Why you don’t get to decide that Caitlyn Jenner is a man named Bruce.

The first day of my first anthropology class, my professor said that he needed for a moment to make us the most uncomfortable we’d ever been made.  It was cultural anthropology, and in the process of that class we’d spend a lot of time talking about cultures that didn’t remotely resemble our own.  Our professor instructed us that we’d have to accept the reality of these other cultures wholeheartedly and not try to rationalize it against our own experiences.  “If you’re dealing with a society that believes the sky is an ocean and the stars are fish and rain is a leak in the heavens, you accept that.  You don’t try to explain to them that their god-fish is really a big ball of gas.  You accept their belief, and accept that it does for them the same thing that your God does for you.  In anthropology there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” society, there are systems of belief that work or they don’t, and if it works for that culture, it is the right belief for that culture.  By depriving a culture of belief, you deprive them of their way of being human.  No one gets to make that choice for other people.”

That lecture, in and of itself, was upsetting for many people, who believed that there was absolute truth and to “accept” the reality that in certain cultures illness was the result of the curses of other tribes, and sacrifices had to be made to out-curse the other tribes in order for a person to get better was somehow inherently wrong.  But my professor held his ground, explaining that for those cultures witchcraft works.  “They believe it works, and it works, and if you want to understand who they are, you must accept that it works.  You must participate in their lives not as an authority, but as an equal.”

Not as an authority, but as an equal.

You may be wondering why I’d introduce a blog post about Caitlyn Jenner with a seemingly innocuous story about anthropology.  Let me tell you another story, this time about the section in the big book of anthropology that talks about gender.  “Male and female anatomy exists, that is undeniable.  And that the anatomy of male and female is proscriptive of our lives to some degree is also undeniable.  Only women can become pregnant and give birth, and in many cultures that by necessity defines a certain aspect of their lives, because we need children to survive,” my professor said, “but beyond that anything you think of as male or female is as much a figment of your culture as stars being the spirits of flying fish in an ocean you’ll never touch.”

In many cultures, male and female roles are defined by what the society needs men and women to do.  That doesn’t mean that in every society women stay at home and give birth and don’t otherwise contribute.  In many cases, women have roles that are just as crucial to moving the society forward as men do.  In some societies, for a man to try to overpower a woman or boss her around is seen as a grave sin, which is interesting.  What is even more interesting is the amount of societies in which men’s and women’s roles are seen as fluid and changeable.  A man can “elect” to become a woman and care for his children, or a woman can “elect” to become a man.  If this happens, it is treated as a good thing.  One story is of a woman whose husband died when her children were still young.  She could either remarry, but then her children would be denied the inheritance of their biological father, or she could choose to “become” a man and never marry again, preserving her children’s inheritance and allowing her to provide for their needs.  (Recently a woman who did this in Egypt was honored for her sacrifice.)  In some cases women who do this take on identities as male and “become” men, in other cases such as the Egyptian woman, it is something they add to their female identity.

In any case, there are many cultures where “male” and “female” are seen more as descriptions of who someone is, based off of how they dress and act and operate within the culture, rather than proscriptive orders about who they can and should be based off of the presence of certain genitalia.

After all, when we start to sit down and define who is “male” and “female” based off of physical characteristics, things get muddy.

What makes a man a man or a woman a woman?  Is it the presence of external sex organs?  Because those can be removed, modified, or even created.  Back in the day when castrating boys was still common practice, did those “boys” become a third gender based off of their lack of either male or female sex characteristics?  Were they male because they were born with a penis, or were they female?

What do we call the women who are born without functioning ovaries or uteruses?  They cannot give birth, thus are they no longer female?  Do we define gender based off of what specific gender roles someone is capable of fulfilling?  Or do we look at DNA?  What about people who are born with one set of female chromosomes and one set of male?  Are they simultaneously male and female, or are they neither?

This is one of those cases where I don’t believe there is a single, correct, answer.  While we may be able to define a set of physical characteristics that mark “male” and “female”, then the argument becomes what happens when those change.  If the characteristics define the gender, then if I ceased to have a womb, or breasts, or a vagina, would I cease to be female?  And these questions cannot be taken lightly, as women who experience uterine or breast cancer often have to face these thoughts.  If I lose what defines my role, my gender, do I lose my self?  Or is the gender, the role, based not off of the body but off of some harder to define, more intangible thing?

Men lose their gonads.  Sometimes their penises fail to function.  Do they cease to be men?

“Ah-” someone may interject, “it is what you are born as.”

I find that hard to stomach.  One’s role in society isn’t defined from birth.  At birth it wasn’t decided that I would be a wife or mother or teacher or Christian or anything else.  Those things that I have become, I have become as a result of my choices and actions.  And while I can say that I feel like a mother, and a Christian, and a woman, I cannot say that when I was younger I even understood what any of those things meant or what it felt to be them.  In many of those cases, those feelings had yet to even be birthed.

I will never be a woman who wears a certain kind of clothes, because when those clothes hit my body I feel instantly uncomfortable.  As an infant, I could’ve been dressed in them against my will.  I would hate for people to point at pictures of me in frilly pink dresses as an infant and say, “see, that is who you are.”

