The Didactic Interview: Sofia Ali-Khan

To confront the existential horror of President Trump, I’m joined by my longtime activist friend Sofia Ali-Khan. We discuss our lives as progressive rabble-rousers, educators, and Americans. We sort through the problems we face and some concrete steps for action. Let’s get to work, everybody!

Links to things we discussed:

Here’s the song at the end, “Simply Are” by Arto Lindsay:

10 Things Every American Should Do When a New President is Elected

1. Read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Know what it says about the rights of every human being on the planet. Be prepared to stand up for your own rights, and be prepared to defend the rights of other humans.

2. Read the United States Constitution. Know what it says about the rights of every American citizen. Be prepared to stand up for your own rights, and be prepared to defend the rights of other Americans.

3. Build community. Wherever governments or other forces try to violate the rights of people, they have less success when people know each other. Meet your neighbors if you don’t already know them. Reach out to friends and family and reinforce networks of support.

4. Pick a specific movement for good and work with other people. I have been a member of Amnesty International for over 20 years, because I believe in its mission to protect the UDHR. Perhaps you’d like to work specifically to help children, or protect the rights of LGBTQ individuals, or stand up for religious freedom, or defend freedom of the press, or preserve the environment. Whatever issue is most important to you, be active and involved.

5. Stay focused on what people say and do. Avoid demonization and oversimplification. JaySmooth from the website IllDoctrine.com once made a very important video called How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist. If you’ve never seen it, please take three minutes and watch it right now.

6. Learn how to be angry for a long time. As I wrote in my book MindWipe:

It’s absolutely essential for people (especially young people) who fight the power to learn how to be angry for a long time. Otherwise the rage and fury will clot your blood and clog your pores. No one will protect you from the exhaustion and emotional toll these struggles will take; you must protect yourself. And in my experience, bitterness and bile are supreme enemies against which you must be vigilant. Nothing will make you burn out more quickly than succumbing to the belief that there’s no point.

The chapter “How to Be Angry for a Long Time” is on the Medium website. Please have a look.

7. Take care of yourself. Eat well, drink water, breathe deeply, and exercise. Watch funny movies and play fun games. Garden, take walks, or do whatever makes you feel good. Resist the temptation to escape into clouds of oblivion or bottles of despair.

8. Made good art. As Neil Gaiman said: “Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art.” Read the comic from Zen Pencils.

9. Find a book about history and read it. I recommend Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States or perhaps East Timor: Genocide in Paradise by Matthew Jardine. Learn about those people and organizations who have resisted violence and oppression in other places and times.

10. Educate others. If you are unhappy with the result of an election, you must know and/or believe things that other people do know know or understand. Use this opportunity to share important facts and perspectives with which others may be unaware. Stay focused on specific things that people can investigate for themselves. Find common ground where possible and challenge everyone to be their best selves.

Ventilation

There is an insane chaos going on in my brain, and I don’t know what else to do with it. So I’m just going to write and see what happens. The image was one of the first results in a Google Image Search for “meshugas“.

As I posted on Facebook recently, I could list some rationalist forms of material dread that are contributing to my state of exacerbated disconsolation. But they’re always weighing on me in some form or other, and usually my indefatigable sense of resistance/acerbic revolutionary je ne donne un damn pas can ward off the gloomies.

But once a month (give or take), something happens and all that iron-spined middle-finger-up-to-TheMan™ withers, and I find myself immobilized by a weary sense of helplessness. My amazing special lady friend is invaluable in her patience and support, of course, and I am blessed to work with loving soldiers of pedagogical eminence who show me boundless compassion and moral sustenance. These experiences would be infinitely more difficult if not for these amazing people.

The episodes come and go unbidden — probably the result of some chemical hurleyburley, or (mis)alignment of the planets. I can never predict them, and nothing really seems to hasten their departure. (The music of Ministry, the playing of video games, and the consumption of classic films like Fight Club are taken in Extra-Strength doses, but they serve mostly to ameliorate the symptoms, rather than provide any comprehensive respite.) Sometimes I’ll deal with these episodes by using all my loquacious vocabulary that has no utility in the classroom, since it mostly befuddles my students.

Mostly what I have to do is wait them out. But when I’m in the midst of these demonic paroxysms, I find it harder than ever to turn off what DFW called “the constant monologue inside your own head”. Part of this is because I usually don’t do the most helpful thing I could (and should) do in times like this — meditate and take my own advice. Instead, I cling to my anger and woe, finding some bizarre comfort in the despondency of how brilliantly my intellectual ego can delineate and triangulate the true causes of post-millennial despair.

So as a result my brain starts dwelling on the deep sources of my existential crisis: failure to get books published, inability to instantly change students’ lives, frustration at the intractability of political oppression, police brutality, economic injustice, etc etc. Again, these things are not actually to blame for my atrocious mindstate, but at least they are things to which I can point. More to the point (ha ha), they are always lingering (or, perhaps more accurately, festering) just beyond my peripheral vision at all times — but my insurmountable sense of hope and revolutionary fervor (thanks a lot, East Timor and Chuck D) allow me to push them aside as I Fight the Power and Stick It To TheMan™.

