Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ever Fly a Kite in a Thunderstorm?

Religious Authority
I was raised as a Christian. As such, I was taught to see Jesus as a role model, his actions and teachings as the ideal to which I should aspire. I came to embrace the values of mercy, compassion, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, acceptance, charity, and love. And then I got a little older and started listening to Christian clergy. Some of them said things like, "Anyone who's not baptized can't go to Heaven." As someone who valued mercy and forgiveness, I found that idea offensive. Some of them said that gay people were an abomination, that they were doing something God didn't want them to do. I thought that if God didn't want them to be that way, he wouldn't have made them so. Given that I valued love and acceptance, I thought it was wrong to judge so harshly someone who was just being what God made them. I knew good people following good philosophies and moral codes who weren't Christian, but some of the Christian clergy said these people were condemned to Hell for all eternity, because they had heard the Gospel and rejected it. I felt that anyone whose life so closely resembled that of Jesus ought not be penalized for the fact that he had a hard time believing a lot of highly implausible stories in the Bible.

And in feeling these things--these things that I'd have thought made me a good Christian--I was in opposition to the teachings of the Christian authorities. They were the ones who declared what made a good Christian and what made a bad one, and I was clearly a bad one...because I embraced Jesus' values more than theirs. The mere fact that there was a conflict between their values and his should have been enough to call their authority on such matters into question, I'd think, but I was but a young and insignificant peon, a stray sheep, and not a graduate of a divinity school with a whole church coming to listen to me every week. I was the subordinate and they were the superiors. That automatically made me wrong and them right. They owned the word "Christian," and if they said anyone who believed what I believed was a bad one, then I was a bad one. There's no arguing with it.

For most of my life, I've found myself in a similar position in regard to the word "feminist." The scripture of that religion says that if you believe in equal rights for both sexes, and that if you believe that women are human beings, then you're a feminist. If I hear of a woman being discriminated against or being treated unfairly, I think that's wrong and I say so. I regard women and men as equals. I thought that made me a feminist. That's what all the feminist slogans claim, anyway.

But the matriarchs of this religion, the angry, misandrist thugs who preach their gospel of patriarchal conspiracies and rape culture, disagree. They're pretty much convinced that I and every other man desperately despise every woman alive and are in a conspiracy to rape women and keep them from advancing in society. If a man and a woman both take a test, and the woman fails while the man passes, it's not because those individuals scored according to their own unique, individual abilities. No, it's rigged. It's sexist. They say so, and you and I aren't to say anything to the contrary. It's like the Inquisition--admit to the allegations, and you're a sinner deserving of the worst punishment our society can think up for a sexual predator and a bigot. Deny it, and you must be lying--proof that you can't be trusted. They're the authorities on this. They own the word "feminist." They set the rules as to how it can be used. If they say I'm not a feminist, I must not be. And they not only say I'm not, they say it's not even possible for me to be one, since I'm a man.

"B-b-but...your T-shirt says 'FEMINISM IS THE RADICAL NOTION THAT WOMEN ARE PEOPLE.' I believe that! I share that notion. I believe women are people."

"My T-shirt??? Who gave you permission to stare at my tits, pig?!? You need to turn off that male gaze and get out of my sight. I'd rip your balls off, but you clearly don't have any."

So I guess I'm not a feminist any more than I was ever a Christian.

Rape Culture

Given that I'm not a feminist and therefore have no need of approval from the feminist clergy, I'd like to raise an objection to one of their articles of faith that's been getting a lot of play in the blogosphere of late. That's the issue of "rape culture." It's one of those dog whistle words where, if you take issue with it, the assumption is that you must hold a position in direct opposition to the one held by the speaker. She's anti-rape, so if you have a problem with her dog whistle word, it must be because you're pro-rape, and that's what you'll get accused of every time for just speaking up. But as I said, I have no need of the feminist clergy's approval, so I'm speaking up.

I'm not pro-rape, and I'm guessing you're not, either. I'm guessing, in fact, that you don't know anyone who is, because if you ever encountered such a person, you'd go to great lengths to dissociate yourself from that person. I'm guessing that when apparently large portions of the city of Steubenville, Ohio, tried to cover up and make excuses for the rape of a teenage girl by some high school football players, you were as horrified as I was, because who the hell takes the side of the rapist??? I'm guessing that you were speechless with shock and outrage hearing news programs that were all apparently sympathetic to the rapists while not seeming to care at all about the young woman they brutally attacked. I'm guessing that even if you were jaded and hardened to the cruelties of the world, you were still experiencing a little cognitive dissonance hearing so many people line up to support the rapists, because since when are sexual predators regarded as anything BUT something to be scraped off the bottoms of our shoes???

Sex offenders are total pariahs in our society. We actually go overboard in punishing them. If you murder someone and do your time, you get out and move on with your life. But if you flash somebody or touch someone's no-no parts without their express consent and you serve a prison sentence for it, that's not good enough. We need to keep on shaming you and controlling you for the rest of your life. We make you register with the Sheriff wherever you live for the rest of your life. We tell you where you can't live, and it may be so restrictive that there's no place in town where you can live. And if you do live around other people, we'll send out postcards with your name, picture, address, and crime on it out to all your neighbors every so often for the rest of your life, because just branding the word "rapist" into your forehead would be too good for you. If we could somehow get away with neutering and lobotomizing you, we'd do it. To hell with the Eight Amendment. This isn't excessive. It doesn't matter if you just brushed against a breast or a buttock in an elevator. In America, there is no crime--not terrorism, not murder, not arson, nothing---that is as bad as causing another person to feel uncomfortable in a sexual context. You can beat them to within an inch of their life. That's okay, maybe just a misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances. It might warrant disciplinary action at a school or workplace and nothing more. We'll let children play violent games and see all kinds of mayhem in movies. But let someone show a little skin, and we've got to put a triple-X rating on that nasty porn.

In other words, it's safe to say that our society has a pretty serious hangup about sex. That's the culture here.

