Of course it happened to me too. More than once. In an assortment of ways, in various situations. A little over a year ago; in 2013; as a teenager; as a child.
White Americans tend to start from an ahistoric assumption that safety is the default. We live in a collective bubble defended by relatively unassailable boundaries, formidable military might, and national neighbors who more or less want to leave the 800 pound gorilla alone because they are safer nestled up next to it than at odds with it. Inside our daily lives, broadly speaking, we expect to be safe. When we interact with the police over speeding tickets or improper use of our turn signals, we don’t expect to be shaken down for a bribe, or a favor. We don’t expect to reach for our wallet and get shot as a result.
But safety is not the default for the vast majority of the world. Really, only white folk in Western nations have successfully created a bubble that more or less covers us and definitely doesn’t cover anyone else. Everywhere else, no one is safe from drones and carpet bombs and chemical attack and corruption and, of course, sexual violence in the form of harassment and rape.
None of which is mentioned to diminish the individual trauma. Just to point out that we need to think a little deeper about all of this and start asking some questions. What does it mean to feel safe? What are our rights? As an American, I believe that I have the right to bodily autonomy: control over where I go, what I do, who I do it with, and what happens after the fact. I have the right not to be wilfully, physically damaged by another person; and also the right to expect that others will conduct themselves in such a way as to ensure that the things under their control conspire to do no harm to my physical body. I have an unpredictable, anxious dog. I am responsible for ensuring that unpredictable, anxious dog is not in a position to inflict pain or damage on another with his teeth. That is my obligation, others have the right to expect me to conduct my affairs in such a way as to not endanger anyone.
Does everyone have the same right to safety, or bodily autonomy? If a worker exchanging her time and effort for money in the workplace as a secretary has the right to say no when her boss wants to stick his tongue down her throat, does a prostitute who is exchanging her time and effort for cash have the right to define what effort she is willing to engage in? It seems to me that the two situations are fundamentally the same.
If a white woman has the right to insist that her breasts not be touched by a coworker, does a black woman have the right to inspect that her co-workers won’t touch her hair? Is one’s head any less included in bodily autonomy than one’s breasts?
We should be careful with our outrage, lest we find ourselves with the same fundamental flaw that runs through every accused perpetrator of infractions both egregious and irresponsible: the inability or unwillingness to recognize the discrete, complete, equally valid experience embodied in every other human we come across. The wanting impulse that can only see the want in you, and not the want in the other.
This is why men feel different about women after they have a daughter. Why things make sense to them after fathering a girl that didn’t make sense to them before: a daughter is the first female they have ever met from whom they want nothing. She’s the first female in their life where there is nothing that she can do for them, and everything that they can do for her. A mother is there for warmth and comfort and sustenance, and that is the extent of it. She might as well be a microwave fronted by a teddy bear. A girlfriend is pleasure and support and someone who agrees that they are the most important person in the room. A wife is pleasure on demand and clean shirts and the mechanism which allows them to focus on what pleases them while ignoring the mundanities like keeping the house clean. A secretary is a coffee dispenser with a nice ass. But a daughter? A daughter is hopes and dreams unrelated to him, but that he has cause to absorb as his own. He looks out for her, has hopes for her, because she is not a bundle of things that can be done for him, she is a bundle of things she wants all by herself.
And suddenly, the notion that a man somewhere might treat his daughter in the same way he has treated all the other women in his life starts to mean something. A fourteen year old in a short skirt isn’t a temptation he’s going to have to wait four years to oogle, she’s his girl in a few years. She’s a kid who plays with lipstick and then goes home to watch Frozen for the millionth time, because she’s a kid.
So yes, #metoo. But you know what else is also #metoo? Looking at someone and ruthlessly preserving my obliviousness to the fact that they are a whole and complete person with a perspective, and reasons, and a history, and a story, and wants that are completely foreign to me yet still as valid and reasonable as my own.
