The Legacy of a King

“A social movement that only moves people is a revolt. A social movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.” -MLK, Why We Can’t Wait, 1964, p. 117

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Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy is a touchstone of modern United States history. American children learn the story of MLK as one of triumph, of arrival at an American promise land of finally-delivered equality to long-suffering communities. That’s the abridged version, anyway. In reality, King’s infamous Dream of desegregation, of racial equality measured by economic equality, is pitifully underrealized in the U.S. today. As one example, the San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most diverse, liberal cities on the planet, and it is also segregated to a disturbing degree. (See the Tenderloin, Hunter’s Point, Japantown as compared to Nob Hill, Twin Peaks, Pacific Heights for details. Same goes for Oakland compared to Berkeley; East Palo Alto to Palo Alto.)

Even before his assassination, Dr. King enumerated the challenges of fighting for lasting equality in a scathing indictment of the American mainstream:

“The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity. Overwhelmingly America is still struggling with irresolution and contradictions. It has been sincere and even ardent in welcoming some change. But too quickly apathy and disinterest rise to the surface when the next logical steps are to be taken. Laws are passed in a crisis mood…but no substantial fervor survives the formal signing of legislation. The recording of the law itself is treated as the reality of the reform.” -MLK, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, 1968, p. 4-5

Unsurprisingly, King’s more complex philosophies are rarely quoted or brought up in The Civil Rights Story. It’s clearly in part because he’s truly radical in his articulation of justice. I also think it’s because his pronouns–such as “God,” “Negros,” and “Man”–can trigger intense discomfort in 21st century politics.

Most notably, King’s spiritual commitment and the Christian doctrine that founded his political activism seem misplaced in today’s ideological spectrum. Though they use similar vocabulary, the lunacy of today’s religious political activists– i.e. Michelle Bachman, Paul Ryan, and Todd Akin–are nowhere close to King’s expressions of compassion and equality.

“There are three dimensions of any complete life…: length, breadth, and height. The length of life… is not its duration or its longevity, but it is the push of a life forward to achieve its personal ends and ambitions. It is the inward concern for one’s own welfare. The breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others. The height of life is the upward reach for God. These are the three dimensions of life, and without the three being correlated, working harmoniously together, life is incomplete.” MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 36-37

For present-day progressives, I wonder if King’s reliance on ‘God’ to define a fulfilling human life makes his broader point harder to swallow? Has the pervasiveness of his Christian philosophy in his writings contributed to a highly abridged version of his legacy? Does it freeze his message in time, deeming it a distant relic, isolated from today’s brand of highly polarized politics?

“[M]an is a being of spirit. That is what the psalmist means when he says, ‘Thou hast crowned him with glory and honor.’ Man has rational capacity; man has a mind; man can reason. This distinguishes him from the lower animals. And so, somehow, man is in nature, and yet he is above nature; he is in time, and yet he is above time; he is in space, and yet he is above space. This means he can do things that lower animals could never do. He can think a poem and write it; he can think a symphony and compose it; he can think up a great civilization and create it.” -MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 17

As you can see, categorizing King based on today’s political standards gets complicated pretty quickly. In his written works, King reveals ideological loyalties that seem contradictory today: he’s both rational and spiritual, a modern philosopher and a devout practitioner. Within one argument, for example, King calls out the failures of America and the ‘West’ in manifesting its ideals by invoking a disembodied, God-like voice. Then, later on the page, he alludes to American Exceptionalism as a sound basis for pursuing justice:


“Oh, I can hear a voice crying out today, saying to Western civilization, ‘You strayed away to the far country of colonialism and imperialism. You have trampled over one billion six hundred million of your…brothers in Africa and Asia’…[and] It seems I can hear a voice saying to America: “You started out right. You wrote in your Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…’ But, America, you have strayed away from that sublime principle. You left the house of your great heritage and strayed away into a far country of segregation and discrimination. You have trampled over…your brothers. You have deprived them of the basic goods of life. You have taken from them their self-respect and their sense of dignity. You have treated them as if they were things rather than persons. Because of this, a famine has broken out in your land. In the midst of all your material wealth, you are spiritually and morally poverty-stricken, unable to speak to the conscience of this world. America, in this famine situation, if you will come to yourself and rise up and decide to come back home, I will take you in, for you are made for something high and something noble and something good.’ ”
-MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 29-30

I love reading King’s written works because 1) he’s a brilliant writer, and 2) they beautifully embody the natural contradictions of the human experience. His ideas and words soar above linear history and the limits of human nature, yet his vocabulary is surprisingly anachronistic, shaped by and for his unique moment in time.

