Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Sex Ed, Abstinence, and Abortion

Nobody wants abortion to be women's primary means of preventing pregnancy. And most of the people who are against sex education are worried that their priorities will not be part of the sex-ed agenda. As such, why don't we develop a national sex education program with three primary tenets:

1) Sex as a big, adult decision which involves consequences and emotions that can be difficult to handle, regardless of your maturity level. It is your decision to make and no-one else's, and you should decide to have sex only if you feel completely, totally ready and comfortable. Your friends' opinions should not be a factor. Your partner's desires are less important than your personal comfort. Television, magazines, books, bragging friends, etc. can all contribute to make it seem like the sooner you have sex, the cooler you are. Not so. Ask any adult. The more of a conscious decision it was, the less influenced by outside opinions, the happier they were with their first experience. Nobody should feel bad about choosing to remain abstinent, and it's nobody else's business what you choose. Abstinence is an excellent way to make sure that you won't have to deal with certain issues until you're good and ready.

2) There is a huge contingent in this country that seeks to make abortion entirely illegal. We don't know exactly at what point consciousness enters a body, whether it is an embryo, a zygote, a fetus. We have no way of knowing. Some people want to draw a hard line immediately after conception, that's how worried they are about messing this up. Historically, making abortion completely illegal leads to women seeking unsafe abortions. As the majority of us would prefer that neither women nor children are hurt or threatened, we urge you to take this issue very seriously and do everything you can to prevent a pregnancy from taking place, thus ensuring that you will never have to toe the line of potentially ending a prenatal consciousness.

3) Here are some time-tested ways to keep yourself healthy, clean, and safe, physically, emotionally, and psychologically, whatever you do decide for yourself.

Instead of laughing off the concerns of the anti-sex-ed people, why don't we incorporate their desires into our agenda so that we all have equal stake in this?

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"We've Got Plans, Big Plans! We're Gonna Change the World"

"If you are judging them while they are judging you
And you think that makes them assholes, maybe you're an asshole too
Do we argue with each other until we both turn blue or
Find similarities in what we like and what we do?"

Kimya Dawson is hella worth listening to. This whole album is fantastic.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Burning Man and the Default World

What's the deal with Burning Man? What motivates so many people to give so much time, money, and energy for the opportunity to suffer through ten days in a harsh environment? After its first year, attendance quadrupled from 20 to 80. Within a space of ten years it grew to 2,000. Less than five years later, it was up to 20,000. These days 60-70,000 people gather in the desert once a year for the 30 year old festival.

If you've been around Burners or done any research on the event you've probably come across the term "Default World," used to describe the general, non-Burning-Man-world of commerce, communities, and human relations. The term may sound strange or cultish at first, but it illuminates a way of seeing the world which holds vast potential for positive change.

The sort of patchwork, conventional wisdom, the unspoken story of the world, goes something like this: if the powerful forces of nature, god, markets, social Darwinism, and brute competition couldn't overcome the individual sins of greed, dishonesty, and hatred, nothing can. It springs from a deeply inconsistent and self-contradictory mishmash of Puritanism, evolutionary theory, fatalism, and the old "might equals right" paradigm, and falls apart under the slightest scrutiny, yet I would venture to say that a majority of the world holds this view subconsciously. By default, if you will.

Here's why Burning Man caught on like wildfire: it's all in the design. By setting clear and strategic expectations for participants, a new generation of event organizers is finding ways to facilitate more loving, authentic, and fearless interactions between strangers. These intentional communities offer both a critique and an alternative to the previously described "this is the best it gets" view of the world. 

We've learned a lot about power structures, human nature, and love from the vast array of mistakes, evils, and various forms of manipulation people have exercised over one another over the centuries. It stands to reason that this knowledge would enable us to keep abreast of the more threatening aspects of human nature.

Here are the expectations at Burning Man, the roots of the culture:

Radical Inclusion
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.

Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

Radical Self-reliance
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.

