The emotional fatigue of liberation work

October 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: How about a salad. LOL

Him: I find salads offensive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“You’re gonna need a shotgun” Raising a daughter in a rape culture

September 7, 2017

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I was speaking at a civil rights conference in Michigan this week and over lunch I was having a conversation with a jovial guy who worked in law enforcement. Since it’s always a unifying topic, we began chatting about our children. I showed him a cute pic of Cozy milking a cow at the Oregon State Fair. “You’re gonna need a shotgun,” he said.

I wish it was the first time I’d heard that line. Even before Cozy was born, when friends, family, or strangers heard we were having a girl, the calls for “better get a shotgun” came from men of all ages.

I understand that these men are trying to be cute, but it always injects two thoughts into my head; 1) I don’t want a gun, and 2) thanks for reminding me that boys and men will try to rape my daughter.

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I mean, isn’t that what that line means? If Cozy is hanging out with a boy that she likes, it’s her time, her body, her choice. Right? It’s only if said boy crosses some boundary into nonconsensual douche-baggery that hero dad is supposed to rush in with his 12-gauge Remington to rescue his damsel in distress by threatening to blow this kid’s head clean off. “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

I’m not buying it.

What patriarchal vision has a father guarding his daughter’s window, weapon loaded, to make sure sex-crazed boys don’t rob her of her precious virginity? Cozy can arm herself with the wisdom to surround herself with the type of boys who can use the front door. I’m trying not to think too much about her inevitable transition into a sexual being, but my hope is she will own it responsibly without the anxiety of a father who wants her locked in a chastity belt, or who is lying in wait, with a Winchester across his lap.

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The cute line about shotguns is more an acknowledgement of the rape culture we must raise our daughters in. I can trust that Cozy will make good choices with the boys (and/or girls) in her life and know how to shut down any unwanted advances (and accept the wanted ones). We will load her up with lines from TLC (“I don’t want no scrub.”) and bell hooks (“There can be no love without justice, asshole.”) But the harsh reality is that there will probably be boys and men than blast right though those defenses.

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Self-report studies have found that one in four women in America will be raped in their lifetime, many numerous times. The numbers are even more bleak for the more broadly defined “sexual assault.” He may not force his penis into her, but “just” grabbing her breasts may be enough to demonstrate who is boss. The same research shows that only 22% of rapes are committed by strangers, the majority are men known to the victim. This might happen in a dormitory, on a date, at a family gathering, or all of the above. It could be a boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, or thinks-he’s-a-boyfriend, or all of the above. There is no place that girls and women are safe from the potential of unwanted sexual contact; not home, not work, not school. So I know this, and it kills me that Cozy will know this, too.

We’ve tried raise a generation of girls who can defend themselves. We’ve given them guns, pepper spray, German Shepherds, and rape whistles. We’ve taught them how to walk in groups, cover their drinks in bars, and trust their guts about guys who give off rapey vibes. But we haven’t done a very good job teaching boys and men not to rape. When their presidents and faux-medieval TV heroes do it, you can understand why they might think they are entitled to women and girls’ bodies. According to a 1998 study by the National Institute of Justice, 1 in 33 men have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. A recent University of North Dakota survey found that 1 in 3 college males would rape a female if they knew that would not face any consequences. Boys will be boys, right?

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If there’s any good news it’s that the rates of rape and sexual assault have been falling (along with the violent crime rate in general). Rape victims coming out of the shadows and sharing their stories have surely been a part of that decline. Every man has at least one woman in his life who has experienced this horror. Maybe boys need to hear these stories as well, from their mothers, sisters, teachers, doctors, neighbors. It makes all that Game of Thrones rape a bit less entertaining. I do know the decline in what is still an epidemic of sexual violence has nothing with dads chasing aspiring rapists off with shotguns.

So here’s how that conversation is going to go next time:

“You’re daughter’s very cute. You’re gonna need a shotgun”

“Why?”

“Because she’s going to have boys all over her.”

“What if she wants boys all over her?”

“What if she doesn’t?”

