The Devout Agnostic

by Jay Parr

Sunrise as seen from orbit. Taken by Chris Hadfield aboard the International Space Station.

I am a devout agnostic. No, that is not an oxymoron.

After considerable searching, study, and introspectionand, having been raised in the Protestant Christian tradition, no small amount of internal conflictI have come to rest in the belief that any entity we might reasonably call God would be so alien to our limited human perceptions as to be utterly, and irreconcilably, beyond human comprehension.

Gah. So convoluted. Even after something like a dozen revisions.

Let me try to strip that down. To wit: Humankind cannot understand God. We cannot remotely define God. We wouldn’t know God if it/he/she/they slapped us square in the face. In the end, we cannot say with any certainty that anything we might reasonably call God actually exists. Nor can we say with any certainty that something we might reasonably call God does not exist.

Splash text: I don't know, and you don't either.

To horribly misquote some theologian (or philosopher?) I seem to remember encountering somewhere along the way, humankind can no more understand God than a grasshopper can understand number theory.

I mean, we can’t even wrap our puny little heads around the immensity of the known physical realm (or Creation, if you prefer) without creating incredibly simplistic, and only vaguely representative models.

Let’s look at some of the things we do know. With only a handful of notable exceptions the entirety of human history has happened on, or very near to, the fragile skin of a tiny drop of semi-molten slag just under 8,000 miles across. That’s just under 25,000 miles around, or a little more than two weeks’ driving at 70 mph, if you went non-stop without stopping for meals or potty breaks.

Freight train in the American west, looking dwarfed by the landscape, with mountains visible in the far-off distance.

Even that tiny drop of slag can feel pretty vast to our little human perceptions, as anyone can tell you who has been on a highway in the American West and looked out at that little N-scale model train over there and realized that, no, it’s actually a full-sized freight train, with engines sixteen feet tall and seventy feet long and as heavy as five loaded-down tractor-trailers. And even though you can plainly see the entire length of that little train, it’s actually over a mile long, and creeping along at seventy-five miles per hour. Oh, and that mountain range just over there in the background? Yeah, it’s three hours away.

If we can’t comprehend the majesty of our own landscape, on this thin skin on this tiny droplet of molten slag we call home, how can we imagine the distance even to our own moon?

To-scale image of Earth and the Moon, with the Moon represented by a single pixel.

If you look at this image, in which the moon is depicted as a single pixel, it is 110 pixels to the earth (which itself is only three pixels wide, partially occupying nine pixels). At this scale it would be about eighty-five times the width of that image before you got to the Sun. If you’re bored, click on the image and it will take you to what the author only-half-jokingly calls “a tediously accurate scale model of the solar system,” where you can scroll through endless screens of nothing as you make your way from the Sun to Pluto.

Beyond the Moon, we’re best off talking about distances in terms of the speed of lightas in, how long it takes a ray of light to travel there, cruising along at about 186,000 miles per second, or 670 million miles per hour.

On the scale of our drop of moltener, Earthlight travels pretty fast. A beam of light can travel around to the opposite side of the Earth in about a fifteenth of a second. That’s why we can call that toll-free customer-service number and suddenly find ourselves talking to some poor soul who’s working through the night somewhere in Indonesiawhich, for the record, is about as close as you can get to the exact opposite point on the planet without hiring a more expensive employee down in Perth.

Earthrise_apollo8_19681224_NASA_500crop

That capacity for real-time communication just starts to break down when you get to the Moon. At that distance a beam of light, or a radio transmission, takes a little more than a second (about 1.28 seconds, to be more accurate). So the net result is about a two-and-a-half-second lag round-trip. Enough to be noticeable, but it has rarely been a problem, asin all of human historyonly two dozen people have ever been that far away from the Earth (all of them white American men, by the way), and no one has been any further. By the way, that image of the Earthrise up there? That was taken with a very long lens, and then I cropped the image even more for this post, so it looks a lot closer than it really is.

Beyond the Moon, the distances get noticeable even at the speed of light, as the Sun is about four hundred times further away than the Moon. Going back up to that scale model in which the Earth is three pixels wide, if the Earth and Moon are about an inch and a half apart on your typical computer screen, the Sun would be about the size of a softball and fifty feet away (so for a handy visual, the Sun is a softball at the front of a semi trailer and the Earth is a grain of sand back by the doors). Traveling at 186,000 miles per second, light from the Sun makes the 93-million-mile trip to Earth in about eight minutes and twenty seconds.

iss-sun-over-earth

Even with all that empty space, our three pixels against the fifty feet to the Sun, we’re still right next door. The same sunlight that reaches us in eight minutes takes four hours and ten minutes to reach Neptune, the outermost planet of our solar system since poor Pluto got demoted. If you’re still looking at that scale model, where we’re three pixels wide and the sun is a softball fifty feet away, that puts Neptune about a quarter of a mile away and the size of a small bead. And that’s still within our home solar system. Well within our solar system if you include all the smaller dwarf planets, asteroids, and rubble of the Kuiper Belt (including Pluto, which we now call a dwarf planet).

To get to our next stellar neighbor at this scale, we start out at Ocean Isle Beach, find the grain of sand that is Earth (and the grain of very fine sand an inch and a half away that is the Moon), drop that softball fifty feet away to represent the Sun, lay out a few more grains of sand and a few little beads between the Atlantic Ocean and the first dune to represent the rest of the major bodies in our solar system, and then we drive all the way across the United States, the entire length of I-40 and beyond, jogging down the I-15 (“the” because we’re on the west coast now) to pick up the I-10 through Los Angeles and over to the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica, where we walk out to the end of the Santa Monica Pier and set down a golf ball to represent Proxima Centauri. And that’s just the star that’s right next door.

See what I’m getting at?

What’s even more mind-bending than the vast distances and vast emptiness of outer space, is that our universe is every bit as vast at the opposite end of the size spectrum. The screen you’re reading this on, the hand you’re scrolling with—even something as dense as a solid ingot of gold bullion—is something like 99.999999999% empty space (and that’s a conservative estimate). Take a glance at this comparison of our solar system against a gold atom, if both the Sun and the gold nucleus had a radius of one foot. You’ll see that the outermost electron in the gold atom would be more than twice the distance of Pluto.

atom-vs-solar-system

And even though that nucleus looks kind of like a mulberry in this illustration, we now know that those protons and neutrons are, once again, something on the order of being their own solar systems compared to the quarks that constitute them. There’s enough wiggle room in there that at the density of a neutron star, our entire planet would be condensed to the size of a child’s marble. And for all we know, those quarks are made up of still tinier particles. We’re not even sure if they’re actually anything we would call solid matter or if they’re just some kind of highly-organized energy waves. In experiments, they kind of act like both.

This is not mysticism, folks. This is just physics.

The crux of all this is that, with our limited perception and our limited ability to comprehend vast scales, the universe is both orders of magnitude larger and orders of magnitude smaller than we can even begin to wrap our minds around. We live our lives at a very fixed scale, unable to even think about that which is much larger or much smaller than miles, feet, or fractions of an inch (say, within six or seven zeroes).

Those same limitations of scale apply in a very literal sense when we start talking about our perception of such things as the electromagnetic spectrum and the acoustic spectrum. Here’s an old chart of the electromagnetic spectrum from back in the mid-’40s. You can click on the image to expand it in a new tab.

1944electromagnetic_spectrum-5000

If you look at about the two-thirds point on that spectrum you can see the narrow band that is visible light. We can see wavelengths from about 750 nanometers (400 terahertz) at the red end, to 380 nm (800 THz) at the blue end. In other words, the longest wavelength we can see is right at twice the length, or half the frequency, of the shortest wavelength we can see. If our hearing were so limited, we would only be able to hear one octave. Literally. One single octave.

We can feel some of the longer wavelengths as radiant heat, and some of the shorter wavelengths (or their aftereffects) as sunburn, but even all that is only three or four orders of magnitudetwo or three zeroesand if you look at that chart, you’ll see that it’s a logarithmic scale that spans twenty-seven orders of magnitude.

If we could see the longer wavelengths our car engines would glow and our brake rotors would glow and our bodies would glow, and trees and plants would glow blazing white in the sunlight. A little longer and all the radio towers would be bright lights from top to bottom, and the cell phone towers would have bright bars like fluorescent tubes at the tops of them, and there would be laser-bright satellites in the sky, and our cell phones would flicker and glow, and our computers, and our remotes, and our wireless ear buds, and all the ubiquitous little radios that are in almost everything anymore. It would look like some kind of surreal Christmas.

visible-vs-infrared

If we could see shorter wavelengths our clothing would be transparent, and our bodies would be translucent, and the night sky would look totally different. Shorter still and we could see bright quasi-stellar objects straight through the Earth. It would all be very disorienting.

Of course, the ability to perceive such a range of wavelengths would require different organs, once you got beyond the near-ultraviolet that some insects can see and the near-infrared that some snakes can see. And in the end, one might argue that our limited perception of the electromagnetic spectrum is just exactly what we’ve needed to survive this far.

I was going to do the same thing with the vastness of acoustic spectrum against the limitations of human hearing here, but I won’t get into it because acoustics is basically just a subset of fluid dynamics. What we hear as sound is things movingpressure waves against our eardrums, to be precisebut similar theories can be applied from the gravitational interaction of galaxy clusters (on a time scale of eons) to the motion of molecules bumping into one another (on the order of microseconds), and you start getting into math that looks like this…

acoustic-theory

…and I’m an English major with a graduate degree in creative writing. That image could just as easily be a hoax, and I would be none the wiser. So let’s just leave it at this: There’s a whole lot we can’t hear, either.

We also know for a fact that time is not quite as linear as we would like to think. Einstein first theorized that space and time were related, and that movement through space would affect movement through time (though gravity also plays in there, just to complicate matters). We do just begin to see it on a practical level with our orbiting spacecraft. It’s not very bigthe International Space Station will observe a differential of about one second over its decades-long lifespanbut our navigational satellites do have to adjust for it so your GPS doesn’t drive you to the wrong Starbucks.