No.  Who I am, I am because I took the time to explore my self and get to know it.  I made deliberate choices about what I wanted from my life, and who I wanted to be.  I am the kind of woman I am, because I feel this is the person I am meant to be now, even if then I could not have understood or expressed that.

When I was younger, I had a female friend who had never felt like a “girl”.  I remember her crying in my arms and saying that she hated her female body and wanted for it to die, it didn’t feel like it belonged to her.  I cannot confess to knowing or understanding how that would feel, but what I do know and I do understand is that I had no right to correct her.  She felt what she felt, and if she had told me that she wanted to be referred to as “he” I would have done it in a heartbeat, because she was the one living in that body.  She was the one whose responsibility and right was to decide how to live with those feelings.

Commanding someone to live with those feelings in a specific way too often leads to death.

The suicide rate for transgender people is very high, and it is even higher for transgender youth.  Some statistics estimate as high as 45% of transgender youth attempt suicide.  The rates of violence experienced by transgender people is also much higher than the population at large, and that number also skyrockets for transgender youth (especially in ethnic minorities.)

This feeling, of being stuck in a body that doesn’t belong, can be a death sentence in too many ways.

So, to paraphrase my anthropology professor, “if you’re dealing with a person who feels like they are the wrong gender for their body, you accept that.  You live with them not as an authority, but as an equal.”

The first day of kindergarten, we all faced a big sign on the wall, usually a nice golden-colored one, that said “always treat other people the way you would want to be treated.”  That is a very basic law of reciprocity in our society:  if you want respect, you show respect.  If you want kindness, you first must be kind.

When people get very belligerent about the fact that Caitlyn Jenner is really a man named Bruce, this is how I respond:

Man:  “He’s not a woman.  He’s just not.”
Me:  “What gives you the right to decide that?”
Man:  “It’s just the truth as I see it.”
Me:  “Well, the truth as I see it is that you’re a woman named Susan.  And I don’t care that you can show me male genitalia and that you feel like you are a man, you are a woman named Susan to me now.”
Man:  “No I’m not.”
Me:  “We’re just having a difference of opinion, lady, don’t get your panties in a wad.”

Who decides who Caitlyn Jenner is?  Well, there are two people.  The first is Caitlyn, and the second is the law.  In terms of the law, a person seeking gender reassignment therapy who is taking hormones and undergoing changes to their physical characteristics in order to reflect a different gender than the one on their birth certificate is legallyable to fill out paperwork as the gender they want to be assigned.  So, Caitlyn may legally be seen as a woman and may legally be entitled to treatment as a woman.  If she can check the female box on paperwork and her driver’s license says “Caitlyn Jenner” and “Female”, then I say the least we can do is give her the correct legal name and legal pronoun.

But even so, who decides what is the fair way to treat someone?

Let me tell you another story.  I was fighting with someone I was in a relationship with.  That person told me, “don’t be such a bitch about this.”  I told them that I was really offended they’d use that word to describe me and I didn’t feel like I was being a bitch, I was just expressing my needs.  They persisted in calling me a bitch.

That relationship didn’t last long, because feeling loved and valued as a human being walked hand in hand with feeling respected, and part of feeling respected was knowing the other party understood the ways their word and attitude effected me.  To put things simply, they had to treat me in a way I was comfortable being treated, or they had no place in my life.

Who defines what is loving treatment?  Who defines what is respect?  These aren’t things that you can turn to a dictionary and get step-by-step instructions for.  In every relationship, to know and to love and to respect are things we learn from each other through communication.  Caitlyn Jenner has expressed that she wishes to be seen and treated as a woman, to do anything less is to disrespect her terms for having a relationship with the world.

Now, this note is especially to Christians:  Do we believe that Caitlyn Jenner, that any transgendered person, is a person that God loves?  If we do, that means we have an obligation also to love.  And if we have an obligation to love, that means we cannot do things that disrupt relationship.  And if we must do that, that means we must start with accepting the person not on our terms, but on their terms.  This is where the Church too often falls woefully short, because we think that we have to accept people on God’s terms and thus we feel obligated to decide what God’s terms are.

It doesn’t work that way.  We express love, others respond, others become open to love in their own lives, and by a very simple reaction that love changes everyone.  It’s hard to be cruel when you love, it’s hard to lie when you love, it’s hard to sin when you love.  Because that love is something we wish to preserve, and that love cannot grow in soil that is poison to it.

So when you are openly disrespecting someone, openly condemning them, openly shutting the door to any conversation with them, you aren’t loving.  You are doing the opposite.  You are destroying the soil that love needs to grow.

What does that matter?  Many readers may say, “it’s not like I’m friends with Caitlyn Jenner.”  Yes, but you’re friends with other humans.  And chances are, at least one of them is transgender or is friends with someone transgender or you have friends who simply care about the human rights of transgender people.  And you know those friend?  Those friends you are injuring by extension.

