Let’s Start with Assholes

Too much of our punditry on both sides, and especially in the independent media, are assholes.  People who would rather be right than happy.  People with a list of self-justifying facts who believe that dominant rhetoric means that you are right, or that you win.  The youtube videos say it in their titles: so and so destroyed by thus and such.  Logic, but at the level taught in 10th grade geometry.  If, then, therefore.  The proofs that made me feel for the first time like I was good at something in the math classroom.

And so we have these men–and look at the preponderance of talking heads–pursue the goal of male conversation in this culture, which is to use conversation and social interaction to establish hierarchy.  (See Deborah Tannen’s research).  Look at the alt-right’s obsession with Alpha and Beta men, figuring out who is what, and wringing their hands over falling in the Beta category.

So you have some smart-enough voice on one side or the other, and they have their 10th grade definition of logic (which, to be fair, has its place) and this need to be right.  To destroy someone else’s argument.  And it isn’t even about the argument, or the outcome, or the impact, it is about a death match of the markers of intellect without the understanding that true intellect is curious, self-reflective, and wonders what it is that you get when you win.  Here, the premise of the argument is defined tribally, the self-proclaimed incisive intellect is only ever turned outward, and winning gets you…  nothing.

The collective behavior can be summed up in a single term:  asshole.

My older sister is raising a spectrum-likely kid, heavy on one kind of intelligence and light on the intelligence that brings you to empathy or to value consensus.  He knows everything at 8 and is determined to be heard.  She finally told him if he interrupts, if he doesn’t allow for the possibility that someone else may have information that he doesn’t have, everyone is going to think he is an asshole, and they will be right.

Liberals make assholes too, but not as many because the starting point for the liberal world view is necessarily self-critical and is generally curious, if only curious in one direction.

Rule number one in my world is to not be an asshole.  I wish more people started there.

Let’s Start with Assholes

Which is Worse?

The talk of asking the Electoral College to overturn the Trump win emerged like a giant firework of hope last week and lived for about as long as a real firework would.  First, I don’t think it will happen.  Those of us who fear a Trump presidency are legion and imagine your inbox flooded with thousands of requests to change your mind.  Each individual is likely well meaning and kind, but in aggregate, it has to feel like the worst kind of bullying…  more likely to dig in heels than change minds. That effort would have been better organized by one person asking for a meeting with one Elector, and then showing up with a binder full of letters or e-mails.  The ship has sailed.

My guiding value is built around suffering: I don’t want to be a part of it.  I don’t eat factory-farm raised meat because I don’t want to participate in a process that creates suffering, human or otherwise.  Yes, I know, the creatures in question still die.  But there are worse things than death.

So from the perspective of preventing suffering, I absolutely believe that the Electors should overturn the election results.

But the Machiavellian in me is certain that this must play out.  It is unspeakably awful that it plays out in the form of hate crimes and children’s fear of their classmates and teachers (and if you think that is overblown, start here with the disclaimer that I am not particularly fond of the SLPC identifying Muslim critics of Islam as hatemongers).  I am not afraid of authority and I won’t be silent where I can help someone on the receiving end of hatred.

But it has to play out.

Those who voted for Trump because they liked his racist dog-whistling need the light of day pointed in their direction.  They need to know that, if government won’t stand up for universal human rights, the population will.

Fox news needs to live with the monster it created.

The GOP needs time to fail because it’s 20-year record of Gingrich-mentored tantrum throwing hasn’t prepared it to lead or succeed.

The Democrats need to be kicked in the teeth.

Facebook needs to decide whether it wants to be part of a long term, stable civic environment and act to deal with fake news and echo chambers appropriately.

The whole damn populace needs to wake up to the dangers of what we’ve allowed corporate media to do to us and our ability to reason for ourselves.

And the elite–not the college educated liberal arts majors who just want everyone to be happy and equal, but the people with trust funds and hedge funds and off-shore tax havens–need to be put on notice that Trump is the mis-direction, but the riot he represents is real.

Which is Worse?

Silence

Over the past two months, there has been so much damn talking.  In the past two weeks, so much damn freaking out.  This is where normalization begins: fear is exhausting.

There are some among the subscribers to this blog who I suspect find my fear of Trump’s administration ridiculous and over-dramatic.  For those people, consider how concerned you were about Hillary’s candidacy and then keep in mind that she never said she wanted to upend your second amendment rights.  Trump has out and out stated that he wants to revisit the first amendment because it goes too far.