What allows Al Frankin to forcibly kiss someone, or to pose for a photo with a sleeping woman’s breasts in his hands, or to put his hand on a stranger’s bottom, is that he isn’t coming to the exchange with the understanding that her desires are equal to his, that she as as much right to control what happens in her mouth as he does, that she is whole and complete and he has no right to inflict consequences on her without her participation or consent. She is the punchline, the object, the manifestation of his desire to be approved, or to feel strong, or whatever. She isn’t as human as he is, at least at that moment his mind. He is the good guy, the hero of the story. She is a prop.
Is the flaw as deep with Frankin as with someone like Roy Moore, or Brock Turner, or Bill Clinton, or Donald Trump? Probably not. But it is a flaw we all possess, this working assumption that our experience is the only one that matters. It is the belief behind every backstabber, every bully, every liar, every con job, every corporate raider, every bank executive behind a massive foreclosure operation, every abuser, every racist… the list is endless.
I’ve heard it said that compassion begins when we start to recognize that everyone we meet is attempting to move towards comfort and away from pain. There is something equally fundamental in Don Miguel Ruiz’s agreement to take nothing personally. Restated, it isn’t about you. Nothing is about you. The world and the people in it are not there to serve your desires.
No one has a greater right to safety than another, not by race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, belief system, education, ability, creed, or experience. Without exception, everyone should be able to walk through the world in complete control over what happens to and with their bodies. We can talk about toxic masculinity, sure. But let’s also talk about toxic self-absorption, and the conviction that everyone else’s role in the world is to serve your immediate desire. Let’s talk about the fatal conviction that, no matter the room you stand in, you are the most important person in that room. Strip every individual in a society of the conviction that nothing matters quite so much as what they desire in any given moment, and the world would change in an instant. And for the better.
Ladies, we might be entering a new, horrifying era in history. I’d like you to close your eyes and visualize this terrifying world in which men might be forced to police themselves in the workplace. Imagine a world in which men might have to worry about how they are perceived. All the time. In every situation they find themselves in. Wouldn’t it be horrible if men had to live with the constant paranoia that something they say or do might be taken the wrong way?
Can you imagine having the entirety of your professional reputation entirely dependent on how other people see you? Can you imagine having to be that careful, all of the time? What if a gesture is misunderstood? What if the tone doesn’t come through correctly in the e-mail? What if that friendly smile comes across as a leer? What if that stray pat on the bottom is perceived as inappropriate?
No one should have to live in this level of fear, and we’re on the verge of thrusting an entire gender into a future of anxiety, manic self-policing, and indigestion. It is a tragedy, I tell you. An utter and complete tragedy. I don’t know how men could possibly be expected to function under these conditions. Something must be done. Forthwith. Without further hesitation.
First, let’s just go with the part where I’m going to be on the irregular blogging schedule indefinitely. Things with dad are still wobbly, it is what it is.
But I want to talk about debt. Now, I’m sure I’m late to the game. I can’t be the first person to come to some realizations. Some of this comes from recent career events that have me working in and around financial stuff. (I wanted to be a paid author – I write, and I get paid. It’s kinda worked out, just not how I expected.) Some of it comes from trying to get my own checkbook in order. Some of it comes from reading random financial books and blog posts, and watching random videos.
Here’s the deal with debt.
The banking industry doesn’t care about the principle. Let’s take your mortgage. Say you owe $100,000 on your house, and you’re paying 5% interest. The lender doesn’t care that much about getting the $100k back. That’s chump change to them. What they want is that 5%. You go to corner bank, put in your loan application, and then their people look at all your paperwork. What they want to know is if they’re going to get that little 5% over the next 30 years. Because that little 5% is going to add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Once they’ve given you that mortgage, they turn around and sell it. Because there are a LOT of people who want to buy the right to collect that 5% over the next 30 years. Fannie and Freddie do a lot of the buying. They take all of the little loans that they buy and package them up and sell those to wall street, so investors can buy into a piece of the action.
They aren’t buying and selling the $100,000 that you owe, they are buying and selling the 5%.
If you can’t make your payments anymore and your loan becomes a “non-performing loan,” it becomes toxic to the balance sheet of whoever holds that loan. So they sell it to companies who buy the loan. It’s now called a note. Companies will happily sell that note for much less than the balance, and another company will happily buy it, because even if they come to an arrangement with you where your principal is reduced, they can still make money because they’re still collecting interest on whatever agreement you come to.