Radical Self-expression
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

Communal Effort
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

Civic Responsibility
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.

Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.

Each of the principles is designed to facilitate the pursuit of happiness as much as possible for as many people as possible. Dissolving hierarchies, discouraging cliquishness, setting the expectation of being fully present with one another, taking accountability for our own behavior, interacting respectfully with ourselves and our environment--these preclude many of the most negative aspects of society, pre-empting the need for a punitive attitude towards wrongdoers. Why is Burning Man so popular? Because it WORKS.

People treat each other with more trust and goodwill, feel safe being more open and honest versions of themselves, feel safe pushing back against the limitations they've internalized or accepted over the course of their lives. They make themselves vulnerable to others and to truth, stepping up to face their own excuses and shortcomings and discovering new things about themselves. People change their lives after coming to Burning Man. They change the way they do business. They change the way they interact with their families. It's healing, transformative, and it all communicates something very, very different than the default world's message about human nature and what humans are capable of.

Burning Man is fertile ground to examine the question of individual morality vis-a-vis civilized society in terms of creating a bright and loving world vs. a dark and hateful one, because so-called "vice laws" are effectively (if not officially) suspended at the festival. Nudity, anarchy, drug use, and sexual openness, often portrayed as the most dangerous threats to society, are all highly prevalent (though also largely possible to avoid) in Black Rock City. The crime statistics during the event, even when compared to other festivals (let alone cities of comparable size) contradict the idea that these sorts of activities go hand-in-hand with actual, physical threats to human beings. As for anecdotal evidence of the level of joy, harmony and peace experienced by attendees, here are some pictures of people at the event. (Pay attention especially to the close-ups of faces. Feel free to seek out your own as well).

In theory, people of every persuasion are welcome to come and see what kind of world these festivals could create, but that doesn't happen in practice, which brings up another interesting point. Self-ostracization is the only kind that takes place at Burning Man, and self-ostracization from intentional communities tells us important things about the obstacles to utopia (and peaceful, harmonious society in general). There are two types of people who don't find a welcome for themselves at these kinds of festivals.

The first, who certainly attend but may not encounter such a welcoming spirit, are those determined to behave in whatever manner they see fit, with no regard to the experience of others. Aggressive solipsists, people who imagine themselves to be the only, or most important being in the universe and think it's a good shortcut to spend their energy avoiding the consequences of disharmonious behavior rather than learning harmony.  These are the most obvious threat to both the concept and execution of a utopian society, but luckily they are few and far between, and natural consequences are constantly inspiring to reform them. Even people who can manage to live this way due to their influence or affluence pay the heavy price of being tolerated rather than loved, since meaningful, intimate relationships are impossible to maintain without some level of personal accountability.

The second group, an unfortunately large and thriving subgroup of the former, and unfortunately unlikely to ever attend Burning Man at least, comes in the form of people who consider it a virtue to eliminate all sanctuary for contradictory views on morality, spirituality, and self-expression. Moving well beyond the realm of defending their personal safety and well-being, they demand that their entire horizon be consistent with their ideas of how the world should be. They see nothing inconsistent with demanding freedom of expression and worship even as they sacrifice their opponents'  chosen forms of expression on the altar of their own personal ideals, in the name of their own personal gods. 

Our default, half-formed, internally inconsistent world of collective morality fully supports this insane idea--that a particular group of humans, based on nothing other than conviction, should be able to impose their idiosyncratic set of behavioral restrictions on their ideological opponents, divorced from any evidence that this leads to less conflict rather than more conflict; as though the fact that we believe different things is the root of all irreconcilable conflict, rather than this basic, unapologetic disrespect for the agency of others.

The truth is, people like this would do well to spend some time in a space like Burning Man, if only they could be convinced. Plenty of attendees hold contradictory beliefs when it comes to being naked in public, the benefit vs. harm of drug usage, the existence and shape and will of God(ess)(e)(s), the benefit vs. harm of guns, the appeal vs. not of certain styles/outfits/lifestyles/modes of being/diets, etc. Very few of these people engage in destructive conflict with one another over these things while at Burning Man. Everyone accepts. Everyone loves. Everyone listens. Everyone connects. Everyone is completely free to be themselves, and it becomes crystal clear that we have nothing to fear from one another's differences.