I fear for marginalized groups.  My grandfather, Nazi resistance fighter in Holland during World War II, said “Well, you’ve elected another Hitler.  But you’ll be fine.  You’re white.  Just keep your job.”  He’s probably right, save the fact that a solid 50% of the people I love aren’t white.  I fear for increasingly militarized police with a Justice Department headed by someone who doesn’t give a shit about a citizen’s rights, so long as that citizen is brown.  Not all Trump voters are racists and bigots, but all Trump voters elected someone who is openly tolerant of racism and bigotry.  I have family members among that group, which is difficult to accept.

But we are here, and there are things I want to talk about.  But first, the single most helpful voice in all of this has been Mark Blyth.  It helps that he has a Scottish accent, as most things are improved by a Scottish accent.  But he also provides a global and historical perspective.  This talk at Brown University from the day after the election has been particularly helpful in shifting my perspective…  We aren’t looking at the beginning of Hitler, we are looking  a reincarnation of the French Revolution.  For now, the rage has been directed at brown people–a useful distraction if you happen to be of the 1%–but the pitchforks will eventually point in the direction of Wall Street and those who have implemented and fought for wealth redistribution in the direction of the already wealthy.

Which isn’t to say that I’m not alarmed for minorities, those who are marginalized, and the vulnerable.  I’ve donated to the ACLU and will continue to do so.  I’ve subscribed to support journalism.  I’m committed to the first rule, which is don’t be an asshole.  I’ve written to my Senators and I now have a list of all the people who represent me across all levels of government.  I’m prepared to do what I can in my sphere to speak up against cruelty.

Meanwhile, there is a bigger play here, which is a perspective I had lost.

Silence

My Biases

A fair point of criticism that could be lobbed my way is that my divorce has made me bitter.  

It is true that I didn’t want the divorce at the time.  I loved my ex-husband madly, without limits, and without reason.  In the final analysis, you could argue that it was his choice to end the marriage.  I certainly had shown no signs of giving up on him.  

From a certain angle, blaming our divorce on cultural differences might also be understood as a sign that I am looking for a scapegoat.  Anything to avoid saying out loud that he didn’t love me enough.

Well, he didn’t love me enough.  

Let me tell you about my ex-husband.  He was beautiful.  Charming.  Intelligent.  Funny.  Ambitious.  Good lord, was he handsome.   He spoke four languages.  I adored his mother.  His nieces and nephews were so sweet.  His siblings were endlessly kind.  I had experiences with him that I would have never had access to with another man.  

And yet.

Everything was always someone else’s fault.  He may not have graduated with a Bachelor’s yet, fifteen years after I met him.  And last I heard, that failure was everyone’s fault but his.  

He had all the pride in the world, but so little to be proud of.  

In the end, his sister-in-law said to me “Beda, we don’t understand.  We know what you did for him.”

I made him feel stupid.  When I asked him to think outside the box, he refused and leaned on a faceless, nameless Imam.  I asked him if God was going to come back.  He said yes.  I asked him if he was going to have to stand before God and answer for his time on earth.  He said yes.  I asked him if that Imam was going to put his hand up from the back, interrupt proceedings, and inform God that he, the Imam, was taking responsibility for my ex’s behavior.

“Why do you have to make me feel stupid about my religion.”

I remember that conversation.  Explicitly.  We were in the shower.  We’d been talking about having kids, raising them.  The specter of Ramadan and 12 year olds who were thirsty in the middle of summer and me having to tell them no, they can’t have water.  

Our marriage died in that shower, on that day.  It just took a long time to realize that it was irrevocably dead.  

I wasn’t perfect.  I was young and immature.  I was pragmatic when he needed me to be a die-hard romantic.  I had these ideas about what a marriage was supposed to be and I kept trying to turn us into the picture I wanted instead of accepting what we were.  I was inexperienced: I didn’t have another long term relationship as a point of reference.  I was hard-headed.  I fought to win.  

Before we were married, my Dad pulled him aside and said, “Son, there isn’t anything in 2,000 years of culture or breeding that has prepared you to be married to this woman.”  My dad was right.  Didn’t stop my dad from loving him, from mentoring him, from employing him.  But he was right.  