The word "culture" refers to societal norms. It's the thoughts, behaviors, traditions and arts by which we collectively define ourselves as a people. It's what makes us "us" and distinguishes us from all the civilizations that aren't us. You can say we have a gun culture, and I'd agree with you. The heroes in our movies carry guns and use them. Our authority figures carry guns, and there's no shame associated with that. Our everyday language contains gun metaphors for totally innocuous things. We tell young people to "aim high," and we don't think of that as promoting violence. We "set our sights" on a completion date for a project even if we're not snipers. When we prepare ourselves for a challenge, we go out "loaded for bear" even if we've never been hunting. When we make a wild guess, we "take a shot in the dark." A "flash in the pan" refers to a malfunctioning musket, but we don't have to be black powder shooters to say it. Nobody thinks we're contemplating suicide if we talk about "biting the bullet." These phrases have been normalized in our language because for most of our history, guns have been an acceptable, normal part of everyday life. We have embraced guns as part of our culture.

By contrast, when we say we're "getting screwed," "getting shafted," or "taking it up the ass," it has definite negative connotations. Nobody feels good about "being told to bend over and take it." A disastrous situation is said to be "fucked up," maybe even "fucked up beyond all recognition." None of these are happy or benign images. They're all thick with the idea of unfairness and victimization and violation. And the heroes of our movies and folk stories definitely do not rape people. 

In our culture, rapists are deviants. We even have laws against rape, believe it or not. Pretty serious ones. The culture of the rapists, then, isn't our culture. It's counter-cultural. It's antisocial. But when we say, "We live in a rape culture," or "We're immersed in rape culture," it makes it sound as though we're the deviants and the rapists are the pillars of society who get to define our culture and determine whether or not we conform to it properly.

I don't think that's anywhere close to an accurate reflection of the reality of our society. And for that reason, I have a problem with people using the term "rape culture" to refer to American culture in general. Yes, it makes me uncomfortable--not because I'm pro-rape and the term makes me feel properly ashamed of myself, as the feminist clergy would have everyone within earshot believe, but rather because it sounds...schizophrenic. Listening to a person who's utterly convinced that our entire culture is built around encouraging and protecting rapists is like listening to a person who's utterly convinced that the ruling elite are all a bunch of shape-shifting, evil lizards from another planet. I'm willing to compromise on this, though. We can call it "rapist culture" to make it clear that we're talking specifically about a subset of people (a subculture) instead of about the culture at large.

But really, I don't own these words, so I'm in no position to negotiate. If the feminist matriarchs say we're all rapists, I guess we really are. We must just be repressing the memory of our crimes...or we haven't committed them yet, but the matriarchs know our hearts better than we do.

Blame and Responsibility

And one final point, as long as I'm already putting myself out here as flame bait--what is it with so many feminists' complete inability to compartmentalize on the issue of victim blaming? Rape is a crime against a person, and like any other crime against a person, the guilt or innocence of the perpetrator is not contingent on how easy a mark the victim was. If you steal a car and get caught, whether you get punished or not does not depend on whether you hot wired the car or stole a one that the owner foolishly left running. It's the same crime. In both cases, the thief is legally and morally in the wrong, equally so in both cases. The victim's actions do not have any bearing on the guilt of the offender.

That's established. I concede that the driver is not to blame for the actions of a thief. Nobody has a "right" to steal a car just because the driver makes it easy. Agreed? Okay. Let's set that fact aside in a box and call it "Exhibit A: Guilty Criminals Are Guilty."

Now let's move on to Exhibit B. Let's say you have a car, and it means a great deal to you. You don't have more than liability insurance on it, and you don't have a lot of money to spend on it, so if anything happens to it, you're out of luck. Out of the kindness of your heart, you let me borrow this car. I back out of your driveway without bothering to see what's behind me, and I narrowly avoid an accident. Then I get out my smartphone and see what's going on in the world of Facebook as I drive the car away from your house, never causing any damage more serious than scraping parked cars' side mirrors a little. That'll buff right out. Probably.

It's a hot night, so when I arrive at the bar, I leave the engine running so I can leave the air conditioner on. I spend the next three hours getting drunker and drunker, telling random strangers about the cool ride I've got sitting outside, even suggesting to a few that if they're nice to me, I might let them drive it. When I leave, I'm all over the road, but somehow, I manage to only put a few small dents in your car. (Hey! Who are you to judge? I'll get it fixed!) Anyway, I pull into a gas station. As I step out of the car, I nearly fall down. I'm not stupid. I know I'm in no shape to drive. I see a pretty sober looking man sitting outside the gas station drinking a soda, so I say to him, "Hey Buddy! Can you drive me home? Pretty please? I'll pay you. Here, I have money. See? Please? Here. Here's my key. I'll just be a minute. I gotta go take a leak. Don't leave till I get back, now, okay? Awright, good man. I'll just be a minute."

I fall asleep in the restroom, but when the attendant yells at me, I wake up and emerge into the sunshine. And would you believe both the car and the man who promised to drive me home are both gone? No note or anything! He just stole it! I specifically told him not to leave until I got back, and he did it anyway!

Let's call this "Exhibit B: Victims Sometimes Enable Criminals by Being Reckless, Irresponsible, or Naive."

Who's fault is it the car got stolen? Not mine. We already established that. See "Exhibit A." Oh, you're mad at me anyway? Why not be mad at yourself? I just did what you did--I trusted somebody.

I propose that "Exhibit A" and "Exhibit B" can exist simultaneously. They're not mutually exclusive. The fact that I was reckless, irresponsible, and naive with your car is true, but it does not cancel out the fact that the guy who stole it is wholly and exclusively to blame for his actions. He shouldn't get a lighter sentence just because I tossed him the key, unless he can demonstrate that he really did misunderstand and thought I was giving him the car. Maybe he doesn't speak English and thought I had walked away after he had waited for a couple hours. Even in that case, he still shouldn't get off scot free. There has to be some kind of due diligence to make sure I wasn't coming back. If it's proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he knew I wasn't giving him the car and he understood that he was ripping me off, he ought to get just as serious a sentence as any other car thief.