Our words matter.  Our attitudes matter.  Whether or not we respect other people’s way of being human matters.

We don’t get to decide that Caitlyn Jenner is a man named Bruce.

Why the politics of Gay versus Christian hurts everyone (but the politicians).


Oh, Indiana.

Over the past few days, I’ve drowned in a barrage of posts from my Indiana-based friends expressing outrage and dismay at a legislature that doesn’t represent them.  The comments I’ve heard have ranged from the mild, “I never thought this would go through” to the brutal “I feel like the state senate has turned against us, and they aren’t going to stop until Indiana is stripped down to nothing but spare parts for big business.”  For those who don’t currently live in Indiana and aren’t terribly immersed in state politics, let me just say that Indiana has a well-storied history of it’s people being ignored.  I can’t say precisely why the idea of a representative democracy is so far from a reality in Indiana, but over the past 10 years there have been a number of significant changes to the state’s operations and laws that the people have openly fought tooth and nail, yet have been celebrated in the press and true victories.

So, many Indiana citizens watched the drama unfolding as what would become SB 568 came into being, in horror.

I’ve seen people asking where the Christians who opposed it were.  They were in Indiana, actively fighting against the law being passed.  Many churches, from the Disciples of Christ to the Mennonite Church to the Episcopalians, did in fact organize and fight the bill being passed.  A common fear they expressed was that the bill could not only be used to discriminate against gays but could also be used to discriminate against other Christians.  This may seem like a ridiculous idea, but let’s not forget that the Mennonite church, highly prevalent in Indiana, found itself in the United states after it’s founders were being burned at the stake for heresy by other Christians.  The common idea of “religious freedom” touted in America today may be the freedom to not participate in society at will, or to discriminate when the Bible can be cherry picked in defense, but that isn’t what free religion meant in the days when this country was founded.  There are some of us with a long enough memory to feel like freedom is still the right to not be persecuted by others of our same faith.  

No one has the right to dictate to an individual what their faith should be: not the government, and not other parishioners.

Now, post-passage of the bill, people are asking where the Christians are.  “Business men are speaking out, sports organizations, but where are the Christians?”

Well, for one, they are still speaking out.  Many churches and religious leaders have openly denounced the law, but a google search for this won’t yield much, since most news organizations have focused not on the religious opposition to the bill, but to the possible ramifications as businesses and public organizations cancel events which quickly rack up millions of dollars in lost tourism revenue.  It’s been said before that dollars talk, and that is the same here.

The sad, bitter reality is that no one cares about the spiritual ramifications of the bill or whether or not the religious support that Pence has touted is actually real.  The tone of the story, from the beginning, was carefully controlled.  Yet major news organizations aren’t asking some very real questions about why.

Let’s look at some of that now:

  1. Politicians have, for years, used fear mongering tactics to pose a false “battle” between gay rights and Christian ones.  This is never more apparent than in the tales of poor elderly Christian baker-ladies who are dragged to court and reduced to Victorian-era poverty when their religious scruples don’t allow them to bake a cake for Adam and Steve’s wedding.  While there have been cases of bakers being sued for refusing to make cakes, what is interesting is that we rarely hear about the baker sued for not making an ANTI-gay marriage cake.  Not to mention the fact that these lawsuits are only possible because the Civil Rights Act ensures that any business offering services to the public at large must not discriminate in their practices.  If you are going to make a cake for Susy and Bill’s shotgun wedding, or Mary and Mark’s atheist wedding, or Jane and John’s jewish/Christian wedding (oh, hey, the Bible openly condemns that one) you’ve got to bake that cake for Adam and Steve’s gay wedding, too.  If you don’t want to bake cakes for weddings that offend your sensibility, maybe stick to just baking cookies.  After all, I can guarantee you’ve baked cakes for sinners.
  2. The news media has very little motivation to cease posing any issues over gay rights as a battle.  Conflict sells, and the more heartfelt the conflict, the better.  There’s not much news to be made from stories that read like this:  “Religious leaders form coalition to lobby for equal rights for gay people.”  Why?  Where’s the conflict?  On the other hand, “religious organizations picket funeral of public figure to protest gay rights” almost always makes the headlines, even when numerous groups have condemned such things and even staged counter-protests that outnumber the original anti-gay gathering.  The truth is that even amongst well-established religious communities, support for gay rights has become nearly ubiquitous, but there’s no headlines to be made by saying that religious opposition to gay rights is becoming a minority belief.
  3. Politicians have everything to gain by continuing to monopolize on gay rights as a campaign tactic.  While gay rights may have widespread bipartisan support, the people who oppose gay rights are loud, rich, and politically motivated.  Political science majors the world over are familiar with a very simple truth:  even if the majority are middle-of-the-road, campaigns can be won by a very active minority who feels there is an immediate danger to the other side winning.  No one fights harder than someone who feels outnumbered and as if their way of life is at risk.  So what do we hear from the politicians?  That “sacred” marriage is at risk, that the “family” is eroding, that the American way of life is ending, that society is on the verge of collapse, that homosexuality led to the fall of Rome, and as the numbers become more marginal the rhetoric gets more hateful and louder.  But let’s look at Indiana specifically.  How did this particular bill get passed?  Again, you have a very vocal minority.  The amount of Christians in Indiana who truly felt their personal liberty needed defending from gays may have been minimal- but they were there, and they were loud.  The bill was originally introduced as a necessary protection from contamination by secular sources.  And as soon as the bill was introduced, concerns were raised.  Often by other Christians who felt that the legislation was too problematic and unnecessary.  (A common quote was, “why defend rights that already exist naturally?”)  In order for the legislation to pass and the minority, who have huge political clout, to be appeased the tenor of the debate had to be carefully controlled.  It’s no wonder that even as evidence mounted that Indiana as a whole did NOT want this bill passed, the legislature continued to stonewall and repeat the basic message that this bill was wanted by the people and absolutely necessary.
  4. Once a tone is set, it continues. Like the basic physics concept that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, once something has hit the news the story tends to stay the same.  The people with the loudest voices tend to be heard first, and the people with the loudest voices tend to be the ones with the most political clout or money.  As an example of this, think about the woman who burned herself on McDonald’s coffee.  By the time the story had hit the mass media, it was reduced to a handful of words that made it sound as if someone had spilled coffee on themselves, was annoyed, sued, and somehow wrongfully was awarded millions.  The actual facts in that case (that the burns were so severe they were disfiguring and the woman had to be hospitalized) were overlooked.  The media had decided from the moment the story was first aired that the tone should be that a corporation was being wronged by fatuous lawsuits.  The actual story?  Irrelevant.  There are hundreds of cases of this where by and large the national coverage of a story is one-sided.  That is also the case with Indiana, where the only coverage of widespread opposition to the bill is from small local reporters who know their cities well.  National news coverage doesn’t seem to know, or care, that the people of Indiana themselves feel wronged.  The only local voices being heard in the national stories tend to be ones who support the bill, or gay people who oppose it.  Where are the Christians who oppose the bill?  Unheard of, despite existing.  How can I be so sure that’s the case?  I’m originally from Elkhart county, Indiana, and my friends and family there are deeply concerned that the bill will make things worse, instead of better.
  5. The outcry that Christians who oppose the bill are staying silent is a false story.  Like Muslims who condemn extremism, Christians who condemn extremism in their faith seem to be largely ignored.  Everyone listens to the Pat Robertsons of the world calling gay rights a steamroller obliterating the faith, but when Christian groups band together to support gay people, no one listens.  This is no different than the constant outcry that Muslims don’t condemn extremist Islam.  Muslims do, regularly, both publicly and privately.  So why isn’t it heard?  One reason is because, like moderate Christianity, it just doesn’t make good headlines.  “99% of Muslims go another day without participating in or condoning violent acts” just doesn’t push papers, does it?  Plus, there’s a lot to be gained from continuing to pose the dialogue the way it is.  People who want to remain with their prejudices aren’t going to seek out evidence that they are wrong, similarly, the people involved in the political wrangling between ultra-conservatives groups and gay rights don’t have a lot to gain from realizing that the moderate middle ground is growing.  So what do they do?  Continue the conversation as it is.

One could question if when the Moral Majority first entered politics if they were a majority at all.  What they were was a political powerhouse that monopolized on both a certain brand of politics and flavor of faith.  That amount of political clout has incredible power to guide the national narrative and quash any minority voices.  And while the “moral majority” may no longer exist as such, the truth is that they forever changed the landscape of politics for moderate, socially liberal Christians.

The best way forward, both for gay rights and for Christian freedom, is to take back the power from the political machine.  And we have to do that by partnering together and no longer allowing the dialogue on the national stage to pit us as natural enemies.  After all, we aren’t enemies.  Moderate Christians want the preservation of basic civil rights just as much as gay people do, and we as moderates also have much to lose if moral extremists are the ones making laws.  The same people who want to keep Adam and Steve from marrying have proposed laws that would force me to be investigated for infanticide if I don’t carry my child to term (even if I miscarried naturally!) and have said such vile things as that “rape is like the weather, and you’ve just got to relax and enjoy it.”  (No link, google “republican politicians on rape” if you dare.)  Moderate Christians fear legislation that will punish single parenthood and women who work outside of the home.  Moderate Christians question the logic of tying together religion with lax gun restrictions or other questionable stances.  One of the greatest of these is the policy of rewarding corporations with generous tax write-offs while cutting back social services to the mentally ill, disabled, and poor.  We need to be partners in fighting the political ideology that uses religion as a crutch while spitting in the face of some of the basic principles of brotherhood and good citizenship that Christ so fully embodied. If moderate Christians are going to take their voice back from the politicians who have bent and twisted the faith for personal gain, we need the support of others.  So if you are talking about cases like the Indiana Religious Freedom law, be sure to point out that moderate Christians do not support it.  If you are a journalist writing about divisive politics, bring gay and moderate Christian voices together.  If you want to see more moderate voices in the political landscape, donate to churches like the Disciples of Christ, the Mennonite Church, and the Episcopalian Church, specifically to their political action committees who have a well documented history of supporting gay rights.

