I was going to relax and play Fallout 4 after school, but instead I wrote a thing about terrorism and ISIS. If you want to know what I think, here it is.
I don’t believe that there’s anything fundamental to Islam that predisposes it to violence more than other religions. I read the Koran a long time ago, and most of what I remember is how terrible the suffering will be for those who deny the glory of Allah.
Reminded me of the Left Behind novels, where all the sinners get bulldozed into pain and torture by a Romanian nuclear disarmament activist who moves the UN to Jerusalem. And the authors of those books insist they’re based on an orthodox reading of the Christian book of Revelations.
What’s the Problem?
I won’t deny that there are terrible things being done in the name of Islam, but that’s always been true about every religion — there’s even a Buddhist guy in Myanmar who’s calling for terrorism toward Muslims. Are there more violent acts carried out (intentionally) against civilians in the name of Islam than other religions? I don’t know, I haven’t done the math. Does it feel like it? Kinda. But the US also drops a LOT of bombs on innocent civilians with our flying robots — and Christianity is the dominant religion in this country. I know we’re not dropping those bombs in God’s name, but when you’re on the receiving end, that distinction evaporates pretty darn fast.. (Just as lots of conservative folks are ignoring divisions within Islam pretty darn fast, after WE got bombed.)
I think it’s important to remember that we’re at war with an ideology, not a religion or a culture or even just one death cult. (It’s certainly fair to use that term for ISIS.) We could wipe out ISIS, just as we could maybe eventually wipe out al’Qaeda, if we kill enough adults. But the ideology can spring up again and again and take new and interesting forms. (I mean, think about this progression: al’Qaeda –> ISIS –> ??? Could there be an even worse form of these same scumbags? Sure; things can always get worse.)
How Do We React?
So how do we fight an ideology? Well, that’s difficult. Destructive ideologies are pernicious because they can sculpt our perception of reality to their will. In other words: Once the lens of an ideology attaches itself to the third eye, it’s very difficult to pry it off. And because we pass everything we see through that lens, we come to ignore parts of reality that don’t mesh with our ideology — and most of the time, the ideology comes with a method to explain away the stuff that doesn’t mesh. (So for example with ISIS, they’re convinced that everything is a plot by “The Crusaders” — ie Christians — to destroy them, their religious purity, their families, their Islamic paradise.)
But the tricky thing about ideologies is that we ALL have them. I do, you do, everyone does. There are things you believe, way deep down in the core of your psyche, that influence how you see the world. And examining those things — to say nothing of adjusting or removing them — can be extremely difficult.
For example: Most people in the US believe that our government generally acts in the best interests of the world. Most Americans believe that we can be too aggressive, or insensitive to other cultures, but at the end of the day we’re out there all the time trying to use our power to help people and stop The Bad Guys.
But there’s a good bit of evidence to suggest this isn’t always true. And not just a couple of rare outliers, but a number of historic cases (East Timor, Guatemala, Iran-Contra) that demonstrate the reality that, from time to time, the US acts out of unconscionable self-interest and leaves corpses in its wake in the name of hegemony.
(Is it obnoxious for me to acknowledge the fact that I’m using some fancy words that some folks probably aren’t familiar with, like “ideology” and “hegemony”? Yeah, but I always want to encourage people to look that stuff up if you don’t know about it. Besides, the only way you’ll really get a sense for what they mean is to read stuff about them. Like Derrida. Don’t get me started on Derrida or his obnoxious, useless fan club.)
The horrible cyclical effect of our ideology is that we’re 100% convinced that we’re The Good Guys and our military only fights The Bad Guys. This can prevent (and sometimes does prevent) our ability to realize that we do some terrible things at times. (Some people believe that our military is ONLY or PRIMARILY used for “evil” purposes, but that’s the same simplistic ideology — only flipped.)
The worst part of THAT is that it means we’re likely to do things that prove the case that the ideology of ISIS is trying to make: The US military is The Great Satan. (Again, I want to make clear that i do NOT agree with that ideology.) So both sides keep playing by this tired old script book, and neither is able or willing to admit that our ideologies (and our egos) are what’s really at war.