Seriously. Say you know you owe that $100,000 to the bank, but you aren’t making your payments for whatever reason. The bank might sell the right to collect that debt to a new company for $50,000. That new company now can come to you, negotiate your balance down to $75,000 with a reduced payment. You’re feeling good because you now owe $25k less and your payment has gone down. The company is feeling good because you’re back on track to pay them $25k more than they paid for your debt, plus the interest terms you’ve just agreed to.
It’s the interest that matters. And here’s why.
When you buy something with cash, it is an even exchange. The dollar is more or less equal to the item you’ve just purchased. If I go to Marshall’s and buy makeup brushes, I’m paying for the goods, the convenience of the store front, and the cost of the employees. The margins aren’t particularly great on any one item. There’s enough that it keeps them in business, but Marshall’s has to put a lot of energy into it. They have to spend most of that $1.00 just to have the thing I want in place at the time I want it. Not a whole lot of new wealth is generated that way.
Debt, on the other hand, is lucrative. Really lucrative. Your debt, specifically.
In the past 20/30 years, in real terms wages haven’t gone up all that much. But we keep thinking things will get better, so to keep up with the Jones’s, we whip out the credit cards… Those mofos should be ashamed of themselves.
The systems designed by the people with money are designed to keep funneling money upwards towards those same people. They do it by reducing taxes on the kinds of incomes that generally only the super wealthy get (capital gains and the like) such that Mitt Romney only pays something like 15% in tax and the rest of us pay something like 30%. And if they aren’t getting enough by moving money up the wealth hierarchy through ridiculous tax systems, the entire apparatus is geared towards driving your debt.
The 24 hour news cycle? Intended to up your anxiety because anxious people find security in trading money, which is intangible on some deep, prehistoric level, for things. Commercials. Intended to drive your spending. It’s all designed to drive your spending, because the small cog of your spending moves goods around the world, and the big cog of your debt moves wealth out of your pocket and into the pockets of the already wealthy.
This is one of the reasons why the powers that be are so vehemently against some of the regulations put in place by the U.S. Government – because that gets in the way of their ability to generate more debt by raising the credit standards for issuing debt, for a start. The whole mortgage crisis had more to do with the inability to collect the interest payments than it did the outlay of initial cash that went into the purchase of all of those homes. That initial money is more or less solid, because it goes back to the 1 for 1 exchange of cash for a real thing. $100,000 in initial purchase price is land and sticks and bricks. It’s not that different than the purchase of a pair of shoes at Marshalls. That dollar is a real thing, represented by leather and buckles and the like.
My argument isn’t that everyone should avoid debt… That isn’t a practical stance. But I would propose that understanding what’s going on is important. One book I’ve read suggests that the only debt you should have is the kind of debt that has an asset attached to it. At least a home has the hope of appreciating.
The argument also isn’t that all bankers are evil. Most people most of the time are just looking after what they understand as their own best interest. That’s true of me, it’s true of bankers, it’s true of pretty much everyone you meet. It isn’t personal, it isn’t evil. But. From a stance of neutrality, I can not be mad at them for their desire to generate more wealth for themselves, and still recognize that it is a system that is designed to suck my resources out of my pocket and into the pocket of someone who already has plenty ‘nough.
Just something to think about.
The front door to the hospital is the gateway to an alternative reality. The glass doors slide open silently, you step across the threshold, and it is suddenly okay to make your dinner out of a grilled cheese sandwich – the kind you got as a child, white bread and american cheese, not the kind they make in gourmet food trucks with brie and pears and bacon – and onion rings.
The woman who is supposed to guide me to my father’s room is having an extended conversation with a nurse about her pregnancy and if you can predict the sex of the child by how a woman is carrying the pregnancy. I’ve been driving for two hours, so I decide to find the bathroom. While I’m washing my hands, my stepmother texts me the room. When I exit the bathroom, they are still talking about the nurse’s pregnancy.
