Category: opinion (Page 1 of 12)

The Corruption of Identity Politics: Don’t Allow Politicians to Manipulate us for Power

From top left to bottom right: Franklin Leonard, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi.

Last week I watched a panel discussion between Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, hosted by the National Book Foundation and moderated by Franklin Leonard on “A New Black Politics?” In the course of their discussion (which you should watch in the link provided), Franklin Leonard and Ibram X. Kendi broached the topic of identity politics. I was struck by something said by Keenanga-Yamahtta Taylor starting around the 31 minute mark:

“Identity politics as a framework that was coined by the women of the Combahee River Collective in their 1977 statement was about politics. It wasn’t just about identity. The premise was that because the vast majority of black women were at the bottom of society, that they had a particular political viewpoint that made them empathic towards the struggles of other people on the bottom. They saw themselves in solidarity with colored women around the world. That was the basis of their politics. So, it wasn’t just identity unto itself. It was their identification as black women who were particularly oppressed, particularly exploited, that gave them a particular political insight. I think that that has obviously gotten lost, where people think that identity alone is enough to conjure a political connection.”

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “The New Black Politics?”

The line that I bolded and italicized struck me particularly hard, perhaps because this week I’ve also been reading deep dive articles on toxic masculinity over at Jezebel. This article, in particular, discusses how the language and beliefs of Men’s Rights Activists (those who feel that their identity as men is being infringed on by feminism) and the far right movement, which has now evolved past the Tea Party to things like Qanon, have steadily entered mainstream politics.

Keeanga’s discussion of identity politics and the articles at Jezebel made me think about power structures, and how over and over again we see those structures reinforced by exploiting our innate sense of identity–or the promise that you’ll be included in upper end of the social hierarchy by betraying your identity, thereby maintaining the status quo.

What I think we’ve seen recently (although this is hardly a new phenomenon–it’s just become less subtle over time) is the adoption of racist and sexist rhetoric by mainstream politicians in order to hold onto power. The dog whistles of Trump, the hiding behind “being a mother” for Amy Coney Barrett, or the questionable decision-making of Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron in the Breonna Taylor case. In each of these cases, we see explicit or implicit racism and sexism (or both) as a way to gain or hold onto power.

We’re hard-wired to want power, as power essentially guarantees our safety. When we were hunter/gatherers living in small groups that was simple. In order to survive, we only had to prove ourselves more powerful than the other group that might be hunting and gathering on the same tract of land. Now, in a society where we’ve become so connected that we can’t realistically conceive of the number of other people we’re connected with, we seek to return to those small groups. Those who covet power exploit that need for their own gain.

And I think that’s what important to remember–the people using identity politics as part of their platform have no actual interest in those identities. To them, identity is a means to an end. We’re the ones that hold onto whatever our identities are so hard that they can become weapons. This means that we also have the power to change the narrative and no longer allow disingenuous politicians to use identity for their own gain.

As Keeanga notes, there are times when identify is important to the physical and spiritual survival of a group. That’s not a political issue–it’s a human one. For the benefit of everyone, we shouldn’t lose sight of that.

My Favorite Stories: Heart Transplant

A dramatic, gender-swapped reenactment of my reading this story for the first time.

I don’t remember when I first read Heart Transplant by Ray Bradbury. I remember buying the short story collection that contains it. There was a book sale at my local library in South Buffalo, and I grabbed it because I had read a story from The Martian Chronicles as part of a writer’s group I was in at the time, so I recognized Bradbury’s name. Little did I know that the collection I bought, One More for the Road, would make me a lifelong Bradbury fan.

Bradbury built his brand on bottled nostalgia. His words are able to conjure images of magic, of subtle emotion, of horror, of awe. Heart Transplant is a story that combines all of these things into a perfect short story–contained, lyrical, and deep. I won’t try to dissect the technical aspects of the story. What’s the point if it makes me feel something so strongly? Instead, here are the reasons why I love it.

Begins in Media Res

The first line of the story is dialogue: “Would I what?”

It’s said by a man, kept generic (at least I believe) for the reader to become. We’re immediately sucked in–we want to know what he’s referencing.

Bradbury draws it out. Not a lot, just enough to get you to lean more closely, like someone that wants to tell you a secret. Meanwhile, he’s setting the tone with his descriptions, “…holding his hand, but staring rather than looking at that ceiling, as if there were something there that she was trying to see.”

And then he reveals the thrust of the story.

An Imaginative, Emotional Plot

“… if you could fall in love with your wife again… would you?”

