some much needed civility. The Trump virus is the great equalizer, but beautiful things may emerge from it. Andi and I have even started on a screenplay project!

She was quick to remind that when all this is over, people might slip back to their 9 to 5 grooves, complaining about how they don’t have any time to do the things that they really want to do. As a sociologist, I’m hoping this is a paradigm shift. That once we taste this new version of our lives, we won’t want to go back to the rut. We’ll create a new synthesis, transformed by the quarantine into a new global community.

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So this is what we must share out with our children, that out of crisis comes opportunity. Not to make a fast buck, like those looking for a corporate bailout from the Trump virus aid package. The opportunity to create new things, that connect us in new and beautiful ways. Cozy wants to write postcards! The social organism is adapting. We might look on this moment in history like how we look at how the Black Plague in 1340s Italy paved the way for the Renaissance, as Europeans embraced a lust for life instead of endlessly pondering the afterlife. Let the Trump virus unleash our lust for life and let our children know all the beautiful things that are coming.

Let us come out of this a new version of us, connected and complete. And let the optimism of our children be our guide.

Love In The Time of Corona

March 15, 2020

IT WAS INEVITABLE: Society was due for a course correction. We’d settled into our accepted state of idiocracy, whining about our moron leaders while sipping our over-priced coffee drinks. Their delusions of nationalism were destined to bite all of us on the ass. Brexit, “America First,” Polish nationalism, and all the rest. Build a wall and crime will fall, they said. They were too stupid to know that germs don’t recognize man-made boundaries.

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In less than two weeks the fantasy of “national borders” was laid to waste by the creeping, then accelerating, coronavirus. We are the world, sneezing and coughing together, engaged in a collective fear that our inherent sociability is killing off our elders, one nursing home at a time. Our anti-science president thought he could employ his jingoism by placing his executive power in front of this “foreign virus” (his words). COVID-19 laughed at his hubris. It was already here, spreading like a kerosene fire.

So here we are, in lockdown, trying to “flatten the curve,” riding out the pandemic in our under-stocked bunkers, socially distancing ourselves from our neighbors. Thank the gods for Netflix and chilling. (We now know what will come after Gen Z, the Coronials. See ya in 9 months, babies!) What does this mean for our society, as food servers run out of grocery money and Trump thinks of another way to help his rich friends, again? (“Fed to pump in more than $1 trillion in dramatic ramping up of market intervention amid coronavirus meltdown”) It seems like once they closed down Disneyland, we were racing to a complete social collapse. At least my gym is still open, for now.

In times like this, people crave togetherness, something more than posting memes about empty toilet paper shelves at Costco. Older readers will remember how after 9/11 there was a strange sense of unity that fell over the country. We were all bonded by our grief and needed to be together, hugging strangers and lending handkerchiefs to wipe away others’ tears. Ah, those were the days. How can we accomplish this same cathartic social ritual with three feet between us at all times? I want to hug my elderly neighbors who are already “socially distanced,” but will that kill them?

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Our founding sociologist, Emile Durkheim, asked, over a hundred years ago, why we need religion. In a time of growing scientific explanation, it seemed like religion was less and less required to make sense of the world and yet people were still flocking to churches, synagogues, and mosques. What he found made a lot of sense. People’s need for religion didn’t have anything to do with needing “God,” but needing each other. We needed a sense of community, from the Amish to Zoroastrians. We needed to be in one place together, breaking bread and engaging in rituals that gave us a sense we were connecting the sacred mysteries and the profane reality.  Religion gave us the social cohesion needed grease the wheels of a functioning society. As a kid who grew up in the Bible Belt, you never asked where someone was on Sunday mornings. They were at church, with their friends.

In the twenty-first century, social media has given us much of that sense of community we used to find at our various worship services, but it’s still not the same. Even with online shopping, online dating, and online education, there is still an innate desire to be in a room together. Maybe it is tied to our tribal origins, the rule by consensus. Checking in with each other by taking stock of body languages. “Yeah, I get the feeling people don’t want to go the Chili’s after work.” We need to be reminded of the flesh and bones of us, that we are not a series of illuminated screens.