In the default world, oppositional perspectives inspire distance, guardedness, and often personal animosity. All of this makes us miss out on the beauty of other people, the love they have to offer, and the kinds of wisdom built up around lifestyles that are different than ours. We have so much to offer one another, and particularly those who think about the world very differently than we do. At Burning Man, with barriers lowered, we have unique access to truths about others, humanity, and ourselves, and we gain access to a deep and universal sense of community, we immerse ourselves in the vast love that connects us all as human beings and living things.

Burning Man can feel a bit cultish, from the evangelism of Burners to the phrase "Welcome Home!" you hear everywhere you go, particularly during your first year. If it is a cult, I think we've finally learned how to cult right: full inclusion and acceptance of every damned aspect of our fellow human beings outside of violence, commerce, or manipulative behaviors. 

The festival may be unsustainable in practical terms, but the culture of camaraderie is far more emotionally sustainable than anything I've encountered. Each new year I attend, I wonder how I've survived an entire year in the default world, where you're nearly forced to adopt a wary stance and/or guard your intentions from the people you encounter, where attempts at emotional honesty and intimacy can be met with a range of responses other than reciprocation, from discomfort to fear to disdain. I, for one, believe we could create a whole city around this lifestyle, and the sooner, the better.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Divided : Conquered

(Notes on My Traitor Ancestors)

Being an ally to people of color is not about being ashamed of your Whiteness. But let's get real: I am ashamed of my ancestors.

My genetics are a melting pot of English, Irish, Scottish, German, Norwegian and probably some others I'm forgetting. French I think. But I'm more than half Irish, which makes my Irishness legal tender and the firmest foothold on my own ancestry I'm bound to get.

Now, you may know the relationship between the potato famine and the influx of Irish immigrants to the New World. What you may not know is that the British had a great deal to do with the terrible impact of the famine (don't feel bad; this is a fairly recent revelation in the land of peer-reviewed publications.) 

The nasty treatment of the Irish followed them to the New World, but they took a stand against it. They did. They fought hard to be recognized as fellow human beings who deserve to thrive in exchange for their efforts. It was a very noble enterprise, or it would have been if they hadn't claimed their liberation by redirecting the hatred to another oppressed group. In tandem with fighting for their own rights for dignity and an honest living, they fought against those same rights for the Blacks pouring into the cities looking for work. 

It worked. Like the Italians, like the Polish, the Irish melted quietly into the category of "white." Hooray.

Which means I got to come of age as an average ignorant white girl, with no real knowledge of Irish culture or history, no understanding of the politics that went into the current makeup of either the U.S. or Ireland, and no sense of community beyond the bullshit commodity patriotism of self-serving politicians and mayonnaise commercials.

I'm not the only culturally whitewashed suburban kid who felt jealous of people of color for the sense of community and heritage we perceived them to possess. My education and socialization kept me ignorant enough of the actual experience of being non-white that when people looked at my dark olive skin in the summer and guessed at my heritage I was tempted to claim someone else's. Yes, I am Pacific Islander. Yes, I am one-eighth black. Yes, I am Native American.

I've since gained a better understanding of the socio-political, heavily institutionalized race complex in this country, mostly through dumb luck and partly through pursuit. I no longer feel uncomfortable about what incarceration statistics, poverty statistics, and media portrayal of people of color seem to indicate about the superiority of my cultural and/or genetic heritage, because I know exactly how the Rube-Goldberg tube of the Benevolent White Conqueror works. Under scrutiny our dominant narrative reveals itself to be a nightmare version of the fairy tale in which the Wolves emerge not only alive and well but revered for their cleverness, cunning, and strength against weak and unworthy adversaries such as grandmothers, piglets, and little girls.

