Category Archives: Race & Class & Gender

Connections

downloadIt was 2006. I was in the airport in Nairobi, Kenya and on my way to or way home from (I can’t remember at this point) two weeks at the UNFCCC negotiations for research. I remember missing the boys—it was my first long trip away from them. But I especially and will always remember being pulled out of that place into another orbit entirely as a vivacious and beautiful woman in her 70s (I later found out) started to gush to me about going on three weeks of safari for the first time in her life. Casual conversation about all the places she was going and how she was getting there (a helicopter in some cases) quickly turned to her sharing part of her life story of how she got there.

“You see,” she said, “you know what changed my life? I’ll tell you. I was on track to live my life as a housewife in 1954—the standard thing that was expected of me, from a good family, with good prospects for a husband, etc. I was working (in Texas, I think) when Playboy started. Hugh ‘found’ me and asked me to be on the cover. I was playmate of the month.” She went on to say that it was such a crazy thing, in the 1950s, to pose nude, but that Playboy managed to cut this difficult path through the center of the culture at the time by choosing ‘girl next door’ types from obscurity. And she talked about the restrictions, about how you were supposed to act because you were a bunny. But she talked more about all of the ways it changed her, the places she went, and, most importantly, the female friends she made. She described that world as being part of a family and, more importantly, part of a sisterhood with respect to being Playmate of the Month and a Playboy bunny as you were part of the fold. It took her out of the anticipated and expected life she was on track for and changed everything. She lived a life, now in her 70s, long after her centerfold days, that, based on that one risk, led to a life that she could say was fully lived on her own terms.

What amazed me about her description of the experience were two things: first, that the women who participated in the Playboy (magazine) world were like sisters who supported one another, and not just for the moment. For life. They were there for one another as they got married, or pursued careers, and showed up when things went sideways. And second, that Hugh Hefner was at the center of a lot of it. If he found out you couldn’t pay your mortgage, it would suddenly get paid, and then some. Long after you were no longer centerfold material.

I knew about Hefner’s conflicted legacy, about his role in the sexual ethics of his day which were (again) contradictory. And I knew that there were huge issues with the magazine and the mansion along the way, particularly as it related to the difference between working at one of the clubs and being in the magazine. But I never heard this side of things: that they acted as family to one another, as a bulwark against the constricted (in the 1950s) norms of the day, and as a *sisterhood*—words that would later only come to be associated with the sexual revolution and feminism. But there she was, in the Nairobi airport, a real Playmate of the Month—one of the first—singing the praises of how it changed her life and singing Hugh Hefner’s praises for still being there for her in her 70s. On her way to a three-week safari. And glowing with the vivaciousness of a life well-constructed, empowered, and well lived.

Suffice it to say that I will always remember that momentary connection turned hour-long conversation while our lives crossed in an airport waiting area. Haven’t thought about it in a long while–in fact, until Hefner’s passing and the multitude of Facebook posts one one side or another of that coin that was his life. We are all, each of us, contradictory, aren’t we? We are never all of one thing or another. It’s important to remember this in the line of making sense of things, including ourselves.

—Anna-Liisa Aunio

In Defense of Black Lives Matter

LivesMichael Richter claims to be criticizing social justice activists for their inability to appreciate nuance or to allow for a spectrum of different experiences and opinions within larger umbrella movements, but the article comes across as rant which does the exact four things he is trying to call out:

1. Has a Holier than thou tone.
2. Focuses on differentiation by reducing the complicated concept of allyship to a distinction between critical thinkers and “useful idiots”.
3. Is a blatant expression of narcissism, by which the author passes judgment on a bunch of perspectives he is completely out of touch with.
4. Holds unrealistic expectations for how to be a well-behaved activist who doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings.

The article oversimplifies complex social movements and political perspectives, and pits “good” activists against “pointless” and “petty” activists, solely based on the author’s personal feelings when confronted with their arguments. It seems to me to be an awfully transparent attempt to discredit anyone trying to expose hypocrisy, laziness or oppression within mainstream, whitewashed, NGO-led social justice activism, all the while claiming to be above inter-movement squabbling.

There is nothing new in this person’s observations (yes, activists are going to disagree with one another over theory and tactics, and sometimes these disagreements will lead to hurt feelings), and it might be excusable that he repeats a bunch of old, tired arguments if his attitude and ignorance towards the movements he’s insulting wasn’t actually a BIG part of the problem. He clearly doesn’t understand the action that took place at Toronto Pride, yet he feels entitled to reprimand people trying to hold their own community accountable, all in a way that is entirely in the tradition of Pride.