His teachings, his actions, and the timeliness of his powerful vision established MLK as a leader of his era. But his overarching message rings true in any time: challenge what you see, challenge what you know, and challenge injustice with radical compassion until freedom and equality are both the letter and spirit of the law. His ability to express the richness of a pluralist existence resonates with a growing realization about our global fate:

“As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people…cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy… I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.” -MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 48-49

With that last sentence, it’s clear to me King’s legacy isn’t just a frozen moment, and it isn’t just a speech at the Lincoln Memorial or a ‘triumphant’ struggle for Civil Rights. His words indeed sparked a revolution, because he didn’t just move people, he moved them (and their kids) to an unprecedented breadth of social activism that we’re seeing flourish in our networks.

“It is true that these elements [the marching, the confrontations, the protests] have meaning, but to ignore the concrete and specific gains in dismantling the structure of segregation is like noticing the beauty of the rain, but failing to see that it has enriched the soil.” MLK, Why We Can’t Wait, 1964, p. 116-117

With the advent of the Internet, we’ve rediscovered our collective potential to propel social change. In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken estimates that well over one million nonprofits, NGOs, social enterprises, and grassroots community groups founded in the last twenty years constitute “the largest social movement in human history.” These organizations are part of King’s legacy, part of the kind of hope, resilience, creativity, and community building (and celebrity fundraising) that he led through Selma and Birmingham.

We’re in a time when we desperately need to regenerate ailing systems, to solve pressing global problems. Martin Luther King, Jr. for his divinely human beauty, the Hercules of progressive social change. But beyond leading his contemporaries, Dr. King also enriched the soil of political activism for the growth of future generations. Based on Hawken’s research, I think King’s nonviolent leadership and radical compassion did indeed start a revolution. I also think this is just the beginning, just the initial fruits of his reign.

I can’t wait to see them multiply.

This One Time in Israel…

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I had to get to the bus. Not just any bus, THE bus. The only one back to Jordan that day, leaving from Nazareth. I did not have lodging, and there’s no Joseph on this trip. I’m traveling alone. My friends had said, “Oh, don’t worry about getting around in Israel. All the signs will be in Hebrew and English, and the people will be helpful. It won’t be any trouble at all.”

Which is why I did not study numerals, letters, or basic sayings in Hebrew before going to Israel, like I did with Arabic for Egypt and Jordan. Which is why I kept myself awake on the first bus from Tel Aviv to Nazareth, communicating with the bus driver using strategic eye contact through his giant rearview mirror. “Do not let me miss my stop,” my bleary eyes said. “See? I’m staying awake and aware. I’m being self-reliant. I’m willing to follow instructions. Just please don’t let me miss my stop.”

My nonverbal deal with the not-at-all-friendly bus driver had begun earlier that day, when I climbed aboard the almost-empty bus at the creepily-empty bus station, and clearly looked confused by all the signs only in Hebrew (*ahem* see above).

5:00 a.m. — The bus driver asks, in halting English, “Which stop?”

“Nazareth.”
“Which stop?”
“Nazareth.”
“No– which stop?”
“…Uh…The central bus stop.”
“No. None.”
“Um, what?”
“Many stop in Nazareth. Which one?”
“I’m taking the next bus to Amman.” *shows driver name of bus company*
*shrugs* “No.”

Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhmmm WHAT?? Well… shit. I nod, point at my travel notebook (he glares, gives a curt nod, glares some more), take my seat, and frantically scour every scrap of information I’d written down for my trip. Confirmation codes, departure times and locations, arrival times and locations, bus line numbers, phone numbers… no bus station. All the other buses I’d taken had arrived at and departed from central terminals. I’d stupidly assumed Nazareth would be the same. Now I’m in Israel, it’s dark outside, I’m exhausted and can’t read anything, and I have no idea where I’m going. I also have a very tight timeframe in which I need to transfer from the first bus to The Bus to Amman. How tight, you ask? 20 minutes, give or take nothing.

(If you are related to me–particularly if you are my mother–I’d like to take this moment to remind you that I am currently writing this from the safety of my home, under a warm blanket, in one piece. [Which is more than can be said for most Palestinians. Just sayin’…])

So anyway, I’m on this bus, right? And it’s sooo effing early in the morning, and it’s just me ‘n’ this bus driver playing psycho-aggressive eyesies in the rearview mirror over the course of three hours and finally he just looks at me and nods. (Thank God I’d been paying attention.)

I grab my stuff, and walk to the front. It’s 8:02 am. The Bus to Amman leaves at 8:25. Three extra minutes.

“Get off here. Ask them. They will help you.” *points outside*

Ah, yes. The children with machine guns. Thank you, kind sir, for saving my ignorant American ass, and yes– I will go ask them. Nevermind that they scare the freaking ba-Jesus (Ha! It’s Nazareth. Get it?) out of me, or that I’m blown away by how much they look and act like they could be at summer camp. I’d been observing the Israeli soldiers through a few bussing adventures. They were everywhere, and they looked so, so young. Most made slight uniform adjustments to be trendier; some clusters would playfully tease each other, affirming a nuanced social hierarchy; and there was usually a shy one, standing off from the rest, sometimes reading. It was an absurd, eery echo of my own adolescence, but with much harder faces and much, much heavier artillery.

8:03 a.m.– I jump off the bus and walk to the mini-checkpoint-station that may as well be a telephone booth with 5-10 soldiers milling ’round with nothing to do. I show their leader (the one with the biggest gun who looks about 20) my handwritten itinerary. He scrunches a dark, furrowed brow.

“Where are you going?”
“Amman.”
“Hrm. Which bus are you taking?”
“Uhhh the [bus company name]. It’s the only one that goes to Amman.”

He turns to his right-hand not-yet-man. Spirited conversation in Hebrew ensues.

*throws hands in air* “I don’t know. It must be in the Arab side of town. Go with him, he’ll help you.” *gestures to Arab taxi driver*

Whew, thank goodness! I love taxi drivers (seriously) and at four weeks into my travels, I’d cobbled together a quasi-sensible Aranglish+gestures that worked more often than not. This is one of the ‘not’s.

8:06 a.m. — Chatting with the cabbie is getting me nowhere in terms of catching my bus. He doesn’t know what I’m talking about, and we’ve been driving around asking randos on the street. They don’t know where The Bus is either, though it doesn’t help that I don’t actually speak Arabic. Blood pressure rises. Sweating escalates.

8:15 a.m. — He pulls over next to a group of middle-aged men drinking tea, minding their business, and conversing. He talks to one of the men through the window. They repeatedly ask me to clarify what I’m looking for. I try to answer calmly, and successfully resist the urge to scream. Blood pressure rises. Sweating escalates. Feverish anxiety disrupts capacity for complete sentences.

8:16 a.m. — All hope is lost. And then…a look of recognition. Hurried speech in Arabic. Profuse thank-yous from the short-haired American girl fly frantically from the window as the cab drives away. Blood pressure maintains. Sweating continues.

8:21 a.m. — Driver and girl banter excitedly, unintelligibly. Questions are asked. None are answered. Speeding ensues. A stoplight is spotted; the light turns red. Blood pounds at temples.

8:23 a.m. — I can see The Bus on the other side of the intersection. People are boarding. We are waiting. Time stops.