So…  sour grapes?  Maybe.  But also years of watching him and his friends in our home and in Morocco.  Observing their relationships disintegrate one by one.   Being a part of his family and therefore as much of an insider as I could possibly be.  I was there for Al Eid when the butcher came and slaughtered four sheep on the rooftop deck of his mother’s house.  Heard his family’s sympathy for his brother’s wife, who had married the crazy brother.  But no one could say that.  No one could confront him.  They just listened to the screaming in unhappy silence.  To do anything else would have been shameful.  Or the other brother, the alcoholic whose hands shook until he started drinking again at 10 and may or may not have been bisexual.  All this shit that they couldn’t talk about and so it just festered.  

I was there in a way that the analysts and the diplomats haven’t been.  Not that I know everything they know, just that they don’t know everything I know.  They haven’t slept in that bed and it’s different, once you have.  

Which is to say that Islam isn’t bad, or at least its holy text is on par with Christianity.  Muslims are people, just like any other people: some are wonderful, some are awful, most are somewhere in-between, or both in different ways.  Islamic culture isn’t …  Okay, it’s sub-optimal.  And I say that having fallen in love with walking your bread dough to the local bakers to have it baked while you go to the Hamam.  And avocado juice.  And easy smiles.  Helpful, generous, open people.  Promising young men living with a corrupt government, sitting around and playing cards for spending money because they couldn’t find jobs with their free university education.  Things stay the same because Inshallah is the answer to every question.  When do you want to meet?  <shrug> Inshallah.  Retirement planning?  Inshallah.  Address government corruption?  Inshallah.  

Being there, drinking coffee, people-watching… it’s beautiful.  Perhaps even more so because it is doomed.  The trajectory of history seems to be pointing in the direction of reason, plurality, and technology.  The harder the lumpheads (of any persuasion) try to drag the whole thing backwards, the more certain we can be of a rebound.  Time moves forward, at least experientially.  The quantum physicists might have other views, but the rest of us experience the relentless march of time in a single direction.  We get smarter, and nothing is lost even if we fall, one-by-one, victims of that march.  

“We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.”  Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

My Biases

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

The quote goes back to Aesop, this notion that familiarity breeds contempt.  (For the record, he also said this: We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.)  Vice published a piece about the Military’s support for Trump – some at the leadership level, most among those who end up getting deployed.  Trump fans in the Military talked about drawing back on our intervention in the world, the fact that Trump appears to be decisive (I can’t, in any seriousness, call him decisive.)

What they don’t talk about is how Trump’s anti-Islam message resonates with those who have spent time in the Islamic world.  

Let’s start with this: I’m speaking in generalities.  What I am about to say isn’t going to apply to everyone, but it is a decent starting point.  The religion and the culture are intertwined in the minds of those who grew up in it.  Most westerners can talk about their religion in one silo and their culture in another, and their family in a third.  Most westerners can talk critically about one aspect or the other without feeling the whole edifice is about to crumble. It gets much harder to tease out the threads when you’re talking about the Muslim world.  

My expertise on this is as follows:  I married a Muslim man.  We divorced.  I have worked around former military, lived with and loved an Officer who deployed “downrange,” had a long term relationship with another former officer who also undertook multiple deployments.  And I can say with a high level of confidence that familiarity breeds contempt.  Skipping over the salacious bits (I imagine if you spend some time googling night vision videos from Iraq, you’ll find stuff you can never un-see), let’s talk about why that might be.  

First, the world we first think of as Muslim – North Africa, the Middle East – has a culture that cannot be understood academically.  Which means that our governmental approach to it is doomed from the beginning because there is nothing in an American’s education, culture, approach, or experience that prepares us to understand this culture.  We are the distillation of Western culture down to its bluntest components.  We are direct.  We strive to mean what we say and say what we mean.  We value consistency and authenticity.  We don’t respect sensitivity, particularly if it stands in the way of progress.  We take others at their word.  

None of which works in this world.  

Meaning is conveyed in the subtlest of shades.  Go to a paint store and consider all of the different colors that look white to you.  That’s how little difference there is between different shades of meaning in this world, but each of those shades conveys something specific, and important, and different.  Are you frustrated already, just thinking about it?  Most Americans (and even more American men) are going to throw their hands up and storm off saying “I don’t give a shit which white you choose, just leave me out of it.”  We don’t have the patience for nuance that microscopic.  (Which, incidentally, I am behind 100%.  I don’t see the value in 2,000 shades of white either.  50 shades of grey is at least 45 too many.)