Physicists theorize that time does much stranger things on the scale of the universe, and in some of the bizarre conditions that can be found. Time almost breaks down completely in a black hole, for instance. Stephen Hawking has posited (and other theoretical astrophysicists agree) that even if the expanding universe were to reverse course and start contracting, which has not been ruled out as a possibility, it would still be an expanding universe because at that point time would have also reversed itself. Or something like that; this is probably a hugely oversimplified layman’s reading of it. But still, to jump over to popular culture, specifically a television series floating somewhere between science fiction and fantasy, the Tenth Doctor probably said it best:

wibbly_wobbly_timey_wimey_stuff_jnapier99_edit

So far we’ve been talking about physical facts. When we get into how our brains process those facts, things become even more uncertain. We do know that of the information transmitted to our brains via the optic and auditory nerves, the vast majority of it is summarily thrown out without getting any cognitive attention at all. What our brains do process is, from the very beginning, distorted by filters and prejudices that we usually don’t even notice. It’s called conceptually-driven processing, and it has been a fundamental concept in both cognitive psychology and consumer-marketing research for decades (why yes, you should be afraid). Our perceptual set can heavily influence how we interpret what we see—and even what information we throw away to support our assumptions. I’m reminded of that old selective-attention test from a few years back:

There are other fun videos by the same folks on The Invisible Gorilla, but this is a pretty in-your-face example of how we can tune out things that our prejudices have deemed irrelevant, even if it’s a costume gorilla beating its chest right in the middle of the scene. As it turns out, we can only process a limited amount of sensory information in a given time (a small percentage of what’s coming in), so the very first thing our brains do is throw out most of it, before filling in the gaps with our own assumptions about how things should be.

As full of holes as our perception is, our memory process is even worse. We know that memory goes through several phases, from the most ephemeral, sensory memory, which is on the order of fractions of a second, to active memory, on the order of tens of seconds, to various iterations of long-term memory. At each stage, only a tiny portion of the information is selected and passed on to the next. And once something makes it through all those rounds of selection to make it into long-term memory, there is evidence in cognitive neuroscience that in order to retrieve those memories, we have to destroy them first. That’s right; the act of recalling a long-term memory back into active memory physically destroys it. That means that when you think about that dim memory from way back in your childhood (I’m lying on the living-room rug leafing through a volume of our off-brand encyclopedia while my mother works in the kitchen), you’re actually remembering the last time you remembered it. Because the last time you remembered it, you obliterated that memory in the process, and had to remember it all over again.

I’ve heard it said that if scientists ran the criminal-justice system, eyewitness testimony would be inadmissible in court. Given the things we know about perception and memory (especially in traumatic situations), that might not be such a bad idea.

court

Okay.

So far I have avoided the topic of religion itself. I’m about to change course, and I know that this is where I might write something that offends someone. So I want to start out with the disclaimer that what I’m writing here is only my opiniononly my experienceand I recognize that everyone’s religious journey is individual, unique, and deeply personal. I’m not here to convert anyone, and I’m not here to pooh-pooh anyone’s religious convictions. Neither am I here to be converted. I respect your right to believe what you believe and to practice your religion as you see fitprovided you respect my right to do the same. Having stated that

Most of the world’s older religions started out as oral traditions. Long before being written down they had been handed down in storytelling, generation after generation after generation, mutating along the way, until what ends up inscribed in the sacred texts might be completely unrecognizable to the scribes’ great-great-grandparents. Written traditions are somewhat more stable, but until the advent of typography, every copy was still transcribed by hand, and subject to the interpretations, misinterpretations, and agendas of the scribes doing the copying.

Acts of translation are even worse. Translation is, by its very nature, an act of deciding what to privilege and what to sacrifice in the source text. I have experienced that process first-hand in my attempts to translate 14th-century English into 21st-century English. Same language, only 600 years later.

SGGK_facsimile

Every word is a decision: Do I try to preserve a particular nuance at the expense of the poetic meter of the phrase? Do I use two hundred words to convey the meaning that is packed into these twenty words? How do I explain this cultural reference that is meaningless to us, but would have been as familiar to the intended audience as we woulds find a Seinfeld reference? Can I go back to my translation ten years after the fact and change that word that seemed perfect at the time but that has since proven a nagging source of misinterpretation? Especially in the translation of sacred texts, where people will hang upon the interpretation of a single word, forgetting entirely that it’s just some translator’s best approximation. Wars have been fought over such things.

The Muslim world might have the best idea here, encouraging its faithful to learn and study their scriptures in Arabic rather than rely on hundreds of conflicting translations in different languages. Added bonus: You get a common language everyone can use.

quran

But the thing is, even without the vagaries of translation, human language isat besta horribly imprecise tool. One person starts out with an idea in mind. That person approximates that idea as closely as they can manage, using the clumsy symbols that make up any given languageusually composing on the flyand transmits that language to its intended recipient through some method, be it speech or writing or gestural sign language. The recipient listens to that sequence of sounds, or looks at that sequence of marks or gestures, and interprets them back into a series of symbolic ideas, assembling those ideas back together with the help of sundry contextual clues to approximatehopefully—something resembling what the speaker had in mind.

It’s all fantastically imprecisewristwatch repair with a sledgehammerand when you add in the limitations of the listener’s perceptual set it’s obvious how a rhinoceros becomes a unicorn. I say “tree,” thinking of the huge oak in my neighbor’s back yard, but one reader pictures a spruce, another a dogwood, another a magnolia. My daughter points to the rosemary tree in our dining room, decorated with tinsel for the holidays. The mathematician who works in logic all day imagines data nodes arranged in a branching series of nonrecursive decisions. The genealogist sees a family history.

Humans are also infamously prone to hyperbole. Just ask your second cousin about that bass he had halfway in the boat last summer before it wriggled off the hook. They’re called fish stories for a reason. As an armchair scholar of medieval English literature, I can tell you that a lot of texts presented as history, with a straight face, bear reading with a healthy dose of skepticism. According to the 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain, that nation was founded when some guy named Brutus, who gets his authority by being the grandson of Aeneas (yeah, the one from Greek mythology), sailed up the Thames, defeated the handful of giants who were the sole inhabitants of the whole island, named the island after himself (i.e., Britain), and established the capital city he called New Troy, which would later be renamed London. Sounds legit.

sggk-edit

In the beginning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain beheads the huge green man who has challenged him to a one-blow-for-one-blow duel, right there in front of the whole Arthurian court, but the man picks up his head, laughs at Gawain, hops back on his horse, and rides off. Granted, Gawain is presented as allegory rather than fact, but Beowulf is presented as fact, and he battles a monster underwater for hours, then kills a dragon when he’s in his seventies.

Heck, go back to ancient Greek literature and the humans and the gods routinely get into each other’s business, helping each other out, meddling in each other’s affairs, deceiving and coercing each other into to do things, getting caught up in petty jealousies, and launching wars out of spite or for personal gain. Sound familiar?

As for creation stories, there are almost as many of those as there are human civilizations. We have an entire three-credit course focused on creation stories, and even that only has space to address a small sampling of them.

BLS300-visions

Likewise, there are almost as many major religious texts as there are major civilizations. The Abrahamic traditions have their Bible and their Torah and their Qur’an and Hadith, and their various apocryphal texts, all of which are deemed sacrosanct and infallible by at least a portion of their adherents. The Buddhists have their Sutras. The Hindus have their Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita. The Shinto have their Kojiki. The Taoists have their Tao Te Ching. Dozens of other major world religions have their own texts, read and regarded as sacred by millions. The countless folk religions around the world have their countless oral traditions, some of which have been recorded and some of which have not.

Likewise, there are any number of religions that have arisen out of personality cults, sometimes following spiritual leaders of good faith, sometimes following con artists and charlatans. Sometimes those cults implode early. Sometimes they endure. Sometimes they become major world religions.

jim-jones

At certain levels of civilization, it is useful to have explanations for the unexplainable, symbolic interpretations of the natural world, narratives of origin and identityeven absolute codes of conduct. Religious traditions provide their adherents with comfort, moral guidance, a sense of belonging, and the foundations of strong communities.

However, religion has also been abused throughout much of recorded history, to justify keeping the wealthy and powerful in positions of wealth and power, to justify keeping major segments of society in positions of abject oppression, to justify vast wars, profitable to the most powerful and the least at risk, at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of countless less-powerful innocents.

A lot of good has been done in the name of religion. So has a lot of evil. And before we start talking about Islamist violence, let us remember that millions have been slaughtered in the name of Christianity. Almost every religion has caused bloodshed in its history, and every major religion has caused major bloodshed at some point in its history. Even the Buddhists. And there’s almost always some element of we’re-right-and-you’re-wrong very close to the center of that bloodshed.

spanish-inquisition

But what if we’re all wrong?

If we can’t begin to comprehend the vastness of the universe or the emptiness of what we consider solid, if we can only sense a tiny portion of what is going on around us (and through us), and if we don’t even know for sure what we have actually seen with our own eyes or heard with our own ears, how can we even pretend to have any handle on an intelligence that might have designed all this? How can we even pretend to comprehend an intelligence that might even be all of this? I mean seriously, is there any way for us to empirically rule out the possibility that our entire known universe is part of some greater intelligence too vast for us to begin to comprehend? That in effect we are, and our entire reality is, a minuscule part of God itself?

In short, the more convinced you are that you understand the true nature of anything we might reasonably call God, the more convinced I am that you are probably mistaken.

understand-everything-crop

I’m reminded of the bumper sticker I’ve seen: “If you’re living like there’s no God, you’d better be right!” (usually with too many exclamation points). And the debate I had with a street evangelist in which he tried to convince me that it was safer to believe in Jesus if there is no Christian God, than to be a non-believer if he does exist. Nothing like the threat of hell to bring ’em to Jesus. But to me, that kind of thinking is somewhere between a con job and extortion. You’re either asking me to believe you because you’re telling me bad things will happen to me if I don’t believe you, which is circular logic, or you’re threatening me. Either way, I’m not buying. I don’t believe my immortal soul will be either rewarded or punished in the afterlife, because when it comes right down to it, even if something we might reasonably call God does exist, I still don’t think we will experience anything we would recognize as an afterlife. Or that we possess anything we would recognize as an immortal soul.

To answer the incredulous question of a shocked high-school classmate, yes, I do believe that when we die, we more or less just wink out of existence. And no, I’m not particularly worried about that. I don’t think any of us is aware of it when it happens.

But if there’s no recognizable afterlife, no Heaven or Hell, no divine judgment, what’s to keep us from abandoning all morality and doing as we pleasekilling, raping, looting, destroying property and lives with impunity, without fear of divine retribution? Well, if there is no afterlife, if, upon our deaths, we cease to exist as an individual, a consciousness, an immortal soul, or anything we would recognize as an entitywhich, as I have established here, I believe is likely the casethen it logically follows that this life, this flicker of a few years between the development of  consciousness in the womb and the disintegration of that consciousness at death, well, to put it bluntly, this is all we get. This life, and then we’re gone. There is no better life beyond. You can call it nihilism, but I think it’s quite the opposite.