We can take back our fair country from the hands of bigotry together.

why I wish my thesis were entitled “don’t be dicks”.

Yesterday I abstained from the Superbowl so I could catch up on homework, like a responsible citizen.  While everyone else I knew (with a few exceptions) was having an intensely emotional reaction to some sort of sportsing mishap, I was reading an Educational Psychology textbook and still vacillating about what I wanted to do my thesis proposal on.

I’ve felt emotionally pummeled in more way than one, this past week.  It’s been a week of attempted suicides, public figures having sex-change operations and being eviscerated by the press for it, three year old children shooting their parents with a loaded gun they found in a handbag, global warming studies being more or less ignored, and oh so much more.   It’s been a week of listening to my author friends express their concerns about the changing publishing landscape, reading my classmate’s heart-rending journal entries about the fears their preschool children have about being black in a white justice system, and trying not to get dragged down in unending debates about the widening education gap.  Oh, then there’s the continuing struggle of women to be respected in the workplace and “reverse misogyny” and all of that other stuff, which I seriously don’t even want to contemplate being a thing that people actually discuss.

As I sat on my couch trying to decide what, given the breadth to write about anything at all I could research, I wanted to say, I found myself coming up completely empty.

I wish I could write a thesis about why people just have to stop being so incredibly shitty to each other, but a thesis proposal called “please stop being dicks, ‘kay?” just doesn’t seem all that professional.

I found myself, at one point in time, actually being asked to defend the fact that I didn’t care more about football.  No, really, someone asked me why I posted a meme that I thought was funny, in which a grumpy cat said that it wished both teams would lose, and they wanted to know why I was being a jerk about football since football is a beautiful expression of group passions.  It’s like a coming of age ritual, it’s like a pseudo-religious expression of community and togetherness.  Which I do understand, mind you.  I get how football is a way for people to bond, it builds a sense of community and it also becomes a way to express frustrations and hopes and even aggression that otherwise society would diminish.  Football isn’t just a meaningless sport.  Just as the gladiators of Ancient Rome and the Warriors of the Aztec engaged in ritualistic aggression to assuage the frustrations of the populace, we’ve got our muscular men in tight pants throwing pigskin around so we have a way to assuage our own angst- and it works.  Look at the painted faces in the crowd and you can see how it, like a good old fashioned tent revival, gives us somewhere to pin our hopes and leave our anger.

But what interests me is the fact that we can be SO passionate about a game, while there is all this other meaningful stuff that we brush aside.  How many children have been killed by guns since Sandy Hook elementary?  How many transexuals have been beaten or shamed in the past year?  How many suicides have their been?  How many children have had their educations trampled into the dirt by persistent inequality?

But god save us, we care about football.

If we took an ounce of that passion, an ounce of that funding, imagine what a difference we could make.

But oh, a friend points out that football makes us feel good and talking about teen suicide rates or child death rates does not.

True that.

If only educating our children were a game, then maybe people would stop rolling their eyes when we talk about the literacy gap.  If only.

But in the meantime, I drafted a thesis proposal about how systemic poverty affects the education system.  My kids came home from watching the game and my son asked me if we can still root for the Seahawks since they are losers now, and we have a good talk about how no one can win every game and what makes someone a great sportsman over time is how they play every game, even the ones they lose; people aren’t only defined by winning.

And we talked about how we all have times when we feel like we “lose” in our own lives and we need to keep rooting for ourselves, anyway.

And I laid in bed late at night, thinking about all of the fights I’ll probably pick up in my own career, knowing that I’ll probably lose them.

And I wished I’d drafted a thesis proposal entitled, “don’t be dicks.”

Another time.

Buried Leads, Free Speech, and No Je Suis Charlie for me (please)

Let me start out by saying that as beautiful as it can be, when we see real moments of solidarity in society, we should always question who it is that we are aligning ourselves to.  In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, there was a spontaneous outpouring of “Je Suis Charlie.”  People who had never heard of the magazine before were horrified that anyone would ever be killed just for expressing an opinion, which I have to say I agree with.  No one should ever be killed just because someone else disagrees with them.

But people also shouldn’t be killed for things like wanting an education or simply living somewhere where someone else wants to be.  A girl bomber has killed 19 people in Nigeria recently, sparking suspicions that the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram last year may be being abused and turned extremist.  This, on top of a spat of recent killings led by Boko Haram in a land grab that gives them control of a much larger territory (the images are horrifying).  Boko Haram has already been described by the Nigerian government as intractable and too in control of the land they already had.  As they continue to make land grabs, kill villagers, and steal young girls (a practice that they haven’t given up, even after the #bringbackourgirls tag trended on Twitter) the situation becomes more and more corrupt and resistant to change.

Locals reported that the Boko Haram militants were unscrupulously killing everyone they could find just to incite horror, shooting a pregnant woman who was already in labor.  Can you even imagine being that woman, dying knowing that your child was already dead inside you, just hours after preparing yourself to hold that child for the first time?