This hospital has a sign out front claiming that it is in the top 100 best hospitals in the country. It isn’t as nice as the hospital mom died in. Dad’s room is tiny. It has one of those ubiquitous hospital chairs in it, the kind designed for helpless family members to occupy in the interminable hours between visits from the Doctor, who maybe this time will tell you what’s really going on or what to expect. You can sleep in a chair like this, if you must. But this chair that is expected to serve as home-away-from-home, a bulwark against the exhaustion, has to be re-arranged every time dad has to go to the bathroom.
Which is frequently.
He talks for six hours straight. He’s stuck in one of those experiments where some disproportionate scientist inserts a probe into a frog’s brain to see which nerve makes that first toe twitch. Except now we’re poking at emotional abscesses in his brain to pinpoint exactly which of those pustules will erupt in which form of pain and paranoia. There is one for my mother, one for his sense of failure, one for his grandiose understanding of himself. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are mentioned frequently. He grins maniacally when they bring him his dinner and he announces that he’s getting the Trump treatment. There are algorithms, and numbers, and codes. He had a mission, but he couldn’t keep his goddamn mouth shut, so he blew it.
It isn’t her fault and it isn’t your fault, I’ll just have to reset. We’ll go back 7 minutes and all it will cost is putting her in a box and making her suffer. But this is the last time. Because I’m the real God, the absolute final God, and I had to go back and find the first Pope.
He hits me. Twice. And this is when I realize it is an alternate reality, one in which your father can punch you in the arm as hard as he is physically able, and you don’t take it personally. I mean, you keep your arm out of punching distance after that, let’s be honest. But in this reality, when your father calls you fat and ugly to your face, a shithead and a dumbfuck… you just sort of agree.
He is nothing but id and these soft spots in his emotional landscape. Failure comes up again and again. “I’m a failure,” he tells me. “Me, me, me, me, me, me…” until I wonder if he’s going to find another word. I think I might be a trigger. After all, I was the one who forced him to tell my mother that he’d been cheating on her. Well, forced… I told him either he could tell her or I could tell her and he really didn’t want me to be the one to do it. At the time, he told my mom that I’d arranged the whole thing because I like being at the center of the drama. I know he’s never really forgiven me.
I’d give my left nut to be able to go back in time and cheat on your mother.
He doesn’t have to go back in time – that’s what he did. I don’t tell him that his nuts are safe. He’s too likely to pull up his hospital gown and show them to me. He grabs two nurses by the breast, and that’s not even the worst of it.
One of his nurses is black. And then he does it.
I’ve heard the word before. Of course I can. There are loads of ways to say it. My elderly uncles, twenty years ago, casually. Just one word among many. In songs defiantly, or affectionately. From my friend who is allowed to use it when she talks about her ex husband because she’s black. I’ve never heard it spat with the contempt, the vicious intent behind it, at least not until my father hurls it at his nurse.
Ice Cube, while on Bill Mahr’s show last week called it a tool, a knife. I believed him in the way you believe someone with expertise you don’t have. The mechanic tells you that your fuel gasket is leaking and you believe him. I believe Ice Cube differently today than I did last week. Now I know why it is entirely fair when a black woman says she can’t trust white people. This reason is different from her reason, but it is a reason nevertheless.
My imperfect father wouldn’t be called “woke” in his sane life, but he’s probably better than most. My life is populated with black friends, they’ve been in his house, eaten at his table, and he’s never given a hint of harboring racial animosity.
And yet. Lurking in my father’s id, right next door to the groping of unwilling nurses, is the knife.
There’s nothing comparable. I can’t comfort myself by thinking that a black man in the same position might holler cracker with the same vitriol. It isn’t the same. In a white man’s mouth, the word is a threat. Even for my diminished, elderly father, delirious out of his mind, it is a threat of rape, of lynching, of dismemberment and pain. In a hospital setting, he’d be cold-clocked and on his ass before the threat was followed through, but does it matter?
The nursing staff assures me that it’s alright. They hear this kind of thing all the time. But how does frequency make it more alright? This malignancy is unmistakably there in my father’s id, and this woman has had to bear it time and time again, if not from him than from other white people.
Is it in my id? If my frontal lobe shuts down and all I’m left with is the raging need to maim anyone who crosses me with whatever weapons I have near, is this knife close enough in my psyche to be the thing I reach for? And why would you ever trust a white person again, knowing that there’s a reasonable chance that, somewhere lurking in their mind is a knife that they keep just for you?
