Saturday, September 17, 2016

Stand Up for Truth

I am fascinated by the current discussion--which description may be giving the participants greater honor than their words deserve--about athletes "taking a knee" during the playing of the national anthem. Though the great emotional charge of black citizens killed by police transfers easily to any event even loosely connected to it, that intensity is not what keeps my attention.

I am already convinced that race relations in our country require continued, sustained attention. I am already convinced that I am not competent to comment on the employer-employee relationship between athletes and their management (and the restrictions that may be there).

I keep chewing on the question of whether it is ultimately good for Megan Rapinoe, Colin Kaepernick, and their colleagues to express social protest in this way. Is their expression "disrespectful"? And, if so, what should I make of it?

Those following the story will be familiar with the response of--to name one thoughtful and outspoken commentator--Bill O'Reilly, which points out flaws in Kaepernick's protest. Most of the same observers will also be familiar with the response of Hrafnkell Haraldsson, which furthers the discussion by suggesting flaws in O'Reilly's argument.

I do not know whether Kaepernick's action was "disrespectful." I do suspect that this judgment arises entirely from personal opinion rather than arguable grounds. As for the goodness of the gesture, I am reminded of some words of John Stuart Mill, whose philosophical work On Liberty seems to resonate with the very ideals for which the American flag stands. He wrote:

"The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error" (On Liberty, Chapter 2, Leonardo's kindle version location 289).

Kaepernick's action will serve, I hope, to keep up the conversation about race relations in our country. It will also spark thoughtful conversations about the right ways and proper fora in which to protest: conversations that will ring in high school locker rooms, living rooms, and perhaps even on morning news shows. Some may decide kneeling during the national anthem is disrespectful; some may decide not to condemn it, but never to do it; some may be challenged to consider what problem might trouble them so deeply that the act would be worth the public scorn. And all those conversations, all those decisions, will touch on the matter of freedom, giving us a "clearer perception and livelier impression of truth."

Thank you, Mr. Kaepernick, Ms. Rapinoe, and so many others, for driving us to consider the issues that really matter.

~ emrys

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Certainty Craving Disorder

Now the commentators (not the journalists, I think--there is a distinction) are calling for both candidates to publicize their medical records.

Let's set aside for a moment (in a move similar to suspension of disbelief) that there is no law that in order to run for president a candidate must publicize his or her medical records.

What are the commentators looking for? When they blame imaginary "voters who want to know," what are they accusing voters (like me) of wanting? What information would help me to make a better (distinguish, please, from the vacuous "more informed") decision on election day?

Perhaps if I knew that one candidate had suffered pneumonia four times in the last fifteen years, I would deduce . . . what? Perhaps if I knew that one candidate was taking medication for high blood pressure (but that the numbers were presently "under control"), I would deduce . . . what?

I expect that, with medical records in hand, the commentators will parade before us medical experts (suitably vetted to deem the opposing candidate's cholesterol to be nearly fatal), and then it will fall to us not only to judge the candidate's positions on issues but also to judge their physical fitness for the next four-year term. As if I didn't have enough filtering to do already.

I can't wait until Congress passes a law requiring candidates to reveal the contents of their genome--I will be able to make a much better decision, then!

Privacy issues aside (see line 2 above), this frenzy grows out of an assumption that medical history is an accurate predictor of near-future vitality. This assumption is false. While individuals are wise to chart a life course based on the general trends of their medical history, an electorate that guesses whether its candidate will become physiologically unable to govern sometime in the next four years is foolish. There is no way that we can meaningfully predict the future health of our candidates, no matter how much medical information we have.

Your job, dear voter: Ignore it. Ignore the frenzy, attend to the issues, listen to the debates.

If you really are concerned about the candidates' physical durability; if you really do fear that your vote might go to someone doomed to the grave in the next four years; if you want to make sure that good governance will go uninterrupted through the next term; then make sure you vote for a good vice-presidential candidate.

~ emrys

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Clarifying Tool

Sometimes a little help to cut through the verbal clutter is in order. I found this quiz, which calls for me to get clear on my stance on issues first, helpful in aligning my issue choices with a presidential candidate:

Still much more reading to do, but this helps narrow the field a bit.

I'm hoping I can find a similar site for congressional candidates . . . though that may be too much to ask (given the number of candidates). We'll see.

~ emrys

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Frozen and Empty

Jessica Valenti's Sex Object: A Memoir (2016, HarperCollins): heartbreaking. Valenti recounts a harrowing, life-spanning series of encounters in which she is abused, depersonalized, and objectified. Even if her case is extreme, anyone in twenty-first-century American culture must encounter it with horror. A grotesque cavalcade of perverts, miscreants, aggressive boyfriends, and silent watchers--many of whom qualify as "normal people"--leaves the author of Sex Object empty except for fear, and frozen before the possibility of genuine love.

The world around Valenti is inexorably evil. That evil devours the souls of girls and women by making their bodies the expendable tools of self-satisfaction. The ubiquity of the darkness makes every relationship part of the spirit-killing trap: "If we have no place to go where we can escape that reaction to our bodies, where it is that we're not forced? The idea that these crimes are escapable is the blind optimism of men who don't understand what it means to live in a body that attracts a particular kind of attention with magnetic force" (kindle location 898).

I lived some of my life on the other side of this shadow, these crimes. I helped, over many years of my life, to perpetuate the objectification of girls and women with my own beliefs and actions. It has taken me a long time to realize the dark truth of Valenti's experience--which I'm sure is the experience of many more women than we can guess.