Black Lives Matter Toronto is a movement largely led by queer and trans Black people. Not only do those same individuals belong at Pride, they have always been a big part of the LGBTQ activist communities fighting for the social and political changes that make the lives of queer people better. Pride is supposed to celebrate their accomplishments and highlight injustices that still need to be addressed. That is what Pride is: it started as riots by trans and queer people of colour who were fed up with police violence against their communities, and those voices are STILL relevant. It is normal that there are people who are upset with the fact that the only voices acceptable at Pride today are either people who will celebrate the “victory” of equality for LGBTQ people, or unrestrained corporate sponsorship and co-option.

There are two really problematic things that Michael Richter says that really discredit his “critique” of BLM Toronto:

1. The BLM activists who led the sit-in at Pride are not outsiders seeking more attention. It is pretty gross to pit one marginalized group against another that way. These individuals are a part of the LGBTQ community that the Pride Toronto organization is supposed to represent. (And yes, Michael Richter, wrongly assuming that these activists were hostile, trouble-making outsiders who for some reason don’t belong there IS a tad racist). There are many queer and trans people of colour who are saying that when Pride increases its police presence and involvement, they end up getting harassed, stopped and arrested more – at events that are supposed to be FOR them. And when Pride allows the Toronto police department to have a float in the parade, it pushes a narrative that the police are saviours to the LGBTQ community, protecting them from gay-basher and homophobes, where the reality is that many factions of the LGBTQ community (people of colour, sex workers, drag queens and other performers, poor queer people) still suffer more violence at the hands of police than anyone else. That is an important perspective that deserves to be heard. And that is literally what Pride is supposed to be about: making systematic and state oppression against members of the queer community less invisible. Seriously though, how dare someone claim that these people and their message don’t belong there?

2. Another misguided and dismissive claim that the author makes is that people of colour and gay people “have a similar shared history of oppression and violence.” Not only is this statement false, it is made here simply for the purpose of silencing a group who is declaring loud and clear that in fact they do NOT experience oppression in the same way as rich, white gay people. Of course they don’t. A black trans woman growing up in a rough part of Toronto may have a very different relationship with the police than a gay white man living in a mansion in Markham. An queer immigrant without status can not access police services in an emergency and cannot go to Pride because if they get detained (which is more likely to happen to them than a white person at the same event), they may end up being deported. There are larger issues of gentrification within gay villages across Canada that have the effect of excluding poor queer people from spaces that were created as safe community hangouts for queer people. The value that these different perspectives bring to the table, even if they are sometimes expressed with anger and resentment, is completely lost on Michael Richter. That is his own weakness, not a failure on the part of the activists raising these concerns. What I see is a person who is afraid and unwilling to engage in these tough conversations, and so he is instead dismissing a broad and diverse group of people advancing legitimate and valuable critiques as a bunch of “smug assholes,” based solely on his own emotional reaction to their criticism.

I think that the same points can be made about his annoyance towards “fragmented” feminist groups. He is literally complaining that the dialogue about what meaningful feminism is has progressed beyond the simple statement that women and men should be socially equal. It was easy to believe in feminism when all it meant is that every aspect of our society should stay the same, except women should also be allowed access to the same opportunities as men. The conversations that are a lot harder to have are the ones about that point out invisible and systematic sexism within political and educational institutions, within our legal system, within socially acceptable hierarchies in the workplace or in other organizations, within pop culture, etc. It has always been hard to point out things that we have been socialized to accept as normal, and this kind of criticism has always been met with defensiveness or dismissed as overly sensitive or divisive. Discussions about rape culture and culturally enforced gender binaries are incredibly emotional. Discussions about the harms caused by carceral feminism or certain expressions of white feminism that validate state violence towards minorities or that render women of colour invisible are always going to be difficult to have. But they are not the enemy of social progress and to treat them as such is ridiculous.

The most harmful thing about this article is that it justifies its laziness and ignorance with regard to extremely important and complex political ideas by falsely claiming that there is some big scary powerful “THEY” out there saying that the only way to be an ally is to become an uncritical and arrogant puppet. The challenge of trying to be an ally is not dogmatic or one-dimensional. It simply means that you strive to responsibly engage with a struggle for social justice that doesn’t directly affect you. It means that you understand that your experience on a particular matter is inherently limited because you will never experience that particular kind of violence or oppression. It does not mean that you turn your brain off and follow orders. The fact that this author sees the concept of allyship this way shows me how out of touch he is.

What I see is a trend for every generation to feel entitled to unilaterally decide that the goals for social justice movements have been set high enough, and that anyone attempting to push them further along the progressive path is being unrealistic and divisive. Anyone attempting to promote an intersectional approach to social inequality is in fact hurting their own cause. This is not true. It is also a very self-serving point of view that pretends to be rational and objective, which in my view, is an extremely pervasive and dangerous form of moral cowardice.

—Ally Hobson

I’m Nobody’s “Ally”

All over political movements, particularly on the left, there’s a call for “allies”, which is to say people who are not of the particular movement’s core demographic (blacks, say, or LGBTs, or natives or feminists or whatever) but who are onside with the cause, supportive of the activities of the group.