Ah, so they’re lovers. But one of them is wondering whether or not it’s possible to feel like she did for her husband before. We can tell quickly that she’s trying to convince herself that it’s possible, while the man is resistant to the idea. She talks of how her husband has acted “better” lately. The man, hesitant to make her feel guilty in any way, says that his wife has, too. We don’t know right away, but that’s a lie.

Later, she explains her plan, “… what if, just before we go to sleep, what if we made a kind of mutual wish, me for you, you for me?”

After an initial reaction of disbelief and mild mocking, he agrees. He loves this woman enough to make a wish that she were with someone else, all because he knows that is where her true happiness is. Aside from that, he can see the writing on the wall. His wish doesn’t matter. She’s already gone. How can he not let her go?

The Language

Since I first read the story all those years ago, this has been my favorite passage:

He awoke for no reason except that he had had a dream that the earth had shrugged, or an earthquake had happened ten thousand miles away that no one felt, or that there had been a second Annunciation but everyone was deaf, or perhaps it was only that the moon had come into the room during the night and changed the shape of the room and changed the looks on their faces and the flesh on their bones and now had stopped so abruptly that the quick silence had stirred his eyes wide. In the moment of opening, he knew the streets were dry, there had been no rain. Only, perhaps, some sort of crying.

Ray Bradbury, heart transplant

This description, in its uncertainty, in its metaphor, places me within the man’s emotions. I understand him in this moment. How the world is different now than when he closed his eyes, but in an abstract way. A way that’s monumental, but only for him. The map of his heart has changed without his wanting it to and he’s the only person that knows. It’s heartbreaking.

The Meaning

The story feels fantastical. It’s about wishes, after all, and as far as the woman is concerned hers came true. The man says his did, too, but it’s a lie. It was always a lie. Because he loves her.

“Because both of us believed,” he said, quietly. “I wished very hard, for you.”

Ray bradbury, heart transplant

At the end, when his lover leaves to go back to her husband, excited to feel new again, the man stays behind. He assured her that he would call his wife right after she left, that her wish for him had also come true. Instead, he sacrifices his happiness in service of hers.

And he turned and lay back down in the bed and put one hand out to touch that empty pillow there.

Ray bradbury, heart transplant

It’s clear that the woman believes him. Not because he’s convincing in his lies, but because she needs to believe him in order to hold onto her newfound happiness.

***

To me, the story is a perfect vignette. In only 2,000 words (if that) Bradbury manages to capture high emotion, long history, and uncertain future. Those types of heights are what I strive for in my own writing. With enough practice, and enough re-reads of Bradbury, maybe one day I’ll reach them.

Building on our Political Foundations

“Capitol Hill fox, National Mall” by Lorie Shaull is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I’m no political junkie or pundit, but I have had a more-than-passing interest in politics for a long time. My earliest political memory is going to vote for Bill Clinton with my mother when I was 9 years old. My awareness of politics grew with each new crisis: the 2000 election recount, where even 13 year old me understood that Al Gore got fucked in Florida; 9/11 shortly thereafter and all its fallout; the start of the 2003 Iraq War, Haliburton, and nonexistent weapons of mass destruction; Howard Dean’s “yee-haw!” that unfairly (and, perhaps, quaintly in today’s climate) tanked his campaign; the excitement and anxiety of watching the rise of the nation’s first Black president and the racist backlash (when President Obama won I was convinced that we were going to see him assassinated not long afterward and it made watching everything he did in public nerve-wracking); watching the Democrats lose the House and Senate in the 2010 mid-terms and the unprecedented blockages of President Obama’s agenda; every government shutdown thereafter; the slog that was the 2012 election cycle and Mitt Romney; and consoling my wife in 2016 after Trump won.

Obviously, that’s barely scratching the surface of the dysfunction that’s personified our political processes over the past 20 years or so, and really only covers things happening at the federal level, which generally has the slowest and least wide-affecting change, but those are the high-level events that jump to mind.

There are times when I think I might want to go into politics. It was that thinking that led to my political science minor in college, where I began to learn how ignorant we are about our own country. One of the first things I learned in my political science classes was that the main goal of the Founding Fathers was to prevent the populace from having too much of a say in government (and not only because the Founding Fathers were racist, sexist, and classist, either). They didn’t trust that most people in the country are anything but reactionary and ignorant, driven by selfishness with little concept of the greater good. So they created a complicated system to slow change. What they couldn’t know then, and what we’ve only just begun to realize despite its consistent happening over the past century or more, is that the safeguards they put in place to prevent reactive change would be weaponized to prevent any change. As of right now, those “safeguards” may actually cause our country to regress in values and freedoms.