So what about me? Do I get off scot free? You've had that car for 20 years and never so much as scraped the paint. Had you not loaned it to me, it probably wouldn't have gotten stolen. It could have! A thief could have sneaked into your garage in the middle of the night, hot wired it, and sped away before you could do anything to stop him. It happens all the time, and just because it never happened before doesn't mean it wouldn't happen eventually. As in the case with my thief, your thief would be wholly guilty. It doesn't matter if his attorney points out that your garage was easy to break into, or that it was such a hot looking car the thief couldn't reasonably be expected not to steal it if he had the chance. No dice. If he does wrong, he deserves to pay.

But can we really say that my actions had nothing to do with your car getting stolen? I didn't ask him to steal it. But am I truly faultless? Does the validity of "Exhibit A" really cancel out "Exhibit B?" When you can finally afford to replace your car, can you think of a good reason not to let me borrow it again? Why? "Exhibit A" says it's not my fault it got stolen. In fact, I'm going to be strident about it.

"It is not my fault that car got stolen. I am not to blame for the actions of a car thief. He did it, not me. You have no business shaming me for something I'm not responsible for. I can get drunk and ask strangers to drive me home if I want to, and that doesn't give them the right to steal from me. I shouldn't have to change my behavior. Don't tell me anything. Tell the people who might steal cars that they shouldn't steal. I didn't do anything wrong!"

Does that strike you as a particularly mature and responsible response to an event like that? Or do you pretty well expect that the next time I get a hold of a car, it will get stolen again? How does that happen, do you think? Fate just picks on some people, I guess. Some people get their cars stolen over and over and over, and other people never have any trouble with car thieves. Why is that? You might be inclined to think that the people who don't have trouble have ugly cars that nobody wants to steal, but sometimes ugly cars get stolen, too. According to the reasoning behind arguments I've heard from some feminists about why rape happens, we are to presume from the fact that ugly, old cars get stolen that nice, snazzy, expensive cars don't get stolen way more often. Because, y'know, it's not about the cars. It's about power. Someone who steals your car for a joyride isn't doing it for the thrill of the ride, especially not the thrill of a ride in a stolen Lamborghini. No, it's just about controlling you and making you feel bad. Yep. Feminism 101. That's on the test. There's no thrill there. It's just about power and subjugation.

Here's the thing--even if cars I drive get stolen again and again, maybe it isn't my fault. Maybe I live in a bad neighborhood. Maybe, through no fault of my own, I've got an enemy who just happens to be a car thief. Maybe I'm too trusting because I overestimate the good in people. I shouldn't have to give up driving and cower in a corner, constantly afraid of what a thief might steal next. I shouldn't. Even if I did, I might get victimized anyway, and it wouldn't be my fault.

And yet still, that doesn't make it okay to get plastered and toss a stranger your car keys at a gas station.

Do you get what I'm saying here? "Exhibit A" is true. Even if you don't act like the person in "Exhibit B," you might still get victimized through no fault of your own. But just because those two things are true doesn't mean that I don't still need to act more responsibly than I did in "Exhibit B" if I don't want my car getting stolen.

Yeah, my car. That's the thing that's different about rape. You're not borrowing somebody else's car. It's yours. What gets taken gets taken from you. No, nobody has any right to rape you, not even if you're drunk, not even if you tell someone to take you back to his apartment and you take your clothes off and start kissing him. Nothing makes it okay for someone to rape you. See "Exhibit A." But if you don't want it to happen, see "Exhibit B"  and don't act like that.

Does that make you mad? Does it feel like I'm putting the burden of responsibility on you for avoiding someone else's bad behavior? Welcome to the concept of defensive driving. Just because you have the legal right-of-way doesn't mean it's smart to drive aggressively to keep a bad driver from cutting in front of you. Just because the guy twice your size who's spoiling for a fight called you a name doesn't mean you have to take the bait. Maybe it won't matter. Maybe you'll wreck anyway. Maybe that bully will still come after you. And maybe you'll still get raped. But if you want to reduce the odds, the first step is to recognize what you do have control over and what you don't.

What you don't have control over is the actions of other people. We, collectively as a society, can do our best to try to look out for each other and keep bad guys from hurting you, but we may fail. The only way you can guarantee you don't get attacked is to lock yourself in a cage where only you have the key--and even that's not foolproof. Liberty is dangerous. Having a free society means we're going to be at risk. We can't eliminate that risk 100%. The only way to effectively eliminate any possibility of rape would be to preemptively identify everyone who might possibly do such a thing at some point in the future, and then permanently remove them from society. History shows us that when social engineers get such ideas along with political power, we get mass graves as a result.

I don't want that, and I hope you don't either. So what can we do to keep you safe? Nothing? No, not nothing, though a more realistic goal is safer, not safe. You can be safer if you don't make yourself an easy target. Be hard to attack.

I used the word "attack," there instead of "rape," for a reason. When we train soldiers and police officers and prison guards how to keep themselves alive, that's what we're teaching them--how to be hard to attack, and how to survive if you are attacked. A rape is an attack. Makes no difference whether the attacker is punching you or fucking you. It's violence. So let's stop treating this like they're two different things. It doesn't matter which part of your body they're abusing. If someone can't attack you successfully, they can't rape you. Imagine cops and soldiers saying, "Well, there's no way to be 100% sure I'll never be killed, so I might as well just get rid of this armor and these weapons and quit paying attention to my surroundings. I can be lighthearted now and skip tra-la-la through the wildflowers and nobody will hurt me, because they're not supposed to."

Our population has a certain percentage of psychopaths. These are people who will try to hurt you just because it suits their purposes, and they don't care if we all think it's wrong. Public Service Announcements instructing them not to attack people aren't going to be effective. You do not have total control over their actions. In fact, you have almost none. Even our society, collectively, does not have total control over their actions. We maybe have some percentage. For the percentage that we don't control, you're vulnerable. They're going to attack you. When they do, are you going to try to increase their odds of failure, or are you just going to roll over and surrender because you don't feel it's your responsibility to keep yourself safe?