If you trust the mainstream news (owned in conglomerate by the most powerful men in the world) to give you an accurate picture of the benevolence and efficacy of current power structures, and/or if you trust the textbook companies, likewise owned and/or influenced by the wealthy and powerful, to represent the struggles and priorities and victories and tragedies of history without putting a positive spin on the people who won, and why, and whether certain developments were positive for the majority of humans, that is, if you trust that power is righteous ("might equals right"), you likely see people of color as more prone to violence, laziness, unsubstantiated anger, entitlement, and less capable of achievement, functional families, and functional communities. I am not out to convince anyone that these beliefs are wrong. There is a staggering amount evidence that the poverty, underachievement and violence among people of color relative to whites was intentionally crafted and sustained through a variety of national and international policies. If you don't like being racist, you can easily remedy that.

This is for those who already see racial inequality as a problem that we can, and should, collectively solve, from Rachel Dolezals and yoga girls and "downwardly mobile activists" to community organizers, critical race theory researchers and guerrilla reporters. Though we're on the same journey, the path feels more like a battlefield than common ground. There's good reason to be frustrated with the brand of white savior capitalist charities that keep perpetuating the problems because they don't care how the relevant populations feel about their solutions. But there are also a lot of allies-in-training being absolutely castigated as they seek to help and learn at the same time.

The most relevant and revolutionary conversations about unjust and destructive power structures and what to do them are happening quite naturally in the margins, the communities benefitting the least from the current arrangement (who are least able and/or willing to ingratiate themselves to the checkbook-holders). It's also largely thanks to xenophobic political rhetoric that transparent discussions about power take place primarily in the disciplines linked to specific identities. And because these disciplines are some of the only safe spaces for people of color to discuss their experiences, white visitors tend to be greeted with apprehension.

I got used to sitting down and shutting up and giving someone else's experience priority for once, but my initial reaction was a common one: "I'm not privileged. I'm oppressed too." And because there are far more important issues that the hurt feelings of white people, and because the priorities of these disciplines are specific, allies and POCs tend to quickly dismiss the question by responding, "Privilege and oppression are not mutually exclusive. Most people experience both to different degrees." 

I've always felt that this should not be a conversation-stopper, but a transition to a discussion about the stake we all have in ending oppressive structures. I've tried to reverse-engineer the reasons why: to imagine the world where we are all part of the same human family, and no one feels the need to defend the territory of victimhood, and no one feels the need to preserve the integrity of their identity through exclusion. 
But I think a better way to talk about it is to go back to how this whole thing started--to the settling of the New World, where the old structures were being challenged by poor whites, Native Americans, and African Americans alike. 

Where, having abandoned everything they knew, finding themselves in extremely difficult circumstances and often enslaved themselves, the settlers were much more amenable to working together with those who were culturally different but shared their situation and goals. Where, desperate and obliterated by disease and then harassed by invasion, and/or transported against their will to a completely foreign environment dominated by a hostile and strange culture, Native Americans and African Americans were willing to take what allies they could.

The majority of that new society, as with most human societies, just wanted to claim their personal dignity, raise families by the fruits of their labor, and enjoy life and one another's company. And they were starting to actually do something about it, banding together, attacking the houses of the ostentatiously rich, disobeying the local authorities, etc., much to the chagrin of those in the game of continuously concentrating and expanding their own power and wealth. 

Hence, the ingenious scheme which promised not only to keep everything in the same hands, but accelerate and codify the exploitation of the populace. They decreed that whites could no longer be slaves. Ever. Most of them were released from their indentured servitude. Whites, they claimed, were naturally superior to other races. All other races were relegated to second-class citizenship or completely dehumanized, as in the case of blacks, and subjected to even worse treatment than before. They dissolved the revolutionary masses in one fell swoop by creating different tiers of exploitables.