But I digress, as that’s not the topic I want to discuss. As a professional facilitator in my day-job, I’m a firm believer that debate is pointless without agreeing to a the context in which that debate is being held. In short, what agreed-upon truths are we building our conversation on? I want to lay out what I find to be the unalienable truths about the purpose of government and what I think that means for how the government should treat its people.

The Purpose of Government

Government serves one main purpose: To protect the people between its borders. The core argument of the Federalist Papers is that a single, unified government can do more to protect the people than some combination of independent states or loose collections of confederacies.

This is accepted fact and informs the entirety of our approach to government.

Where disagreements begin is in what “protection” means. Is it a standing military? Does protection include freedom from persecution, whether for religious beliefs, or sexuality, or speaking out against the State? Is universal health care a form of protection? What about housing?

In short, as far as I can tell, disagreements center on the question, “How much responsibility do we as Americans have to protect ourselves?” Republicans, being the party of small government and personal responsibility, believe the answer to that question is that we have all of the responsibility to protect ourselves. It’s why they are against universal healthcare, but for guns. Against providing housing to the homeless, but for tax cuts for the upper classes.

Except, the government is already large. And a lot about our society has changed in the last 250 years. So these beliefs aren’t aligned with the context of our current situation.

Protection is our Inalienable Rights

Before I dive into what I think “protection” should entail, let’s outline the context I’m talking about. Just so we’re all on the same page:

  • More people live in cities than in rural areas
  • We are the richest country in the history of the world
  • Our country is geographically disparate, and very large
  • We live in the most interconnected time in history
  • Because of this interconnectedness, the world has gotten smaller and we are increasingly reliant on foreign nations for trade and labor

With this context, all of which are truths that can be ignored but not denied, I believe all Americans have the right to the following protections from our government:

  1. Health: A healthy society is a strong society. We can spend hours going over the facts and figures around health care in America, how much money we would save in health care costs if we had universal health care, how unfair it is to laborers that they are tied to a job because of how health care is managed in our country, and how other nations have succeeded in providing their people health care. Regardless of all of that, if a government’s sole purpose is to protect its people, that should include from disease.
  2. Education: An intelligent society is a strong society. Set aside the fact that America prides itself on innovation and without education (or immigration, for that matter), innovation becomes more difficult. Instead, let’s focus on the inequities of education. How minorities and poor families (often one in the same) are not provided the same level of education as white and middle-class or above children due to how schools are funded. Let’s focus on the disparities in what is taught and how topics are taught between States. Every child deserves an honest, high-quality education regardless of where they’re born or what family they happen to be born into.
  3. Housing: A secure society is a strong society. Without access to the safety and security of a home, people can find themselves in a downward spiral that is nearly impossible to free yourself from. For example, to apply for certain benefits of our social safety net, you often need an address. To apply for a job, you need an address. Without those, homeless becomes impossible to escape from. And that’s not even taking into account the economic cost of homelessness on our country.
  4. Religion: Yes, freedom of religion is in the Constitution, but in our current society freedom from religion is also necessary. If church and state were really properly separated, there would be no challenges to Roe v Wade or Obergefell v. Hodges. Woman would have the right to do as they feel is necessary with their bodies. Everyone should be able to practice what they believe, but they should not be permitted to use those beliefs as a weapon against others’ rights.

If we accept these as forms of protection that the government is designed to provide us, then prioritizing how we spend taxpayer money and how we legislate becomes much easier. I firmly believe that most people agree on these foundational values, stemming from the government’s single purpose. The problem, then, is taking the necessary step back to reframe our arguments as arguments for these inalienable rights. The talking points have gotten too complex, the media too filled with noise, and if we can just take it back to our core, foundational values as a country, we can make everyone’s lives better.

The Simple Complexity of a Writing Career

On its face, to build a career as an author is easy as 1-2-3:

  1. Write something good.
  2. Get an agent.
  3. Be published.

Fame and fortune comes shortly thereafter, obviously.

Seems straightforward, right? It’s some sort of natural law that anything seemingly simple is nothing of the sort. Any process, put under rigorous enough examination, can evolve into a complicated labyrinth of best practices and advice. Let’s explore.

Write something good

This is like starting off a career as a carpenter by building an entire house. Sure, most of us hone our skills by laying flooring, doing some drywall, maybe taking on a single room. But even those tasks, as complicated as they are, pale in comparison to the entire house.

That’s just covering the “write something” part. Writing something good is a carpenter building a house on the edge of a mountain.

It’s hard to know what’s good because art is subjective. I know what I think is good. But it’s not the same as what my sister thinks is good. I can’t know if it’s what the public at large thinks is good.