If it's not your responsibility to keep yourself safe, who's responsibility is it? The attacker's? Yes, see "Exhibit A." Is that okay with you? Are you going to trust your safety to a psychopath who wants to rape and/or kill you? That's about as smart as lending me your keys a second time. That's the thing--the rapist has a responsibility not to rape you, but if you want to lessen the odds of your getting raped, the smart thing to do is to not let the rapist be solely responsible for that. Don't let him have all the power if you don't have to. Seize whatever bit of power over that situation that you can for yourself. What's that mean? All the standard advice you've heard in the self-defense courses. Travel in groups. Be careful who you trust. Learn to fight. Arm yourself. Learn to size up a situation and learn to avoid dangerous ones. Don't send mixed signals, especially to people you're not interested in. The only person you can count on to protect you is you.

You might say, "But I don't want to have to always be thinking about the idea that someone might attack me. I don't want to live in fear. I'd rather just put it out of my mind and not think about it." Fine. That's your prerogative. Just be aware that you're the one who may someday pay the price for that approach. Maybe for you the day-to-day peace of mind is worth the balloon payment of being the unsuspecting victim of a crisis someday. That's not for me. Personally, I don't see it as being about living in fear. The more prepared I am to deal with whatever is thrown at me, the less afraid I feel, so I've learned to look out for my own safety.

And it may be that none of that does any good in a particular situation. But just because body armor doesn't make you immortal, that doesn't mean you don't wear it when you know you're going into battle. It's a numbers game, not a coin toss. You can't guarantee that you'll win, but you can improve your odds...both of winning and of losing.

And THAT, dear friends, is why I and so many others are incredulous when we hear people promoting the idea that because rapists are responsible for their own actions, you shouldn't feel obliged to protect yourself by taking countermeasures. If you've already been raped, your therapist should be telling you it's not your fault and that there's nothing you could have done to stop it. That's healing and kind. But if you haven't been raped yet and someone is telling you to stop protecting yourself because, gosh darnit, that's just not your responsibility, that person is trying to get you raped. They're trying to increase the odds by getting you to make yourself a more vulnerable, and thus more likely, target. Forgive us for getting mad at these people on your behalf. We're not siding with the rapists. We're not rape apologists. We're not blaming the victims or slut shaming or participating in rape culture or any of the other feminist buzzwords the matriarchs use as labels to discredit anyone capable enough of nuanced thought to disagree with them while not being 180° opposed to their position.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Perception of Confinement

"What could they really do if we all just stopped paying taxes?"

I'd seen this question asked on Facebook, and I responded:

Close down. No more post office, no fire department, no police, no courts, no air traffic controllers, no military, no Coast Guard, nobody to clear the snow off the streets, nobody to build and repair streets in the first place, no clean drinking water piped right into your house under pressure. The ones running the show would be corporations who have the means to offer these services for sale. They'd have a monopoly, and they'd be completely unregulated. "Invisible hand of the market?" Yeah, let's see how tough a negotiator you are when your kid is dying and the ambulance service and private hospital are demanding a cash deposit since you're not a VIP member. You don't get a vote on how anything will be run unless you're a shareholder.

Can you imagine what eminent domain would look like in such a society? A gas company wants to drill on your land, and you won't sell them the rights, so they just drive their equipment in and start work anyway. Who's going to stop them? You with your gun? Like they can't afford their own team of Green Berets to take you out once all those guys are laid off when the government shuts down. The people with money will do whatever the hell they all the rest of us.

The already-poor, unable to get jobs and dependent on government money for food and shelter, would be forced to make their own work...which could mean setting up their own toll booths on the roads you take to work, or going door-to-door selling their own fire insurance--"Pay up, and we won't burn down your house." Without a police department to stop them, your only protection would be to hire guards or band together with neighbors for your common defense. Humans being a highly social and adaptable species, these thugs would then form groups of their own to overwhelm your defenses. With no criminal justice system and no government of any kind, the leaders of these criminal organizations will become incredibly powerful.

We saw this in Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed. The gangster oligarchs controlled everything, while pretty much everybody else starved. In developing nations, we call these crime bosses "warlords." In medieval Europe, they were called noblemen.

Someone reading my other posts might have been surprised to see that, as I'd just been griping about policies of both the Republicans and Democrats in office. I said both parties need to go. But then here I was saying how horrible things would be if we had no government. Is it better to have bad government of none at all? Do you want to remain a prisoner aboard the pirate ship, or do you want to walk the plank into shark-infested waters?

I don't really know the answer to that, but there's something to be said for having a government, even a bad one. According to this article, someone earning $50,000 a year with a spouse and one child pays ten cents a day for SNAP (the food stamp program), the school lunch program, and WIC (the supplemental nutrition program for pregnant and nursing women, infants, and children) combined. That includes administrative costs. It's not clear from the article exactly how many of those ten cents actually feed the 46 million Americans who receive SNAP benefits. Considering what I wrote above about what it would be like if the government simply disbanded, imagine what it would be like if 46 million Americans--15% of the population--many of them armed, suddenly found themselves without food. Does that sound like a nice place to live? For just ten cents a day, you get to stave off that Mad Max scenario. That's quite a deal.

Why, then, are taxes such a big deal to some people? If you spend any time at all consuming right-wing media in this country, you'll hear again and again the idea that we're living under a tyrannical dictatorship where the government robs us at gunpoint to steal all our money so they can give it away to lazy people and drug addicts. They speak in very literal terms of being slaves to the government, and they fantasize about armed revolution.

All that over $37 a year? When that token amount keeps the underprivileged from staging a revolution of their own? On its face, that doesn't make any sense. But if you dig deeper, you see there's a more general, overarching theme stirring up this emotion. These people aren't being provoked to war over thirty-seven dollars. They're exhibiting a fight-or-flight response to the feeling of being captured--the feeling that someone else has more control over their lives than they do.

This feeling isn't the exclusive domain of the political right, or of people wealthy enough to feel like they're getting squeezed too tightly by the IRS. It's a common theme across American culture. Generally speaking, if you see a group of Americans angry about something, it's because they feel like someone else has more control over some aspect of their lives than they do. Not everyone feels this way, though. In my observation, the chief difference between those getting upset and those who are content is how much they feel like someone else is running their lives. Note that emphasis on the word "feel." There are plenty of content people who are just as much adrift on the whims of their superiors as anybody else is, but they're okay with that, while others are hopping mad about it. The difference is in how heightened their awareness is that someone else is pulling the strings, and whether they feel incentivized enough to go along with it. The better compensated someone is for their conformity, the less they see the demand to conform as being a burden. If they're required to conform, and what they get out of it doesn't feel like it's worth what they're being asked to give up, they resist.