Blood Will Have Blood, They Say
So how do we fight an ideology? Yeah, I was supposed to answer that. (We’ve been watching “Barton Fink” in Creative Writing, and I’ve been in “circular logic and dodging questions” mode for several days.)
Well, how did we defeat Naziism? I mean, yeah, it’s not dead — scumbags still paint swastikas on things — but it’s got 1% of the life it had in 1935. But the point is: Many people once believed that it would never be abolished. The frenzy in their eyes was too strong. They weren’t human! Same with the Japanese, right? But now we’re all good friends.
Would it take an actual war, like WW2? Even if that were possible (which of course it’s not), ISIS seems like a cockroach in its capacity to survive great physical assault, and keep going. (Heck, the absurd ideology of Wahhabism might even CELEBRATE such a thing.) And besides, I don’t think it takes wars to change ideologies.
But changing ideologies requires empathy, respect (of self and toward others), and compassion. So that guy in Paris explaining to his kid why the flowers are more powerful than the bombs — he’s absolutely correct. (Only in the long term! Kids, do NOT try to stop bullets with chrysanthemums. OH MY VARIOUS GODS! [Futurama, remember that?] I just spelled “chrysanthemum” correctly without looking it up.)
Because if we keep getting kicked in the teeth, and then kicking the other guy in the teeth, and then he gets mad because we just kicked him in the teeth, and so he kicks us in the teeth, and so on.. well, you know. Who kicked who first? Who cares! We go back far enough and it’s Cain vs. Abel (as we all agree, since it’s Old Testament, heh) and it doesn’t matter.
What matters is what we can teach the rest of the world about what it means to be a decent human being. And a decent family. And a decent community. And a decent city or town. And a decent state. And a decent nation. And a decent species. (The Chicago rapper Capital D said: “My father taught me — kid be a man, protect your family / But what if my family is all of humanity?”) THAT’s how you defeat an ideology. The ideology of fascism took a BIG hit from the Marshall plan. People tend to hate you less when you actually help them rebuild. (We haven’t done very well in Afghanistan or Iraq.)
Decent nations don’t ignore the horrors that ISIS is inflicting on its region and (occasionally) on the US and Europe. But decent nations ALSO do NOT ignore the horrors of its own drone strikes, nor do they ignore their moral commitments to the people suffering from war, hunger, poverty, and violence.
I demand a third way. (That’s my ideology, a refusal to accept only two ways of seeing a thing.) I insist that we CAN stand up for the rights of women, men, and children in every nation on Earth, without requiring the perpetuation of a flawed ideology of moral certainty in the form of military action and unenlightened short-term self-interest.
Note: I wrote this a few weeks ago, after we lost an amazing educator. I wasn’t sure if I would post it, but I had a discussion today that convinced me to share it. Thanks for reading.
There is a spirit of compassion in every educator that transcends infinity. What we do in those classrooms every day — We can tell you what it takes, but that doesn’t really tell you what it takes. It’s not just blood, sweat, and tears; we give our souls, our hearts, our memories. Our nightmares and our dreams, our minds and our fingernails. Every student who won’t listen, every book left unread, every lost opportunity — they weigh on us like rocks upon Giles Corey. “More weight,” we cry. Sylvia Ashton-Warner said: “Not just part of us becomes a teacher. It engages the whole self — the woman or man, wife or husband, mother or father, the lover, scholar or artist in you as well as the teacher earning money.”
I knew Jane Skalitsky, but (as with so many of the amazing women and men at Sun Prairie High School) not nearly as well as I should have known her. That distance is not a salve in this hour of pain, however — it is a burden of grief. What might I have learned from her, about compassion? About reaching young people? About holding on?
Some days, it’s really hard to hold on. I don’t mean sanity or hope — I mean holding on to the vision that drives us. Holding on to the people around us. It’s so easy to let those things slip and retreat into something else, something easier. Something that requires less energy. Lots of people do that; they stop holding on. Pablo Neruda said: “Between lips and voice, something went off to die; something with bird’s wings, something of anguish and forgetting. Like nets which can’t hold water.” I can’t speak with personal certainty, but I assume others will correct me if I am wrong: Jane held on.