“So, you’re saying she’ll have guys harassing her and trying to rape her.”

“It happens.”

“And she won’t be able to take care of it herself?”

“She might not be. I’m just saying you might need that gun.”

“How about you teach your boy not to rape her and we spend that gun money on something else?”

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Postscript: A friend pointed out that also coded in this is that only pretty/skinny/cute girls are targets of rape, as if rape was an act of sexual attraction. All types of girls and women are rape. It’s about power, not sex.

“Speaking for all feminists…”

July 28, 2017

I’ve never pretended to speak for all male feminists, let alone all feminists on earth. I don’t even speak for my own feminism from a year ago. Life, its lessons (and a few good articles in Gender & Society) have their impact. Just like a person can’t step in the same river twice, one’s understanding of the world is constantly evolving. Take a look at Donald Trump. A year ago he pledged to be the advocate of transexual Americans and now he’s throwing them under the bus to divert attention from his multiple dumpster fires. He’s (de) evolving!

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When I taught feminist theory at Portland State University, I would warn students about people who painted feminism with broad brushstrokes and feminists as simplistic caricatures. People like woman-hating personality Rush Limbaugh, who is fond of using the therm, “femi-nazi.” People who think being pro-woman means being anti-man. People who can’t even define feminism but spend their free time making the feminist-bashing memes that litter the internet.

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The reality is that feminism is a many splendored thing. It’s a huge umbrella under which there are multiple ideas about gender relations. I’ve spent some time on this blog discussing liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, radical feminism, and Riot Grrrl feminism. There’s first, second, and post-modern third-wave feminism. Eco-feminism has a voice but so does free-market feminism. There are Muslim feminists, Catholic feminists, and conservative feminists. Even Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist. There’s also a growing phalanx of male feminists who I hope will become the fourth wave, smashing male domination from inside the old boys club.

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There’s plenty of disagreement within these camps. Just read bell hook’s first book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981). In it she writes, “It is obvious that many women have appropriated feminism to serve their own ends, especially those white women who have been at the forefront of the movement.” There are plenty of people who call themselves feminists in the pop world and have no idea what intersectionality is (and I’m guessing that includes Ms. Palin).

So to say, “feminists think…” is hugely problematic. What is the feminist position on the Wonder Woman movie? I’ve read dozens of different positions, all rightfully feminist. The people that paint feminism with a broad strokes don’t truly understand what feminism is and is not. I got some chuckles when I presented a paper at a conference in the late 1990s making the case that the Spice Girls were an effective vehicle for teaching tweens about feminist principles. Nearly 20 years later there are a lot of millennial feminists making that exact same case.

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What feminists of every stripe have in common is a belief in patriarchy, a power dynamic that advantages men. Some see that as a individual level thing, like men’s use of violence against women, some see it as a macro-level systemic thing, including any religion that defines God as “He.” Even more see it as both. But after that, all bets are off. I often argue that all women understand the presence of patriarchy, whether it’s the glass ceiling at their job, or their rapey uncle, or the constant pressure to “look good” in the face of the tick tock of age. They might not have the intellectual vocabulary to “frame the present discourse,” but all women are feminists IMHO. Even anti-feminist women have a feminist brain.

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There are plenty of aggro feminists who don’t think men can be a part of the dialogue, just as there are black activists that don’t think there is room at the table for white allies. I get it. As a white person, I can dip into the struggle for black liberation when I have time and pat myself on the back for being “woke.” My male privilege is the same thing. I can work to smash patriarchy, but I’m still benefitting from that patriarchy even when I’m in the middle of a woman’s march. “Look, it’s a man here to save us!” I’ve been tackling both the issue of male privilege and white privilege in my Recovering Asshole podcast and some of the conversations have been challenging for this “woke” white boy.

There is this emerging concept of “solidarity work” – showing up to the liberation work of groups you don’t belong to.  It’s all about being ready to take a backseat and asking how to help. That means men can be feminists but they have to know when to shut up and listen to their female compatriots. Since men have traditionally been the “voice of authority,” it can be a new experience for guys to STFU, especially when males have been taught to disregard female voices. Remember when Trump said he didn’t think Hillary Clinton had the stamina to be president? I guess by “president” he meant “playing golf every weekend.”