As I said, this is just my personal observation. It's not the finding of any academically approved scientific study. As such, I should probably tell you something about my own ride up and down the socioeconomic ladder.

I grew up in an economically depressed community in southern Ohio as the son of middle-class business owners who were both from out of town. We weren't wealthy, but my parents lived far beyond their means, and compared to the destitution all around us, we might as well have been aristocracy. The once-prosperous city collapsed when the steel mill shut down, and it never really recovered. It's not unusual for a family there to be on some form of public assistance for multiple generations. Teen pregnancy, substance abuse, sexual abuse, and violence are commonplace there, and the biggest thing the area has been known for in recent years is trafficking in Oxycontin. My parents' business--a funeral home and private ambulance service--was on the same block as a public housing project.

When I attended public school there, my classmates saw me as "the rich kid," and told me--in Southern Appalachian drawls so thick I could scarcely understand them--that I talked funny. They presumed I looked down on them, and my parents saw to it that I did. After that first year in public school, I was moved to a private school, and after that, a public school in a suburb that served as an enclave for the region's doctors, lawyers, and wealthier business people. My parents frequently joked about the "hillbillies" we encountered and hammered home the idea that we were better than those people: we could speak proper English, and we didn't marry our cousins or drink moonshine or eat squirrels. And then I married my high school sweetheart, who was from a family that was the embodiment of every Appalachian stereotype my parents had spent most of my life teaching me to disdain.

I attended college, but dropped out before graduating and found myself stuck in this place where my wife was related to so many people. The only occupation high school had prepared me for was that of college student, and college had only prepared me for a job I wasn't yet qualified for. With no prospects in the area, no knowledge of opportunities elsewhere, and no resources to pursue those opportunities even if I had known of them, I--along with my wife and two children--subsisted on a combination of whatever the government would give us (until my wife refused to comply with the requirements and our food stamps got cut off), whatever our families would give us, and whatever I could scrounge up by working at low-paying jobs now and again. Between jobs, I tried to live off the land. My wife's family taught me to hunt and trap. I gardened. I gathered ginseng. I did odd jobs on a few farms. I even sold a couple woodcarvings on consignment through a store downtown.

I did manage to get a Pell grant to attend a vocational school to study HVAC (and I was doing well in it), but in order to keep a check coming in after Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton passed their welfare reform measures, I had to drop out in order to "volunteer" so many hours a week as a tutor at a state university's program to help high school dropouts earn their GED and transition to college life. I found that once the students got started on their assignments, most of them needed very little help, so I was left with many idle hours sitting at a desk, standing by in case someone should need me.

To pass the time, I began writing a book called "The Fenced-In Yard." The thesis was that while citizens of totalitarian dictatorships were like dogs tied to a tree with a short, heavy chain that rattled loudly and choked them any time they tried to move, being a citizen of a country like the United States was more like being a dog in a large, fenced-in yard. As long as you stay away from the fence, you're free to run and play all you like, and you'll feel no sense of being oppressed. When you decide to push further, though, and explore the areas that fences have been erected to keep you from exploring, you discover the reality of your incarceration. The latter half of the book was to be a point-by-point litany of how each of the amendments in the Bill of Rights were being violated. The first half was a hodge-podge of Marxist ideology, personal frustrations, and my ecotopian ideas that I thought would save the world.

It was crap. Granted, it was only a first draft, but the manuscript read like the Unabomber Manifesto, a similarity underscored by the fact that it was entirely hand-written on several loose sheets of paper. It was the angry rant of a twenty-something who had been raised in the middle class and promised the world, who found himself trapped in the reality of his own poverty. It was the protest of someone discomfited by the fact that other people had more control over his life than he did.

Eventually, I broke free. I graduated the police academy, my wife divorced me, and friends in the big city (who I met through the Internet) took me in and found me a job that paid 50% more than the one I had been working. After several months there, I got hired as a full-time police officer at a large state community college where I worked for six years. I started in 2001 making about $28,000 a year, and with the contract we had in place when I left, I was on track to make $36,000. To most of you reading this, that probably doesn't seem like much money. Remember, though, that less than a year before I was hired by the college police department, I was earning $6.35 an hour for gathering shopping carts off the parking lot at Wal-Mart.

Not only had my income increased, so had my social status and the power that I exercised. In less than a year, I had gone from feeling like it was a treat to get to eat fast food that people had dumped out of their cars onto the parking lot or using my employee discount to get a sandwich from Wal-Mart's snack bar, to being paid to sit through catered meetings and going out to eat at restaurants with co-workers who bitched about paying taxes to feed all the lazy low-lifes on welfare. I was giving orders to people who thought themselves too good to eat fast food or shop at Wal-Mart. I could tell a total stranger I'd never seen in my life to lie down on the ground, and they had to do it. And they apologized and called me sir. My voice stopped criminals in their tracks. Some of them actually trembled with fear. Most of my take-home pay was split between child support and paying off debts, so I was still living in poverty by most Americans' standards, hardly able to maintain a car to get me to work without breaking down, but I had definitely moved up in the world. I was both respectable and respected.

My former life gave me a perspective most of the officers I worked with didn't have. I saw how pervasive homelessness was in our community, and rather than treating the homeless as vermin to be shooed away, I'd give them rides to the homeless shelters. I helped drunks arrange rides home. I didn't arrest people simply because I could. Instead, I weighed whether I'd be doing more good by making an arrest or taking some other action. I encountered a lot of people living troubled lives, people who felt helpless, as I had. All my friends and co-workers were middle-class, though, so I was in a position to see the unfortunate as "those other people." I still remembered being one of those people, so I mostly avoided being too judgmental or prejudiced against them, but I still caught myself from time to time thinking, "This person is suffering from learned helplessness. Their life might be hard, but it's nowhere near as hard as they're making it out to be. They just need to buck up and exercise some self-discipline."