I am not one of these.

Causes

Yes, it is true that I’m a believer in many causes.  Most of them are “leftist” by American standards (but of course these days Francisco Franco would be “leftist” by American standards…).  I believe in racial equality, for example, and think the current situation with blacks in the USA (or natives in Canada (or Turks in Germany (or …))) is a scandal of epic proportions.  I believe in gender equality.  I believe in spreading the wealth around so that we don’t have 99.9% of the populace owning less than 10% of the wealth.  There are numerous causes that I’m sympathetic to, and again most of them are, I stress, “leftist”.

I am, and never will be, however, an “ally” to any of them.  You will never see me participating in slacktivist “awareness-raising” of any of these things.  You will never see me “signal boosting” anything from these camps.  You will never see me in a virtue-signalling dogpile on Twitter or Facebook.  My politics are, to those who can read, pretty clear if you take a look at my social media presence.  I’m not a member of anything, though.

Activist toxicity

There is, of course, a reason for this: the toxicity of these groups.  Even with the best of intentions, social activist groups will and do, over time, become venomous caricatures of themselves.  Any hope that these will accomplish anything positive then dies.

Before I go into my guess as to the reasons for this, allow me to show some examples.

Consider, for example, a left/right-neutral topic like atheism.  Atheism is a pretty simple concept: “I don’t believe in supernatural entities” (gods).  I have to stress a lot these days, however, that I’m a small-a atheist, not a big-A Atheist because atheism as a notion has been hijacked.  What started off as a pretty simple, basic concept (there are no gods) has become a hugely obnoxious movement of smug assholes who think by virtue of being infidels they are intrinsically more logical and smarter than those who believe.  (The fact that this belief is a perfect example of a non sequitur fallacy is the only redeeming feature of these twits, largely because I enjoy watching unintentional irony in action.)

For another example, look at various feminist groups.  Why “various”?  Because the movement has fragmented so quickly since the relatively simple statement that women and men should be socially equal that there is no longer a single meaningful definition for what a “feminist” is.  Seemingly every year I see another schism developing as feminists turn in on themselves and tear each other to shreds over minor differences instead of focusing on what they have in common in a huge battle they have yet to win.

Let’s talk social justice now.  A perfect example is the “Black Lives Matter” movement who recently, in Canada, disrupted a Gay Pride event because they felt they weren’t being given enough attention.  Twice.  Here are two groups that have a similar shared history of oppression and violence (at least in the USA) and instead of working together one of them grandstands at the expense of the other (and, naturally, calls anybody who thought it was in poor taste “racists”).

Even mostly civilized web sites like The Good Men Project are showing signs of this disease.  A web site that has the tagline “The Conversation No One Else is Having” has a recently-republished article that tells a huge swathe of society to, and I quote, “shut up”.  How, precisely, do they think you have meaningful conversations after you’ve told people to shut up?  Does anybody out there who isn’t a deranged jackass think that this is how conversations actually work?

The entire political activist world, on both the left and the right, is replete with this kind of pointless, poisonous poppycock and, in my opinion, it undermines any cause these people purport to promote.  I used to actually participate in these kinds of groups and movements, but stopped after observing that they always go bad, sometimes in astonishingly short times.

The reasons

There are several reasons for this inevitable trend toward rancor and spite, I think.  These include:

  1. Holier than thou.
  2. Differentiation.
  3. Narcissism.
  4. Unrealistic expectation.

Holier than thou

This is the obvious one.  Human beings, even those who consider themselves “enlightened” like most political activists (again, left or right!) do, are intensely competitive.  If I believe that women should be given a fair shake in society, inevitably someone else will have to prove they’re more pure in their politics than me and say that not only should women be given a fair shake, they should be given a boost because of past mistreatment.  Then another imbecile will up the stakes more and yet another will raise them again until we get to the bizarre fringes of feminism where people seriously postulate that men should be preemptively jailed because they commit 90% of crime.

Every movement seemingly undergoes this transition.  What starts off as a relatively moderate (and sane) movement with large membership gets more and more extreme (and insane) over time, shedding the “dead weight” that won’t play the one-upmanship games.  Eventually the movement becomes an echo chamber resistant to any external mitigating influence and then really starts going into the deep end.

Differentiation

Human beings are tribal primates.  We like, as a whole, belonging to things “bigger” than ourselves.  We also like to make it clear that the things we belong to are different from the things someone else belongs to.

Let’s say we have two groups of atheists.  Both groups are very similar in makeup and in beliefs.  They have, naturally, by virtue of being human institutions, minor differences between them.  One, for instance, believes that we should demonstrate the superiority of the atheist lifestyle by being good examples of it.  The other believes that religious people need to be actively guided to atheism.