I am also struck with horror at the possibilities opened up by Sex Object for my children--a young girl and a young boy. I am terrified by the prospect that either of my children--and, increasingly, any of the children around me--might have to endure even a slight fraction of what Valenti has endured. My daughter could be a victim like Valenti; my son could be a perpetrator like so many she describes. I am now sitting with the question of how to illumine the darkness around us.

The end of Sex Object surprised me with its abruptness. I did not expect Valenti to end with a sure-fire prescription for change. I was not sure even to hope for a list of suggestions. I did expect encouragement, perhaps a plea, perhaps even a direct chastisement (consonant with the tone of the book) to fight for change: a "dear reader" challenge. Perhaps its subtitle, A Memoir, was supposed to exempt it from those expectations. Or, perhaps the book was intended to leave us in a dark and doubtful place.

Or perhaps I tend to look too much for hope. I heard almost none in Sex Object. The "endnotes," a profane litany of evil responses sent to Valenti's past work, provided the frost on a frozen and empty vessel. In my aching search for hope, I observed two things about the narrative of Sex Object.

First, I did not read about any positive community around Valenti. Family, friends, teachers, colleagues--and of course boyfriends--were sources of fear. If positive, supportive, consistent voices might have done something--no matter how small--to counter the vicious violence of her sexualized world, Valenti was deprived of that possibility.

Second, the seeming antidote to love's destruction--genuine, tender care and love--does not work quickly or readily. Valenti writes about encountering kindness after years of perversion: "Being treated nicely felt wrong somehow, as if we were acting out what a relationship should be rather than being in it" (location 1334). As I read along and got invested in Valenti's story, this stuck in me as an excruciating conundrum: to be so twisted by evil as to be unable to recognize good. (It reminds me of Jesus' blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.) Recovery from objectification must then be a long road--perhaps too long a road for this book to trace.

~ emrys

Friday, September 09, 2016

Things That Matter

The few times that I have been exposed to network news yielded the even fewer times that I have heard the commentary of Charles Krauthammer. But those few times have made me think more deeply about the topics at hand. So I borrowed my mom's copy of Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes, and Politics by Krauthammer (Crown Forum (Penguin Random House), 2013).

Krauthammer's duo of complimentary gifts is witty concision and brilliant incision. He cuts to the quick, as a physician of ideas and therapist of words, to find the core and source of the issue at hand. And though his book touches on various and sundry topics--science, ethics, and baseball for instance--the "driver of history" is, for Krauthammer, politics.

He is a dedicated, wise, and articulate conservative. "Conservative" here refers not to a sweeping desire to keep things the same, but holding fast the twin anchors of individual liberty and limited government. Krauthammer's conservatism draws from his pen--ever more starkly evident in this book as the pages turn--stinging criticism of the Democratic party and American Liberalism, especially the kind he sees in the Obama administration. (Given Krauthammer's clear capacity in the book to praise strong individuals, I am surprised at the lack of support for the Bush presidencies. Perhaps he did that more in other venues.)

Krauthammer's articulate demarcation of the boundaries and ideals of conservatism and liberalism have forced me to examine my own values. I don't know whether to call myself a liberal or a conservative (socially, politically, or academically). But now I must wrestle with Krauthammer's compelling arguments. They are arguments which, like all the best arguments, call attention as much to their premises as to their conclusions. And just as the assertion that "politics is the driver of history" is an article of faith, liberty as greatest good and American exceptionalism (historical and existential) are articles of faith. What do I believe about human liberty, and a nation's role with respect to liberty? Is the United States of America exceptional in a meaningful sense? What is the character of its exception? And how does that shape my actions as a citizen?

Most importantly for my current position in the global scene: For whom do I vote in November?

I am weighing a thought that occurred to me as I finished the last essay in Things That Matter: perhaps a good (or the best?) criterion I can use as a voter is not whether I agree with all the policy and personality traits of a candidate. Perhaps a better, or more fundamental, criterion is whether a candidate believes the way I do about what America is supposed to be.

These are beginning thoughts. More to come, I'm sure.

~ emrys

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Sharpening Your Roots

The September 2016 issue of The Atlantic (page 20) has a vignette about "Canada's ax-hurling renaissance": Backyard Axe Throwing Leagues. Besides the obvious genetic attraction I experienced reading the article, I was struck by the League's founder's description of its mission: "to show people the power of being good to each other, using the axe as a tool to build community inspired by our backyard roots."

"The power of being good to each other." I'm a fan of that. Ditto for building community.

Reading further into the article, however, I noticed a theme in the monikers and terminology used by this community. Ax-hurler nicknames seemed to run along the lines of "Arm" and "Killface." The attraction of ax-hurling amounted to "murdering a wood target for an hour" for catharsis. Montreal's Rage Axe Throwing "promises a violently good time."

Be good to each other . . . by venting rage and murder. Strange.

Perhaps these contradictory descriptions arise from ax-hurling's origins in an inarticulate "primal man," honored in the League's oath: "Remember primal man / who only had his hands / who forged in fire and steel / the tools to kill his meal." "Primal man" here refers back to the inspiration for the oath, Conan the Barbarian.

God help us if our model for community is the golden age of Conan.

And, while I'm wondering on this phenomenon: What does "our backyard roots" mean?

~ emrys