Because if this one life here on Earth is all we get, ever, that means each life is unique, and finite, and precious, and irreplaceable, and in a very real sense, sacred. Belief in an idealized afterlife can be usedtwisted, ratherto justify the killing of innocents. Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out. The implication being that if the slaughtered were in fact good people, they’re now in a better place. But if there is no afterlife, no divine judgment, no eternal reward or punishment, then the slaughtered innocent are nothing more than that: Slaughtered. Wiped out. Obliterated. Robbed of their one chance at this beautiful, awesome, awful, and by turns astounding and terrifying experience we call life.

Likewise, if this one life is all we get and someone is deliberately maimedwhether physically or emotionally, with human atrocities inflicted upon them or those they love—they don’t get some blissful afterlife to compensate for it. They spend the rest of their existence missing that hand, or having been raped, or knowing that their parents or siblings or children were killed because they happened to have been born in a certain place, or raised with a certain set of religious traditions, or have a certain color of skin or speak a certain language.

In other words, if this one life is all we get? We had damned well better use it wisely. Because we only get this one chance to sow as much beauty, as much joy, as much nurturing, and peace, and friendliness, and harmony as possible. We only get this one chance to embrace the new ideas and the new experiences. We only get this one chance to welcome the stranger, and to see the world through their eyes, if only for a moment. We only get this one chance to feed that hungry person, or to give our old coat to that person who is cold, or to offer compassion and solace and aid to that person who has seen their home, family, livelihood, and community destroyed by some impersonal natural disaster or some human evil such as war.

syrian_refugees

If I’m living like there’s no (recognizable) God, I’d better be doing all I can manage to make this world a more beautiful place, a happier place, a more peaceful place, a better place. For everyone.

As for a God who would see someone living like that, or at least giving it their best shot, and then condemn them to eternal damnation because they failed to do something like accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior? I’m sorry, but I cannot believe in a God like that. I might go so far as to say I flat-out refuse to believe in a God like that. I won’t go so far as to say that no God exists, because as I have said, I believe that we literally have no way of knowing, but I’m pretty sure any God that does exist isn’t that small-minded.

einstein

So anyway, happy holidays.

This is an examination of my own considered beliefs, and nothing more. I won’t try to convert you. I will thank you to extend me the same courtesy. You believe what you believe and I believe what I believe, and in all likelihood there is some point at which each of us believes the other is wrong. And that’s okay. If after reading this you find yourself compelled to pray for my salvation, I won’t be offended.

If you celebrate Christmas, I wish you a merry Christmas. If you celebrate the Solstice, I wish you a blessed Solstice. If you celebrate Hanukkah, I wish you (belatedly) a happy Hanukkah. If you celebrate Milad un Nabi, I wish you Eid Mubarak. If some sense of tradition and no small amount of marketing has led you to celebrate the celebratory season beyond any sense of religious conviction, you seem to be in good company. If you celebrate some parody of a holiday such as Giftmas, I wish you the love of family and friends, and some cool stuff to unwrap. If you celebrate Festivus, I wish you a productive airing of grievances. If you’re Dudeist, I abide. If you’re Pastafarian, I wish you noodly appendage and all that. If you don’t celebrate anything? We’re cool.

And if you’re still offended because I don’t happen to believe exactly the same thing you believe? Seriously? You need to get over it.

xmashup

If Elected as Your President…

by Jay Parr

obama-edit

Well, it’s getting to be election season again. I’m sure you’ve noticed. Fox News hosted the first “debate” recently, and there are, what, seventeen candidates going after the Republican nomination now? At least on the Democratic side it’s mostly Hillary against that plucky underdog Bernie Sanders. That is, unless Uncle Joe decides to throw in his hat.

So I’ve decided it’s time for me to announce this: Under no circumstances will I be running for the office of President of the United States of America. No way. Just ain’t gonna happen. Or, to paraphrase that old Sherman dude, if nominated I will not run, if elected I will not serve.

First of all I was an adventurous and nonconformist poor kid in my teens and twenties (okay, and thirties). There’s way too much dirt to be dug up on me. Sure, my response to most of it would be, “Yeah? And?” But no one wants their friends to end up becoming collateral damage, right?

rally

That and I really have no stomach for the machinations of politics. I get a bellyful of politics and diplomacy just trying to advocate for our students, here in my bottom-rung administrative position for the BLS Program. If I had the entirety of Congress trying to stymie me at every turn (Every. Single. Turn.), I would probably either have a psychological breakdown or a psychotic break. Think, “Hammer-Wielding President Rampages Through Capital!”

Anyway, it’s still fun to think about what one would do as the “leader of the free world,” so why not?

I’m thinking my campaign slogan would have to be SHAMELESSLY LIBERAL. Something along those lines anyway, and I don’t think “What a Pinko” has quite the right tone for a presidential campaign.

Anyway, I hear you say. Enough of this navel gazing, what would you do?!

health-care-sm

Universal Health Care: Single-payer style. You need a doctor, you go to a doctor. Doesn’t matter if you’re a billionaire or homeless, a veteran or an artist. Every citizen, every veteran, every President, every billionaire, every college student, every crack addict, every member of Congress (yes, every member of Congress), has the same level of coverage. I am firmly of the opinion that for-profit health insurance and for-profit medicine are among our great societal evils, in that they profit handsomely on the misfortunes of others. So let’s take them out of the picture; you go get the medical care you need, and your taxes pay your doctors’ salaries. Yes, your taxes will go up. Yes, the doctors’ gross incomes will go down. You’ll still be paying less for your healthcare, and your doctor will still be making the same net income, maybe more, after our taxes also pay for her education. Which brings me to…

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Access to Education: At any level. Free of charge. Any student who is doing reasonably well can attend any public university, in-state or out-of-state, to any level, absolutely free, with a stipend for living expenses, and can finish a BA, an MA, an MFA, an MDiv, a PhD, a JD, an EdD, or what have you, and walk away totally debt-free. Also paid for by our taxes. It’s not as expensive as you might think (a fraction of our annual spending on our recent wars, less than we spend incarcerating nonviolent offenders), and in the long run it is simply in the best interest of the nation to invest in an educated populace. Educated people contribute more to their communities and to their countries, both in tangible contributions to GDP and in intangible contributions to quality of life. When the reason a talented and motivated young person doesn’t pursue her PhD in engineering is because her family’s working-class background makes it financially untenable, it’s not just that child that suffers. It’s all of us. When the person who would have discovered the cure for diabetes is stuck flipping burgers in West Cowtown because the cost of education is prohibitive, it’s not just she and her family that suffers. It’s all of us. When the poor black kid from Baltimore starts his lifelong career in the corrections system at fourteen simply because he is presumed to be a criminal by everyone he meets, that’s one more life lost. One less chance for the world to have its next once-in-a-century artist, musician, scientist, statesman, what have you, and at a cost several times higher than providing him with a top-notch education.

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Campaign Finance Reform: The billionaire Koch brothers want to eliminate all limits on campaign contributions so that the wealthiest citizens can basically buy the government. I want the opposite. At the very least I would like to see individual donations limited, and corporate donations and superpacs eliminated altogether. I even like the idea of going a step further and requiring candidates to campaign under uniform conditions (think of NASCAR’s equipment restrictions): Each candidate campaigns through a standardized system supported by tax dollars, through which their sponsored bills and voting records are shown, they have the opportunity to comment on their votes, and they can make positional statements. Advertising reminds voters to study the candidates, make their choices, and to vote on election day. And hey, let’s make election day a national holiday while we’re at it.

Automatic Voter Registration: Oregon just did it. We can do it nationally. Anyone who is eligible to vote is automatically registered upon receiving a driver’s license or state-issued identification card. Other mechanisms may also be explored to catch the people who have neither (e.g., Social Security rosters). The idea is that anyone who is eligible to vote is registered by default. To further encourage participation, it would be worth exploring a small stipend for each voter, to be issued when the ballot is cast at the polls (or when the absentee ballot is processed). For less than the costs of recent campaigns, each voter could be offered a few bucks to encourage her to actually show up and vote. Democracy simply doesn’t work when most of the population doesn’t bother to vote.

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Eliminate the Political Party System: The party system mostly works to keep representatives in line with the wishes of an elite power base. Independent candidates are rarely elected (there are 2 in Congress, out of 535 members), and that leads anyone with political aspirations to align themselves with one major party or the other. From that moment they endure pressure to vote certain ways on specific items of legislation and even on whole issues. This pressure, in effect, means they can no longer represent their constituencies or even their own consciences, because they are beholden to represent their political party. When there are no sides of the aisle, no party affiliations, that pressure is removed and the candidate can run, and the representative can represent, according to their own convictions and the wishes of their constituencies.

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Eliminate Corporate Lobbying: Another method by which a monied few exercise disproportionate influence on political outcomes. No energy-policy debate can be balanced when petroleum-industry interests are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into lobbying efforts. Likewise, no healthcare-policy debate can be balanced when insurance-industry interests are doing the same. Lobbying is a $3,250,000,000.00-per-year business. That’s over a thousand dollars a year for every single person in the country. Imagine what could be done with that money if it weren’t being used to skew political outcomes in the favor of the wealthiest individuals and corporations.

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Restructure Congress: In 1789, there were about 30,000 constituents per representative in the House. Today, there are some 700,000 constituents per representative. That makes each seat more powerful and thus more subject to big-money influence. It’s time to go back to representatives who actually know their constituencies; in today’s world of teleconferencing and telecommuting, we could easily go back to one representative for every 30,000 constituents. Yes, that would make the House some 10,000 members. No, it would not be necessary to assemble a 10,000-member House of Representatives at the Capital building for every session of Congress. Each member could work from a local office in her district, accessible to her constituents. That office could be her designated location for voting and for filing legislative documents. Floor debate could be held with a combination of in-person and electronic attendance. A representative could serve her entire term, in fact, without ever setting foot inside the Beltway.

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Eliminate the Senate: Having two senators per state skews senatorial representation in favor of the less populous states: Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alaska, Delaware, and Vermont each have only one representative in the House, and they each have two senators. California, with 53 representatives and a far greater population than those seven states added together, also has two senators. Further, having two senators who represent a large and wealthy state means those senators are far more likely to be influenced by big-money interests within their states (and maybe even from outside their states). Basically, senatorial representation is in no way representative of the populace, and is far too subject to big-money interests. It’s a throwback, a mimicry of the equally non-representative House of Lords. Let’s get rid of it.