I helped my department organize, and I was elected to represent my shift in contract negotiations and grievance hearings. The college's human resources department pushed back. One by one, they eliminated anyone of any position in our bargaining group, firing people over petty or even trumped-up disciplinary problems, or persuading them to leave by other means. When they got to me, they opted to cheat me out of some money they owed me for tuition reimbursement. When I filed a grievance and they saw that my evidence not only proved that they owed me the money, but also showed that they were knowingly cheating me and had tried to cover it up, they blew a gasket and accused me of having violated school policies in obtaining that evidence. They moved to fire me. I could have fought it in arbitration, but even if I had won, I knew my days were numbered now that the Human Resources office had marked me as the Evil Union Adversary. By then, I had accumulated so many training certificates and good recommendations from senior officers that I figured I'd have no problem at all finding a job with another police department--one that would likely pay me better and that wouldn't have administrators who treated me like I was the enemy. My attorney offered a deal--the college would drop their disciplinary action against me, eliminate any record of it, and give me a neutral reference. In return, I would resign and waive my right to sue them. I walked away feeling like this change was a blessing in disguise, and that I'd be in a better job in no time.

I had remarried and had another child by this time. Our two-year old son needed eye surgery just as I was about to lose my health insurance, and the Department of Job and Family Services was dragging their feet in getting our son approved for Medicaid. It was a scary time, as there was a danger that he could have lost his sight in one eye if he didn't get the surgery right away. After we got that situation resolved, I took a month just coasting, licking my wounds and spending time with my family. Then, as money started to get a little tight (my income was zero but my child support obligation was still based on my income of $36K a year), I stepped up the search, applying for private security jobs as well as positions with law enforcement agencies. I was desperate to get another commission before my peace officer certificate expired, even if it meant having to volunteer at a small police department somewhere. The problem was that the small departments that would give me a badge for volunteering all required me to have my own equipment. As a full-timer at my previous position, my uniforms and equipment were provided by the college. I didn't even have a weapon suitable for duty, and now, with no income, I couldn't afford to equip myself for a volunteer position.

Worse, though, was that the hopelessness of my situation started to become apparent. Prospective employers want to know why an applicant left his last job. In law enforcement, having been fired from an agency for any reason at all will land your application in the trash. Resigning to avoid being fired can sometimes yield the same result. Police departments are pretty thorough about screening out liars and people who evade questions, and any employer is going to frown on an applicant who speaks poorly of a former employer. There was no way to tell my story without being labeled a boat rocker or a whistle blower, and no way to not tell it and still get a job, at least not as a cop. Even when I dared to explain, employers wanted the college to confirm my story--which they apparently never did.

I took a job as a security guard in a distribution warehouse and hated every moment of it. In my mind, I was still a cop. This job was just something I was doing for a short time for money until I got another police position. I was paid $10.50 an hour for doing things that, in my professional opinion, were useless for accomplishing anything other than demoralizing the warehouse employees. My co-workers were paid $9.50, but I was paid a dollar more, not because of my previous experience, but because I had agreed to be their on-call person. My wife was self-employed and needed to be able to arrange for me to care for our son when she had to meet with clients. My job got in the way, as my schedule was changed frequently and without warning. She earned more than I did at that point, so it made sense for me to accept a downgrade in order to help her earn at her full potential. I tried to get the company to reassign me to one of the $9.50 positions with a regular schedule, even if it meant cutting back to part time, but they refused. They said the only way they'd do it was if I found my own replacement. Instead, I ended up leaving for a part-time job driving a delivery truck for a small bean sprout factory located closer to my home. That lasted four days, as the owner fired me for wearing a wrist brace to work after I had gotten injured.

As quickly as I went from Wal-Mart cart pusher to state college police officer, I slid down to broke, unequipped, unemployed, with an unstable job history. I had already decided that the following spring, I would turn my hobbies of raising chickens and growing vegetables into a full-time business growing food to sell at local farmers markets, but in the mean time, I had to earn some money to keep Child Support Enforcement from putting me in jail. Fortunately, my wife works with computers, so no matter how bad things got, we had always made it a priority to have an internet connection. I got on Craig's list and started hustling odd jobs--doing custom woodwork, landscaping, and household maintenance. I even got a regular gig as a part-time groundskeeper for a wealthy doctor. That was a little awkward. He had hired me to do things like weeding the flower beds and doing mechanical maintenance on the mower and pond pump, but I'd just as often be sweeping out his garage or washing his Ferrari. Once, he sent me out to pick up some dry ice for his son's birthday party. That job lasted two or three years until he made plans to sell his home and my farm demanded more of my time.

It was still a struggle, though, just to pay my child support obligation. Because I sent nearly every penny I earned to the state to pay for the support of my children from my first marriage, I had nothing left for my (now two) children who actually lived with me. My wife's income, which was merely a supplement in years past that allowed us to do fun things like take vacations to Florida, was now supporting our family entirely as I tried to get my own farm business established. We were broke, we had very little money coming in, we were dependent on food stamps and Medicaid, and I, at least, was firmly entrenched in the working class. I worked with my hands, I got dirty, I worked with plants and animals. I made things. I used tools and drove an old, beat-up pickup truck. Having no dress code to adhere to, I let my hair and beard grow long, as I always preferred them to be. I wore clothes appropriate to the work I did, and the work I did quickly wore holes in them.

Something was different about poverty this time around, though. I was doing it on my own terms. I was my own boss. I wasn't idle, but I also didn't lose my right to work if I failed to punch somebody else's time clock at precisely the right minute. There was no such thing anymore as getting fired or laid off. If one customer didn't buy what I had, another one would. If one farmers market didn't want me, three more did. If I went several weeks straight without making a dollar, I was still a farmer. Not a "former farmer" or an "unemployed farmer" or a "farmer between jobs at the moment"--just a farmer.

In ways, it was an improvement over being a cop, too. I didn't have to get someone else's approval to attend training. If the Extension Office or anyone else had a class I wanted to attend, and I had the money and time free to go, I went. If I wanted to explore a new specialty, I didn't have to wait for a position to open up. There were no task forces or detective positions to compete for. I'd just buy (or build) the necessary equipment and start doing it.