And that's why I am ashamed of my ancestors, British, German, Norwegian, whatever. They had within reach, modeled before them by several Native American nations, a version of society that honored each and every individual, that offered every citizen dignity and the means to care for themselves and their families, the opportunity to live together in communities based upon "nothing for myself that others cannot have," and they chickened out and scrapped it all for the promise that they would always have just a little more than the other suckers (not to mention they wouldn't have to risk their lives proving their mettle against their supposed betters). 

My ancestors turned us all toadies, the front line of the ultimate bullies. In exchange for effectively ensuring that the most hopeful and beautiful elements of the American Dream would stay in dreamland, they got the Oppression-Plus deal. Exploitation with benefits. And if you want to know just how much it benefitted the vast majority of us, all you have to do is look at the South. The Confederate Flag might as well be literally shit on a stick. Not only did the majority of southern whites end up dirt poor at the end of their devil's deal, they also ended up actively hated and despised for an institution that ultimately benefitted the same people as always, people with the power to successfully hide themselves from the public eye.

Most textbooks teach children a version of U.S. history which obliquely justifies and even glorifies the brutal conquest, manipulation, and exploitation of native peoples. Several generations later and minus the facts, most white Americans simply don't understand why we all can't "just get along." Belligerent naïveté and willful ignorance, infuriating as they can be, are products of the same top-down narrative that people of color seek to dismantle.

Another favorite phrase of white people that does not earn many brownie points: "I'm colorblind." It's a phrase that can easily be interpreted as "I, as a white person, grant you the privilege of temporary whiteness." But aren't we also longing for an end to the distinctions that keep us from banding together to make the world better? Can't we honor that longing?

The American Dream has been dormant for centuries. After that brief, shining moment when it really meant something, when it really had a chance of succeeding, it was lost to us. It's time to salvage that hopeful story from the ashes. It's time for the offspring of the wolves, the grandmas, the little pigs and girls alike to see if we've learned enough from the past, to see if we're now braver, wiser, and more trusting than our ancestors. To see if we can't get it right this time.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Letting Go of Utopia (in the Name of Utopia)


-Bill Burr, comedian

I was raised a fundamentalist, gun toting, regulation-fearing Republican. In middle school I wrote an essay about why abortion should be illegal. In high school I fully agreed with the sentiment that letting gays marry could mean a slippery slope to everyone raping their dogs and children. For the first two decades of my life, I didn’t drink alcohol or caffeine, have sex, wear tank tops or swear. I thought Bill Clinton was a bad president, not because of any of his policies, but because no good person would cheat on his wife, and no bad person could possibly run a country.

I grew up with Christians. There are a lot of Christians I know and love personally in this world. They are dedicated to a higher ideal and committed to selfless service and humility. They take care of each other with both organization and passion in the name of a cause higher than themselves. They truly want others to be happy, and naturally, they center that effort around that which makes them most happy, that which is most vital and beautiful to them--a vision of a world ruled by Christ himself, with the infinite compassion, love, unity, and peace that implies. It's easy to see evangelism in the light of arrogance, pride, and unwillingness to tolerate other viewpoints, but truth is relative to your position, and from within the faith, I've experienced that it comes from an honest desire to elevate the condition of others.

As an adult, my tribe is largely made up of people whose spirituality is not anchored to a ritualized set of beliefs. They are committed in various ways to selfless service and humility in the name of a better world; a cause higher than themselves. They hold themselves to an ideal of friendship and humanity that in many ways surpasses the network of do-gooders of my youth. They champion the cause of the underdog. They truly want others to be happy, and naturally, they center that effort around that which makes them most happy, that which is most vital and beautiful to them--a vision of a world free of hatred, a world where another’s suffering is always met with compassion, where another’s joy is always celebrated, regardless of personal differences. It's easy to see guilt as the heart of liberalism, but that's only one truth. In my experience it comes from an honest desire to elevate the condition of others.