The news of the Nigerian massacre, which could be as little as 200 or as many as 3000 dead in just a few days, coming on the heels of Je Suis Charlie raises many important questions.  The first would be why, as these innocent people were killed just for living in the wrong place, was the 24 hour news cycle more concerned with talking about whether or not Obama had betrayed the American public’s trust by not going to the 3.7 million man march for free speech in France?

The question of whether Obama SHOULD have gone to the march raises several important questions.  The first is if the symbolic defense of free speech really should have such a pull for us, as a nation.  We do love free speech here, even more than France, which famously has several restrictions on what people can publish.  Charlie Hebdo has quite famously had to defend themselves in court when their comics had been challenged as hate speech, even being told by the French government that they were overstepping their bounds and should print less offensive of images.  Charlie Hebdo’s defense has been that no one would possibly take them seriously as a news magazine and they are strictly comedic- but in France, even that defense can be problematic.

So, if Obama were to go to France, I would hope it would be to talk about the complicated issue of what Free Speech is as an ideal and should be, and to question if France should loosen it’s restrictions or if, perhaps, the USA should consider some restrictions of it’s own.

The truth is that the marches in support of Charlie Hebdo are less about the reality of free speech (as the magazine repeatedly faced being shut down by the French government and no one marched then) but about the symbolism of people wanting to be free to condemn Islam without being murdered.  Now, to be fair, no one should ever be murdered just for having an offensive opinion.

But I, also, would never want to say Je Suis Charlie knowing that they created comics which are deeply offensive to my moderate Muslim friends here in the States, also knowing that they tend to be homophobic and generally have been characterized as lowbrow and crass.  There is a website to help non-French speakers to better understand the cartoons, but click at your own risk.  Political cartooning can be both a great form of satire and visual argument, but also has a spotted history of racism and abusiveness.  Not all political cartoons are created equal, and there is a great opportunity for honest debate being lost by the wholehearted outpouring of defense of Charlie Hebdo.  While no one deserves to die for what they publish, the truth is that there is a level of integrity and ethics that all journalists, even cartoonists, should employ.  Cartoonists today still often employ images that evoke racist sentiments, for example, to attack our President Obama.  The rallying cries of “free speech” and “it’s just a cartoon” cannot always be used to gloss over how irresponsible it is to knowingly publish works with the full intent to offend and incite hatred.

But suddenly I find myself back at the girl bomber in Nigeria, and the pregnant woman left for dead in the streets with her unborn child just pushes away from it’s first breath when it died.

Because we need to ask ourselves what our anger, what our push for solidarity, really represents.  We can’t say that we side with Charlie Hebdo because we are against terrorism, or our horror would be just as strongly for the fact that the Nigerian people are losing the ability to turn to their government for help, and Nigeria may very soon fall entirely into the hands of the terrorist Boko Haram.  We cannot say that our horror at the murder of those cartoonists is solely about people’s right to live without fear, or we’d be a little more concerned that Nigerian schoolgirls cannot leave their homes to get an education without accepting the fact that they may be kidnapped and radicalized into suicide bombers.  So what is it?

My fear is that the identifying with Charlie Hebdo is, at least in part, a sublimated desire to also condemn Islam.

But perhaps I judge too harshly.

All I can say is this:  Yes, cartoonists being killed just for having expressing an opinion, however offensive, is wrong.

But we, as human beings, should be just as quick to stand up for girl’s rights to pursue an education, and people’s rights to live their daily lives without being slaughtered in the streets.  If we truly wish to combat terrorism we need to ask ourselves how exactly that can be done.

Speech isn’t going to end terrorism.

But supporting the Nigerian people so that they are strong enough to fight, protect their daughters, and bear their children: well, that might.

The Immigration Crisis, Right to Life, and Birthdays.

Really, there are times in my life when I know better than to go on Facebook.  Lately I’ve been having to bite my lip and quickly scroll past angry screeds about the recent immigration crisis, followed by the usual pictures of aborted fetuses and cheery Right-to-Life posts that say things like “everyone deserves to have a birthday!  Vote for life!”

And I find my patience quickly dwindling down to nothing.  Let me tell you a story:  5 years ago now, I was the site supervisor for a homeless shelter.  One of our families had a child who had a birthday while they were still our guests.  Her parents, feeling horrible about the fact that she couldn’t really have friends over for a sleepover like other young girls, went all out.  They used their electronic benefits to buy cake and cookies and balloons and presents, and they treated her like a princess.  I was telling someone about this, thinking it was a touching story of finding hope in the midst of hopelessness, and that person responded:

“If they had money, why didn’t they use it to get out of there?”

Well, there are a few responses to that.  One is that the amount of money spent on that party, which couldn’t have amounted to much more than what I have in a coin jar on my dresser on any given day, wouldn’t have been enough to pay for an apartment.  The other, more important response, is:  doesn’t every child have a right to have some pleasant memories in their life?  Do you really want to give a child the memory of no party, no desert, no presents, simply because their parent was poor?  Do you want a child to have the memory of crying themselves to sleep in a homeless shelter?  Is that really what we want?