On the drive home, I talk to a friend who is a psychiatric nurse. He suspects we’re dealing with delirium. It is a symptom more than a disease, it pops up around urinary tract infections, sepsis, unpredictable shifts in medication. All three factors are present and accounted for in my father right now.
Today, he is back to algorithms, logarithms, and this mission for the Pope that only he can see through.
It seems that a break is required from the blog site here and there. Or maybe I just ran out of things to say. I’m on twitter compulsively, like it is a novel and I’m about to find out what happens next. Here, not so much.
Maybe it is the commentary… I’m just scared and sad. For all of us. What else is there to say?
Perhaps it is time to turn my attention to other topics. Not because I’m not concerned or paying attention or wishing desperately that we could all just be reasonable and handle what must be handled honestly, cleanly, and without violence.
Our institutions matter. Our Constitution matters.
No, our system of Government isn’t perfect. But point me to a better one. Okay, maybe we could vote differently, or set up representation in a way that made more sense. Nevertheless, the Constitution is there to protect everyone, in recognition of a democracy peopled by the feisty, the iconoclasts, the oddballs, the convicted.
So its understanding of who constitutes everyone has rightly expanded, the truth remains: America was colonized by rabble-rousers, risk-takers, greedy mofo’s who didn’t like rules, and petty empire-builders. To paraphrase: England didn’t send us its best. England sent criminals and dissidents, those who refused to bend to the status quo, hardliners, greedy bastards, outcasts, and the occasional rapist. And for that motley crew to peacefully co-exist, we all had to agree to some baseline propositions. Namely, you do you, and I’ll do me, and instead of killing each other over a dispute, we’re going to build this system of laws and courts that ultimately allows society to function in a way that enables capitalism.
And so it went with three branches of government, equal in power, checking and balancing itself out. Disagreeing parties grappling over power in proscribed ways to ensure that, when the tables turned, the disadvantaged could trust the advantaged to respect the institutions. All of it based in a common understanding of reality: we are always going to disagree. There will always be tension between chaos and order. A pluralistic society is a nightmare to maintain peacefully, and yet we do it because we like the outcome of all of this more-or-less peaceful coexistence. We aren’t tolerant because we are good, we are tolerant because we need others to give us the same courtesy we are extending by minding our own damn business.
We don’t have to like how others use their freedom. Football players can protest any way they see fit. Barbie pundits can complain about how said protest is carried out. The pundit is allowed to look stupid defending her right to criticize how someone else is executing their right to free speech by claiming her right to free speech. The protest goes on indifferent to opinion, because the opinion is breath and vibration and is gone, while the law remains.
We can wish to convert the whole country to a single belief system and to justify laws based on those beliefs. But we can’t, and we should be grateful. Because my inability to force everyone to be strictly rational about everything means that the local Christian Scientists couldn’t deny my mother medical care in the face of cancer. And I’ll happily bow to the Constitution limiting my right to enforce my belief system on others because it equally denies the Christian Scientists the ability to dictate my life according to their beliefs.
We can want a Supreme Court that rules according to our religious beliefs. (How is a Christian wanting a Supreme Court to uphold religiously-motivated laws any different than a Muslim wanting a legal system that enforces Sharia law?) But the risk to the system as a whole to throw a temper tantrum about the rules not breaking your way this time ignores the fact that the system means the rules will break to your preference in another way, at some other time… It is shortsighted and jeopardizes the one thing that makes a pluralistic society work: the agreement to play one game according to one set of rules. We aren’t going to get a monolithic society, so chucking the ground rules is beyond dangerous. You might as well replace the foundation of your house with wonder-bread.
There will be consequences. This backlash ultimately won’t be partisan, it won’t skip the Fox News crowd… What we are dealing with here isn’t the second coming of the Third Reich, it is the redux of the French Revolution. The peasants are rising, some initially called by seductive falsehoods (it is all someone else’s fault), but eventually the entire political spectrum will feel this truth: there are more of us than there are of them.