Without a doubt there are people who have hijacked feminism for their own purposes. This includes the “victim feminists” who see all women as inherent victims of men. This is not feminism. These fake feminists erase women’s agency, including to be sexual beings who want what they want and have every right to go after the shama-lama-ding-dong. Consenting adults, even the female ones, can get up to some freaky hanky skanky. (This is a theme in my recent book, The Dream Police.) No leading feminist, not Andrea Dworkin, not Catherine MacKinnon, has ever said “All sex is rape.” But the enemies of feminists repeat this fake feminist mantra, and it’s not just Rush Limbaugh doing it.

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There’s a whole world of feminism to explore, something for everyone, and none of it is set in stone. People’s perspectives evolve. Just ask a roomful of feminists whether or not transwomen are part of their struggle. You’ll get lots of answers. Then ask that same room six-months later. My own feminist path as been a jagged path with plenty of missteps. Becoming a father of daughter certainly has played a role in that. So beware of anyone who claims to speak for all feminists. You just can’t have that many brains in one head.

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A Time to Refrain from Fighting

14 July 2017

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Tuesday afternoon I had just completed one of our weekly civil rights bus tours of Portland. I’m a presenter for the Fair Housing Council of Oregon ride through our state’s tortured racial history. My part of the program is about hate crime that now links the 1988 bludgeoning death of an Ethiopian immigrant by racist skinheads to the brutal attack by an “alt-right” lunatic on a Portland Max train last May. The bus rolls from the street where Mulugeta Seraw was murdered to the Hollywood Max station where three heroes were stabbed for standing up to hate, two of them paying for it with their lives. I try to connect the dots and have yet to do so without choking back the tears.

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I end my part of the tour by talking about the difficult work of reaching out to the haters and leading them to the side of love. That that’s where the true justice is. I talk about an organization called Life After Hate, a group of “formers,” who used to be members of white supremacist groups and now do important anti-racism and de-radicalization work. I mention how this group was awarded a $400,000 grant by the Obama Administration that was just rescinded by the Trump Administration. (Gee, why would Trump want to stop the work of a group that drags people out of right-wing hate groups?) And I talk about the 16-year-old girl with the swastika tattoo who, in 1988, handed her skinhead boyfriend the bat used to bash Mulugeta Seraw’s skull in. She’s now one of my most cherished friends. She served her time, befriending an African-American girl she was locked up with, and now speaks powerfully about what sent her down the ugly road of hate.

Tuesday’s tour was for a group of fresh-faced graduate students at Lewis & Clark. Afterwards a young woman approached me and said, “I’m a radical feminist anarchist and I think these people should be attacked, physically attacked.” I tried to explain to her that that approach only pushes them farther into their little Nazi boxes, making them into the victims of another kind of hate. That it makes more sense to try to make a connection with them and bring them to our side. That I’ve been doing this work for almost thirty years and this is the only thing that actually works to reduce the hate and threats of violence. She was having none of it, harumphed, and stormed off.

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I’ve been reflecting on that interchange this week. One one hand, I don’t think she understands the concept of “radical feminism.” If you think the appropriate response to a social problem is more macho violence, then you are not a radical feminist. On the other hand, I get it. If someone had knocked the crap out of Jeremy Christian before May 26th, maybe he would have thought twice about opening his hate spewing mouth on a crowded train that afternoon.