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Marriage Equality: Wait, I hear you say. The Supreme Court just did that. Well, not exactly, and not completely. Yes, Obergefell v. Hodges was definitely a step in the right direction, but a Supreme Court ruling is an interpretation of constitutional law. It is not, and should not be, federal law or even federal policy. The ruling also has its limitations, and I’m sure you’ve heard about folks agitating to resist, or ignore, or otherwise malign the Supreme Court’s authority in this matter. I’d like to put an end to all that.

The first order of business would be separation of church and state in the marriage business. A couple of ways this could be done: 1) Perform all legal marriages in the courts, as is done in Mexico, and let the spouses also have a non-legally-binding church ceremony if they’re so motivated; or 2) Separate the role of officiant (i.e., representative of the state in the matter of the marriage to be performed) from that of ordained clergy (i.e., representative of the church), and create a process by which a person can have herself authorized to officiate a wedding ceremony. Anyone would go through the same process, ordained clergy or otherwise, but it would be a separate process, a legal process, and the role of officiant would be understood to be (and literally) a legal role independent of any religious ordination.

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On the matter of marriage equality, I would also go a step further than simply same-sex marriages. Marriage equality needs to be for everyone. As marriage is the legal codification of a committed relationship, and the legal status carries certain rights and benefits, the legal framework should accommodate any configuration of committed relationship. This means not only same-sex marriage, but nonbinary-gender relationships and consensual polygamy in any configuration (polygyny, polyandry, or other polyamorous arrangements). I don’t have this all sorted out, because I’m not a gender-studies person and the math can get complicated in a hurry, but the basic idea is that there is a status for spouse and one for co-spouse, and that the legal rights carry between anyone in that status (and yes, in theory, one could be in more than one multiple marriage, with branching relationships of co-spouses in either direction). My one caveat would be that all parties in the marriage would be required to sign the license to add a new member.

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A Legal Third Gender: Here are the facts: Not all people identify as the gender they are assigned at birth. Not all people identify as either gender. Not all people even fit into binary gender categories at birth (i.e., intersex). There needs to be a legal gender category for people who don’t fit into that binary. I like “nonbinary” as a catch-all term, myself (“other” is, after all, quite literally othering). And yes, there are countless subdivisions of nonbinary gender, but in the end it’s a small enough population that I’m inclined to think one catch-all category is sufficient for most legal purposes (I’m talking driver’s licenses and the like) . Of course, finer distinctions can be made where they’re called for, but any legal document that notes gender needs to have a nonbinary option.

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End Mass Incarceration: We love to call ourselves the “land of the free,” and yet we have an embarrassing percentage of our population incarcerated, most of them minorities, and most of them for nonviolent crimes. Zero-tolerance drug laws, three-strikes policies, and other hardline legislation mean a lot of people are serving years- and decades-long sentences over petty lifestyle offenses and what I like to call crimes of poverty. Oh, and it costs us a ridiculous amount of money. As in, enough money to make college free for every student in the country. Justice would be better served, and in the long run it would cost us a lot less money, if the majority of those prisoners had their sentences lifted. Of course, amnesty isn’t quite that simple, as most of those prisoners, by virtue of their disadvantages from having been prisoners, will need financial support and career rehabilitation to help them get reestablished in society. In the short term, implementing such an amnesty policy would be herculean, but it shouldn’t be necessary in the first place. So here are some thoughts on how to correct the situation in the long term.

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End the War on Drugs: The War on Drugs hasn’t done a whole lot to reduce drug use in this country. Most of what it has accomplished (aside from creating an enormous prison population) is to drive the black market for drugs further underground and make it more violent. Prohibition taught us that illegal distribution creates violent gangs, whereas legal distribution creates a peaceful business culture. It also taught us that, all moral objections aside, where there is demand for a product or a service, someone will provide a supply. The demand for weed isn’t going away. Neither, unfortunately, is the demand for harder drugs such as heroin, cocaine, crack, meth, et cetera. The solution is not to attack the suppliers of those demands with militarized law-enforcement agencies. All that does is create a militarized black market. Instead, we should allow businesses to create legal, taxed, and regulated supply streams, at prices that can out-compete the black markets, and let the economy run its course (how often do we see black-market liquor these days?). Instead of sinking revenue into futile attempts at enforcement, we generate tax revenue, which we in turn use to discourage the more violent elements of the market, and to provide quality rehabilitation services to those who need them.

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Decriminalize Prostitution: Most people who engage in prostitution do so because they have little choice. We must create a legal system which protects those sex workers from further harm and recognizes their vulnerability to abuse, instead of criminalizing them for engaging in what may well have been a last resort for survival. Sex workers should be able to come to law-enforcement agencies knowing that they will find sympathetic advocates. The current reality is that most sex workers find themselves unprotected, in lawless conditions, because approaching law-enforcement agencies will most likely result in slut-shaming and denigration at best, and arrest and imprisonment at worst.

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Decriminalize Poverty: Let’s face it, in the final analysis the vast majority of people in prison are there because they are poor (and minorities). The wealthy Duke student gets busted with ten grams of weed, his family knows a good lawyer who keeps the kid out of jail, and maybe successfully argues to have the arrest expunged because, you know, wouldn’t want to ruin the kid’s career potential over a youthful indiscretion. The poor black kid from a bad Durham neighborhood gets busted with the same ten grams of weed, the entire system presumes it to be one sign of a larger pattern of criminality (not helped by the fact that he’s not very good at code-switching into white “civilized” speech), he gets assigned a green public defender straight out of a bottom-tier law school, and there’s that time he got busted for throwing a rock at a cop car on a dare, and next thing you know the kid’s serving a good chunk of his twenties in county.

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Outlaw Private Prisons: The incarceration of prisoners should never be a for-profit business, and allowing it to run as such only encourages prisoner abuse. The corrections system also allows prisoners to be paid well below minimum wage for assigned work; combine that with a for-profit prison and you basically have slave labor.

End Capital Punishment: Two words: Posthumous exoneration.

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Police Reform: It has become obvious to me that there needs to be a sea-change in the attitudes of police agencies. There seems to be a default assumption of criminality on the part of law-enforcement personnel in far too many of their interactions with the citizenry. Police departments need to be demilitarized, and shows of military-grade force on the part of police departments needs to come to a stop nationwide. Right now. The climate of policing needs to shift such that police personnel interact with the public from an assumption of innocence, that the person they are facing, even the person they are detaining, is a fellow citizen trying to do his best to get by. Even if he runs. Gunfire should be reserved for situations in which the officer or nearby civilians are actively under threat of imminent harm. I’m even starting to wonder if the average beat cop may even be better off without that sidearm. That will bring me to my ideas on gun control in a bit.

But first, I think policing could be improved with a couple of other little adjustments. First, fine revenue should be divorced from municipal budgets in such a way as to remove any pressure on police personnel to generate fines (and most fines should be eliminated anyway, as they disproportionately impact people with lower incomes). There should be no room for even the perception that a police officer’s primary role is to ticket law-abiding citizens for minor offenses. I also think a lot could be done for the quality of policing if the starting salary were somewhere in the range of $50,000.

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Gun Control: I’m going to lose some people here. I’m okay with that. I’ve hit on an idea that I think might help reduce some of the insane gun violence in our country without inciting the “well-regulated militia” to revolt. Here it is: You get to keep your guns. No one is going to come and take them away from you. Some of them might become a little harder to buy in the future, and some of them you may not be able to sell to anyone but the government for destruction. But you can keep them. The catch: If you have that firearm in public it must be unloaded and in a locked case. If the firing chamber can be disassembled without tools, it must be disassembled. If you have ammunition, it must be in a separate locked case. That way, you can still go hunt on private property or shoot at the firing range. But if anyone walks into a big-box store with a holster on her hip, or walks down the street with a rifle on his back, we don’t have to wonder if that is someone about to go on a killing spree or a law-abiding citizen who just happens to be an open-carry activist. Because anyone in public with an uncased and loaded firearm is not a law-abiding citizen. Possession of an uncased firearm would be a primary offense under this law (which is to say you could be arrested on sight for it), and such possession within sight-lines of a school, hospital, place of worship, shopping area, performance venue, or other public gathering place would be a felony.

Tension Rise On Mexican Border After Border Patrol Agent Slain Last Week

Immigration reform:  A path to citizenship for dreamers and past illegal immigrants, and reasonably open borders for people who would come to live and work in the United States. As with drugs and prostitution, I am essentially proposing a legal path for what is already happening on the black market, and a recognition that our current laws tend to criminalize actions taken out of sheer necessity. As things are, illegal immigrants are literally second-class citizens in this country. Our immigration and naturalization system considers the fact that they are in the US illegally more important than anything they may come to law enforcement agencies about, be it that they were cheated out of pay for work they’ve done, or that they were detained, imprisoned, and forced into slave labor, or even that they were raped, physically abused, and forced into prostitution.

And So Much More: Comprehensive sex education and free, no-questions access to contraception for students. Close GITMO (not like Obama didn’t), not just the prison camp but the whole base, and give the land back to Cuba. While we’re at it, close all our bases in foreign nations where our presence is a signal of oppression and not cooperative peacekeeping. End our involvement in sundry military engagements, significantly downsize our standing military, divert those funds into improving the quality of life in our own country and taking care of the veterans who have made lifelong sacrifices in the line of duty. End subsidies for fossil fuels and subsidize development of domestic renewable energy sources. Subsidize a shift away from point-source power plants to distributed generation and storage of energy (rooftop solar, neighborhood-level wind generation and power storage). Subsidies to encourage the development of offshore wind and desert solar generation. Mass transportation at a level that can effectively compete with personal transportation, both on a local level and on a city-to-city level. Road-use taxes and fees to subsidize mass transportation and encourage use of alternative, non-car modes of transportation. A legal class of intermediate city vehicle between the highway-rated passenger car and the 25-mph NEV (“neighborhood electric vehicle,” essentially a golf cart).

As it turns out, putting together a platform for president means thinking deeply about a whole lot of issues. I’m gaining on 4,000 words here and still haven’t addressed any number of major issues. But I’m done. I’ve run long, I’ve run out of time, and I’m not really running for president anyway so I don’t even have to answer your questions if I don’t feel like it. And of course, these are all just my opinions. Some of them are more thought-out than others. Some of them may be downright uninformed, but that hasn’t stopped any number of presidents from doing any number of things in the past. The ideas in this post have been a long time in the making, and I am glad to see certain candidates talking about some of these ideas, and calling attention to a lot of things that have been very wrong for a very long time. I am even glad to see our sitting president, with whom I have had my disagreements, using his lame-duck position to get serious about some of the things that he has been talking about for a long time.