So we focus on the elements that, in the alchemy of storytelling, sometimes add up to a good story:

  • Develop deep, complex characters.
  • Drop them into an interesting situation.
  • Layer in conflict.
  • ???
  • Profit.

Assuming we nail those parts of it, what if we’re just not good writers? What if our grammar is a little weird, or we don’t vary our sentence length enough, or, gods forbid, our voice isn’t apparent? Then what?

Writing something good isn’t an easy ask. Say we succeed, though, and write something we’re damn proud of? Surely the hard part is over?

Get an agent

Now that we’ve written something good, the path is clear. Just gotta get an agent to help shepherd the work into the world, where it will be loved and appreciated. With a story as good as the one we have, shouldn’t take more than a few tries to find someone as passionate about the story as we are. First, though, the query.

How do we write a query? There are numerous ways, depending on the medium you’re writing in (prose, screenwriting, etc.) and sometimes down to genre or agent preference?

That’s fine. No problem. We just wrote something good, so a query letter can’t be hard.

Oh but it is.

And so this becomes a new struggle. Eventually, through much forum-diving, advice-seeking, and rage-crying, we write one we’re happy with.

Next, then, is researching agents. We’ll start by identifying agents that represent our genre. Do we know what specific genre our story is in? Gotta figure out which is best, science fiction or literary fiction with speculative elements? Did we write a psychological thriller or a mystery? Shit, there’s a lot of gore, maybe it’s horror?

Ok, we’ve got that all figured out and created a list of agents that will soon be fighting over our story.

Except for this first rejection. And the second. The first ten are flukes, surely. We’ll make some adjustments to the query letter. Send another ten queries…

… and that’s another ten rejections.

But it only takes one, right? Just one person to see what you see. We’ll keep going. The rejections hurt less after a while, anyway.

Be published

Here’s where I must say goodbye, for I have yet to reach this stage, and therefore cannot offer anything of substance. Hopefully one day soon I’ll be able to update this post with my experience being published.

Until then, best of luck.

DEAD POETS SOCIETY: The System Always Wins

Great film. One of my favorites. But…

DEAD POETS SOCIETY is famous for several things: Robin Williams’ Oscar nominated performance, the beautiful cinematography, and its uplifting message of nonconformity in the face of an overwhelming system designed to trample the individuality out of every single person within it.

The thing is, the system absolutely wins in the film. After all the speeches and the rebellions throughout the film, Neil is still dead, pushed to suicide under his father’s oppression, Mr. Keating is still fired, and the status quo is successfully protected. Through that lens the film doesn’t cry out “Carpe diem!”, but meekly whimpers “There is no true victory against the system.”

Yes, the students at the end of the film engage in one last act of protest, demonstrating the lasting effect Mr. Keating has had on them, but it’s largely performative. The students are still stuck at Wharton, having sold him out to keep their spots at their parent’s behest, and have actively made their situation worse in their brazenness. Now, instead of having Mr. Keating to engage their hearts, they are stuck with Mr. Nolan.

The system would allow for some rebellion, as it knows that’s how to keep people in line. Allow for small acts of individualism in controlled situations to give everyone a sense of freedom, without ever allowing true deviance from the norm. If the students had the maturity to realize that playing within the bounds of the status quo, slowly pushing against it until it expands without breaking, they would have gotten nearly everything they wanted.

Mr. Keating knows this, having 15 years of life experience over his students. That’s why, after Charlie Dalton gets in trouble for writing an editorial arguing that girls should be allowed at Wharton, only to follow it up with a disruptive “phone call from God,” Mr. Keating tells him, “Sucking all the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.” In short, in order to live as freely as possible within the system you have to work with it, not against it. Otherwise bad things happen.

In that sense, if we accept that as the film’s true message, it hews much more closely to how we each experience life. In school we’re given standardized tests that don’t care what our individual experiences or inner lives are like. As an adult we work within organizations that need everyone to move toward a common goal as efficiently as possible, which necessarily limits the quirkiness with which we can approach our jobs. It is limiting by design, because conforming to a larger purpose than we can achieve on our own is the only way a company can pump out 10,000,000 plastic widgets per year.

The fabled system, the one that keeps society as it is, for better or worse, is more powerful than any of us. DEAD POETS SOCIETY, despite all of its inspirational lectures, sneaking around at night, and proclamations of love in the middle of classrooms, understands that. What’s amazing is that despite this clear understanding, the film still feels inspirational. We’re still left with the feeling that individualism matters.

But it’s a trick.

Just like the system designed.

« Older posts

© 2020 Craig Gusmann

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