And I was thinking about it last night. Andrea and I were celebrating our wedding anniversary at a great new jazz bar in Portland called The Jack London Revue. The Jim Beam was settling into my veins as the Mel Brown Quartet played. I looked at my wife in the dimly lit club and thought of how lucky I am to be her husband. We are a team on multiple fronts: parenting, home-maintaing, creative projects, financial struggles. We’re in this together. And we’re stronger when we come at life as a partners instead of rivals. There are fights, when somebody is convinced they are right. I would love it if she rinsed her plates and I’m sure she would love it if I stopped thinking farts were “funny.” She’s very Antifa on that one. (Anti-Fart)

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But there’s another way. I jokingly think of it as “feminist husbandry.” There’s a challenge when we are so committed to our position that there must be a “winner.” My charge is to just stop. Just stop. Lose the ego and remember we’re a team first. My job is to take care of my partner, not win an argument. We can find our common ground. I don’t always do it, though. It’s easy to let the anger win and just want to (like my “radical feminist anarchist” rider) attack. That’s why I’ve put little reminders up in our house. Signs that say,  “appreciate,” “acknowledge,” and “be loving” are taped up on walls. (It’s cheaper than getting them tattooed on my hands.) There is time in life to take a breath and remember what the mission is.

One of my favorite songs growing up was The Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” The lyrics are actually from the Christian Bible; Ecclesiastes 3. There is a time to fight, but also a time to refrain from fighting. Love wins out over hate. Ultimately, we are all on the same side. That includes the haters and those that hate the haters.

Please support Life After Hate here (click). Maybe someday I will form Life After Farting.

The Monsters Under the Bed

July 7, 2017

I’m learning all about the many stages of child development. For example, Cozy suddenly doesn’t want to stop wearing diapers. I figured she’s be ready to move to the next big thing, undies! It’s her connection to her safe dependency on her parents, perhaps; a security blanket she can pee on. I mean, once you start wearing underpants, what’s next? A 9 to 5 job? Days spent deleting spam emails and right-wing family members? Awkward conversations with canvassers on the front porch?

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We’re now in the monster stage. The monsters have arrived in our home. There’s a monster in her bedroom or, just one in the closet. She doesn’t want to sleep in her room or go downstairs and help me with the laundry. “There’s a monster down there!” I’m not sure where it comes from. Oh, yeah, I do. Scooby Doo, and Frozen and everything else that’s “kid friendly.”  She won’t even open Where the Wild Things Are yet.

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I know there are twisted parents that won’t think twice about exposing their kids to the most horrible images. (“C’mere baby. We’re gonna watch Aliens. It’ll be good for ya.”) I’m still suffering from watching Dark Shadows with my mom as a toddler. In 1999, I ran into a couple with their small child at a theater buying tickets to 8mm, the Nicolas Cage movie about snuff films. They were in line in front of me and I knelt down to the kid’s level and said, “Little girl, your parents are seriously fucked up people.” The mother looked like she was going to get another beating as dad glared at me. I should track that little girl down, probably in Coffee Creek Women’s Correctional Facility.

The point is, we’ve been trying to shield Cozy from the basic fact that there are truly monsters in the world. If only they were as manageable as Sasquatch or Marshmallow the Snow Giant. I don’t want her to know that there are people who would snatch her off a playground or murder her parents for a little bit of money. I’m old enough to remember stories of garment manufactures who cut corners on flame retardant pajamas, soaking them with chemicals that mutated kids’ DNA. (Explaining why they keep making X-Men movies.) Those creeps were monsters.

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In the most recent episode of my podcast, Recovering Asshole, I was talking to feminist educator Jen Moore about male privilege. There are so many monsters that I, as a male, can ignore. We discussed that, at some point, my wife and I will have to explain to our daughter that there are boys and men who will try to rape her and those monsters might appear to her as friends. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of potential threats. Add drunk drivers and politicians that want to take away your health care (some of whom are surely drunk themselves) and more. When I was a kid, I thought the city-stomping line-up in 1968 Japanese film, Destroy All Monsters, was the worst possible thing humanity could face. And then Donald Trump pulled us out of the Paris Climate Accord.

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I was listening to a story on NPR about the horrific Grenfell Tower fire in London in which they are still counting the dead. The building designers seemed to forget sprinklers and adequate fire exits, but it was low income housing so why bother. There was a witness account of a woman who wrapped a baby in blankets and dropped the baby from a 9th story window. I had to pull over the car I was so consumed with sadness. I thought of the World Trade Center jumpers on 9/11 whose last choice was one form of death over another. Then I thought of a mother choosing to say goodbye to her little baby before she perished in flames, hoping that at least her child would survive. I thought the people responsible for those deaths are the real monsters under our beds.