With these two groups being so similar, and with humans being so tribal and seeking to differentiate, it is inevitable that a schism will arise between these two groups.  The one that believes in the superiority of the atheist lifestyle, for example, may choose to start harping on and on about how superior they are to the religious.  The other group will, in a bid to be seen as different, start employing ambush tactics to abuse the religious in a misguided attempt to get them to “see the light”.  Both get pushed into more extreme directions on the small areas of non-intersecting belief simply because of our need to be different.

Narcissism

This is where that BLM Canada thing against the Gay Pride parade falls into.  Aside from the fact that BLM Canada is an utterly ludicrous movement to begin with, they’re also incredibly narcissistic.  How dare anybody pay attention to any group other than them for a single day?  Of course they had to grandstand and ruin the parade.  That was the only way to make sure that eyes were on them instead of another group.

You can see similar things in groups ranging as far as Greenpeace or, from the other side of the political spectrum, the witless “War on Christmas” types, not to mention the Men’s Rights Weenies complaining that they actually have to treat women with dignity these days.

Unrealistic expectation

This is more a disease of youth than it is of political activism.  It’s just that the stridently political tend to be young so it shows up in the political world most visibly.  Unrealistic expectations of things like “all racial disharmony will vanish tomorrow because we did such a good job of raising awareness” turn into dismay and bitterness when tomorrow comes and not much has changed.

See in the real world cultures change very slowly.  We have this bizarre belief in the west that our culture is changing rapidly because superficial changes tend to dominate our thinking and our reportage.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because our technology is changing like crazy, and with it the way we communicate (or fail to) that our culture must be changing equally as rapidly.

Of course if you have a slightly broader perspective on life, you’ll note that there are elements of, say, Chinese culture which have remained largely unchanged since about 3000B.C.E.  Or if you visit Europe, where historic things that are over a thousand years old litter the landscape around you, you’ll see just how much sheer cultural inertia there is.

Most young people, however, lack this perspective and as a result, when faced with dispiriting lack of visible change in the society around them, turn to ever more extreme ways of expressing their political will.

(This is probably the part where I bring up that old canard about how the perfect is the enemy of the good.)

So what does this have to do with being an ally?

At issue is that most political activist groups don’t want allies.  They want useful idiots.  I see, for example, in Twitter, a lot of groups–LGBT to name one at random–who are constantly calling for non-member “allies” to “signal boost” their tweets.  These “allies” are welcome so long as they do absolutely nothing but pass along whatever message the “real“membership wants to transmit.

If, as an “ally” you dare to engage in conversation that isn’t purest “yes man” stuff, be prepared to be excoriated or even eviscerated for daring to “undermine” the movement.  You will be shouted down.  And if you refuse to be shouted down you will be shunned, demonized, and dogpiled upon.  You will, by refusing to be the useful idiot, be turned into the enemy.  You will be doxxed.  You will be harassed.  You will, eventually, be evicted from a movement you believe in because you dared, as a person who wasn’t a core member, to have an opinion of your own.  (You’ll be DOUBLY damned if you’re actually right!)

What do you do instead?

Me?  I work on individuals.  I find someone potentially receptive to a message like “you know, there’s no reason to think Muslims are Satan Incarnate”.  If it looks like the seeds are falling into fertile soil, I ramp it up a bit.  If it looks like the person is just not going to take up the message I move on.  If I see an activist group operating in the same place, I leave.  I leave because I know where it’s going to go (nowhere good) and I have better things to do with my time than to fight with deaf and/or illiterate zealots.

Yes, my work on these causes isn’t as splashy as the huge grandstanding efforts of the politically strident, but I allow myself the conceit that in the long term it’s more effective.  And I can look at myself in the mirror without wondering what I’ve become.

An ally’s life is simply not for me.

Celebrating Diversity

benetton-races_3481677bIf you wish to learn about Australia, talk first to Australians and those who’ve actually been to Australia; if you wish to learn about war, talk first to people who’ve actually been to war; if you wish to learn about parenting, talk first to people who actually have kids; and if you wish to learn about racial profiling, talk first to people who’ve actually experienced it. What these people have to say doesn’t have to be accepted as gospel truth. It can be criticized, even rejected; but it deserves special consideration. While it’s true that all men are created equal, it does not follow that all men’s perspectives are created equal.

Few communities are less diverse than that which clamors for diversity. And I say this as a member of that community. Most of my friends who celebrate diversity think they’re looking at real diversity when they look at a Benetton ad. These are the same people, incidentally, who’ll say a Facebook thread is insufficiently diverse for similarly superficial reasons.

We tend to think of diversity only in terms of race, gender, and, to a lesser extent, class and sexual orientation. This is a remarkably blinkered view of diversity. What about religious diversity? After all, white Pentecostals tend to have far more in common with black Pentecostals than they do with white atheists or white lesbians. What about political diversity? Ideological diversity? Linguistic diversity? Geographical diversity? Even diversity of brain function! I’ve had long conversations with high-functioning autistics. Their view of the world is radically different, and thoroughly fascinating: it’s like meeting a talking salamander. Our elders, the very old amongst us, are also often in possession of some much needed perspective. Same is true of the mentally ill, especially those who struggle with schizophrenia. Any comprehensive conception of diversity ought to include their views too.