I can’t lie to people at school. So when someone inevitably asks “How’s it going?” I have to say: “Not great” or “I’ve had better days”. I’d most like to say: “Atrocious because the horrors of modern life are sometimes too numerous to contemplate.” But then the person would probably get really super-extra concerned and insist on some kind of intervention, or (more likely) laugh awkwardly and say “Well okay then.” And then where would we be?

In between pretending like everything’s fine and making some weird plea for help (which, trust me, I am not doing), there lies a constant desire for genuine human interactivity that goes beyond the platitudes of social media and banal workplace acknowledgement. On the other hand, what the hell is there to even talk about? “I guess it just beez like that sometimes,” as New Kingdom said — so if I know this too shall pass, then why waste time and breath enumerating all the fucked up shit that everybody’s already aware of?

I mean, I know how stupid that line of thinking is; so many people insulate themselves from honest and painful conversations because they’re convinced “there’s no point”, and that hogwash is just  few steps removed from the idiocy about how voting doesn’t matter and recycling makes no difference. So there’s the intellectual comprehension of my own over-intellectualist intransigence on the one hand, and a deep terror on the other hand about being some kind of emotional abyss requiring idiotic Stuart-Smalley-style affirmation.

But then, of course, our minds can’t save us, and neither can technology. So what’s left is a rejection of the yin-yang table in Tyler Durden’s apartment representing the facade of fake enlightenment. (The tao that can be made into a coffee table is not the eternal and unchanging tao.) I just gotta go sit somewhere quiet and wipe my mind. I know it will help, because it’s helped in the past. But I also know that it won’t actually solve the problem, and at most it will reduce the intensity of my meshugas by 10%. (I actually have an idea for a pretty cool cartoon about that ratio, but I’m feeling too run-down and overwhelmed by school stuff to create it.) So maybe I’ll just play some video games instead. (Scoring a goal in a ranked match of Rocket League is nearly as good as authentic kensho.)

Words are my life’s work, so it’s helpful for me to plow through several hundred of them. (As of the end of this sentence, I’m at 909.) It’s easy to get discouraged about those, however (see above about difficulty in getting published), so while I’m gratified to receive LIKES and positive commentary pursuant to various ramblings here and elsewhere (cf. memorials to awesome people, especially), it’s tough to feel like I’m making the kind of impact I’d like to make with my scribbles. (Of course the ego conveniently moves the goalposts of what the impact would actually look like, so it’s a fool’s errand to even contemplate that question.)

Well, it kinda feels like my rage and dissatisfaction is being overwhelmed by exhaustion, and I think I’ve run out of things to say in any case, so I’m just gonna stop here. I can’t remember if I turned off comments (the spam is ludicrous) or not, so you can try to leave a response here if you like. Otherwise, holler on Twitter or Facebook if you hear me.

Peace.

Letter to a Young Male Feminist

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

I also recommend Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation. It’s got a couple dozen essays from women of many walks of life. They do a good job discussing their lives and the movement as they see/live it.

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.

Rock is Cool but the Struggle is Better

In 1999 the Indigo Girls released a song called “Go”, on their album Come On Now Social. It’s got awesome lyrics about fighting for a better world and what we owe to those women and men who fought for us to have so much. Once upon a time I made a video for it, but I never put it on YouTube. If there’s any noise here, maybe I’ll upload it.

Anyway, there’s a line in the song that has always given me pause:

Feed the fire and fan the flame
I know you kids can stand the rain
I know the kids are still upsetters
‘Cause rock is cool but the struggle is better

It’s a good point (and it suits my point made in Creative Writing about building to the fourth line in a quatrain), but I want to pick up on the final concept there. I think one reason why so many kids find their way into rock (and not the struggle) is because it’s easy to find one’s place in rock. Especially today, when the varieties of music — and easy access to them — are at our fingertips, there’s a seductiveness that’s built into our social lives that protest and political activity doesn’t cater to. (This doesn’t even account for the massive industries organized around music, which we’ll take as a given.)

The truth is that taking action for a better world isn’t usually fun, and the vast majority of the population doesn’t take part. As a result, being in the struggle is often a lonely activity, and it can be exhausting. This is unfortunate, because (as Abbie Hoffman once pointed out) we need young people in the front, since they’re impatient and they haven’t grown jaded like so many adults.

As I’ve said elsewhere, however, being part of the struggle can provide a sense of history and purpose like nothing else in our fractured, chaotic world. (And it’s how I met my wife, heh.) More to the point, however: The struggle needs to happen, and there are plenty of people making rock a reality. Who among us is willing to step up and move the struggle forward?