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So how will we get through this? My intellectual mind understands that limiting social contact will slow down the spread of the virus and put this thing in the dumpster with the swine flu, the bird flu, and various monkey-born illnesses. But my emotional mind wants to take my family out for dim sum to support our suffering Asian community and later grab a drink at my local bar in hopes a few shots of whiskey will immunize me. (Guilty of doing both this week.) Facebooking and ordering delivery just doesn’t cut it. Will my very human need to be in the world (and putting my money where my asymptomatic mouth is) extend this nightmare and maybe take out a few humans in the process? How can I be the needed citizen of the world and also stem the economic collapse in my little part of the world?

Durkheim believed that even horrible things can be functional for society. Maybe COVID-19 is functional as a great reset for the human race, to remind us that borders and nations are luxuries that quickly fade when we realize we’re all in this germ factory together. I’m wrapping my arms around the world. And then washing my hands.

My Old Face

January 18, 2020

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The life expectancy in the United States in 1920 was 58.8 years, so if you met someone who was sixty, they were “elderly” and living on borrowed time. In 2020, the American life expectancy is 78.9 and there are approximately 80,000 Americans who are over a hundred years old. I’m 55, so a hundred years ago I would have been ancient and now I’m wondering if I even qualify as “middle-aged.” Wilfrid Brambell, the actor who played Paul McCartney’s comical grandfather in The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964) was 52 at the time. Beatle Paul is now 77 and heads back on tour this spring, headlining the Glastonbury Festival on June 27.

So who’s old now? “Old.”

And when someone tells you to “act your age,” what does that even mean? What does it mean to a 17-year-old or a 55-year-old? I remember during the previous impeachment, there was a general feeling that 52-year-old Bill Clinton was not acting his age with Monica Lewinsky.  (Harvey Weinstein, 67, redefined the relationship between age and douchebaggery.) And if he were not the leader of the free world, the infantile antics of Donald Trump, 73, might be endearing. “He’s an old man, but he’s so childlike!”

As I write this with my reading glasses on, I can tell you there are a few clear markers of aging besides the fact that the smoothness of my skin seems to be evaporating. The aches and pains creep in and the extra pounds tend to hang on a bit longer, no matter how hard I hit the gym. And it’s just harder to hit the gym since there’s something awesome on TV tonight. I always hated when my elders would complain endlessly about the chronic pains of life so I’ll keep my mouth shut, but if I drive more than five miles, my right knee hurts!

There’s also the constant reminder of the passage of time. As a teacher, aging is particularly profound. The majority of my college students were born in the twenty-first century. I’ll say something like, “Remember how the nation reacted to 9/11?” and they’ll say, “OK, boomer, I was 3 days old.” And I’ll say, “I’m not a boomer, depending on how you chart birth rates. I’m a Generation X elder.” (My five-year-old daughter has taken to saying, “OK, boomer X.”) Regardless, I am constantly reminding my students what the world was like before the internet. Last week I was explaining what a “travel agent” was. “A travel asian?” one asked.

The value of all the mistakes I’ve made is that I can offer Generation Z endless pearls of wisdom, like “avoid credit card debt at all costs,” and “figure out ASAP that women are people,” and “don’t mix wine and whiskey,” and “take a literature class or something.” Then I can sit back and put all my hopes that the world doesn’t blow up on them. It is nice knowing a few things about how reality works even if I have no idea how I’ll be paying for the chronic health issues that are surely around the corner.

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The bottom line is that I don’t feel old. I still want to be at the front of the stage when a hot young band is blowing the doors off of some basement club. I was in the front when I was 17 seeing The Ramones and I was right up front seeing Velvet Q scream through a set in Seattle a few weeks ago. (Check them out, Grams.) I try not to wonder if the kids are thinking, “What’s that old guy doing here?” Because that’s what I would have thought back in the day. But, to be frank, the reality is that I find more comfort in spinning an old Yes album, than knowing the next big underground thing. (I’ve taken to consuming critics year-end lists to find music I should’ve already known about. Big Thief!)

The Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, got old. Boomers like Donald Trump and Dolly Parton, both born in 1946, are 73. The good news is that generation changed what it means to “get old.” If 73 is no longer “old,” 55 definitely is not. Ringo Starr will be on tour this summer for his 80th birthday, and Trump probably already has his sights on his post-indictment wife. (Sorry, Melania. Be best!) They made “thirty-something” cool in the eighties and they’ll probably make “eighty-something” cool in the 2030s.

So, lines on my face aside, there’s still a lot of life ahead. That includes mistakes, child-like moments of wonder, new paths, and nights pressed against the stage, remaining hair shaking to the beat.

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Reelin’ in the Tens: What was this decade about anyway?

December 29, 2019

Decades used to have a definitive feel, a look, a sound. The Eighties were so different from the Seventies, which shared little with the Sixties. As we put this decade to bed, there’s no real sense of collective experience. We don’t even have a name for the last ten years. The Teens?

2010 began with the Obama presidency digging us out of the Great Recession and the quasi-fascist Tea Party movement and ended with the impeachment of the quasi-fascist Donald Trump and another recession looming. The first #1 song of 2010 was “Tik Tok” by Kesha and the last #1 song of 2019 is a Mariah Carey Christmas song from 1994 (and then a dozen Post Malone songs). Do those bookends offer any clue to the history that unfolded in the intervening days, weeks, months, and years between?

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I imagine the historians will dub this the Decade of Social Media. People retreated from cruising malls and bars to shopping and dating online. The fashion of the decade was the laptop and the smartphone. It was the decade where people stayed home and when they went out they were permanently hunched over their devices while the world burned down around them. Why look for a scene when you can just Netflix and chill?

It was a fairly epic ten years for me. I became a parent in 2014, which completely changed my connection to the outside world. And becoming a parent of a girl grounded my feminist ideals into a moral imperative in a world of “Grab ‘em by the pussy” presidents. 2014 was the also the year I pushed my faculty union to strike against a bloated administration which was a factor in that bloated administration cancelling my secure faculty contract. But after a few years of scrounging, that freedom gave birth to a professional and creative revival. I got to spend the second half of the decade traveling the globe and writing volumes, including books, academic chapters, an ode to Bowie published in the Gay & Lesbian Review, and an article in Huffington Post on masculinity and right wing violence. Having a wonderful partner, who never tolerated my decades old bullshit, pushed me to unexpected accomplishments.

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I have a theory about decades (discussed in my 2011 book, The Mission of the Sacred Heart). There are two albums released in the seventh year of every decade that define both what’s happening on the surface and what’s bubbling underneath. For 1967, it was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Velvet Underground & Nico. 1977 was Saturday Night Fever and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, and so on. For 2017 it would have to be Taylor Swift’s Reputation and Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. Both represented the dominant themes of the decade, the empowerment of women in the face of institutional abuse (hats off to artists like Kesha and films like Bombshell) and the transformative Black Lives Matter movement (much love to artists like D’Angelo and films like Moonlight).

It was a decade that moved the ball on the leveling playing field, for transgender kids that need to pee and black kids who don’t need to get shot by the cops. But there was a massive attempt to turn back the hands of time to the bad old days, when America was (right) “great.” The rebellion against the global community sparked nationalism across the world; Trump and Putin, Brexit, mass murdering racists in Norway, neo-Nazis in Ukraine, and on and on. 2020 seems like it will be the beginning of decade of civil war. Can Harry Styles save us?

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It usually takes a while to get a feel for what a decade was all about. Give it a few years before we determine the relevance of The Bachelor and brand new pants pre-torn in Chinese sweatshops. The last decade of the “American Century” will have an official haircut and dance (Twerking?). There will be 2010s nights at clubs where they play all your old Katy Perry favorites and people dress like various Kardashians and joke about apps and Tim Tebow and they play the “Gangnam Style” video over and over again. I’ll remember it as the decade where I found my real purpose. There was no app for that.