8:24 a.m. — He guns it on green crosses the intersection flips a super-illegal U-turn pulls up to the curb looks back and smiles and waves and smiles and waves and shoos the girl out of the cab while she pays too much not enough tip. She runs into the ticket office and endures a stern lecture for tardiness. Agrees enthusiastically to accusations of personal incompetency. Smiles, nods, pays, smiles, nods. “Shokran!!!”

8:25 a.m. — I climb on to The Bus. It smells like urine. SweetJesusthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou I’m home-free.

Here’s what’s messed up: I traveled around more freely in a place I’d visited once than people who’ve lived there for generations can. The military presence of Israel–within Israel, not even Gaza or the West Bank–is overwhelming and terrifying, if only because teenagers are being given machine guns en masse, and without a lot to keep them busy. I am not an anti-Semite (say it with me now, “I am not an anti-Semite”) or a Holocaust denier, or harboring any negative sentiments about Jewish people or the Jewish faith, and I really appreciated the help of Israelis in the above story…but the Israeli government’s (note: NOT ‘the Jewish people’) calculated militarization of a region and terrorization of a people is sickening. So is the American media’s insistence on portraying the conflict as a war between equal political sides. The prevalent subtext is “This is a highly complex, ages-old global issue. Don’t insert yourself unless you know what you’re talking about, because you’ll be swiftly discredited if you try.”

Rather than start with a laundry list of atrocities exacted by either side, though, I’m offering two political truths:

1. This is not an ‘ages-old’ conflict. It started in 1947.
2. This is not a conflict of two equal, warring parties. Israel is a modern nation-state, afforded sovereignty and its accompanying rights. In our current international political system, statehood is the ultimate form of political agency, allowing for a people’s representation and empowered negotiation on their behalf. Palestinians do not have access to the political technology of the nation-state, making it much, much harder to advocate for their security interests on an equal playing field with Israel, nonviolently or otherwise.

People with real lives, real families, and real histories are being used as disposable political pawns (on both sides) in a twisted game of extremist chess, except one side was never given a queen and the other has a blank check from the United States.

This is not a war between equal and opposite forces. It’s an occupation. Many Israelis agree, and want to see the violence stop.

…Any ideas?

Image from BBC News.

I Love You, GIANTS!! [PHOTOS]

Dear San Francisco Giants,

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. By position, at first. And then…well then it gets a little ridiculous.

1. Matt Cain is a BAMF!!! Shut-out pitching AND a clutch RBI in Game 7? Yeeaa, buddy!

Matt Cain perfect game images

Too much amazing to get with just one photo.

2. Buster Posey. Always in the zone: calm, cool, collected. And thanks for that GRAND SLAM to save us, BUSTER!!!!!! And that fine, fine booty of yours. That fielder is choice, indeed. *Ba-dum-CH!*

Buster Posey MVP giants grand slam

#dreamboat

3. Surprise belts by Belt. After a season of first-pitch pop-ups, he hits a solo home run in Game 7 in the NLCS:

He hit the sweet spot.

4. SCUTAROOOOO!!!! He had a record-tying 14 hits in a single postseason series. Out of 29 at-bats. That’s a .482 batting average. IN THE NLCS!!!!!!!!! And that’s just offense.

Scutaro MVP NLCS 2012 Giants

Pure joy. 😄

5. Pablo. Sometimes, man…

Call me old school, but I have an issue with the gum. Not the slugger’s bat, just the gum.

VIDEO: Crawford saves Pablo’s buttahfingahs.

6. Brandon Crawford’s hops:

Brandon Crawford can jump like nobody's business

Damn, son. Hellof core muscles.

7. When the steroids leave, the team steps up. (see: Barry Bonds, Melky Cabrera). Dodger fans can be bitter all they want, but we’ve still made it to the Series twice in three years with a goofy band of miSFits. BOOYAH!!

8. Angel’s in the outfield.

Angel Pagan unbelievable catch image

Ummmm WHAT?!?! Yea, he caught that.

9. Like the majestic pelican, Hunter Pence is an odd combination of awkward grace and sweet moves. Just watch that guy bat, and try not to chuckle to yourself. Teeheehee…and then he gets two RBI. Dang.