Every child deserves to celebrate a birthday, huh?

So this immigration crisis, or refugee crisis, or what have you.  These 50,000 young children here in America, parentless, because their countries are awash in crime and poverty and chaos- do they deserve birthdays?  Or are they, like the child of the homeless couple, doomed to be judge as worthy of experiencing pain because it is a just punishment for the wrongs of their forefathers?

Truly, I do not understand the overwhelming attitude of intolerance and rage that is being expressed by people who are otherwise caring individuals.  I do get the sentiment that every child deserves a birthday.  People imagine a sort of dream life that aborted babies are missing out on- a life that involves loving parents, birthday parties, being wanted and needed and celebrated.  To have that potential extinguished is certainly a painful conceit.  So I do understand, I do.  I find it hard to comprehend how such tender-hearted people cannot concieve of the fact that such potential was surely lost from the time the proverbial pee stick turned blue, as this child was neither wanted nor celebrated from the start, and simply being born is no guarantee of that sad fact changing.

Take the refugee children, for example.  Are they celebrated?  Wanted?  Needed?  Their parents loved them enough to face the fact that they may never again see them, but to at least risk the possibility of a secure future elsewhere, far away from their now empty arms.  But what future is that?

Given the fact that they are being deported back to homes which may now be empty as a result of the drug wars, it’s not a future of birthdays.

Now, back to the homeless girl’s birthday:  I’m sure that no one really wanted her to cry herself to sleep.  What anyone whom I asked said was that her parents should be more responsible.  “I want her to have the kind of parents who get her out of that life!”  Ah, yes, of course.  If only we could take the generations of poverty, distress, maltreatment, lack of education and societal disregard that landed her there in the first place, she’d have a proper birthday!  The sentiment, once picked apart, is that her birthday shouldn’t come at taxpayer expense.  Someone *else* needs to be responsible, am I right?

There’s a fundamental injustice, though.  We can’t have it both ways.  We can’t say, “every child deserves a life of being wanted and celebrated” and then say, “but if the people in their life are not providing that it’s not MY fault.”

If we truly believe that there is a baseline, a basic life of pleasure and comforts that every child should have, don’t we have a responsibility to secure that?  Even if it hurts our pocketbooks?

When I hear people saying that it is the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico that are to blame for the plight of children and THOSE people should be responsible for securing the children’s futures, I burn.

I burn.

I am consumed.

If there is a moral imperative of which WE are conscious which OTHERS ignore, guess whose responsibility it is to secure it?  Ours.  That is like watching an old lady walk into traffic blind, then pointing at the other onlookers and saying, “YOU should have known to give her your hand.”

NO.  NO.  NO.

If you believe every child deserves to be loved, every child deserves a future, every child deserves a birthday cake- don’t point your fingers elsewhere and say that it can’t be our responsibility to open our borders and our homes.  It has to be.

It just has to be.

If you want every child to have a birthday, you’d better start learning Spanish well enough to sing “Las Mañanitas” and get to baking cakes.

Review: Elements of Mind by Walter Hunt

I picked this book up after seeing a Facebook conversation about it in which it was described as a Victorian romp with classic horror elements. An allusion was made to Stephen King, and by happenstance there was a picture of a statue I’d done an essay on for a Far Eastern Art class. I was deeply intrigued.

To be honest, the first few pages made me a little meh. How many books do the “we’ll hint at the ending on the first page and then drag you through the whole story anyway” thing? Plus, at first I found the heightened language of narrator’s voice to be a bit much. Oh, but oh was I wrong to judge so harshly so quickly. By the fourth page I was intrigued by where the story could possibly go, and by the tenth page I already knew I was in love.

First, there’s the method of storytelling. Fans of the horror genre know that multiple narrative voices, the use of letters, or fractured timelines are as old as the hills. Frankenstein is one shining example, Dracula is another. While Hunt pays homage to the old greats by using this method, which is as immediately comfortable as a pair of well-worn work boots, he does it in a way that is very unrestrained and clever. Instead of staying to a single form, such as letters, he uses letters as well as flashback narration and novelization in the protagonist’s current timeline. While other authors find themselves tripping over a confused central voice while balancing perspectives (Oh, Veronica Roth, we still need to talk) Hunt never misses a beat: the multiple voices in his story serve to dangle some information in front of the reader while obscuring other, helping to keep the pace consistent and the story full of layers of intrigue. I have the deepest respect for the work that Hunt must have done as a student of the genre before embarking on his journey as a writer.

The second is the setting. Stylized Victorian settings tend to make me itch, as they are endlessly problematic. I’ve seen, for instance, the kind of misogyny that female readers are all too uncomfortable with in the world of fantasy excused as “an artifact of the time” when written into Victorian style literature. It gets old, fast. How many one-dimmensional women can be thrown into horror stories just to give a pleasantly heaving bosom for the male protagonist to rescue and then unlace? But there is none of that nonsense here! I found Hunt’s treatment of his female characters (of which there are a pleasant variety) to be quite refreshing. The deference and respect paid to them by the male protagonist, Davey, made me smile. The best thing is the casual way in which he dismissed the less lady-friendly attitudes of side characters with Davey’s responses. In one instance, one character states that their expedition is no place for a woman, “particularly an Englishwoman.”