I was 5 once, too!

November 27, 2019

Cozy and I were sitting at home last week, watching the impeachment hearings. I had to wait until age 9 for my first live impeachment proceedings. (I was glued to the Watergate hearings.) Cozy’s getting a jumpstart on her political awakening. She stopped and said, “I don’t like Donald Trump because he wants to cut down all the trees.” I don’t know if that’s true, but it captures the feeling that Trump is a one-man apocalypse for her generation. I wondered if she will remember any of this when she’s having a beer with her friends in college, reflecting on when America went off the rails.

Some people don’t have a lot of memories from before the age of 5. Others, perhaps due to intense psychotherapy, remember the formative years with crystal clarity. For me, age three was when my little brother came home from the hospital. I can see my mother carrying him past the birch trees in front of our house. Four was nursery school and a cubby whole of my very own. The rest is a swirl of real and imagined.  I assume Cozy might not remember her early days, but perhaps they have all been logged somewhere in her subconscious. Meeting Minnie Mouse on her third birthday may appear in dreams 30 years from now, but probably will never be a clear memory. All the experiences we’ve been giving her are meant to shape her personality, not necessarily give her fond memories. That’s why God invented Instagram. #cozyblazak

But 5 is different. These moments will last. Not all of them, but enough. She will remember many of her kindergarten friends, and being dragged to my meetings, and art projects with her mom, and trips to visit family in Mexico. I can’t find a single picture of  me at 5, but there’s a cloud full of thousands of pictures of her if she ever needs her memory jogged.

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Five was a big year for me. So much of it seems clear as day. For Halloween, I had a Secret Squirrel costume with a plastic mask that scratched my face. My best friend was a neighbor named Cheryl. I’d call her to play by doing a Tarzan yell over the back fence, and she’d climb over like soldier scaling a wall in boot camp. Our kindergarten class had an incubator and we anxiously waited for chicken eggs to hatch. My mom told me today that one of my classmates was a bully who delighted in slamming kids’ hands in the door. I’ve blocked that one out. But I do remember her buying my corrective shoes at a Stride Rite store (next to Mayfair’s) that had ducks in the window. Candy button strips and a friend with a pet turtle. A new Blue Bird school bus and realizing I could swallow Spaghetti-O’s without chewing.

I was 5 in 1969, so there were my first flirts with sixties pop culture, most memorable was the first episode of Sesame Street (November 11, 1969). I still have the album (and can sing “Rubber Duckie”). I cut out Archies records from the back of Honeycomb cereal boxes. I knew most of the words to “Spinning Wheel” by Blood, Sweat & Tears, and got a few of the jokes on Laugh-In (“Very interesting.”) And, of course, I stared at the moon, hoping to see Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong bouncing on it.

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I also processed some of the turmoil at the end of the decade. Our white middle class parents made fun of hippies and warned of the “dangerous jungle” in the city. That gave me plenty to rebel against later. But it was all lodged in my brain. The implicit bias I now hope to purge was being formed inside the mind of that kid 50 years ago.

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I don’t know what Cozy will carry with her from her vast experiences in 2019. We’ve worked hard to block messages of inequity, taking her to sold-out women’s soccer matches and exposing her to her wonderful family south of the border. She is as at home with the music of John Coltrane as she is the soundtrack of Frozen 2. She might not log every single trip to the ice cream shop or cool outfit, but hopefully she’ll remember how much she was loved in all those moments. And she can save the Trump thing for her therapist.

White People: If you aren’t actively anti-racism, you are pro-racism

October 23, 2019

One of my weirdest media moments was one of my live CNN interviews. It was August 12, 2017 after the mayhem of the alt right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that left one anti-racist activist dead. President Trump had said there were “fine people on both sides of the conflict,” equating the Neo-Nazis, who had organized the “Unite the Right” rally, with the counter protestors. I was brought on to do the usual “state of hate” analysis. I must have been too concise in my answers, leaving space in the interview. There was a pause and host Ana Cabrera then asked, “Dr. Blazak, so if you were President Trump’s speech writer today, what would be the very first line, the first words out of the president’s mouth regarding the situation in Charlottesville if you were to advise that?”