Hunter Pence goes in the for kill NLCS 2012

Going in for the five-bomb.

Extra innings: Cutest bromance ever goes to Timmy and Wilson. Can’t get enough of their goofy-asstasticness.

Lincecum and wilson together forever 2012

Hug it out. Or shout out it. Hell, just keep doing that.

brian wilson before the beard

Yup, they were buddies before the beard…

Brian wilson and timmy fear the beard giants

..and they’ll be together to the end.

SF Giants pitching staff Lincecum Wilson images

NAILED IT!!!

Images found on San Francisco Giants Facebook Page, Zimbio.com, BayAreaSportsGuy.com, bustedcoverage.com, SFGate.com (Posey), BaseballasReligion.com, SFGate.com (Crawford), Yimg.com, SFGate.com (Wilson and Timmy 1), ManginPhotography.net (Wilson and Timmy 2), tumblr.com (Wilson and Timmy 3), and BleacherReport.com (Wilson and Timmy 4).

The Wisdom of Cecile Richards

Cecile Richards is the current President of Planned Parenthood and it’s action fund. I had the pleasure of hearing her speak at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, on October 10, 2012. In the current political climate, critical women’s rights are at risk of being curtailed. All people deserve access to education and services that support their best choices, for their values and purpose. Cecile Richards embodies the best of the civil rights movements of this country–courage, vision, voice, and service. A gigantic thank you to The Commonwealth Club, Mother Jones, Global Fund for Women, and NAWBO-SF Bay Area for making this event possible. There’s nothing like witnessing extraordinary leadership to inspire a new generation of activists.

“We’re like the Fandango of reproductive health care.” –on the ease of access to information on sexual health via Planned Parenthood

“It was about…being part of the community…and there’s nothing tedious or drudg[ing] about that.”
–on her exposure to political activism at an early age

“I don’t understand why women’s health care is a partisan issue. It’s not.” –on the intense political polarization around women’s health issues

“[It doesn’t matter] who is in office, we’re never going away.” –on the resilience and importance of Planned Parenthood to our social well-being

“The whole pro-choice/pro-life labeling is completely irrelevant in America [today]…The next generation isn’t really interested in any labels [around politics]…We have to think [critically] about labels and terminology that limit conversation [around these issues].”

“It’s not just about preventing pregnancy, it’s about sexual health. Are we ever going to be in a place in this country where we agree that sex is a good thing?”

“The fastest-growing patient population at Planned Parenthood is young men.”

“The last place these decisions [about family planning] should be made is in government and in the legislature.”

“Providing young people with comprehensive sex education is actually not a big turn-on. Young people with more access to information about STIs and birth control actually wait longer to have sex.” –on abstinance-only sex education

“Everything is bottom-up.” –on how Planned Parenthood has been using social media for their advocacy and messaging

“Social media is the most democratic vehicle we have now for stories people wouldn’t otherwise see.”

“As it turns out, young men in their 20s are just as interested in birth control as young women.”

“After Glen Beck’s comments about how ‘only hookers go to Planned Parenthood,’ it turns out a there were a few non-hookers who had visited and they started talking on our Facebook page.” –on of her most memorable moments in the past year of overwhelming popular response to partisan attacks on women’s health

“1 in 5 women have been to Planned Parenthood in this country.” –on Glen Beck’s above assertion

“I’m still stunned that we’re having this conversation again” –on the debate around the legality of contraception

Moderator: “A recent study showed that universal [access to] birth control would be the fastest, cheapest way to reduce abortion rates. Why do you think pro-choice and pro-life advocates can’t unite behind that?”
Cecile: “I honestly have no idea.”

“1/3 of our new Peer Health Advocates are young men.”