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And I will leave you with this: No matter your political convictions, please please please (please!) take the time to keep yourself politically informed, to research your candidates, and at the very least, to get out on election day and vote. Democracy only works if the people participate. Otherwise, it reverts back to some form of plutocracy, in which the wealthy hold all the political power and we hoi-polloi become more and more disenfranchised. So for the love of all that is sacred and holy, please, vote! Or to put it a different way…

You Can’t Want What You Want

by Matt McKinnon

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I am somewhat taken aback by the national and international attention to the Rachel Dolezal story. When I first read of it (on the BBC website of all places) I was confused: why is this news, much less international news?

It has only gotten worse.

I shudder at what amounts to a feeding frenzy from both conservatives and progressives alike, with each new detail from her past trumped only by each successive interview she gives.

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But what I find fascinating is how we think of and treat the question of “race” itself. We know it’s not biologically “real,” that it is a social construct, that it is actually a relatively recent convention born out of a Modern misapplication of biology to earlier attempts at classification based first on language and later physical appearance.

Contemporary science no longer thinks in terms of “race” as a biologically-based set of qualities that separates groups of people used for taxonomic purposes. For science, “race” has been rendered antiquated at best and completely useless at worse.

We know all this.

Yet in most any given discussion of the Dolezal case, little of this subtlety ever seems to be displayed. Or when it is displayed, it carries relatively little weight, especially when, in the light of the very public transgendering of Caitlyn Jenner, the possibility of being “transracial” comes up and is summarily dismissed.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, a specialist in the psychology of race at the University of Illinois, explains the history of the idea of “transracial” in describing adoptions where children of one “racial category” are adopted by parents of another. These children are understood “to be spanning their own and their adoptive parents’ racial categories.” Thus these folks, he contends, are really “transracial.”

But the attempt to call Dolezal’s identity “transracial” and compare it to Bruce Jenner’s transgendering into Caitlyn Jenner is met with disapproval. Lyubansky continues:

This description…makes sense when describing both trans men and trans women, meaning that it fits equally well regardless of direction. Applying this concept to race makes little sense to me. ‘Trans’ refers to a lack of fit between biology and identity, but there is no biology involved in race.

Exactly. There is no biology involved in race the way there is biology involved in one’s sex: biology determines one’s sex while society and culture determine gender, and one’s gender identity is determined by him or herself. Gender identity is more like “race” in that it is a social (and psychological) construct: the issue for transgender people being that their biological sex does not match their gender identity.

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But then, why can’t “trans” here refer to a lack of fit between a social construct (race) and one’s racial identity? We are left wondering: maybe perhaps, because a social construct is harder to overcome?

If race is not based in biology and is completely and wholly a construct of society and culture, then why is it impossible to move within this social construct (from “black” to “white” or vice versa) and yet it is possible to move when the biological fact of one’s sex does not fit one’s identification of their gender?

As Lyubansky suggests: a transgendered person is “trans” in that her sex (male) does not correspond to her gender identity (female). She is really a woman, despite what her biology is. But, it seems, a transracial person cannot be “trans” in that her race (white) is not decided by biology but by social convention. And while this is not biology, is it something more?

Jay Smooth

After all, no one with any sensitivity towards the trans community would ever suggest that a transgendered person is “pretending” to be someone she is not (charges many have levied against Dolezal) but rather is changing the appearance of her body to match her sexual identity—being who she really is despite her physiology—since who someone “really is” ultimately comes down to how they identify themselves, right? Like changing the physical appearance of one’s body to match one’s racial identity?

Not so fast.

Lyubansky argues that the application of “transracial” in the case of someone like Dolezal is “logically flawed and socially problematic in that it ignores the oppression of both those who are transgender and those who have had to live with real racial discrimination.”

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So the problem is not the biology of race, since there is no biological basis there. Nor is it the social construct of race itself (since gender is also a social construct), but rather the fact that this social construct has been used to oppress other groups by the dominant group.

But can’t this also be said of gender?

And moving from the dominant group to an oppressed group is “logically flawed and socially problematic” because it ignores the oppression of both those who are transgendered and those who have lived with racial discrimination. But a person who is biologically a man can become a woman because that is how she identifies herself even though some of the same dominance-oppression issues undoubtedly apply between male and female.

Something does not quite add up.

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I want to be clear here: I agree that a transracial move is socially problematic and that there may be more than a little “white privilege” at work in the concept of an avatar-like existence manifesting in any old racial group it likes, but I fail to see how it is illogical. Historically insensitive? Perhaps. Outside the norm? That too. But illogical? No, not if race really is just a social construct. After all, social constructs get deconstructed and reconstructed over time. And the growing acceptance of the transgendered community is a prime example. Race, in fact, is another.

It’s true that the specifics of this case are troubling, and I suspect there are some psychological issues that need to be addressed. I also don’t think Dolezal went about any of this in the right way (though I’m not sure what the right way would look like) and her past actions while at Howard (like suing the school for racial discrimination because she is white) leave her credibility more than a little questionable.

But this doesn’t get to the underlying idea: why switching sexual identification is possible, logical, and even socially acceptable but switching racial identification is not.

Unless we simply don’t want it to be.

Unless, regardless of the science involved, we really do think that race is more than biological, deeper than mere appearance or culture: based in our bodies and social histories and constitutive of who we are in a way that is even more basic than chromosomal. We seem to have an essentialist mentality when it comes to race, despite having dispensed long ago with “essences” in the way we think about things. Perhaps this “social construct” of race is so real (more real than biology in fact) that a person really is African American—or they are not, based not on identification, but rather on something more, something essential, something ontological that transcends an individual’s assent, choice, or identity.

This would explain the criticism directed towards folks our society identifies as African-American but who either don’t display the characteristics expected of them (Bryant Gumbel) or have the audacity to think of their identity in more complex terms (Tiger Woods). From this perspective, you cannot choose to be African-American any more than you can choose not-to-be—if indeed you really are African-American (a judgment left to society and not the individual).

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Lawrence of Arabia told us as much in the 1962 film of the same name while taking part (as a white Englishman) in the Arabian Revolt against the Ottoman Turks. While recovering after being flogged by Turkish soldiers who discovered he was white, T.E. Lawrence announces that he is leaving the revolt:

Lawrence: “I’m not the Arab revolt, Ali. I’m not even Arab.”
Ali: “A man can be whatever he wants. You said.”
Lawrence: “I’m sorry. I thought it was true.”
Ali: “You proved it.”
Lawrence: “Look, Ali. Look.” (Shows him his white skin.) “That’s me. What color is it? That’s me. And there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Ali: “A man can do whatever he wants. You said.”
Lawrence: “He can…but he can’t want what he wants.” (Still displaying his skin.) “This is the stuff that decides what he wants.”

This seems to be the way most of us tend to think about race, at least when we don’t really think too much about it: that there really is something physical if not biological about what it means to be African-American, or Arab, or white. Or rather that there is something more than physical that includes but goes deeper than appearance and determines one’s “race” and “racial identity,” something that, unlike sex and gender identity, we cannot escape or change.

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Ponder on that for a moment: Caitlyn Jenner can escape the misalignment of her sex and gender identity but Lawrence and Dolezal cannot escape the misalignment of their “race” and “racial identity.” That seems strange to me.

The fact of the matter is that most of our classification systems when it comes to humans are hopelessly flawed and messy, based in linguistics (Celtic, Germanic, Hispanic/Latino, Sino-Tibetan, Niger-Congo, etc…) but having outgrown their parochial origins to become descriptions of ethnic groups and the individuals who comprise them.

The uncomfortable truth seems to be that our society is wedded to race: that we are wedded to race. Oh sure, we may speak ill of it, admit that it is a social construct, deny that it is actually rooted in biology or science, pretend that we don’t see it, opine for a society that transcends it, and so on. But the fact is, we cling to it in an essentialist and ontological manner that says more about our own history, hang-ups, and issues than it does about any “real” identifiers.

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And the even more uncomfortable truth is that the idea of changing one’s racial identification seems absurd and illogical—more absurd and illogical than changing one’s sexual identification.

I cannot help but wonder if underlying this is the assumption that the real absurdity, the real illogicality is the suggestion that non-whites would ever be able to do this, or that most whites would want to.

I’ve noted in this forum before that Benjamin Franklin was opposed to the influx of Germans into “English” Pennsylvania, arguing that they could no more become “Anglified” than they could become “our Complexion” (southern Germans were regarded as “swarthy” and not “white”). But guess what? They did become Anglified as well as “white.” As did many other “ethnic” populations who were historically regarded as “not white”—Italians, Jews, Irish, Eastern Europeans. After all, social constructs change over time.

But I suspect that underneath the way most of us so easily cast off this idea of transracial identity lurks the notion that “white” is a pure category and that “real” non-whites (those of recent African descent and not Germans, or Jews, or Irish, or Italians) could never make the switch. It is not, as Lyubansky argues, applicable “regardless of direction.”

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Only certain light-skinned folks, this line of thinking goes, would be able to do it. Historically called “passing,” this in itself raises all sorts of issues about white hegemony and the effects it has on the psychology of being “non-white” in America. Furthermore, many would suggest that no sane white person would choose to identify as black for any other than sociological study (John Howard Griffin) or personal gain (the movie Soul Man unfortunately comes to mind). But then again, I wonder if not so long ago folks thought the same way about the idea of men identifying as women and women identifying as men. And yet, we are working to change those social constructs as well.

For now, however, it seems pretty clear: Rachel Dolezal, like Lawrence of Arabia, can do whatever she wants…

…but she cannot want what she wants.

We have bound ourselves to a social construct that is skin deep.

But made it so much more.

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Loving Day, Once Again

by Joyce Clapp

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Today is Loving Day, the anniversary of June 12, 1967, when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that interracial marriage had to be performed and recognized in all 50 states (Loving v. Virginia). It is also a day by which we may or may not know how the Supreme Court is going to rule on a similar issue: Same-sex marriage (as of this writing, we don’t know yet). I’ve spent the last week Googling “SCOTUS” every couple of hours, knowing full well that if they didn’t announce on Monday that they weren’t likely to announce for the rest of week, and also knowing full well that when they did announce, it would hit Facebook and Twitter within minutes. And yet…I kept checking.