Utah Phillips told a story once about a guy named Eddie Belchowski, who had lost a hand in the Spanish Civil War. He said Eddie taught him powerful things about holding on. When he heard that Eddie died, he wrote a death song for his friend. Then he got a call from Eddie. (He asked him: “Hey Eddie, where ya calling from?” He said Chicago, and Utah said: “Well, dead or in Chicago, it’s all the same to me.”) Utah sang Eddie his death song, and he was amused. Then, a few months later, Eddie died. And Utah Phillips sang his death song at the funeral.
For teachers, the past doesn’t go anywhere. Our lives only expand with every new student; we absorb what the universe throws at us, like some kind of mutant pedagogical sponge. Our students don’t go anywhere; they live inside our minds beside our favorite teachers. And somewhere in the cluster of galaxies beyond our consciousness, our favorite teachers work with every student we’ve known.
Because as Chief Seattle said, there is no death. There’s only a changing of worlds. The Vietnamese zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains that we look at a cloud and think of it as a distinct entity. But when it is time for that cloud to become rain, we can still love the rain that it becomes, and take solace in the continued existence of the cloud-now-rain as a vital continuity of our world. I will add: This is especially true for teachers, because teachers imbue themselves into everything they touch. Teaching is an act of transfusion, a daily transfer of precious intellectual fluids. (Also mental, psychological, spiritual, emotional, and sociopolitical fluids.)
This teaching stuff is confusing. I’ve been teaching for 15 years, but I feel like I don’t really know what I’m doing. I wrote a book about teaching this summer, but I can’t help feeling like a fraudulent “expert”. I think we all feel this way from time to time. There’s no way to describe it, and if you’ve never done it, then you have no idea. Anne Sexton once said: “I am teaching … It’s kind of like having a love affair with a rhinoceros.”
But never is this more true than when we discuss special education. That name doesn’t fit because the students are special — although they are. But all students are special. They are all unique and beautiful snowflakes, to ironically appropriate the words of Tyler Durden. We call it special education because the teachers are special. Most of us can’t do what they do; I know I can’t.
The more I hear about Jane Skalitsky, the more she reminds me of my mother. My mom was the first teacher I ever met, and she devoted her entire life to special education kids. Her students came from backgrounds of every stripe and flavor. Abuse, illness, neglect, suffering, boredom, poverty, confusion, chaos, distance — these are the worlds from which her students came. (Plenty of students in “regular ed” deal with less acute versions of these experiences, of course.) Ordinary people like me can’t confront these worlds like special ed teachers do. When I was subbing in the Madison area, I always felt bad when I hit the “no thanks” button when the SubFinder robot called at 4:00 AM asking if I would fill in for a special ed absence. But I never felt confident that I could give the kids what they need. I watched my mom do it for years, and I was never as capable or talented as that.
Jane Skalitsky didn’t run from the challenges that came toward her. She poured herself into the students like we all try to do. I feel weird talking about her like this, since I didn’t know her very well. But — again — I trust those with the personal connections will stop me if I need to be corrected.
No one teaches who isn’t ready to sacrifice. Some of us give more than others, and that’s all there is to it. We’re all afraid that we’ll give too much, but we don’t let that stop us. Our love for the young people is stronger than our fear. I didn’t know Jane very well, but I know somehow from something deep inside me that her love always overpowered whatever fears she may have had.
My mother was afraid of what the chemotherapy would do to my father, but she loved him enough to endure it with him. And when he finally died, she was afraid that she might endure the same pain if she ever married again. But she did. And then she did. (My father died from multiple myeloma. My stepfather died from lung cancer.) And despite this pain and the fear that it might come back to haunt her again, she has never grown cold. She knows that her love is stronger than her fear, and she refuses to let the fear win.
You can’t grow cold, if you’re a teacher. Maybe some can — my 11th grade math teacher seemed pretty cold. But maybe I just felt that way because I never got the hang of pre-calculus. I don’t know any cold teachers at Sun Prairie High School, and I can’t imagine anyone with a cold heart lasting two days in special ed. Peter, Lance, Lori, Patty, Amy, Latrina — these people teach me every day about what it means to conquer fear with love. Because for all the talk of SLOs and PPGs and PBIS and RTI and IEPs and 504s and ELL and ESL and 21st century learning and differentiation and scaffolding and personalized curriculum and bundled classes and flexible scheduling and all the rest of it is one simple question: Can you love the students enough — and get them to love themselves — to conquer their fear of failure? Can you teach them how to be more human?