My social status changed entirely, in ways to which I still haven't fully adjusted. To many people who see me in the neighborhood, with my long hair and holey overalls, I'm just another poor person, someone of no status. Middle class people seeing me in such a context don't want to be near me. I make them uncomfortable. Neighbors look at the farm house I can't afford to make pretty and call zoning officers on me. But among the people in the local food scene, it's more like I'm a public personality. I won't go so far as to say a celebrity, but people I've never met know me. Magazines have done articles on me. Newspapers, even children and college students doing projects for school, call me to ask questions. University researchers who wouldn't have had two words to say to me when I was a cop now want my perspective. Public policy makers amend their drafts based on my input. I get calls from stores, even from international businessmen who have no idea how small my farm is, wanting me to supply them. Both my wife and I are involved with various food and farm organizations that give us access to powerful people. We get invited to events we couldn't possibly afford to attend. Non-profits and even private individuals want to do whatever they can to help my for-profit, privately owned farm succeed, because they see the work as something heroic (and perhaps tragic). I have more people looking up to me now than I did when I was in a position of authority and tasked with protecting them.

Last year, animal rights activists stole my chickens. I replaced them, and the nugget liberators stole them again. In what they no doubt saw as acts of selfless, heroic compassion, they tore down my fences and broke into the farmhouse to steal, among other things, an axe, a bow, and some hunting arrows, any of which I expect may be used against me someday if I let them catch me with my guard down. I had trouble with other thieves, too, some of whom I caught and turned over to the police. Still, I lost most of my tools and all of my chickens to thieves. My truck broke down and the mechanic had it for the rest of the year trying (or not trying) to find a rare, compatible part. On top of that, the deer ate most of the crops I grew. I turned the ugly little peaches I got that year into jam, and managed to harvest small crops of onions, garlic, beets, tomatoes, and hot peppers. Other than that, I was more or less out of business--but remember, there's no boss to tell me I have no job, so I still have one. I'm just not making any money at it.

Since I've had so little to sell, I've had a lot less interaction with customers. I'm turning down invitations to vend at markets because I have nothing to sell. I'm concentrating my efforts on rebuilding and preventing the sort of things that brought me down last year from happening again, but this means that whenever someone contacts me wanting to buy things, I have to send them away empty handed. I avoid talking to the media now, because what is there to say until I'm back on my feet? Why drum up attention for my business if I've nothing to sell? I still hear occasionally that someone has heard of me, but mostly, I live a very private life right now. The only people who see me are the ones who just see that poor guy who's apparently unemployed. People who know me see me as the guy who spends too much time online ranting about the injustice of this or that, about wealth inequality and government intrusion. I get incensed over how employers treat their employees, even though I'm neither one anymore. My middle-class relatives are uncomfortable talking to me. I see how my wife is working herself to death just trying to keep us afloat. I see the pressure she gets from her family, coming from a culture where a man's not a man unless he's a good provider.

At this point, I don't even feel like there's a rat race for me to go back to. My only hope for prosperity is to keep slogging along and rebuild my farm. There's opportunity there. It's just a hard road getting to it. And meanwhile, I'm being bombarded with messages from one side of the political sphere telling me I'm a no good, lazy bum for eating on their ten cents a day, and the other side of the political sphere saying the problem is that I don't have an advanced degree and that there aren't enough soul-eating corporate jobs that will pay me a living wage for being someone else's obedient subordinate.

During the last Presidential campaign, I heard the candidates talking about "jobs, jobs, jobs!" Meanwhile, I saw zoning officials going through my neighborhood telling the self-employed contractor he can't store building materials behind his house, telling the self-employed auto mechanic he can't fix cars in his driveway, telling the scrap metal salvager he can't dismantle junked cars in his yard, telling me I couldn't raise chickens. The guys cooking ribs on the street corners are ducking the health inspectors because they can't afford a license and the approved equipment. The city council passed new laws last year to restrict farmers markets and to discourage street vendors and door-to-door salesmen. We don't need a big nanny corporation to come in and give us jobs that will disappear just as quick as they appeared. We need the government to get out of our damned businesses and let us earn a living. But the journalists are asking the politicians, "How will you create jobs?" as though the only way you can possibly increase a household's income is to appoint the residents as someone else's servants.

Meanwhile, I'm looking at the whole picture and thinking, "You know, my frustration over all of this is still the same thing as the first time around. I'm raging against a world where it feels like others have more control over my life than I do." And it's not just me. And it's not just from people in my financial position. When I hear conservatives scream about taxes and regulations and losing their guns; when I hear liberals shriek about abortion rights and the need for social welfare programs; when I hear women and people of color, even those with good jobs or a good reason they don't have them, complaining of discrimination, I hear the same thing. People have seen the fence. They've been told that they can run free, and then they run to the edge of the yard and see that something is off limits to them. They didn't put that fence there. They didn't say, "Please, somebody limit my opportunities and choices."

They know somebody did limit them, though, even if they don't know who that somebody is. And that somebody, that fence builder, is the one in charge. He limits you. He defines the acceptable boundaries of your life and decides how far you're allowed to wander. Catching sight of his handiwork freaks people out. It doesn't freak out the dog chained to the tree. He thinks the dogs along the fence are ungrateful and spoiled and ought to all be chained to trees of their own. But the ones who thought they were free panic when they discover the limits of their freedom that someone else has imposed.

So why is it that the privileged people don't get freaked out? Why is it that the middle-class people brush off injustice and say, "Frankly, I just don't see myself as being oppressed. I think you get the opportunity you make for yourself," when they see people expressing frustration about externally-imposed limitations? It's because they can't see the fence. They're jumping and playing out in the middle of the yard where they were told to be. They haven't wandered out close enough to the fence to realize that it's there, or that there's anything worth seeing on the other side. They have all they need right where they are.

At least that's what they think. I think they're just stupefied by the luxury of their lifestyles. Imagine, for example, that you're walking down the street one day, and a van pulls up and stops alongside you. Men jump out, throw a black bag over your head, throw you into their van, and tie your hands and feet. You don't know who they are, where you're going, or why this is happening, and you scream. You scream your fool head off the whole way. Does it matter that they let you do that? Does the fact that you can complain loudly without being beaten into silence mean you're free? Of course you're not free. You're being taken somewhere against your will. There's nothing okay about that.