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Cozy has taken to playing “Monster” this week. “Daddy, you be a monster and I’ll be a princess.” Or the more fun version, “Daddy, I’ll be a monster and you be a princess.” This monster prefers tickling to abduction or regulation violations. I think it’s her way of having some power over the feeling that something evil is lurking just out of view. When she was born I believed I could protect her from it, but now I know I can’t. Not truly. But let’s pretend, just a little longer.

Postscript: About 1 a.m. this morning, Andrea and I were still up. (I had a late-night job talk with someone in Ethiopia.) Cozy came in, sleepily carrying her Minnie Mouse doll, Pink (her favorite blanket), a Frozen kickball, and a green mylar balloon on a string. We were laughing so hard, we let her climb in bed with us. No monsters here.

 

How I Learned to Stop Fearing Teenage Girls and Started Loving Harry Styles

June 8, 2017

I love the new Harry Styles album and I don’t care who knows.

Obviously gender socialization has played a role in the music I’ve loved (I was a sergeant in the Kiss Army in 1977, after all), but it has also played a part in the music I am supposed to hate. So much of the “Disco Sucks” movement in the 70s was steeped in deep-rooted homophobia (and racism). Real (white) guys liked ROCK and anybody who liked the Bee Gees must be a “fag.” I chanted “Disco sucks!” with the rest of the boys but secretly thought “Staying Alive” was a pretty damn good song.

This was especially true with teen idols. I was taught to hate them the most. If teenage girls loved them, they must be devoid of any musical quality whatsoever. Those screaming girls care more about their haircuts and cute smiles than their musical chops. I mean, seriously, what kind of name is “The Beatles”? What will they ever accomplish?

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So here’s a secret. Circa 1973, 9-year-old Randy was seriously into The Osmond Brothers. (If you’ve never heard “Crazy Horses,” listen to it now, loud.) They had a cool Saturday morning cartoon (as did the Jackson 5 and Rick Springfield), and since there was no MTV, it was how I first “saw” my music. I would put their records on on my parents’ hifi and go into my bedroom and pretend “my brothers” were rehearsing in the living room. I was the Osmond they never talked about, Randy Osmond. I even had Donny’s album, My Best To You, so “Puppy Love” played in my house.

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I would read Tiger Beat magazine to keep up on all the latest news about my Saturday morning stars, including Michael Gray (Shazam!), Vince Van Patten and Kristy McNichol (Apple’s Way) and Johnny Whitaker (Sigmund & the Sea Monsters). I even learned a bit about religion. The Osmonds were Mormons and the Jackson 5 were Jehovah’s Witnesses. (I’m not sure what Sigmund and the Sea Monsters were. Lutherans?) That was until one day in late 1974.

I remember it as clear as a bell. I was standing in the hallway in our house with a copy of Tiger Beat trying to pull out a pinup of some fresh faced star (Anybody remember the DeFranco Family?). I already had one of David Cassidy on my wall. Then my 32-year-old father said, “Randy, you know those magazines are for girls, right?” It was a gender bomb dropped on my world. He signed me up for Boy Scouts, got me a subscription to Boy’s Life magazine and I quit the Osmond Brothers and switched my allegiance to Elton John. (I really hope you can see the irony in all this.)

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It was the beginning of bashing of all things teen idol related. Selling my soul to rock and roll was, at least in part, a way of publicly affirming my masculinity. When teen heartthrob Leif Garrett set a concert at Six Flag’s Over Georgia my friends and I made plans to go and throw tomatoes. (We didn’t.) And it’s been like that for every moppet that’s come along since then. Bay City Rollers? How about the Gay City Rollers. O-Town? More like O-Crap.  N’Sync = N”Suck. All the way through to Justin Bieber. I started a Twitter account to troll him called “Justin Bieber’s colon” and the Biebs himself started following my snark.