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My friends watching said I looked like I wanted to laugh out loud at the thought of being cast as Trump’s speech writer. I didn’t say what I wanted to say. I squelched the devil on my shoulder and decided to remain the professional academic. I replied:

I think it’s acknowledging the importance of diversity in this country, the fact that we are stronger together. And then we do want to come together, it’s going to take people acknowledging the history of oppression and racism that we have before we even take the next step. Sort of acknowledging that truth is key to the whole thing.

Here’s what I should have said:

Donald Trump is an idiot. At least on the issue of race, he’s a complete idiot. Not only does he not understand the very basic elements of race relations in America, he has shown no intellectual interest in understanding them. He’s not the president of all Americans, just of the ones who think like him.

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This matter resurfaces on a regular basis. From his regular proclamation that he’s the “least racist person there is,” (the least racist person would never say that) to this week’s proclamation that the ongoing impeachment inquiry is the equivalent of a “lynching.” This guy is clueless and hasn’t learned anything while being “our” president.

But this isn’t about Trump. It’s all about the white people like him who don’t understand how racism works. They think that being a racist is joining the Klan and burning crosses. They don’t understand the insidious persistence of racism in our institutions and in our psyches in the form of implicit bias. Racists are bad people so how can they be racists? They’re good!

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Sevier County Commission member Warren Hurst (an old white guy in Tennessee) is a perfect of example. At a public meeting this week, after complaining that there was a “queer” running for president, said, “I’m not prejudiced, a white male in this country has very few rights and they’re getting took more every day,” and then a bunch of other white people applauded.

This also isn’t about being “racist.” I would argue everyone is racist to some degree. We’ve all internalized ugly messages about white supremacy. Whether it’s white ladies clutching their purse when they see a black man, or black people placing a greater value on lighter skin, racism is the fabric of our lives. It’s there in Muslim bans, the gentrification of black and brown neighborhoods, police profiling, and the daily micro-aggressions that white people dismiss as “not meaning anything.” Racism wasn’t erased by the end of the Civil War, the civil rights movement, the election of a black president, or white kids listening to Travis Scott. This is about what you’re doing about that racism.

I never say I’m not a racist. I’ve internalized white supremacist values since my childhood, but I’m working hard to purge them. I’m getting better at identifying my white privilege and recognizing when I’m practicing white fragility. It’s hard and it sucks and I can see why a lot of white people don’t want to be bothered with the disentangling that requires a constant mirror reflecting some pretty ugly shit right back at you. I never say I’m not a racist, but I do say I am actively anti-racist.

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If your core orientation, as a white person, is not actively anti-racist, you are practicing racism. Like the “good Germans” who stood on the sidelines and allowed the Holocaust to happen, you are enabling the white supremacy that exists in every corner of society. Being actively anti-racist requires that there are times when you need to shut the fuck up and listen to and honor the real lived experiences of oppression that people of color endure. Don’t speak for them, whitey. Listen with an empathetic heart.

But being actively anti-racist also means speaking up when you encounter racism in systems or people. I was inspired to write this because a good friend referred to Lindsey Graham as her “spirit animal” when he defended Trump’s claim that he was being lynched. An anti-racist person would not do that. An anti-racist white person would hear the anguish of black people with regard to the vicious history of lynching and defer to their pain. An anti-racist person wouldn’t say shit, like “Well, Clarence Thomas used that word.” An anti-racist white person would know how to hear the truth and know that they can be become a better person by hearing that truth.

I never want to hear another person say they are “not a racist.” I want to hear white people say they are actively dismantling white supremacy whenever they encounter it, including in themselves.

But part of white privilege is being lazy and feeling like you don’t have to do any work on yourself. White people, you better work.

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