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 I mention how this group was awarded a $400,000 grant by the Obama Administration that was just rescinded by the Trump Administration.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.

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The Dream Police Are Inside My Head

October 6, 2016

How do you go back in time and fix a mistake to change the course of your life? How do you channel all the things you are passionate about into one story of redemption or escape?

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These were the questions I faced when I sat down to write The Dream Police early last year. The follow up to The Mission of the Sacred Heart was published this week and the Kindle version is available today. Like Mission, it is rooted in the true events of my life. Like Mission, it is a “rock novel,” a work of musical fiction, inspired by a classic rock album from my youth. And like Mission, it is a complex piece of literature that can’t easy be described in a quick elevator speech. But I think it is an important work that emerged from the plasma in my veins and the neurons in my synapses. So let me try to share with you why you might be interested in this story.

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First and foremost, anyone who reads this will probably be able to understand why I had to leave my tenured position at Portland State University last year. There is a sexual paranoia that has invaded college campuses. Disguised as the important and real work that is earnestly meant to stop sexual harassment and aggression in an institution that often turns a blind eye, it is a form of fake feminism that undermines actual feminism. It sees all women as victims and all men as aggressors and ignores the agency of women and the complexity of the sexual dance between consulting adults.

As a male feminist, I’ve wanted to write about this sticky swamp for years. Then it happened to me. I was the subject of a witch hunt that stopped cold the important work I was doing at the university, including raising awareness of the importance of dismantling patriarchal power. The question was what to do with my anger at the real villains in this true-life tale. I didn’t want to go on a workplace shooting spree (Who would the local media ask to comment on it?), so I chose to write this story.

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Second, as a Portland sociologist, there are a host of sociological issues I confront on a regular basis. Portland has been named the most gentrified city in America. My neighborhood tienda is being turned into an artisan salt shop as I write this. My first academic  publication in 1991 dealt with issue (although I called it “yupification”). Gentrification is changing the face of urban America and I feel like I’m in a good position to write about it. It becomes a metaphor for how are lives change around us in ways we both love and hate.

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My research on white supremacist groups began moving into prisons about ten years ago. White prison gangs, like the Aryan Brotherhood and European Kindred, have become a growing problem outside prisons, including a recent murder just outside of Portland. A former racist skinhead incarcerated in an Oregon prison instigated my nightmare at PSU, so it was a perfect opportunity to bring a bit of light to the issue.

There are plenty of other issues floating around, including how your favorite rock song becomes your least favorite commercial, the backlash against unionization, the grieving process following the death of loved ones, and the dangers of spending too much time online scrolling through your social media. All this gets folded into The Dream Police.

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Then there is the unifying theme of lucid dreaming. If you could be conscious in your dreams, what would you do? My first thought is that I’d go see The Beatles play. Maybe I’d revisit the woods I played in as a child. How about a beer with Karl Marx and Halle Berry? It’s wide open. Some people lucid dream every night. Andrea and I practiced it while I was writing the book and had some cool experiences. Zak and Lenny, the central characters of The Dream Police, use lucid dreaming to visit some musical landmarks, but also revisit moments in their own lives to explore alternative paths. Zak’s pregnant wife was killed in a car crash, so he’s fixated on going back in time to change just one small thing.

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Finally, this book is about music and how music moves us forward in life. When I was teenager, I spent a lot of time in my room listening to albums. This included Cheap Trick’s 1979 Dream Police LP. The record was a whole world to me and I constructed this book around that themes in that album and dozens of Cheap Trick songs. The book also deals with the growing voice of women in rock and the shrinking opportunities for musicians to capitalize on their own music.

I think it’s important to tackle the minefield of gender politics. I was honored to do it in the classroom for over twenty years. Social research and punditry are also forums for it and fiction is another. I was thrilled to be listed as one of the representatives of the new genre of musical fiction in Wikipedia. It’s a great opportunity to be like my teenage heroes, The Clash, and use a good backbeat to get people to think about big issues.

In the end, I just want to tell a good story and maybe take readers to some unexpected places. Author Brian Paone, in his review, wrote, “Blazak pushes the reader through an endless web of a chess game that every time you think you have checkmate, a pawn appears out of nowhere, sending everything you thought was real into a tailspin.” In the last few years I’ve been through a lot. I’ve also thought a lot and grown a lot. It all goes into a story that reflects the complexity and dream-like state of my own journey. It feels good to have created a piece of literary fiction that my daughter could read some day. I hope you will read it now.

NOTE: Because, as a parent I feel I have to do something about the children of Aleppo, 10% of all book sales are going to UNICEF’s Syrian relief fund.

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