Now I couldn’t name you a single One Direction song. I know the tween lassies went potty for them in the early 2010’s, so they must suck, right? I just knew that they had stupid haircuts (unlike the stupid haircuts I had at that age that were perfectly cool). Just that week’s version of the Osmond Brothers filling the need for poster material in Tiger Beat.

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Then I saw the one with the stupidest haircut perform a track from his “solo” record (barf) on Saturday Night Live. It was Harry Styles and the song was “Sign of the Times.” Fuck me, it was good. Really good. Like Elton John good. It’s the kind of music that has been missing from Top 40 radio this millennium. Could there be more? The second song on SNL, “Ever Since New York,” was even better. Young Harry was playing guitar and there was a serious Badfinger influence. I wanted more.

When the album came out I wanted it and so did my wife. We were at Music Millennium Record Store and I completely chickened out and made her buy it. What would these lords of vinyl think of me if I plopped this CD down on the counter? Even if I stuck it between CDs by Sun Ra and Flogging Molly. Guys don’t buy this kind of dreck. She was slight angry at me about that one.

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Harry Styles has been spinning non-stop ever since. Pure pop bliss, with a dose of T. Rex and 70’s flair to sail over the heads of the One Direction Fan Club. It’s still the modern production formula with teams of songwriters helping Harry write the songs (Beyoncé does the same thing), so you never know if the sentiment belongs to the artist or one of the other five other guys credited. The producer is the guy who gave us “Uptown Funk.” There are plenty of reasons to hate it out of gate, but somehow it works. Every song is a gem and I am fully out as a Harry Styles fan.

The whole thing has caused me to reflect on over 30 years of a knee-jerk reaction that anything embraced by teenage girls is, by default, crap. It’s steeped in patriarchal thinking that somehow the musical tastes of 13-year-old boys are inherently superior to their female “teenybopper” counterparts and that the tastes and emotional lives of girls are irrelevant and to be devalued and mocked. Writer Barbara Ehrenreich once wrote that the wave of Beatlemania that swept America in 1964 was the first real flush of feminism for many baby boom girls. They were loudly proclaiming their sexual freedom as a collective voice. “Ringo! We want to rip your clothes off!” When I see the boys in the crowds at those Fab Four mob scenes, I always think they must really have been secure in their fledgling masculinity to be there (and incredibly lucky).

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Evolving is all about checking the crap you do without thinking. It’s time to stop writing off music because “girls” like it. I bet there might be a New Kids on the Block or Jonas Brothers song that’s not too bad. Frank Sinatra and The Monkees were in this category once. Maybe I actually should be paying more attention to what these screaming girls like. They were right about The Beatles. So thanks, Harry, for helping me to see the light.

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Should we care about Donald Trump’s marriage? (Or anybody else’s?)

May 25, 2017

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The only thing more sporting lately than trying to guess when Donald Trump’s house of cards will collapse has been trying to guess when his wife will dump him. The numerous swats and cold shoulders Melania gave Donald that were caught on camera during their recent trip abroad (leading one to believe there was something that wasn’t caught on camera) have tongues wagging. Even the Pope seemed reluctant to touch the “pussy grabber’s” hand. What had Trump done this time? Stories swirled that the divorce papers were already drawn up. Is Melania Trump the real life Claire Underwood.

Will Donald Trump be the first sitting president to be divorced?

Why should we care?

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It’s not like Donald Trump is the first philandering president. Some are legendary, like Thomas Jefferson and John Kennedy. Some forgotten. (Warren G. Harding made Charlie Sheen look like he wasn’t even trying.) I’m still not sure why Hillary Clinton stuck with cigar-screwing Bill. I guess some couples can just work through having one partner’s sexcipades splashed across the front page. Is oral sex “sex”? In the 1990s, every man, woman, and child in the country got to participate in that discussion. It was so much fun.