“That’s going to be the big difference in this country [for this generation]” –on advocacy amongst young men for women’s health issues

“Elected officials need folks on the outside to keep them moving in the right direction.” –on why she prefers advocacy and organizing to politicking

“The shaming that goes on with women in this country is inexcusable.” –on Sandra Fluke and ‘legitimate rape’ hoopla

“The more we can see women early-on and get them preventative care, the more women’s lives we can save.” –on the importance of breast cancer screening to women’s health

“By God, I hope in my lifetime we have a woman President of the United States.” –in response to a request that she run for President

“I cannot overemphasize how important it is for women to get in positions of power deciding policy.” –on how women can make the biggest difference in affecting social change

Cecile Richards earned Inforum’s 21st-century Visionary Award, presented by The Commonwealth Club. On October 10, 2012, she spoke and was interviewed by Clara Jeffery of Mother Jones magazine at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, CA. The event was sponsored in-part by NAWBO-SF Bay Area.

Stories International: Peaceful Islam?

cute peaceful muslim girls

Peace out, homegirls.

Update: As of Dec 15, 2012, this photo is the #1 search result for ‘peaceful islam’ on Google images. It appears in front of intensely violent photos and political cartoons: two smiling little girls in pink veils, throwing up peace signs. Right on.

There are many sides to any story, issue, religion, or hot-button event. How do we know which side is true, which one to believe? In the U.S. at-large, there’s a tendency to push forward examples of violent Islam over peaceful ones. If you’ve got a strong stomach–really, people, this is not for the faint of heart–try searching Google for images of ‘peaceful Islam.’ Surprised by pages upon pages of intensely violent imagery? Yea, me too. Except the search results today actually had some examples of non-violent Islam, as compared to earlier this summer when there were none. Still, the overarching idea I get from these photos is one of radical, violent Islam. Huh, interesting, Google. Might want to check your algorithm, and your definition of ‘peace’…

In response to an offensive video depicting the Prophet Mohammed, demonstrators in 20 countries across North Africa and the Middle East attacked U.S., British, and German embassies. Western media outlets have been all over these stories, perhaps trying tp prove the inherent danger of Islam. These violent reactions are clearly not accidents or flukes, nor are they simply a reaction to a single video. As the New York Times put it, the “broadening of the protests appeared to reflect a pent-up resentment of Western powers in general, and defied pleas for restraint from world leaders, including the new Islamist president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi.”

My Facebook newsfeed, however, has told another version of the story. Besides the violent attacks, I’ve seen multiple postings about peaceful protestors, people all over the world speaking up for an end to hateful messaging and policy. There’s the La Akrah tumblr (which means ‘I do not hate’ in Arabic), photos of Libyans mourning Chris Stevens, an article questioning The Innocence of White People, and this article contrasting Newsweek’s inflammatory cover with pictures of everyday Muslims fulfilling their right to pursue happiness. (Oh wait, that inalienable right is just for Christian Americans? Sorry, my bad.) It’s been a great example of why I love social media: because, rather than be subject to the Mighty Editorial Agenda of national media executives, we as users get to determine our own media influences.

On the whole, people tend to accept information supporting their pre-existing perception of the world. I know I’ve been sharing images and stories about peaceful Islam despite the fact that four Americans died after the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya. I can’t deny that some Muslims engage in violent activity to defend their religion. But I also can’t deny that Christians and Jews engage in violent activity to defend their religion (i.e. abortion clinic bombings and the systematic militarization of Israel’s youth). I just don’t think any good can come from persistently dehumanizing a whole segment of the world population, regardless of their religion, nationality, or ethnicity. The more we drown ourselves in exclusively supportive ideas, the harder it is to relate to those who disagree with us. I mean, who really benefits when regular people start negating nuance, stop communicating with our opponents, and become increasingly biased toward what we already want to believe? Extremists of all stripes, that’s who.

Social media is absolutely incredible because it can unite people across geographic borders and allow for generous self-expression. It’s the closest we’ve gotten to teleportation. On the flip side, our ‘likes’ feed into what we want to see and continually reinforce comfortable ideas.

Right now, I have no grand conclusions to offer on this violent, self-perpetuating clash of civilizations. Instead, I’m leaving it open-ended. But as Facebook continues to shape individual political consciousness, I wonder–and I hope you will, too–if we will start to see more intensely isolated social identities, or if these new media technologies will foster greater appreciation of the story on the other side. I’m personally hoping for the latter, even if Google seems to be confused as to the definition of ‘peace.’