It is odd, waiting for SCOTUS to decide if you’re married. Well, if you’re legally married. Well, if you’re legally married in all 50 states, since you are already legally married in 36 states and may very well stay married in some of those states regardless of what the Supreme Court does. And thankfully, your mother says you’re married, no matter what SCOTUS does. I spend a lot of time lately feeling faintly queasy. I can only imagine how those of our friends that have children with their same-sex spouses feel, considering the implications there.

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I can only begin to imagine what Richard and Mildred Loving felt like, around this time in 1967. Interracial couples were not nearly as common as they are now, and the U.S. was living through a really hard time. It’s not that we aren’t living through a time of gaping inequality and racial tensions now (let’s not kid ourselves), but it was worse in 1967. Brown v. Board of Education was just a touch over 15 years old and most schools were still in some state of segregation (the more things change, right?). Malcolm X had been assassinated only two years previously. The 1960s were a decade when we saw church bombings, the Civil Rights marches in the South, and the Freedom Riders doing their work because interstate busses were still segregated. This wasn’t an easy time to be an interracial couple.

“Tell the court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.” (Richard Loving)

So I can’t imagine sitting in my home in Washington D.C. with my children, waiting to see if I was going to be allowed to move home with my family to a state where not ten years previously, sheriff’s deputies had stormed my home, barged into my bedroom, arrested myself and my spouse, and said of the marriage certificate on my wall, “That’s no good here.

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My wife and I are fortunate to be married in a different United States. We are on the side of history. We went out recently for a ghost tour of Greensboro and we weren’t the only interracial couple on the tour. At my wife’s brother’s wedding recently, we were 1 of 5 interracial couples present, including two guys showing off recent engagement rings and grinning like mad. We held hands through visiting the zoo and only garnered a couple of dirty looks. The lesbian character in Pitch Perfect 2, which we saw recently, volunteers that she’s moving to Maine and getting hitched, and it’s a non-event (other than a lot of happy squeals). My non-straight students wander in to my office to talk about wedding plans and ask relationship advice just like anyone else, because they are just like anyone else. My straight students ask me how spring break with my wife was, just like we’re anyone else, because we are just like anyone else (and then they ask me relationship advice and what they should do about that Spanish class).

And in the meantime, we wait nervously to see if SCOTUS is going to catch up with history and society, whether the story is going to be ‘we didn’t want redefine marriage’ (an institution that I’m glad has been ‘redefined’ over the years – who wants to be their husband’s property?), or whether the justices are going to look at the words from 1967 and do their job:

Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival… To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State. (Chief Justice Warren)

The obligatory rings picture, taken on on our legal anniversary.

The obligatory rings picture, taken on on our legal anniversary.

I felt like I was going to have something long and impassioned and sociological to say when I signed up for posting for Loving Day, one of those nice chewy posts that make good reading and discussion. But that’s not the case today. It’s simple. I love my wife, I’m lucky I can live with her in this time and place, and I’m lucky that in North Carolina right now, she inherits if I die, and I can call the Veterans Administration for her, and we can make medical decisions for each other without gobs of very expensive, possibly legally shaky paperwork. I hope that in the eyes of the law, we remain legally married after the Supreme Court makes its decision.

The Phantom Wind

by Matt McKinnon

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It’s hard to imagine how a 25-year old man can be handcuffed and put into a police van, seemingly in reasonable health, and then emerge 30 minutes later barely breathing, almost unable to walk, with three cracked vertebrae, a crushed voice box, and a nearly severed spine.

Hard to imagine how he had no other broken bones or even visible signs of trauma—other than those fatal injuries to his neck, injuries normally associated with a high-speed car accident.

It must have been some phenomenal force that did such damage to those three neck vertebrae and nearly severed his spinal cord and yet had no effect on the van itself or the officers safely strapped in their seats.

It must have been some supernatural force that hyperextended his neck, backwards and forwards, and caused those vertebrae to fracture and crush his spinal cord.

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It must have been some invisible ghostly force that mysteriously left no trace on the metal cage that housed him or the van that transported him or the officers who arrested him.

A phantom wind that blew across the Charm City on that breezeless Sunday morning, capable of such selective destructive force—tornadic almost in the way it chose a victim there in the back of the van but left those in close proximity untouched, secure in their gentle fate.

No high gale warnings that still spring day, the waves on the harbor lazy, unconcerned, unaware of the hurricane wind with sniper precision that passed, unseen by human eye, untraced by Doppler radar, unyielding through the city streets and touched down there at only one place, only one time, only one victim.

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Like some violent demonic wraith called forth from the aether itself, or out of a poem by Edgar Allen Poe.

That chilling wind.

That killing wind.

That specter wind that blew before in Baltimore.

There are names for the ride it takes you on—names that some in Baltimore know all too well:

A rough ride. A cowboy ride. A nickel ride.

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Its ghosted trace is known well enough by courts and juries too, and by police departments whose “official policies” betray its shaded existence and try in vain to soften its deadly blow.

But somehow still it howls.

In 1997 that same wind blew Jeffrey Alston, arrested for speeding in his BMW, handcuffed, shackled, and supposedly strapped to a bench in the back of a police van, but, officers later claimed, in Houdini-like fashion, was able to free himself and leap headfirst into the partition, breaking his neck and leaving him a quadriplegic, later to die from complications. A jury disagreed with this “official” account to the tune of 39 million dollars.

But the wind remained aloof.

In 2005 that same wind blew Dondi Johnson, arrested for urinating in public and also placed, handcuffed but not in a seatbelt, in the back of a police van. It likewise blew him clear across the vehicle, breaking his neck and snuffing out his life. A jury awarded his family 7.4 million dollars.

But the wind escaped notice.

It blew again just two years ago, though this time the victim, a young white woman named Christine Abbot, survived to tell her story…and to sue the sue the City of Baltimore. Since, well, you cannot sue a phantom wind.

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It has also blown in Philadelphia, paralyzing two in similar fashion.

Undoubtedly it has blown elsewhere before, outside of public gaze, this astral gust that appears briefly from nowhere, mysteriously tracks only police vans, and then is gone, leaving only the broken bodies of handcuffed detainees in its wake.

It’s hard to image such a phantom wind.

It must make for one hell of a rough ride.

BPD-van

Fifty Shades of Grey, and Eroticism in Film and Literature

by Ann Millett-Gallant

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Over Winter break, I had a lot of free time to read. I decided to try Fifty Shades of Grey (E.L. James, 2012), because I was curious about it, and because the movie version was coming out on Valentine’s Day weekend. I remember the fervor the book caused when it was released. Many television shows and magazine articles discussed what a sensation the book was, particularly for many passionate and eager female fans. It was considered shocking, not just because of its content, but also because it seemed to have the power to release women from any chastity belts they might be forced to wear by their own shame or society’s standards for “appropriate” behavior and desires. While reading the book, I was, shall we say, underwhelmed. I was more than just not excited, I was somewhat repulsed by it, and not because it was graphic or shocking, but because it seemed so cliché. In early January, I posted the following Facebook status update in response:

I just finished reading 50 Shades of Grey, and it was ridiculous. A 22 year old, white bread virgin is attracted to a dashing, powerful billionaire, who was starving and abused as a child and, as an adult, only participates in short term, S&M relationships. She allows him to deflower and dominate her, and he releases his inner demons, falls in love with her, and calls her his girlfriend. It’s such horse shit!

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This was my off the cuff response. I was not turned on by the veiled violence, nor by scenes in which Christian forces his virginal concubine to eat in order to “keep up her strength,” despite what might have turned on many women. Was this the portrayal of a passionate relationship for women? And if so, who are these wanton “women” who love the book?

I was not alone in my reaction. In a “Frank and open discussion” by Laci Green, whose YouTube broadcast series “Naked Nation” is supported in part by Planned Parenthood, Green purports BDSM (a form of S&M, which she says is popular today, in part, because of book, Fifty Shades), as a new, liberating, and pleasurable form of sexual play:

However, in a later broadcast devoted to her analysis of the book Fifty Shades, Green says it does a “poor job of portraying BDSM,” and is indeed not only clichéd, but also abusive. She raises the notions of sexual consent and sexual violence, considering that Christian makes Ana, an inexperienced virgin, sign a contract about their liaison before she evens sees his “Red Room” of bondage equipment:

Green’s accusation that Fifty Shades glorifies sexual abuse places the book, and the film, in a dark context. Even if the book wasn’t exactly sinister, it’s poorly written, and bondage and dominance just don’t turn me on. I began to think about other novels or movies that have created comparable reactions among their audiences, and their points of comparison to Fifty Shades.

the-awakening-smFirst, I picked up The Awakening, an 1899 novel by the trailblazing feminist, Kate Chopin, which was considered quite scandalous in its day. I loved it! The writing style has been compared to Impressionism, and the novel is very visual and sensual in its detail. The title captured my immediate attention. I had the idea that it might be a sexual awakening, and it was, but it was more. The heroine, Edna, escapes her family, domestic life, and responsibilities. She has a few extra-marital affairs, but does not end up in a new relationship. Instead, she begins making art and discovers her own subjectivity and embodied perspective. In the end of the novel, she dramatically dives into the ocean and swims away, a conclusion that has been read as a suicide, but I read it more abstractly. In her dive, as in her adventures in the book, she discovers true freedom. There are a many scenes with water running throughout the book, including themes of swimming. As a child, Edna loved and then feared swimming, because she associated it with an unwantednot to mention criminalsexual advance by one of her father’s peers. In the book, part of her awakening involves her relearning and re-enjoying swimming again, as an adult. Water entails, and in the book symbolizes, diverse acts such as floating, drowning, and swimming. When Edna swims, she also floats, as she experiences a freedom in and an escape from the socialized world; she doesn’t see, hear, or feel the world above the water. She is figuratively and literally immersed in her own senses. Swimming causes a feeling of weightlessness, but when swimming, Edna propels herselfa physical act, a form of exercise, and also a forceful movement. I don’t think she drowns at all, but rather, she escapes. Immersing one’s self in water, wherein one is subsumed in one’s own sensory environment, specifically free from external stimuli, could also be a metaphor for masturbationperhaps the ultimate act for of self stimulation and self gratification.