Pride counts for more than having something to be proud of.  God help you if you miss one of those cues that came in 2,000 shades of white paint chips, because you will have damaged your compatriots pride so irrevocably that there is no going back.  Ever.  Why do you think there are honor killings?  Because pride is valued at a higher level than a daughter’s life.  Doesn’t make sense, does it?  You can say the words and nod, but that’s academic.  It’s like reading about mermaids and unicorns.  You can understand the words, they fit together, but on some level it doesn’t compute.  It will never compute.  And anything is on the table in service of pride.  Anything.  Pride is valued above honesty.  It is valued above authenticity.  It is valued above progress.  

Children are not chastised with bad (don’t do that, it’s bad), they are chastised with shame (don’t do that, it is shameful.)

There is the inside world and the outside world.  Inside is for family.  Women are inside.  Outside is for the men.  What is said outside may only have the thinnest tie to the truth, but it isn’t considered shameful to lie.  What would be more shameful would be to admit something that is true, but unflattering.  You tell the truth inside, but then maybe only to the men.  And probably not even to the men.  Maybe to your father.  Maybe.  And honesty with yourself about yourself… fuggetaboutit.  

Honestly, I don’t know how anyone functions.  

Our cultures are oil and water.  And that doesn’t mean that we are at war with each other, it simply means that in the venn diagram, we think that the place where the circles overlap is bigger than it is.  Because we’re American.  We’re optimistic.  We’re direct.  We can do anything.  But only the Americans who have tried to get anything done in that sliver of overlap know exactly how small it is.  Find a soldier who has deployed and ask him or her about Islam.  Chances are they met some extraordinary people of courage.  Fellow soldiers.  Police officers in training.  Interpreters.  Leaders.  People they could speak with directly, trust completely, and work with effectively.  But overall?  I’d put money that their experience led them to believe that the whole thing was a clusterfuck from the start and we had no business getting involved because we didn’t know the terrain, human or cultural, and we had no clear objective.  Spreading democracy, incidentally, is not a clear objective.  Democracy isn’t smallpox.  

And I’d hazard a guess that most soldiers aren’t fans of Islamic culture, which gets shorthanded into Muslim people.  

This isn’t about religion.  Personally, I think organized religion is 99% bullshit.  Believe what you want to believe, connect with the divine in the way you see fit, and leave me alone to do the same.  The state of my soul has nothing to do with the state of your soul.  I don’t see how you can reasonably make the argument that religion isn’t its own culture.  In America, the national culture and the religious culture grow further apart every day.  I think this is to the good.  In the middle east, the culture and the religion cling to each other so hard we can only hope they suffocate each other entirely.  

Ooh.  Inflammatory.  I know I’m not supposed to say this.  I know I’m at odds with my basic liberalism which has no problem with democratic socialism, government regulation, socialized health care, mourning Bernie, end the war on drugs, etc., etc.

Of course, I’m American.  I would think this, but I’m firmly behind the notion that a culture should be judged by its outcomes.  By that measure, Western culture isn’t perfect.  There’s still too much racial bigotry, not enough logic (just listen to the people defending assault weapons), and too much religion trying to take over the public sphere.  However.  With all of its flaws, Western culture has demonstrably better outcomes for the vast majority of its citizens.  

You could call that relative, and question my measures.  Well, my measure are things like literacy; life expectancy; poverty;  transparency in government; equality under the law for men and women; the absence of child soldiers, child brides, and child factory workers; the absence of honor killings and feminine genital mutilation (we could legitimately get rid of circumcision here, just for the record); freedom of speech; and freedom of (and from) religion.

Perhaps if you were looking at social cohesion, then Islamic culture would come out on top.  Maybe for the fantastical architecture?  The sense of poetic despair?  Rumi?  The debt of gratitude we owe the Islamic world for hanging on to the world’s intellectual treasures while we the west went through the dark ages?  All of that is great.  But at what price for those who don’t fit in?  At what cost for the LGBTQ community?  The Saudi girl who wants to be an engineer?  The Somali girl who doesn’t want to marry the man her parents picked?  The Afghan girl who just wants to learn how to read?   Should they all be sacrificed for social cohesion or tradition?  And even then, the wars rage on between people who believe things that can only be differentiated by a few shades of white.  So much for social cohesion.  

Does Islam, by definition, prohibit female engineers, or girls who go to school, or homosexuals who live safely and openly in society?  Certainly no more than Christianity does.  But is the culture prohibitive of all of the above?  Absolutely.  