Image from Association for Citizenship Teaching.

Overcoming Homophobia

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The cure for homophobia is compassion and acceptance, from all sides of the political spectrum. (And yes, lefties, I mean us, too. Right to left AND left to right.) But why us, too? Because radical empathy can resolve intractable conflict.

I wholeheartedly support marriage equality and gay rights. I’ve also had to get over my own fear of homosexuality. I’m pretty sure there are more like me who won’t admit it, but that’s why I’m writing this. I’m sharing my own story to show common ground can be found anywhere, in the most surprising places, and that that is where true political victory lies.

The Internet’s been crawling with political articles on gay marriage. A particularly incendiary letter, written by Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings, viciously mocked the idea that, if society respects gay rights, more people might “convert” people to homosexuality. Yea, it may sound ridiculous, but I know from experience that it’s not too far-fetched. Studies even suggest “homophobic people actually fear their own unconscious feelings.” I concur. I was totally one of those people.

Growing up in a moderately liberal household, I knew people who were gay, had friends and relatives who were gay. Hell, I was in band and drama in high school, which pretty much earned me a platinum ‘Ally’ card.

But as one of my drama friends told me, when explaining how she came out to her parents, “It’s different when it’s your kid. You can be ‘open-minded’ about other people, but there’s something more challenging about your kid coming out. It’s more personal, making it harder to overcome the stigma.” And again, I concur. It’s different when it’s you. It’s alright for ‘them.’ ‘Their’ lifestyle is fine with me. There’s a missing, unspoken piece to these sentiments, though: That being gay is alright for them–as long as it’s not me.

In college, one of my best friends came out to me before she was officially ‘out.’ I was taken aback by her admission, but even more so by my immediate reaction. When my friend told me she was queer, I got really, really, intensely uncomfortable. I totally freaked out. A hundred questions flooded my mind all at once: Does she have a crush on me? Is this the part where she makes a move? What happens when I say I’m not interested? What does this mean for our friendship?

Thankfully (more like thankfully x a bajillion), I held it together, and came up with something supportive, respectful, and unselfish to say. Underneath all the questions, though, I felt fear. Sticky, hideous, suffocating fear. I wasn’t afraid of my friend; I was afraid of myself.

I’m not afraid of much. I’ve traveled solo through Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Turkey. I’ve maneuvered out of sketchy places on dark nights. But no other kind of fear has even come close to the fear of my own bisexuality. The first time I felt it, I was twelve. It kept me awake at night, laying frozen in a cold sweat. When my college friend came out to me, I finally felt strong enough to face who I am.

I was afraid of being gay because I thought it would cost me dearly. I feared the reaction of my parents and my family and my friends. I was afraid they wouldn’t believe me, saying it was just an interim step to ‘going lesbian.’ And many years later, I realized I wasn’t willing to stand up for myself because I still harbored judgment about being gay. Despite my internal allowance for non-hetersexual identities, I hadn’t truly accepted–and celebrated–that being gay is normal.

Now, I’ve finally let go of my own homophobia. I’m lucky I’m only 25, and that I live in a time and a place where I don’t need that fear to survive. Most people in this country and around the world are not so lucky. Even with my personal experience, I can only begin to imagine the shadow they live under every day.

Still, I also feel for the people who are afraid homosexuality threatens their lifestyle. In some ways, it does. Imagine all the rules you know are based on who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong.’ Imagine believing the wrongful will be punished, and the righteous will be rewarded. Imagine you’ve sacrificed your critical thinking skills, your own desires, and your sense of self to following those rules. If one of them turns out to be wrong, it means they might all be wrong. It means your whole moral code is in jeopardy, and you might even unwittingly be one of the wrongful. It means moving past homophobia is way, way more frightening than those of us from liberal homes think it is.

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I pledge allegiance to RuPaul, and the United Takei followers of America.