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Stimulated by my interpretations (pun intended), I then wanted to explore other literary and film examples that were considered shocking for their time periods. I remember, as a young girl, the sensation that arose surrounding the film Nine and a Half Weeks (1986, dir. Adrian Lyne). Watching it as an adult, I was blown away by the beauty of the film. It had striking visual detail and was rich in color, texture, and atmosphere. In one of my favorite scenes, the male lead, John (Mickey Rourke) “feeds” the female protagonist, Elizabeth (Kim Basinger), by blindfolding her and offering samples of foods that vary in texture and flavorcherries, jalapeño pepper, milk. The camera creates a multi-sensual encounter, as Elizabeth experiences the food and the sensuality of the offerings. To commence the scene, John squirts sweet, sticky honey in her mouth (suggestive, perhaps, of semen) and then on her body, as he lays her down, kisses, and embraces her. Light floods the darkened set design, as the viewer experiences their own senses being overwhelmed. Another scene features Elizabeth, who works in an art gallery, masturbating as slides of provocative art works flash on the screen. She moves in harmony to the changing of the slides, which becomes more rapid as she sits on the remote and eventually climaxes. Throughout the film, visual art interacts with erotic life. “Nine and a Half Weeks” was released in 1986, when I was 11 years old. I didn’t see the film at the time, because of my age, and I was happy to rediscover what I now consider a classic.

9-and-a-half-weeks-a-memoir-of-a-love-affairThe film is based on Australian writer Elizabeth McNeill’s Nine and a Half Weeks: A Memoir of a Love Affair (1978). The book is a diary, with first person narration, incomplete sentences, visual and narrative impressions, and a chain of consciousness writing style. This memoir is more graphically violent than its film version. In one entry, McNeill writes: “The nights were palpable and fierce, razors, outlines so clearly as to be luminous. A different country, its landscape and currency plain: heat, fear, cold, pleasure, hunger, glut, pain, desire, overwhelming consciousness” (42). This quote demonstrates the erotic and violent actions in the book, as well as writing style I described above. Upon reading this passage, I felt simultaneous intrigue and revulsion to the brutality. During moments of the violence inflicted upon her, Elizabeth, the real woman, conflictingly feels simultaneous pain and desire. She ultimately writes of feeling disembodied, as if she experiences her sensations virtually. The 1986 film is indeed almost a watered-down version of the explicit diary. The memoir is beautifully, indeed poetically written and much more philosophical and psychological than the film.

I then turned to what was one of my favorite movies of my hormone-infused teenage years, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988, dir. Philip Kaufman). Based on the novel by Milan Kundera (1984), the film centers on the relationship between a heterosexual couple, as well as the man’s many sexual conquests, and is set during the 1968 occupation of the Czech Republic (wiki).

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The narrative follows an attractive, introverted, and womanizing (not unlike Christian Grey) surgeon named Tomáš (Daniel Day Lewis), and his conflicted relations with the woman who becomes his wife and proves to be his “true love,” Tereza (Juliette Binoche), as well as his many lovers, most prominently, the self-possessed artist, Sabina (Lena Olin). The novel and film are set in an artistic and intellectual class in Prague, which in 1968 was invaded by the Soviet Union. With her rosy cheeks and pageboy haircut, Tereza is childlike in the film, as she is in the novel. She matures through her relationship with Tomas and her discovery of her own perspective, similarly to The Awakening, yet, in this film, it is behind the camera lens. The film includes scenes (shot in black and white) that capture the confusion and violence of the 1986 invasion of Prague on the streets, with dramatic movements and angles.

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Compared with the book, the film is not as detailed about the results of the invasion and following Soviet occupation; for example, on p. 67 of the book, Kundera graphically describes specific murders and deportations. In both the book and the film, Tereza photographs the atrocities on the streets, commencing her photography passion and career with street photography, which is similar to the work we discuss in the Documentary unit of BLS 345: Photography: Contexts and Illusions. Street photography crosses the boundaries or genres of photography as art and as historical document. Tereza’s street photographs get published and lead to work in commercial photography, although she is seduced more by the idea of art photography and explores the genre by photographing Tomas’s lover, Sabina. In a Communist era of Social Realism, Sabina does defiant abstract art, or “drip painting” like Jackson Polluck (63). I do especially appreciate the images of Sabina’s artwork in the film, consisting of erotic photographs and body images cut from mirrors.

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Although the book and the film are both artistic, the book is decidedly more psychological and philosophical, similarly to the book Nine and a Half Weeks. Kundera’s novel is also more political. On pages 213-214, Kundera narrates Tomas’ political acts, such as writing leftist editorials for papers, which leads him to be asked to sign a document protesting the treatment of Czech political prisoners. The novel is not in first person narration like Nine and a Half Weeks, but the narrative point of view is not completely omniscient either. Rather, Kundera’s narrator is poetic and like a storyteller, telling the narrative as if he or she know the characters personally and can see literally into their lives, as well as their consciousnesses. Interestingly, I learned from Wikipedia that Kundera disliked the film so much that he has resolved never again to have one of his novels made into a film. Reading the book encouraged me to check some more of Kundera’s books from the library.

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The final example I was overjoyed to discover was another film with a literally graphic basis, the 2013 French film Blue is the Warmest Color (2013, dir. Abdellatif Kechiche),which is based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh. In both the film and the book, a somewhat naïve and self-abdicating young woman, Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos), searches for her sexuality and subjectivity in a world she finds repressive, specifically to young, heterosexual women. One day, she spots and subsequently seeks out a striking, young, somewhat tomboyish and seemingly lesbian woman, Emma, (Léa Seydoux) with dashing blue hair. The graphic novel composes mostly black and white images with striking hints of bluein the forms of Emma’s hair, as well as the protagonists’ diary. Again, a diary communicates the embodied perspective of its narrator. The two women become zealous lovers, and lengthy, strikingly dynamic scenes depict their passion-filled lovemaking, in both the film and the book. The graphic novel was inspired by The Life of Marianne, an eighteenth-century, French, erotic graphic novel.

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In contemplating the symbolic significances of blue, I thought about its association with masculinity, or at least the gender of a male baby, similarly to how pink represents femininity. One of the readings in my course BLS 345: The Art of Life, Rebecca Solnit’s  poetic and philosophical A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2006) came to mind. In this manuscript, every other chapter is titled “The Blue of Distance,” and blue, throughout the text, is the color of desire. Solnit meditates on how blue is more intense in the distance, in art (with the examples of landscape paintings, Yves Klein’s artwork, and many more) and in life (with the examples, among others, of road trips). For Solnit, distance increases desirability, reiterating how unrequited love may be most fervent and how absence makes the heart grow fonder.

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Throughout the book and the film Blue is the Warmest Color, Emma’s hair gets less and less blue. It finally transforms back to its natural color, the pair split up, and Adela must find herself outside her role as Emma’s muse. In the graphic novel, the main character dies. Again, death! In The Awakening, Edna supposedly drowns, and in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomas and Tereza have a suspicious “car accident,” which the book relates to their political leanings. Going back to my analysis of Edna’s “death” as an orgasm, in literary theory, an orgasm is referred to as “the little death.” For a more detailed analysis of this metaphor, see the Wikipedia entry “La petite mort.

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More broadly than in its many literary associations, the notion of an orgasm as a “little death” can refer to a spiritual release, a short period of melancholy or transcendence, and a natural “high” in the anatomical release of the feel good hormone oxytocin that occurs after orgasm. The not so “little” deaths in these films may then be over-signified, or over-stimulating with their multiple meanings and associations.

This blog has itself become overwhelmed with stimulating references! Now, back to Fifty Shades

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On Feb 6, NBC’s The Today Show broadcast live from the New York City premiere of the film at Ziegfeld Theater. As the camera scanned the screaming and cheering crowd, I searched for even one man amidst the group. All I saw were enthusiastic and, indeed, excited women. Newscaster Carson Daly said there were 98 women in attendance; Daly and the star of the film, Jamie Dornin, were the only men. The episode also featured an interview with Dornin and his co-star, Dakota Johnson, by newscasters Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie, in which Johnson said she strategically played Anastasia as a woman of strength and self-worth.

On Feb. 12, Ellen Degeneres aired a clever spoof of the interviewa clip that her crew had edited and that featured anchor Matt Lauer bearing a harness and whip:

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Ellen’s spoof was the beginning of the themes of satire that were raised in news sources about the film. The website Rotten Tomatoes says the film is too tame in comparison with the book. In agreement, Time asks “Where’s the whiplash?” Durham’s Independent newspaper expresses disappointment in the film’s “bad erotica.”

In a video posted on the website of the Pulitzer Prize-winning British journal, The Guardian, film critics discuss the absurdity, and even satirical humor of the, what one critic calls “soft core porn,” that he says seems like “the S&M had been directed by Martha Stewart.” These highbrow, somewhat stuffy critics state that the film never had a chance and they “couldn’t take it seriously” because it was based on a poorly written, trashy novel.

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Reading through this summary of diverse reviews on this CNN.com, some of which are positive, made me want to see the film more. Further, similarly to how she discussed her role as Ana in her appearance on the Today show, Johnson has affirmed in numerous interviews that she chose the role specifically because it intimidated her and because she believes that women who own and direct their own self-crafted sexual experiences and sexual identities are definitively empowered. But I wondered, is Ana empowered in book? I would say, no. How will she be different in the film?

Fifty Shades of Grey opened where I live in Durham the Friday before Valentine’s Day, and I could not see it then because my husband and I had big plans: we had to take our 20 pound orange tabby cat, Sunny (aka “The orange beast”), to the vet and my husband’s new Fiat needed additional computer programming at its dealership in Cary. I thought I had missed the perfect opportunity to see the film and witness its already ardent fans, but after reading reviews, I thought perhaps the optimal time to see it would be on April Fool’s Day. Many others did see it the opening weekend; the film broke records for Valentine’s Day and President’s Day releases.

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I finally saw it two weeks after it opened. In general, it was not a good movie. The sets, costumes, and dialogue were nothing special and even silly. The character of Ana is girlish and mousy; her big blue eyes, which first capture Christian’s attention, are framed by unevenly cut bangs and hair that escapes from a messy ponytail. She does talk back to Christian in a Lolita-like manner, but I would hardly call her an empowered character. In the first meeting with Christian, she wears an old fashioned, flowered blouse and a matching cardigan and skirt set. Throughout the film, she dons dresses and outfits that are too short and too young for her, as if she shops in the junior’s department at the stores. She is somewhat childlike, similar to the immature Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Ana’s adolescent body, with a sprinkling of fair pubic hair, is often on display in the film, while Christian’s body is strategically concealed; in one scene, he unbuttons his fly, and the viewer sees a hint of blond pubic hair, but otherwise, only his unclothed backside is shown. In contrast to Ana, Christian wears signature, stone colored suits and one of his fifty ties, all of which, of course, are shades of grey. Christian is good-looking, with a strong face and muscles, but he is hardly suave or debonair. Rather than looking like a millionaire entrepreneur and Casanova, he resembles an attractive college athlete. Christian lives in an austere apartment, similar to his clothing and to the steely residence of John in Nine and a Half Weeks. In one scene, Christian tempts Ana with an ice cube down her naked torso, an act like that of John and Elizabeth, but the former is much less sensual than the latter, for the viewer, and seemingly, for the female subjugate.