So yes.  By the measures described, Western culture is superior.  I don’t think anyone should die over this.  I don’t think we should drop bombs to stamp out a religion or a culture.  I don’t think anyone should be ostracized or excluded.  I’m not for a ban or a wall or profiling. The “don’t be an asshole” rule always applies.  But that doesn’t change the fact that our foreign policy in the middle east is hampered by our lack of visceral understanding of the culture we’re working with.  And it doesn’t change the fact that western culture produces better outcomes for a larger percentage of its population.

And if the Military has feelings that align with Donald Trump about how immigration from the Middle East should be handled, perhaps their feelings should be understood as having a foundation in experience that goes beyond bigotry and racism.

Okay, let the yelling begin.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Could I Be a Conservative?

I mean, theoretically, if Conservative weren’t tainted with asshole in much the same way Feminism has been tainted with joyless, anti-sex, anti-man, word policing*…  yes.  

One of the best articles I’ve read yet about the debacle that is 2016 comes from Vox, wherein a Conservative and Republican turns around and faces what outsiders have long pointed out, and that is that the Conservatives signed up for a marriage with the ugliest parts of our society, and have amplified that ugliness with their rhetoric, and are now shocked to discover that the ugly had no equal measure of loyalty to the Conservative movement.  The second they got the opportunity to ditch the ideals in order to jump into bed with a candidate that gives them a straight shot of bigotry, nationalism, fear, and protectionism, no chaser… that’s what the base of the Republican party did.  The luminaries, the next generation of presidential hopefuls, by and large said that they’d rather be unprincipled and throw their lot in with a short-fingered vulgarian than be accused of helping a Democrat.

Think about that.

They hate liberals so much that they would rather be aligned with a fraudulent, bigoted narcissist than be seen to give an inch in the direction of those namby-pamby Democrats.

The Conservative values I can get behind include fairness, equality, freedom of speech, self-determination.  But I’m more passionate about everyone minding their own damn business and not being an asshole.  Who my neighbor loves, sleeps with, or marries has nothing to do with me.  It doesn’t change my life, it doesn’t affect my paycheck, it doesn’t alter the quality of my relationship, and is therefore none of my damn business.  A predator who is intent on rape doesn’t need permission to lurk in the ladies room.  You don’t send your kids to the bathroom alone, and you didn’t send them to the bathroom alone long before we were talking about transgendered rights.  Someone grappling with their experience in their body at that level should just be left the hell alone to find some peace, and if peeing next to me in the ladies room furthers that, then come on in.  While there may be a woman here or there who is cavalier about abortion, the vast majority of women come to a decision about pregnancy and their bodies through much grief and in incredibly difficult situations.  It is no one’s business but their own.  Unless you’re watching someone inflict harm on another living thing, mind your own damn business.  It isn’t that hard.  

If all those Republican blowhards in Congress (the Democrats are blowhards too) really wanted smaller government, they would write better laws.  They would write fewer laws.  They would let science and reason dictate policy (does pot really need to be a Class A drug?)  They would make publicly-funded campaigns a reality.  They would quit this nonsense where they spend more time fundraising than they do understanding the issues they are supposed to vote on.  Government agencies exist to understand and implement the laws written by Congress.  Write better laws, have better government.  Simplify the tax code, shrink the IRS.  But they don’t actually want the stuff they are squawking about, because if they wanted it, they could have it.  Easily.  Write some shit that makes sense and quit your bitching.  

So yes, you could count me in the number of Americans who would vote for a Conservative if said Conservative wasn’t an asshole bent on panty-legislating, denying climate change, ignoring the historical precedent that brings us regulatory bodies like the EPA or OSHA, and providing unlimited welfare for corporations.  If you find one of those, please let me know.  I’ve got a place for that Conservative right next to my unicorn.   

*Feminism.  I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again.  Feminism is the belief that men and woman should be treated equally under the law.  It is the defense of a woman’s self-determination, even if she self-determines to be a sex worker.  Or a home-maker.  Or a kick-ass lawyer.  Feminism is not an excuse to use the status of historical victim to bully others.  It is not the assertion that men and women are exactly and biologically the same, or that biology doesn’t matter to behavior.  It is not the belief that sex should be performed in birkenstocks with granola on the bed and then only if the man in question apologizes profusely for his patriarchal genitalia first.

Could I Be a Conservative?