Donald J. Trump’s sexual boasts are nothing new. He’s bragged about his sexual adventures on Howard Stern and probably still does to any (Russian agent) person who will listen. His “locker room talk” about groping women is it’s own Wikipedia entry. It’s clear that he cheated on his first two wives, so why should it be any different for Melania Knavs? As the President has said, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

Who cares?

Obviously, when it comes to the Trump presidency, there are bigger carp to fry. (Do Russians fry carp?) He’s going down and the even more sexually freaky Mike Pence will be in the high chair by this time next year. Should we waste time on Trump’s doomed marriage? It’s private business. Maybe we should document this doomed presidency for future generations and leave his weird marriage to the highly-paid lawyers to sort out.

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On one hand, we know that Trump is impulsive, narcissistic, kinda dumb, and needs to tell the world that, despite his tiny hands, he has an at least average-sized penis. That’s a bit frightening for a guy who commander and chief of the American armed forces. You get the feeling that he’s just itching to nuke North Korea, or Iran, or California, just to prove he’s big boy. His personal insecurities play out daily in his mishandling of national security issues, his reverse-Robin Hood budget, and his dealings with our enemies (“I’m gonna win Vladimir’s love!”) and our allies. (Who can forget his refusing to shake Angela Merkel’s hand?). That fact that he tweets more about his ratings and portrayal on TV shows than issues Americans care about is a reflection of how emotionally deprived this guy is.

On the other hand, every marriage has its rough patches. When some silver-haired couple is celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, you better believe there were plenty of moments where they were close to killing each other. Those happy smiles might mask parallel dark thoughts. (“How is this asshole still alive? I need my freedom!”) Most of us suffer through it in anonymity, maybe sharing our woes with a bartender or on an instantly regretted Facebook post. The President’s life has become the People’s life. JFK is lucky there was no social media 55 years ago. #jackkkennedygavemecrabs You almost feel sorry for the first couple. What did those swats from Melania really mean? Let’s ask Rachel Maddow!

Trump and I have one thing in common, we’re both on our third marriages. I often have to pull back from immediate criticism because I know that loving marriages can fail and sometimes it takes a while to figure out how to actually “do” marriage. My wife is also younger and, like Melania, might have been an illegal immigrant at some point. But there are some serious differences after that. Unlike Trump, I’m a committed feminist who works to make marriage an equitable partnership. As a stay at home dad, I’m happy to take a back seat as Andrea builds her career in the legal world. As I told her this morning, I’m happy to be the guy riding on her coattails. And I have zero desire to be unfaithful to her. “So much winning” for me is to be with her at the end of the road. Also, I’m not the President of the United States.

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Feminists seem torn on how to frame Melania Trump’s situation. Some see her as a victim, trapped in a loveless marriage to a cad who collects sexual assaults the way Bill Cosby collects, well, sexual assaults. (Google: rape culture.) She likely signed some contract that said, if Donald won the White House, she wouldn’t legally divorce him but could stay away from his icky hands in their penthouse in NYC. The other narrative says she’s a smart cookie and knew exactly what she was getting into when she married America’s favorite rich pig and that any woman who props up a man while he rips away women’s health care and goes after reproductive rights around the globe deserves exactly what she gets.

Is Melania Trump a tragic figure or a villain? Should we send in Seal Team 6 to rescue her or ask Robert Mueller to investigate what links she has to Russian ambassadors?

The gossip part of my brain wants to hear all the sordid details. But I’ve been the victim of that type of gossip so why should I fuel the fire? Anyone reading this will more than likely outlive Donald J. Trump (What happened to that “stamina”?), and I’m sure they will outlive his presidency, so we can read all the books then. I don’t doubt that Bill O’Reilly already has a contract for Killing Trump. After eight years of the blissfully scandal-free marriage of Barrack and Michelle Obama, it’s tempting to go all TMZ on this circus sideshow. (If he’s not sleeping with his wife, where does that mighty Trump penis go at night?”) Let’s just focus on how he’s screwing the country.  Let’s let his marriage suffer in silence. Absolute, stone-faced silence.

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