Ralph Ellison said: “If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and I will help to make the desert bear fruit.”
We’re in a desert of loss right now, maybe even feeling a drought of hope. But the cloud has become a rainfall, and as we sing Jane’s praises, her enduring presence is helping the desert to bear fruit.
I’m active on a Reddit forum called /r/AskFeminists, and today I got a message from a guy who’s trying to find his way on the path of being a guy who believes in feminism, while also enduring a lot of harsh attacks that feel personal. (I have no idea how old he is, but I’m guessing he’s younger than me.)
I wrote a letter to him, which I thought I might reproduce here for posterity. Perhaps it will be useful and/or interesting for someone else. (I’ve removed some of the more specific elements from his original message to me.)
Thank you for your kind message. I understand where you’re coming from, and I hope I can be of service.
One of the most important things I realized on my journey was that patriarchal conceptions of masculinity are a poison injection that we guys receive on a daily basis — you’ve got to be physically strong, you’ve got to be cold and indifferent to suffering, you’ve got to dominate other people (especially women). This poison sucks our humanity away unless we resist it, and it also (this is key) causes untold suffering for women.
As a result, many female feminists are frustrated and angry — as they should be. Many black people are justifiably frustrated and angry when police officers kill unarmed black folks, but they’re angry at white supremacy, not individual white people. (Of course unrepentant or oblivious white people can also incur wrath, but activists with #BlackLivesMatter understand that nothing changes unless we attack the roots of white supremacy, and we make very little progress when we go after individual white folks.)
Patriarchy is a different monster from white supremacy, but in both cases we (or at least I can speak for myself here — not sure what your racial/ethnic background is) have a responsibility to fight against the mindset and structures of privilege.
The key for us, as allies in a struggle against these “abstract monsters” (as I call them) is to distinguish justified anger against patriarchy (or white supremacy, or cisgender superiority or class dominance or whatever it is) and anger toward individuals. (Of course some feminists are just bitter or mean, and they may lash out at individuals.)
The worst thing you can do is confuse the two, because diverting a critique of a system into a discussion on personalities is part of the dominant-culture trap. (If you haven’t yet watched it, please take a few minutes and enjoy this important — and entertaining — video from JaySmooth called How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist.)
So all of that is a bit of prelude. Let’s see if I can offer some specific, concrete advice for you.
When someone criticizes men as a whole, do this: (A) Ask yourself — Do I do that? Is it true about me? (B) If so, confess and think/talk about how you can make some changes. If not, move on. (C) Ask yourself — Is that a fair generalization? In my experience and research, does that apply to most guys? (D) If so, agree and commiserate about the nature of the problem. If possible, offer your unique insight from “inside the club”. If not, explain why you disagree.
Recognize that equal treatment alone isn’t necessarily enough to solve huge historical problems. Native Americans were killed off by the millions and had all their land stolen. Making sure they are taxed at the same rate as white folks isn’t going to do much to recalibrate the historical imbalance at the core of their dilemma. The same is true about addressing the centuries of patriarchal violence that have created our current context between men and women. Of course equality is a perfect goal in the long term — but sometimes it’s not enough.
Put this quote somewhere you can see it every day: “The true human ideal is to forgive those who are foolish and help those who are evil.” – Bankei Yotaku. Cultivate an essence of forgiveness. That way, when someone foolishly misdirects their anger at you, instead of becoming defensive, you can reflexively say: “I don’t blame you for being mad, and while I don’t like being the target of that anger, I share your frustration at the patriarchy.”
Do more asking of questions than making of statements, especially when talking with people who disagree with you. Let’s say someone makes a claim like “Men can’t be feminists.” (I’ve heard that before.) Start by simply asking: “Why not?” You might follow up by asking: “Can white people be allies in the struggle against white supremacy?” Most of the time, I’ve found, when I disagree with someone, there’s a difference of understanding about what a word means, or how we apply a particular rule of thumb. When we ask questions (rather than barreling ahead, certain in an assumption), we increase the likelihood of a productive/respectful dialogue.