Demanding diversity for diversity’s sake is about as silly as demanding art for art’s sake. We need to remember that there’s nothing inherently good or bad about diversity in and of itself. It’s important solely because different people bring different things to the table, and people unlike ourselves often notice things we miss. If we’re ever going to make sense of this world of ours, we’ll need a real diversity perspectives, a diversity of perspectives not presently found amongst those who celebrate diversity.

If you’re talking about diversity, “Should we or should we not be a multicultural society?” isn’t the right question. Because nobody’s trying to make our great metropolises multicultural, they already are multicultural. And they’ve been multicultural for well over a century. As such, the right question to ask is “What do we do about all of this diversity?” In the first half of the twentieth century, the prevailing solution was to enforce majority norms. Among other things, this led many immigrants to change foreign-sounding names to English-sounding names. Jerome Irving Cohen became J. I. Rodale. Charles Dennis Buchinsky became Charles Bronson. The more recent solution is to celebrate diversity. There are obvious advantages and drawbacks associated with both of these strategies. But that’s besides the point. Diversity is a fact on the ground. Anyone who fails to acknowledge that is arguing in bad faith.

—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2017)

Halloween Blackface

960Alex and I were obsessed with Eddie Murphy that year. We’d watched Delirious (1983) and Raw (1987) dozens of times over the summer and knew every joke by heart. I was dressing up as Eddie Murphy for Halloween. Of that I was sure. The only question was whether I’d go with the red leather Delirious outfit or the purple leather Raw outfit. Thank God my mom talked me out of it! It was 1988, I was thirteen, and my intentions were entirely innocent: I wanted to be Eddie Murphy the way other kids wanted to be Superman. But, in her infinite wisdom, my mom explained why that didn’t matter. “White guys dressing up like black guys to be funny: that’s got a history, John.” Why, in 2016, are we still dealing with this? Why, in 2016, does my old friend Lateef have to tell a grown woman in blackface at Comic-Con: “Um, lady, that shit’s got a history.”

“You’re like a peanut-butter allergy with a pulse!” That’s what the frustrated interlocutor said, to a Facebook friend of mine, who takes this whole cultural appropriation thing way too far. “Why fret about relatively minor things like cultural appropriation when most of the reserves don’t have clean drinking water? When young black men walking around after dark are guilty until proven innocent?” Although I’m often sympathetic to this line of argument, I can’t help but notice how utterly ahistorical it is. Has there ever been a racist society that conceded big time on a bunch of symbolic stuff whilst going with the status quo on the big issues? I haven’t been able to find one; and I’ve been looking, for quite some time. Seems to me like the big stuff and the little stuff change at more or less the same pace. And that would seem to indicate that this is a false choice, that you can sweat the small stuff and, at one and the same time, work towards changing the big stuff.

Look, I’ll readily concede that there are oversensitive outrage junkies in this world, and we need not be held hostage to their silliness. But I think those folks are actually quite rare. Way more common is the kinda guy who waltzes into a synagogue eating a ham sandwich and then wonders why everyone’s giving him dirty looks. Way more common is the kinda white chick who waltzes into John Abbott College on Halloween dressed up like Pocahontas and then wonders why all of my native students are giving her dirty looks. Finding these changing times confusing? Not sure what’s kosher? Here’s a handy heuristic, something that’ll help you chart a course through these troubled waters: If you can avoid being a dick, avoid being a dick.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

The True Face of America on the Screen

butch-cassidy-and-the-sundance-kidDuring casting for The Godfather (1972), Francis Ford Coppola got into a huge fight with his producers over who to cast in the central role of Michael Corleone. It was an epic battle that nearly cost Coppola his funding. The producers wanted blonde, blue-eyed Robert Redford to play Michael Corleone, whilst Coppola insisted that this was absurd. Corleone’s character is Sicilian; and, as he put it, “we need to see the true face of Sicily on the screen.” And that meant someone who “looked the part”, someone whose appearance resembles that of the average Sicilian: black hair, olive skin, brown eyes. Eventually Coppola prevailed and cast Al Pacino in the role of Michael Corleone. That role made Pacino’s career what it is today.

The black actors calling for a boycott of the Oscars seem to want the same thing Coppola wanted: namely, a reasonable degree of artistic realism. They’re not saying nominate me because I’m black. They’re saying stop casting Robert Redfords in roles made for Al Pacinos. They’re saying, to paraphrase Coppola, “let’s see the true face of America on the screen.”