But what if, instead of it happening like that, you got a letter in the mail. The Department of Mobility and Economic Enhancement is notifying you that you've been transferred. This happens to everybody you know every so often, and it's always been that way. As the years go on, the government moves you to progressively nicer homes, jobs, and social circles. Or maybe it's the company you work for that's moving you around, doing what's best for you. You didn't ask for it, but you know what it is, you believe it's a good and necessary thing, and hey--it's always worked out for you. This time, the letter says you're being moved from your 2-bedroom apartment to a beachfront cottage, and you'll be making twice as much money for doing half as much work. The relocation crew will be by next week to pick you up and pack your things for you. No black bag over your head, no getting tied up, and you get to sit in the front seat. Better? Don't even think of screaming. That sort of thing is inappropriate and we expect better of you. Mind your manners and don't say anything controversial, and we'll let you sit in the front seat the whole way.

What's the difference between those two hypothetical events? Not a damned thing, that's what. In both instances, a person is being transported like livestock. Some other entity is deciding for you where you ought to be and how and when you're going to be placed there. But the person getting black bagged is going to be a lot more put out about it. He's going to panic and get aggressive and try to run any which way he can. The one sitting in the front seat is going to crank up the AC and listen to the radio. They may be going to the same place to do the same thing, but for the one who's tied up, it's hell. To the one in the front seat, the one who's tied up seems crazy and dangerous.

I once read that when you raise hogs, you should get them in the habit of walking to the place where they're going to be slaughtered. That way, when the final day comes, they'll happily join you for the walk instead of fighting and screaming the whole way. The defining difference between the workplace experience of middle-class and lower-class workers is whether employers do them the courtesy of taking them on that walk around the shed and giving them pats and treats and kind words along the way, or just chase them with a cattle prod until they're cornered.

So if you, in your middle-class job with all the perks that entails, feel that people beneath you are there because they lack your work ethic, ask yourself if you're putting the cart before the horse. Would you be as eager to go to work if you were them? If, rather than doing the work you went to college to learn how to do, you just got dragged off by circumstance to whatever dehumanizing labor would pay you a few dollars, would you feel as good about your job? Or would you resent it? The cozier your cage, the happier you'll be to stay inside it; but just because you stop fighting to get out doesn't mean it's not still a cage. As I indicated at the beginning of this post, it's not just about employment. It's about luxuries offered in exchange for obedience and conformity. The greater the incentives, the easier it is to rationalize away what you pay for them. When obedience and conformity are forced on people without sufficient treats to lure them into it, they resist, sometimes violently.

The thing to take away from this is that when you see those people getting loud an protesting something you don't think is any big deal, the difference between you and them probably has less to do with your personalities and more to do with what you've been offered to go along.

(Watch for my wife's comment arguing that it's not so much about what's being offered as what expectations the people were given in the first place. She says that it's less about the fact that there's a fence than the fact that the dogs in the yard were led to believe that there was no fence.)

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild

I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild again last night, my second time in as many nights. Wondering idly whether anyone else got out of it what I got out of it, I looked at some reviews just now. I really shouldn't have. It's like they were all written by the villains of the movie.

Whether patronizingly praising or just plain hateful, everybody whose review I read seems to think this was a movie about abject poverty. It's not. It's not about "overcoming poverty" or "enduring poverty" or "finding beauty in poverty" or "facing the crushing reality of poverty." It's not. It is NOT squalor porn. This is not How the Other Half Lives, Wetland Edition. That's not the point. It's merely the setting. Poor people have stories, too.

It was a story about alienation and separation and bootstrapping independence. It was about legacy. It was about becoming self-reliant through the realization that there are two kinds of people who will help you: the ones who love you but can't be counted on, and the ones who will tenaciously do you harm out of some philanthropic sense that it's "for your own good." It was about coming of age, individuating, asserting your own power. It was about resisting oppression. And none of that shit is peculiar to folks who forage for building materials and kill their own food.

It's just so jarring to me to see the shells middle-class people build around themselves to block out awareness of any way of life other than their own. When Hush Puppy's daddy went on about how good they had it and how much the drylanders' lives sucked, he wasn't crying sour grapes. He wasn't reassuring himself. He meant it.

(spoiler alert)

I saw commentators going on like they were all traumatized at seeing life in the Bathtub. They weren't even prepared to see the film. It's like they've got a caul over their eyes that needs to be peeled away first, a protective shell of unawareness they've built around themselves. The Bathtub wasn't the scary part. That wasn't the horror. That was home. The shelter was the horror. Like Hush Puppy said, "It didn't look like a prison. It looked more like a fish tank without any water." Think what that means. What's a fish in a tank with no water? It's contained, domesticated, controlled, but with the essence of life drained away. The tank's only contents is a helpless, dying creature on full display, deprived of even the basic dignity of privacy. It's the opposite of what I was talking about in Relearning Humanity. I about cried when I saw her standing there in that little blue dress, that grouchy white lady natterin' on about who-gives-a-shit what. That dress might as well have been a straightjacket and a hood.

It reminded me of Russell Means writing about when the Sioux were finally "pacified." One of the most traumatic parts of it for those people was that the government made them live in square houses. So much of their culture, their worldview, their religion, even their language, was built around their experience of living in tipis, and here they were confined to these wooden boxes, these coffins the Army called cabins. Where they had roamed the plains to follow their food as far back as anyone could remember, there were now fences, with the food just pacing around inside, waiting to die, itself like a fish in a tank with no water. And in generations to come, the children would be shipped off to boarding schools where they'd be punished for speaking their native language, sent off to jobs in big cities far away from their people upon reaching adulthood. It was an act of cultural and spiritual genocide. The government let the bodies live but tried to kill off the people living inside those bodies.

And none of those folks writing about all the trash and mud and bad parenting they had to look at in this movie are ever gonna get that.

[Edit: Ah, but this blogger does.]