We can disagree about substance. That’s what we do in America. But we used to play by impartial ground rules set up in the Constitution, fleshed out in the Bill of Rights, and strengthened by decorum, norms, and 200 years of legislation. Not out of the goodness of our hearts, but in the recognition that anything I can do to you, you can do to me when the balance of power shifts.
The power will shift. If the GOP is smart, it will start reigning itself in, re-asserting the rules for itself that it wishes the Dems to abide by, and valuing the rules of the game to the same degree they seem determined to win the game.
American Democracy is the game. If one side wins, the game ends. Don’t forget: Game over isn’t a good outcome. For anyone.
This is bound to be unpopular, and I’ll start by admitting that I don’t have any answers.
Deportation. The past few weeks have been ugly when it comes to the question of immigrants, visa holders, and brown folk trying to move forward with any plans that involve the United States of America. Racial profiling is the obvious means for seeking out immigrants. You might miss some Aryan specimens here illegally, but the bulk of the people leaving home these days aren’t escaping a famine in Ireland. The trouble is in Somalia or Syria or el Salvador. And most of the people from Somalia or Syria, or el Salvador aren’t blond and blue-eyed.
As a country, we’ve proven that we can’t be trusted to make good decisions based on the color of someone’s skin. I’m not for it.
And yet. Deportations aren’t new. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were deporting people under Obama, and as far as I know, the process hasn’t changed that much. Nogales, Mexico sees a lot of the deported and what happens when ICE pushes someone across the border isn’t pretty. Nogales is full of people seeking to exploit the vulnerable, and the recently-deported are vulnerable. Women and children delivered to human traffickers, men with no options and plenty of reason to embark in some dubious scam to get quick money to finance a return home, whether north or south of the border. The story doesn’t end well. It didn’t end well under Obama either.
Yet few showed up at the airports, even fewer took to the streets. For the deported, there can’t be that much difference in the experience of deportation from one President to the other. But what has changed?
Style. Obama did it without openly demonizing brown people. He did it quietly, with no fanfare. One wonders if he had glorified his deportations more, had more aggressive rhetoric, insisted that we use ACA instead of Obamacare to refer to a law that helped millions… would those disaffected bubble-dwellers in rural white enclaves have loved him better? (If you can spend a whole day and only interact with people who look like you, go to your church, and watch the same TV shows as you, you are living in a bubble.)
But I digress.
Drones. Raids. Civilians killed. ISIS. Guantanamo. Poverty. Hunger. Water. DAPL. Lobbyists. Wall Street.
Obama put a measured, careful face on all of the above. And I’m not categorically attacking or defending that list. Life is muddy and complicated. Global politics don’t have much to offer purists or ideologues. Reality intrudes.
The left complains that Obama didn’t do enough on one hand, and too much on the other. He already expanded Presidential power in a way that is terrifying if you don’t trust the President.
Just ask Fox news.
If you agree with the man in the oval office, the Presidential powers aren’t expansive enough.
Just ask Fox news.
Here is the problem. The rational among us need to take ownership of our tribalism and quit with the positioning that these things are only okay if we are doing them. The standard must be that we aren’t going to do what we would be outraged if our opponents did. Power grab in North Carolina. Gerrymandering. Muzzling free speech. We must not carry on with positions that depend on style, not substance.
Don’t get me wrong. 45 is terrifying in both style and substance. And style does matter. How you shake hands with a foreign leader matters. Decorum matters. Appearing to take things seriously matters.
But it isn’t more important than substance. In substance, we must believe what we believe, even when those principles deliver results we aren’t fond of. This goes across the board. If private e-mail servers are disqualifying for one side, then disqualify everyone who uses one. If botched military action justifies years and years of expensive hearings, then every botched military action should be treated the same. If connections to Wall Street are distasteful, then anyone who has connections to Wall Street should be held to the same standard.
Across the board, just don’t let style blind you to substance. The left liked Obama’s style, and he spent 8 years relatively untroubled by backlash from the left. Progressives don’t like Trump’s style, and the protests follow. Trump’s die-hard voters love his style, and are blinded to the ways that he is covering for Republicans seeking to destroy every program that makes life better for a white man with no college degree.
Watch the substance.