At present, we’re not seeing the true face of America on the screen. Quite to the contrary. “And therein,” writes LaTasha Baker, “lies the problem. Emma Stone had a role whose character was written to be Asian. Renée Zellweger’s character in Cold Mountain was a biracial woman in the book on which it was based. And let us not forget how the lovely Rita Moreno and Chita Rivera, actual Puerto Ricans, played subordinate characters to Russian-American Natalie Wood as she played the lead character, a Puerto Rican. The black female character in Gone Girl was completely written out of the screenplay. You cannot tell a group of people that maybe they didn’t get recognized because they weren’t talented enough when they never even got a chance at bat.”

It’s interesting to note that many of the very same people who are highly critical of what LaTasha Baker is saying have no problem with what Coppola said. Apparently art should imitate life if it’s Italian but not if it’s black.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Once I Was Blind, But Now I See

“Once I was blind, but now I see.”—John 9:25

Eastern_Bluebird-27527-2Walking through the woods with a seasoned birdwatcher, someone like my cousin Michael, is a mind-blowing experience. You see things you’ve never seen. Hear things you’ve never heard. It’s like a veil is lifted, revealing a whole new world: a magical world, that was always there. I’ve spent years and years exploring the forests of Mount Royal Park. And I thought I knew them pretty well. Far better than most. But my cousin and his wife disabused me of this notion last summer. I went for a walk on the Mountain with them whilst they were in town. Michael and May live in BC, and it was their first time on the Mountain; yet they saw things I’ve never seen, and heard things I’ve never heard. Not, I hasten to add, because they’ve got superhuman senses (Spider-Man’s hearing, Superman’s sight), but rather because they’ve been avid birders for decades. They’ve trained themselves to see what’s always there, what the rest of us miss.

What’s true on the Mountain is true of intellectual life: if you’ve spent years and years training yourself to see one particular feature of the human world, such as race or class or gender, you can probably see a great deal that the rest of us miss. Seeing the world through your knowing eyes is something we should all do from time to time. Because it’s good to know where the monsters are concealed, and how the patterns are revealed. But it’s also good to remember that there are other deeply meaningful things going on in the forest besides the birds. I’ve yet to meet a birder who believes birds are the only thing worth seeing in the forest, just as I’ve yet to meet an entomologist who believes butterflies are the only thing worth seeing in the garden, but I’ve met plenty of intellectuals and activists who seem to believe that the particular pattern they’ve trained themselves to see is the only the pattern worth seeing.

Our progressive profs promised us a Savior in grad school: a solution to this problem. The Hydra-Headed God of Intersectionality was supposed to rescue us from rocks and ruin. But She didn’t. And She hasn’t. The problems and the patterns remain: most working-class white guys who grew up poor seem to like to talk about class a whole lot; most middle-class white women foreground gender; and most POC try to get us to remember race. To some extent this is a simple function of privilege. Privilege is, after all, for the most part invisible to those who possess it. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find a wealthy white woman who only seems to see sexism. Nor should we be surprised to find a middle-class African-American man who only seems to see racism.

Be that as it may, claims and counterclaims of epistemic privilege aren’t going to get us anywhere interesting. Same is true of personalizing and demonizing. We’ve been down those dismal roads before. And we know where they lead. We’ve been to those lonely dead-ends. So perhaps it’s time to remember, instead, that we’re an intensely social species, blessed with language and imagination. Perhaps it’s time to remember that we’re incredibly good at learning from each other. Perhaps it’s time to go for a walk, a long walk, in the woods. Show me where the birds are, friend. You’ve got my full attention.

I can’t wait to see what you see.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

In Praise of the Welfare State

The-Wire-HD-BluI learned about white privilege from the streets, not the classroom. My teachers were teenage criminals who spoke in plain, easily-accessible English (or French), not jargon-laden academics with PhDs in sensitivity. The lessons I received from them were practical and experiential, not theoretical. And they made me pretty good at stealing stuff for a spell. Like many bratty kids from my neighborhood, I went through a shoplifting phase when I was a teenager. Like many other social animals, such as wolves, my friends and I hunted in packs and employed a coördinated strategy that played upon the weaknesses of our prey.

Our intended prey was the store staff; their racial prejudices were the weaknesses we exploited. We were four, more often than not: one black kid and three white kids. After carefully choosing a store, we’d enter it separately. The black kid would immediately attract all of the staff’s attention. It was amazing! The kid didn’t have to do anything suspicious. Didn’t have to smell like weed. Didn’t have to dress like a thugged-out rapper. Didn’t have to wear dark sunglasses. Nothing. He just had to be black. That was enough. The staff would be totally fixated on the black kid and follow him around the store while me and the other three white kids robbed the place blind. The four of us would meet up about an hour later, usually at a metro station, and divvy up the spoils. Incidentally, the dude who finally caught me at Galeries d’Anjou was a sweet, middle-aged Haitian guy. He caught me and my degenerate friends precisely because he wasn’t blinded by racism.