For those of us who know that ‘gay’ can still mean ‘happy’ (I like to think of it as crossing over to Happy Shiny Rainbow Funland), we can help make the step away from homophobia less scary. “We’re already doing enough,” you might say. I don’t think so though. I think we can do more to show that compassion and generosity, gratitude and forgiveness–which are also deep Christian values–still count for something. If we can connect the dots between the values we do share, turn it into a navigable path from homophobia to normalcy, we might have a chance. I’m just praying to Freddie-Mercury-and-all-that-is-gay-and-holy that they follow the breadcrumb trail.

Homophobia is a debilitating social disease, and it must be eradicated. I personally hope it will come to represent the polio of the 21st century: a virtually nonexistent tragedy of the past. Frankly, I think we can use the same tactic to combat it in future generations: vaccination. Give kids early exposure to deactivated, ‘harmless’ homophobic ideas so they can recognize them, protect themselves, and eschew such poison effectively, efficiently, and without lasting damage to their impressionable minds.

It will take more than a social ‘vaccine,’ though. It will also take raising children to lead healthy sexual lifestyles, which includes honest understandings of their own sexuality. If kids grow up learning from their own bodies, knowing who they’re attracted to and what they like, and how to safely and positively negotiate sexual encounters using that knowledge, I think we can wipe out homophobia–and sexual violence, for that matter. Or, at least reduce the current epidemics of homophobia and sexual violence to extreme exceptions rather than demoralizing, everyday realities.

No matter where you are on the political spectrum, no matter what issue is at hand, empathy is possible. Actually, it’s critical. I owe my life and freedom to the radical activists who came before me. I will continue their radicalism until it’s no longer necessary, but with a slightly different bend: radical empathy, radical trust, and radical acceptance of my earthly bedfellows. Even with a small chance of success, I’m sure willing to try.

‘Cause I’m into this planet, baby, and it’s the only one we have. From where I sit, that means ‘all in.’ From each of us, for all of us, with everything we’ve got.

I’m all in. Are you?

Images from The Rag Blog and WallChan.com

United Cultures of America: The Wobblies

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Before the internet and social media, ‘the Wobblies’ could mobilize 300,000 workers across the United States. Whoa, dude… whoa. One of the most infamous labor unions in U.S. history, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) are known for their radical socialism, freedom of speech demonstrations, and their goofy, slanderous nickname. In honor of Labor Day, here are some fun facts about the Wobblies as an indelible political subculture within the United States. (Oh yea, and the Caribbean, Mexico, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and Germany. What’s up, international community.)

5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know about the IWW:

1. They had an unusually high percentage of Finnish-Americans as members. In the early days, their only daily newspaper was published in Finnish, out of Duluth, Minnesota.

2. They led the way for inclusive identity politics. When it was founded in 1905, the IWW was one of two American unions “to welcome all workers including women, immigrants, African Americans and Asians into the same organization.” LEGIT.

3. They changed labor policy in the San Francisco Bay Area. An integral part of the four-day 1934 San Francisco general strike and the eighty-three-day West Coast Waterfront Strike, the IWW helped unionize all ports on the West Coast. Today, “the city of Berkeley’s recycling is picked up, sorted, processed and sent out all through two different IWW-organized enterprises.”

4. They chose pickets over process. In 1908, the IWW split over a perennial debate in activist circles: is political action (working within the system to change it) or direct action (shut down the system so it’ll have to change immediately) more effective in achieving collective goals? Direct action won out for the IWW, starting their reputation for massive worker strikes and boycotts.

5. They’re still around. In the last twenty years, regional IWW efforts have organized bike messengers, sex industry workers, foodchain workers, food co-operatives, and Starbucks baristas (for real).

You don’t have to agree with their principles or even like the idea of unions, but the IWW has indisputably left their mark on politics in the United States. Over one hundred years before Occupy and the 99%, the IWW was more articulate, better organized, and ultimately more effective in achieving their goals. All of that, and before the Internet. Hot damn, that’s impressive.

Excerpt from the current IWW Constitution:
“There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.”

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All quotes and info synthesized from Wikipedia.org and my nerdy recollections of U.S. history classes.

Photo from Machete 408.