Davey responds, “I wish you luck in telling her so. If you have served Her Majesty here in India, you clearly have some measure of bravery; it will take all that and more to suggest to Mrs. Shackleford that she not go.”

Ah. Like a breath of fresh air.

Another thing that typically makes it hard for me to read genre fiction is how often writers rely on tropes. Now, I love a great trope. And as a writer, I understand how writing re-imaginings of the things you’ve loved in books past can be the fiction author’s equivalent of macaroni and cheese. You know, comfort food. So I get that everyone loves a good noble rogue and mysterious stranger and call to heroism. Sure! It’s older than written language itself! But a skilled writer will find a way to take the reader’s expectation, well formed from their familiarity with the trope, and shape it into something new and surprising. Hunt does this multiple times in quite clever ways. I won’t spoil the story by giving specifics, but I’ll just say that this book now includes my FAVORITE use of the Mysterious Stranger- when the big reveal happened, I squealed with surprise and happiness.

Then, there is the setting. Victorian India is a bit fetishized and has been since, well, a Victorian India first existed in Victorian days. But this book doesn’t read at all like fetish fantasy. For one, Hunt is obviously well schooled in actual history. The artifacts he discusses, the little illuminations of setting, and the dynamic of inter-relationships between characters all show a great deal of education and thoughtfulness. Reading this novel doesn’t result in the sort of magic realism that comes from suspending disbelief and accepting this version of reality as the one in the author’s head. Hunt’s India isn’t an acceptable alternative to the real place. Hunt’s India isn’t magically real: it is real, plain and simple. The taste of reality in the book makes the fantasy all that more delightful, as one imagines that this tale would be wholly believable to readers of the time, and is colored in all the colors of a world that once wholeheartedly accepted mesmerism and possession as a part of science as of yet unexplained.

I was absolutely delighted by this book and plan to pass several copies along to some of my favorite readers. Hunt has great command not just of storytelling as a craft, but a cunning balance of education and inventiveness to boot. I’m hoping that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and there are more convincing worlds and breathtaking tales to come. Highly recommended.

Impossible Standards

Floating around in my brain. There are several threads pulling together. One is a very clever link that’s been going around showing real men posing in underwear as compared to models. Sort of a “yeah, men get the short end of this stick sometimes, too,” deal. And while it’s interesting to see those sorts of things, there is so much that can, and should, be said about the difference between the glorification of the masculine and feminine in the media.

Because while men’s bodies are airbrushed, stylized, and overdone: it’s still never quite the same as the pervasive and damaging way that women are treated by advertisements.

For one? Men are glorified as strong. While the extent of that strength as posed by the models may not be achievable by all men, the pursuit of that strength is arguably not as physically damaging as the pursuit of ultra-thinness is for women. Another is that the overall masculine ideal that is portrayed is not as conflicting as it is for women. Men should be strong, that’s the ultimate message. Whereas women are told to be strong and also weak, to be virgins and also whores, to need men while being independent, and a host of conflicting messages that lead to guilt no matter what ideal a woman pursues. We need to be clean and dirty! Skinny AND curvy, etc! WE NEED TO BE EVERYTHING WHILE ALSO VACUOUS AND WAITING TO BE FILLED WITH YOUR MALE STRENGTH. WOOO!

It’s impossible.

A male friend made a remark about how growing up reading comics he was all too familiar with impossible ideals. And while the hyper-strength of superheros is certainly an impossible ideal, comic books really don’t try to convince the reader that they are somehow failing if they aren’t bit by a radioactive spider, right? The ideal is there, but the permission to not meet it is also there.

There aren’t many bra manufacturers out there giving women permission to not need the newest push-up bra.

Of course one has to admit that men are more and more getting the complicated messages- be all-absorbed in your work and success but also a caring father. Have six pack abs but drink that beer. You know, the impossible to meet dualities of our society.

But ultimately it’s still not quite the same, because looking at history men have always been allowed strength. They’ve always been given license to lead. They’ve always been granted more autonomy. Their strength comes from the self, the self that they are encouraged to have. Ordered to have.

Whereas women? Our “self” has been expected to be our spouse, our family, our role in society. Our sense of self is something we have to buy into by accepting what is laid before us. So it’s harder to shake those media images, because deep in our internal programming is the belief that we have to buy in to be safe, because cultivating a sense of self outside of that is intrinsically dangerous.

Even so, when I look at the perfectly sculpted ideals, both masculine and feminine, what I see is not an answer but a death. To become that, we give up what we are now, we cut away at ourselves to fit into a mold that has been designed with no real knowledge of who we are.

Maybe I have a stronger reaction because I never watch TV, never read magazines, never look too closely at billboards and don’t live in a big city. When I see those perfect abs or perky boobs spread out to sell me something I have this horribly visceral reaction.

They have no humanity. Don’t buy in.