Here's the thing: both groups are full of good-hearted, loving people who want everyone in the world to be better off, no matter what beliefs they hold. It's a bit more difficult to find people in either group who believe that their ideological opposites want a better world for them. In short, we're all terrified that the people who don't share our worldview want to make it impossible for us to live the way we want to. We've been taught to see our ideological opponents as actual enemies who pose an immediate threat to everything we hold dear.

Our entire political system is designed to fan the flames of this fear. Our two-party system, for all its checks and balances, does very little to curb a violent see-saw of policies, all-or-nothing bids for one worldview to prevail over another, when they're not of necessity oppositional in the first place. Our politicians get us focused exclusively on those areas we struggle the most to reconcile, until we completely lose sight of our common desires and indeed the very point of a collective government--for example, making cities cleaner, easier to get around in, and safer; subsidizing public projects and institutions that benefit everyone like research schools and libraries; taking measures to ensure that each human in this country can stand with dignity against a person or entity who holds the upper hand in terms of power and wealth. 

When our party is on top, do we bother to acknowledge those who can’t get on board with our vision? No, there's no time for that--we may only have four years to try and enact our vision! If they're afraid of what we want to do, let them be afraid. Their ideal world is, after all, far more terrifying than anything we could come up with. We could sit down and negotiate our differences; instead, we pick one another's arguments to pieces. We could assuage one another’s fears; instead, we gleefully threaten to make them a reality. 

How is it that with the vast majority on this planet claiming to seek out heaven, our world looks so much more like hell--razed by a vicious battle of demons who can no longer see one another’s humanity, egged on by our bloated egos which float above the scene like a flock of ineffectual angels?

Here are some universal (or near-universal) desires: The desire to remain unmolested and unfettered. The desire to be allowed to shape our own lives, follow our own paths. The desire sustain ourselves and those we care about through labor we can feel proud of, without having to beg or depend on the charity of another. The desire to be healthy, to have time to invest in human relationships. To be loved.

In the overlap of the Venn diagram of our utopias is ample space for world far better than this one, a world in which we could all live joyously and at peace with our neighbors. It's theoretically quite a simple matter to meet on common ground and build this world together. Instead, we attack each other relentlessly over the handful of beliefs we can’t understand or agree with. Day after day, we battle back and forth as though we're bravely making progress towards an endgame of utopia. How exactly are these tactics going to get us there? After all, a battle victory depends on the elimination or forceful suppression of, rather than the willing cooperation of the opponent. For all our fiery rhetoric, how many of us would actually rejoice to see our theoretical enemies (read: real life friends and family) stripped of their rights and freedoms? How could a world where any substantial percentage of the population is unable to live in the manner of their own choosing be considered utopian? 

With the tide of popular opinion finally beginning to turn against the well-codified, puritanical public morality we've all long been subject to, like it or not, there is new space for a more democratic and open forum. The imperative to engage in intense ideological battles on a personal level is lessening. It's time to reflect on our tactics and our goals.

I really enjoy the way Bill Burr, a Colbert-like comedian whose affiliations are not immediately apparent, subtly dismantles the rhetoric of enmity. Pointing out that the previous generation, the "racist grandpas" and such, grew up in a very different world, where very different behaviors were taken for granted, he points out that we don't give these people any credit for the progress they have made, for the distance they've come from where they started. He gently mocks the urge to demonize one another, creating a space for people to be who they are, and grow at their own rate, a space we rarely give each other or ourselves in our world of "you should have been already." He embodies both ignorance and the desire to attack ignorance, the holders of certain viewpoints and the need to lay waste to those viewpoints, ultimately validating and exonerating us all, whatever stage of learning, growth, awareness, understanding, ignorance, enlightenment, selfishness, or generosity we happen to be at. “You exist, there are reasons why are the way you are, you are human, you are trying,” he says.

This, to me, seems the only clear path to any sort of heaven on Earth. Moving away from the mean-spirited, fear-driven polarization of people with different views on life, morality, and community. Moving towards discussions designed to connect and build rather than divide and destroy. Finding reasons to forgive and make space for others instead of maligning and banishing them. Discovering which visions we share as one and making them come true.