Remember that you still have a lot to learn. As Socrates said: “The more I learn, the more I realize I know nothing.” It’s tempting for me to think that I’ve “made it” to a level of enlightenment, where I don’t deserve any criticism at all. But none of us ever reaches this place, especially if we don’t live a daily life of irritation/aggravation/violence from systems of oppression. We have to be willing to be self-aware and (when necessary) self-critical at all times.
Now let’s see if I can answer your questions directly.
I find myself turned off by the really harsh stereotyping and especially the arguing, judgement, and condemnation. How do you deal with that aspect of it?
Hopefully I’ve answered this, but let me also say that some argument can be helpful. If we feel stifled or restricted, then we may not be able to have the honest (but painful) conversations needed to shatter illusions and oppressive mindsets.
Of course you should always be confident to stand up for yourself as a person, and talking simply about how you feel can be a good way to do this. (Remember that part of the poison of patriarchy tells us that we should never do this.) Use “I” statements and stay focused on yourself as an individual, while acknowledging larger problems and not trying to focus the discussion on you.
How do you deal with all the different voices saying 100 different things and telling you what you, as a man, are supposed to be?
This is an excellent question, especially because that sounds like a perfect description of what patriarchy itself means for men. Think about all the ads, movies, TV shows, and discussions with fathers and friends that send these messages. Think about Lady Macbeth telling her husband: “When you durst do it [kill the king], then you were a man; And, to be more than what you were, you would Be so much more the man.” (Yeah, women can feed us poisonous patriarchal messages too.)
I would point out that you’re living (and, I imagine, growing up) in a very different context from the one in which I came of age. (I’m 40; I assume you’re younger.) There’s a level of vitriol and acerbic rage on Tumblr that I never really experienced. Of course lesbian separatism is nothing new; and one of the most important conversations I’ve ever had was with a lesbian separatist who made a very convincing case for why she would never feel safe living among men. (I still don’t agree with the principle, but I understand why people have that perspective, along with black nationalism, etc.)
The point, of course, is that you must develop an independent and critical awareness of what it means to be a man. You’re way ahead of most guys — you’ve started asking questions about how we got to this point, and you’re willing to push yourself to do better and fight for what’s right. Perhaps my best advice is: Keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t sublimate your individuality based on what one or two people tell you to do, but don’t be afraid to deeply consider everyone’s point of view. (The ability to question our assumptions is one of the most essential elements of human consciousness, and one — unfortunately — that most people ignore or abandon.)
Do you have some good writings I could read?
Yes. One of the most important books I’ve ever read was Men On Rape: What They Have to Say about Sexual Violence. There’s some horrifying stuff in there from men speaking honestly about how they see sexual violence and their relationship to it. Obviously feminism is about much more than ending the rape of women by men, but this was an alarming eye-opener for me, and its themes bleed into many other parts of life.
Finally, you might want to check out a book called Refusing to be a Man: Essays on Social Justice. Again, I don’t agree with everything he has to say, but he writes powerfully and honestly as a man trying to fight against patriarchal violence.
You’ll notice that I’ve linked to books here, because I’ve found that — while online discussions can be a good way to have smaller conversations — I think that much of what passes for “dialogue” or “argument” online gets wrapped up very quickly in its own assumptions and prejudices. When we write on paper for a general audience, we have to be more open and comprehensive. If your impression of feminism and feminists comes mostly from online interactions (as is true for lots of young people these days; please correct me if I’m wrong in your case), I encourage you to broaden that sample.
Well, that’s a quick response to your message; I hope it’s useful. Good luck to you, and thanks again for writing.
Didactic Synapse is proud to present a new feature: Through the Shades. Using the metaphor of the 1988 movie They Live, I’ll be deconstructing popular media to expose the festering putrescence beneath the veneer of consumerist fulfillment.