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Forty-five minutes into Fifty Shades, Christian and Ana “consummate” their agreement, and Ana is “de-virginized” (or deflowered, as I strategically called it above), in an intimate scene that involves kissing, touching, and, assumedly, at least two orgasms. I am hardly an expert, but I would say that when a woman loses her virginity, the experience is usually more awkward and potentially painful, rather than sexy and pleasurable; however I have never heard of a woman having had her first time with anyone experienced. Let’s just say, the scene is, at best, idealized. Unlike in the book Fifty Shades, the couple in the film are paired intimately quite often, embracing and even bathing together, and Ana has met many members of the Grey family before Christian even introduces the contract and the red room to her (the only room in his apartment that displays any color). The first scene in which the couple performs in the red room is almost one and a half hours into the two hour film and shows Christian “whipping” (or should I say, “tapping”) Ana with a tassel-like “whip.” This action causes a light snapping sound and leaves no wounds on Ana’s skin. It is hardly terrifying. At the end of the film, when Ana challenges Christian to give her the full treatment, or to do the most brutal thing he would ever do to her, he again whips her, this time with a fashionable leather belt. The sounds are more convincing and remind me of the whipping scenes of Twelve Years a Slave, (2013, dir. Steve McQueen), but again, they leave no marks on Ana’s perfectly white, pristine back. The couple parts in the end, and as Ana exits his apartment by elevator, there is an emphasized lack of closure, or a cliffhanger, enticing viewers to seek out the sequel.

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Again, I was amused, but underwhelmed. I don’t think I’ll bother to read either of the other Fifty Shades books in the trilogy, nor will I waste my time following the film series. I am, however, very much looking forward this summer’s release of Magic Mike XXL (the satirically titled Magic Mike 2), which will feature more antics of an ostentatious, performing, and chiseled brigade of leading men, performing for and in service to clowning and lascivious female fans. This film will be much more my speed.

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Life as Art: In Front of the Class

by Linda Levanti, Asheville, NC, senior in Humanities

linda-levantiI have a great vantage point from my position in the back of the classroom. Seated near the large picture window, with a glorious view of the massive walnut trees planted during the golden days of the Biltmore Era, I’m quite content. The wall to my back encloses this pleasant space, where like a cat curled on a sunny window ledge, I’m more or less out of sight. I don’t often speak, satisfied to watch the activity from my sanctuary in the corner. Who’d have thought that one day I’d decide to become a teacher? Certainly not I.

It was the unconditional patience and encouragement of my kindly neighbors in a tiny, old-world village in central Mexico that set me on my path to teaching. It’s a constant challenge to communicate even simple thoughts when faced with a language barrier, something we rarely experience in the United States. Accepting me into their beehive of daily activities, these aproned Madonnas were as happy to teach me some Spanish as I was to share a few words of English. I’m humbled and grateful for the many good humored teachers who helped me along the way. Nonetheless, there were still many times I felt terribly isolated by language, and a stranger in a strange land, in spite of the warmth of my Mexican family.

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Shortly after my return to the United States I started volunteering at the local community college in an adult education class to satisfy certification requirements to teach English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). My experience had fostered a desire to help those living in the United States whose struggles with a foreign language are likely a great deal harder than mine had been in Mexico. I want to make a difference in the lives of those who are committed to learning their new country’s language. After completing my training program, I stayed on at the college; I like helping in the classroom. And, the opportunity to quietly observe the instructor, while reinforcing my novice teaching skills, fit in with my predilection for staying out of the spotlight. That is, up until last week.

The class began quite as usual. As students filtered in, I handed out worksheets, and Monica, the level 4 instructor, began to teach. The lesson for discussion was subject-verb agreement. And so, Monica taught English and I helped Monica, that is until her phone rang mid-lecture, and the baby-sitter informed her that her infant daughter was ill…could she come home right away? Monica’s eyes sought mine, pleadingly, as if to say, you do have your certification. Other than the one evening I had student taught an adult class many months before, an experience replete with sweaty palms and horrible stage-fright, I had not taught a class on my own. I wasn’t feeling inclined to do so any time soon. But under the circumstance what could I say? Monica left for home, and I was on! And on my own.

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It was performance time, and I flashed back on the frightened five year old I’d been at my first dance recital. The delicate pink ballet slippers I’d laced onto my feet, when told it was time to go on stage, no longer felt as enchanting as I’d imagined them. I was scared silly. All the wisdom and life experience I’d gained in nearly fifty years was reduced to the size of a quivering child. Thrust in front of the classroom, with the students’ inquiring eyes focused on me, I felt a vulnerability that caused every fiber in my body to scream “run”, which is what I had done at that first ballet recital. Not a pretty picture when you want to be a teacher. But I was no longer five years old, and fleeing was not an option. My saving grace is that age and hard won experience has provided me with an unwavering resolve, and so I stayed put and opened my mouth.

At a total loss for words, the immediate need to say or do something was bewildering. Quite unexpectedly, I felt as if a stranger had taken control of my senses and I began to dance. Not literally, but in a way that expressed my individuality. Performing as both marionette and marionettist, I was acutely aware of the tension in the strings that propelled my initial movements as an imperfectly executed pirouette spun me from the front of the room toward the large table that was the students’ shared desk. As I drew a chair closer to my audience, inviting them to join me, I remembered how much I had loved my ballet slippers; how good it felt to lace the ribbons and twirl across the polished wooden floor. Without a script, I listened to myself conduct the class. The words flowed and the teacher in me sounded so confident. She was enjoying herself! In getting on stage, I was introduced to a part of me I had never met, someone who seemed to like dancing for an audience. I’d caught an astonishing glimpse of my potential self in those moments in front of the class.

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Art critic, Michael Kimmelman, wrote in The Accidental Masterpiece that “Life itself might be an art.” If my experience was any indication, I agree. Good art, when real and not contrived, fuels a deep and lasting impression upon viewer and artist alike. It can do that when we let go, and get out of our own way. I believe that this sentiment is essentially what Gunter Berghaus wrote about in the “Happenings and Fluxus” chapter of his book Avant-garde Performance. Based on the idea of unconventional and spontaneous artistic expression that compels the interaction of performer and audience, art is created that shatters life as we know it, effectively changing who we are into something new. The certainly unplanned accident of my performance in the classroom that day exemplified what both “Happenings” and “Fluxus” stand for. Reflective of Jean-Jacques Lebel’s portrayal of the “characteristics” of Happenings, it became a moment of “breaking down the barriers between art and life…[to] transform human beings, and make them change their old ways of seeing, feeling, and being.” It was terrifying and exhilarating.

Initially, my performance fell flat on its face. I wasn’t like Monica. My audience was confused by this unsure presentation of a teacher. I’ve since learned that many students see their teachers, myself included, as if we’re all cut out of the same academic “fabric”, and whether it’s Monica or myself at the head of the class, we are “all knowing” and greater in stature than the students there to learn English. In part, this is a cultural issue and likely a misinterpretation of Americans in general, but nonetheless, it makes for a very tough audience. I was faced with a chasm I had no idea how to bridge. Human nature being what it is, I’m sure they recognized my fear. Those sorts of things speak clearly in any language. Did they realize the degree to which my teaching had become the performance of my life? Probably not, but I do think they recognized themselves through the cracks in the perfect image they had constructed of me as an “American” teacher.

Unexpectedly presented with an instructor they were not accustomed to, the students initially responded to me by withdrawing. My discomfort increased and I felt myself teetering on the edge of the stage, an abyss between myself and the students huddled in the audience. They were reticent to speak; our previous interactions had been minimal. I experienced something that my instructors at NCSU had said about teaching foreign language classes, something that applied to me as well. Students are often afraid to speak for fear of looking foolish or making mistakes. Student or teacher, we all want to do well and look our best. There were moments during that two hour class when I stumbled. I recovered, the world didn’t come to an end, and I kept going. When I performed for that class, it wasn’t perfect. I was nervous at times, and lost my way. And then art happened in one spontaneous moment of laughter.

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I’d laughed out loud at how much fun I was having in spite of it all. I couldn’t be frightened any longer. It was just too silly. The students thought it was tremendously funny, and so did I. At that moment the feeling in the room transformed each of us. The “American” teacher, who fell off the stage, wasn’t really any different than they were, and they gladly joined me in my dance. I had their attention. The chasm disappeared, and my students got that it was OK to try, and it was acceptable to make mistakes. We laughed, exchanged ideas, and as we became partners on that stage, no longer separated by perceptions of culture or class, we were performers and audience alike. I reflect that it was much more than just the subject-verb agreement of English grammar that we learned about that day. The art of authentic communication became a Happening. The Happening became the universal language of human interaction. I’ll never know who learned more that day, me or them. I do know that together we created an accidental masterpiece that will remain a vivid image in my mind for years to come.

My son, who is a wonderful artist believes that art should exist only for the moment and then be gone, to allow for other inspirations to take its’ place. My performance in the classroom reflects that sensibility. I’ve learned that art is not the result of paint and brush, nor is teaching, simply the rules of English grammar. They are only the tools we use to express the essence of who we are. When I teach, the art itself is ethereal, but its’ effect lingers on. Like any artist who performs for an audience, I’m sure there’ll be wonderful experiences as I teach and those that may not inspire great art. Either way, it will remind me that life, if lived as art, is its own accidental masterpiece.

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* This essay was originally written for an assignment in Ann Millett-Gallant‘s class The Art of Life, in which the students are asked to create and partake in an act of performative art, then write about their inspirations, their interactions with their audience, the performance itself, and the results. The fortunate timing of Linda’s unplanned teaching stint as this assignment was approaching led to this “accidental masterpiece.”

Regarding my choice of the kitchen photo from among many possibilities, Linda writes, “of all the photos, you pick the staged photo my husband took of me with a large beer bottle “caguama” and mug! My husband thinks that it’ll make me look like a borracha! (drunkard) which is really funny as I rarely drink.”