I met my black doppelgänger at a rooftop party in Baltimore. It was 2000 and we were both 25. We had the same metrosexual mannerisms, same ridiculously loud laugh, same taste in music, same taste in literature, same strange obsession with snakes and salamanders. But it gets weirder still: because, as it turns out, we were both raised by single-moms on welfare, in rough neighborhoods. Both of us went through a super religious phase in our early teen years, followed by a troublemaker phase. Both of us changed schools often and repeated the 10th Grade. I could go on and on: it was eerie. And yet our lives couldn’t be more different: I was in Baltimore on a full scholarship, in a PhD program at Hopkins, whilst he had just gotten out of jail. Six days ago! He’d been in prison for the last seven years—seven years!—for drug offenses that wealthy Hopkins undergrads regularly get probation for.

My life could have been his life. But it wasn’t. And it isn’t. Because I grew up in Canada. And he grew up in Baltimore. Because I grew up white. And he grew up black. Because I grew up in a place where poor kids get to go to well-funded public schools that provide them with a high-quality education, an education which can take them wherever they wish to go. And he grew up in a place where poor kids are forced to go to crappy public schools which are crumbling, crowded, and chronically underfunded—schools that provide even their best students with a substandard education that hobbles them for life. Because I grew up in a public housing project that was clean and affordable—a place that allowed us to live our lives with a certain amount of dignity. And he grew up moving from one overpriced cockroach-infested shithole to the next. Because I grew up in a place where poor kids get the same universal healthcare available to children of the rich. And he grew up waiting nine hours to see a nurse at the free clinic. Because I grew up in a place that gives bratty kids lots and lots of chances to get their shit together. And he grew up in a place where a few stupid mistakes can seal your fate for years.

My life could have been his life. But it wasn’t. And it isn’t. Because I grew up in Canada. I grew up in a secular society informed by quintessentially Christian values: such as sharing, forgiveness, and compassion. What is the modern welfare state, after all, if not an amazingly ambitious application of Christian ethics? Is it perfect? Of course not. It’s a flawed and imperfect work-in-progress, like everything else in this fallen world of ours. But when did we stop seeing how breathtakingly beautiful it is? Why did we allow sneering cynics to make us feel so thoroughly ashamed of ourselves? What’s wrong with our values? What’s wrong with trying to take care of each other? What’s wrong with trying to institutionalize the virtues Jesus stood for in a social safety net? We keep reaching for fig leaves, friends, when we really ought to be dancing in the streets, celebrating in the alleys, and shouting from the rooftops: Thank God Almighty for the Welfare State!

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

Richie Riches in Self-Made Drag

Should we be defined by what we’ve done in the world or by what the world has done to us?

765425Choosing the terrain on which you meet your enemy is of paramount importance. The three truly great treatises on the art of war—Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Art of War (1521), Carl von Clausewitz’s On War (1832), and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War—are in agreement on this: battles are won before the fighting even starts by wise leaders who know which terrain plays to their strengths and which terrain plays to their weaknesses. I witnessed this often on the battlefield of the graduate school seminar.

Though we all paid lip-service to the Hydra-Headed God of Intersectionality, when it really came down to it, the working-class white guys who grew up poor (like me) would invariably (and, in retrospect, rather predictably) try to steer the seminar discussion towards a CLASS analysis of whatever we were talking about (even when it really didn’t fit); the middle-class white women tried to steer the seminar discussion towards a GENDER analysis of whatever we were talking about; and the visible minority students tried (often, alas, in vain) to get us to remember RACE.

Sometimes it felt like we were trapped in a perverse academic version of The Olympic Games, wherein we were all being forced to compete for a gold medal in BEING A VICTIM. At other times it felt like we were trapped in a dystopian intellectual version of The Hunger Games, wherein we were all being forced to tear each other apart to survive. Alas, it’s easy to see all of this as horribly cynical. But, truth be told, I doubt any of us were consciously trying to be manipulative. Privilege is, after all, for the most part invisible to those who possess it. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find a wealthy white woman who only seems to see sexism. Nor should we be surprised to find a middle-class African-American man who only seems to see racism. Be that as it may, a military man like Machiavelli might suggest that me and my fellow graduate students were all, albeit unwittingly, fighting for the higher ground.

On an actual battlefield, the high ground is usually the most desirable position. Sun Tzu stresses this, time and again: the fighting force that fails to identify and seize control of the high ground is almost always forced into a reactive, defensive position. Opportunities for offensive action are highly circumscribed. By contrast, the fighting force that occupies the high ground gets to set the terms of the engagement.

On the battlefield of the graduate school seminar, the moral high ground is the most desirable position. A graduate student who fails to identify and seize control of the moral high ground is forced into a reactive, defensive position (e.g., trying to prove that she’s really not a racist, that he’s really not a sexist pig, etc.). By contrast, the students that successfully come to occupy the moral high ground in the graduate seminar get to set the terms of the engagement. It’s a powerful position. No doubt about that. But I wonder if it’s really worth fighting for. Should we be defined, first and foremost, by what we’ve done in the world OR by what the world has done to us?