Walgreens has been running the “Dance Team” commercial in regular rotation recently on Hulu (a paid service which still forces hideous ads down our throats). I don’t really recommend watching it, but here it is anyway:
There are so many things that nauseate me here, but it’s taken me a while to sort through them. Let’s start with…
Walgreens’ slogan: “At the Corner of Happy and Healthy”. No one in Walgreens is healthy. That’s why they’re in Walgreens! If my health were good, why would I be standing in line to fill my acid reflux prescription? And no one in Walgreens is happy, either. I live two blocks from a Walgreens, and everyone always has horrible desperation painted on their faces. Whether feeding their nicotine fix, stuffing chocolate into their craven maws (my usual purpose), or purchasing cheap sunglasses to ward off UAV blindness, we’re all stumbling around in a discontented daze under fluorescent misery.
Lest anyone think I’m a total sourpuss, let me confess to some positives in this spot:
The dance team is profoundly multicultural. African-American, Asian-American, white-American, all bouncing around with each other and gettin down on stage. Dance Mom is a strong black woman who’s able to problem-solve and “never miss a beat”. She’s adaptive, supportive, and joyous.
It’s a fun 30 seconds. The girl on the sidewalk is into it. The music is peppy and the expressions are filled with enthusiasm. These adorable kids are not just having fun; this is the best weekend of their lives so far. They take 6th at the competition, but they couldn’t be happier.
Old and new technologies are blended seamlessly. Dance Mom is snapping pictures with her phone (while dancing, which must have resulted in some blurry shots that got deleted), but she gets them developed into 4 x 6 glossies. Tweens and middle-aged folks all get what they want.
Ironically, it is this relentless positivity that sickens me the most. So let’s explore the negatives already.
The goal is for us to buy more stuff we don’t need. Like all commercials, this ad works in service to a blind fanatical consumerism, tied bone-deep into an affiliation with joy and happiness. We’re supposed to take those fun, peppy sensations and transfer them into our Walgreens schema. Just as we all get warm fuzzy associations with Disney starting at age zero (to the point where some of us just move into corporate HQ), the goal of modern advertising is not merely to convince us to buy one laundry detergent or athletic shoe. Instead, we’re meant to rearrange our entire psychology to link permanently the fun of these young people with the Walgreens brand. Kids can’t just be dancing to have fun anymore — they must do so for the benefit of a huge corporate ad blitz.
The flip side is a gut-level rejection of joy. Those of us who hate being manipulated by this kind of advertising reflexively make angry faces and roll our eyes when it begins. The more pervasive and ubiquitous this advertising is (and it gets more so every day), the more we make these faces and feel our stomachs churn. The danger is that we might eventually associate all instances of cute kids dancing and having fun with corporate manipulation, and then we become sour, bitter, cynical crankypants weirdos. (Or, in my case, more so.)
Three trips to Walgreens!? As soon as Sidewalk Girl gets in the minivan, her friend announces her Hair Disaster, which we’ll be generous and accept as a legit problem because they’re going into a competition. (It’s another example of advertising telling young girls that they never look good enough, but let’s give Walgreens the benefit of the doubt on this one.) Dance Mom assures her that it’s not a problem, and proceeds to pull a cache of hair products from her canvas Walgreens bag. (A not-at-all-subtle conflation of the corporate brand with environmental thinking, which is absurd and offensive, since Walgreens tosses every tiny thing we buy into atrocious plastic bags because they’re inexpensive.) Then, the whole team must go en masse and en danser into Walgreens again to buy makeup. (Lipstick? Mascara? Blemish remover?) Then, after the competition, they’ve got to swing back into Walgreens to get the developed pictures (sent from the phone, I imagine?) and buy some bags of snacks for the celebratory ride home. What nonsense.
Dancing inside Walgreens. This is the most horrible absurdity in the entire commercial, because suspension of disbelief breaks down completely. (And if it doesn’t break down for you, then your brain has been overtaken by the alien propaganda machine and you need serious help.) The only people dancing inside a Walgreens are people suffering from chronic irritable bowel syndrome who are having trouble waiting to buy diarrhea medicine.
There’s more, but that’s enough complaining for one afternoon. You’re a terrible company, Walgreens, and I urge you to stop running this commercial immediately. Thank you.