Highborn patrician Publius Clodius Pulcher unwittingly inaugurated a pernicious political tradition when he reinvented himself as Joe Average to get elected in 59 BCE. Our upper class is filled with Richie Riches masquerading as self-made men. In fact, my guess is that the number of rich people who conceal their privileged origins in 21st-century America is roughly equivalent to the number of noblemen who hid their humble origins in ancien-régime France. My friend Clayton Bailey refers to this process as “privilege laundering”. Ambitious social climbers used to invent aristocratic ancestors; these days, they fabricate histories of oppression and talk incessantly about their underprivileged ancestors. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Trudeau’s Hotness

11230109_10156175696195068_6632135282872998127_nDISCLAIMER: While I do in fact have eyes, and can therefore note the new Leader of the Great White North is in fact …. smoking fuckin’ hot… I have to confess, having actually met him on a number of occasions, that while he’s pretty to look at? He’s actually not my type. I’m 5′ even on a day when I stand up super duper straight and fluff my hair a bit. And I feel like a little kid when I am with guys his size, as I barely come up to his rib cage! (The new PM is also super ridiculously crazy tall. Well, compared to me, anyway). I actually used to have “if you’re over 5’8″ please don’t bother messaging me!” in my online dating profiles, and I wasn’t kidding. On one of our first dates, my husband told me he was 5’5″, and I jumped across the table and kissed him, because I’d never heard a man admit outloud that he was less than 5’7″ before. Fifteen months later, I married him. So while I can indeed see that Canada’s Favourite Boy Scout is fiiiiine, I am not one of the many women who has JT on her “Freebie List.” This piece is in defence of those men and women who do!

Recently, there’s been an outcry that it’s not okay to point out that in the case of our new Prime Minister, it seems PM stands for Pretty Manly and Positively Magnificent. The argument goes something along the lines of either “it’s not okay to say that about women so why is it okay to say about him?!” or something about how talking about someone’s sexuality without their consent isn’t cool, is objectifying, and reducing them to a “thing”.

With regard to the second argument, I think there’s a way to point out someone is attractive without being gross. Being gross is never okay. And I’ll totally admit that some of the commentary on our completely fine PM is way over the top, the kind of stuff that should be reserved for bedrooms, not boardrooms! Stuff that is disrespectful to someone’s marriage and their own personhood. That’s completely not cool.

But I will take issue with the argument that because it’s not okay to say something about women leaders, it’s not okay to say that same something about male leaders.

There is a huge, massive, major difference between how men and women and their sexuality are viewed in mainstream society. A man’s sexuality has never, EVER taken away from the assumption he is also competent and capable. It, a woman’s sexuality that is, does take away from the assumption she is competent and capable when we’re talking about a woman’s hot factor. Well, actually, no, maybe it doesn’t, because it’s always assumed women are, well, women first, and competent later. If ever. So adding that she’s hot on top of it is just another layer of stuff to dig through before mainstream society sees her as competent and capable.

There is absolutely a double standard, and that’s because they are different. Men and women are equally capable of being competent, effective leaders. Of learning, of leading, of governing. But when it comes to how women and men are perceived as sexual and intellectual beings, It’s apples and oranges. Pointing out the fact the good Lord spent just a little extra time on Justin doesn’t demean Mr Trudeau as a PM, or imply he’s just a hot body and great hair. But there’s no way to seriously put forward the idea his sex appeal is not part of his overall appeal. Let’s face it, he won the election when the accompanying picture here went all over Canada, and women fell in love with the guy who handed a woman beater’s ass to him in the boxing ring, and then got kissed passionately by his wife after as if she was breathing fire into him. That has to be one of the hottest, sexiest pictures ever taken of a national leader in any country!

And no one thinks that makes him less capable as a leader. Now, a woman would absolutely be thought of as less capable due to the fact she’s a woman and seen as sexual. Somehow, we can’t be seen as sexual and be taken seriously at the same time. And so no, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to point out the sky is blue the PM is hot simply because it’s inappropriate to point out a woman in his position is hot. Instead, I lament that women have to be stripped of their hotness to be taken seriously as leaders. Because I’d prefer to live in a world where one could admit they find a woman sexually appealing without that being either a physical threat to her safety*, or essentially saying that her value as a human begins and ends with the fact that she is sexually appealing.

But we don’t live in that world. Yet.

*let’s face it, the world we live in, that is in fact what it is for many women when they are told some man finds them sexually appealing: sure, most men probably won’t rape us. And we aren’t stupid; we know that! But here’s the thing: we don’t know which men will, and which men will not, until after we’ve put ourselves in the position where he can… and yet chooses not to do so. And yeah . . . that’s not a risk many women are willing to take until we know a man quite well

—Wendy KH