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Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Penis You Live In: On Patriarchy, Ms. Boatman, and Overcompensation

            I was walking up the stairs to my sublet room in an apartment when, heading back from another day of 90 degree heat and humidity, before noticing the upturned cockroach on the flight of stairs leading to the roof (dead, luckily),  and after sneering at the plastic bag with the discarded remains of that night’s dinner sitting in front of 4W’s door, I recalled perhaps the most important yet forgotten lesson of my still short life, one that goes back to middle school. I don’t know what sparked my remembrance of it; certainly there was no smoking gun or madeleine, and I doubt it was the cockroach. It is a tiny, piercing truth, with massive implications. The truth was spoken in Spring in 7th grade, on a day quite like any other, the kind on which you meet the partner of your dreams: an otherwise, unremarkable, ordinary day, until it wasn’t, and you might not even be able to assess the gravity of it all until later, until after the coffee has worn off, but while your heart is still skipping beats.
            The small private school in Orange County that I attended from pre-school through 8th grade didn’t have any grass on which to run or play. Instead, we had a concrete field, comprised of a basketball court, a wall for hand ball, and a large tent, under which people would sit for plays and presentations. It didn’t stop us from playing football, and briefly, even baseball, but when the yearly President’s physical education tests came up, requiring that we run the mile, we would walk with our gym teacher, Ms. Boatman, several blocks to the nearby Boys and Girls Club, which had the grassy field of our lunch and recess hour dreams.
            We were rounding the block, turning from Utica Avenue onto Delaware, when a very large pick up truck drove by, the type you don’t see too often out here in Manhattan, but that which is all too common in San Diego and Orange County: huge, exaggerated tires, a truck frame raised a whole Honda Civic above where all other bumpers rest, such that its headlights were certain to fill the rearview mirrors ahead of it with blinding light, come nightfall. The truck was black with tinted windows.  The front ones were rolled down. The truck had music blasting, perhaps so that we (crowds of kids, single women, other men) could also hear the sound of what can loosely be referred to as music. It was probably whatever was popular on 106.7 KROQ at the time –Puddle of Mud., Limp Bizkit or Papa Roach – and it was combined with the sound of what can only be ironically referred to as a muffler, the type stretched wider than Ted Cruz’s asshole, which is gaping, after having talked out of it so often, for so long. The truck blasted so much noise such that all of our conversations – about Pokémon, politics, or the Smashing Pumpkins – were rendered inaudible, the size and the sound of the truck fully dominating the street. As it drove on by, Ms. Boatman’s trademark devilish grin began to form. She shook her head, her blonde pony tail tucked into her visor, sunglasses on, a sardonic snicker lying beneath her smile.
            It should be mentioned that Ms. Boatman’s opinions of men were eagerly accepted by us boys, 7th and 8th graders, many of us, who, inevitably, at some point or another, whether in her time as our preschool teacher, or out there where we gathered for gym, had some kind of crush on her. She was – and I’m sure still is – an attractive, strong woman, athletically built, and consistently tan, as one could expect of someone who spent most of her days outside, running PE classes for children of all ages. In her pre-kindergarten class, in my first year at the school, I distinctly recall kissing her up the length of one of her arms, in a needless to say and certainly inappropriate manner. My eagerness to express affection, I’m sure, in a Freudian sense, was two-fold: she was attractive, kind, and also, even likely only a few months in, more of a mother than that which I had at home. Ms. Boatman – Ms. Mary when we were young – straddled a line for us between being maternal, yet single and young enough to be a Miss, between being an authority figure, as well as an authority on all those parts of the adult world that were slowly encroaching on our otherwise naïve serenity, as some of us more than others clung to cartoons and a fervent belief in cooties, while others were beginning to wonder what was underneath girls’ skirts, or what other boys might look like naked, and if their penises were the same. She was the one who sat our 4th grade class down, and explained to us that it was time to start wearing deodorant, no doubt fed up with the smells she had to endure each afternoon. She spent her weekends rock climbing and outdoors, more than once returning to class the following Monday with massive scrapes and scratches from her activities. She was tough, and you didn’t want to cry, complain, or show weakness in front of her, unless it was truly serious.
            But that did not mean you could not be vulnerable. She knew, better than most, what went on in my home, as she was often the one staying late, waiting for my mother to pick up my little sister, and had – on more than one occasion – to refuse letting Cambria get in the car, late as it was, because of the smell of Chardonnay on my mother’s breath. It takes one to know one, in some sense, and Boatman, a weekend warrior and mountain biker, was a warrior of another sorts during the week. In 7th grade, our homeroom teacher, Ms. Hermanns, a pretty blond former sorority sister from USC, who I don’t think could even consider teaching class without a massive bottle of Pellegrino (unbeknownst to us,  it was likely for nursing her hangover) and Ms. Boatman took to going out to bars in Newport Beach, both of them still single, some times detailing the escapades to us which they referred to in code as “going to the Library.”
            Ms. Boatman was an authority of sexuality, in some sense, and we took her perspective on men seriously. If Ms. Boatman thought a guy was lame, he probably was. She was someone who had not had children, who had been both married and divorced, someone who had spent many years single in a place designed for people to take their twenties well into their forties. She was more than likely to have seen it all. If she liked your hair cut, it meant something. So, when she looked at that guy in the big black truck, blasting his way along a small suburban street, we listened when she said to us, quietly: “The bigger the truck, the smaller the penis.”
            It was an addendum of sorts to the same sounding line my father had long since offered when waiting behind behemoth trucks struggling to pull out of parking spaces as we waited, which was “the bigger the truck, the smaller the brain,” but while my father’s line wasn’t exactly untrue, it always struck me as somewhat elitist, and it somewhat missed the point. He is a very pragmatic person, and has always privileged vehicles with greater miles per gallon, as he has always had to commute. I understood his perspective, but as I was struggling to define my place in the world, and trying to understand my own masculinity, I repeated my father’s criticism of large trucks at the height of America’s SUV craze, from inside my macho step-father’s Chevy Suburban, to which my step-brother responded “Who cares? They’re cool.” He had a point, it seemed, and it brought to bear one of the central issues of being male, of the binary line between what makes sense – don’t play with fire, don’t jump off the roof into the pool, wear a helmet – and what esteemed you in the eyes of other young men. Between risk aversion, and being sexy to other males ( I mean that’s what it is, isn’t it?) I learned early on that being a certain amount irrational was necessary in order to be “cool.”
            Ms. Boatman’s dictum, however, set aside the elitism of I.Q. , and operated outside the binary of pragmatism and the aesthetic power of cool. It spelled it out better to me. The simple account of my father - that all people who buy those vehicles are just stupid - betrayed a resentment, one that didn’t fully explain it all, whatever it was. But Boatman’s words provided an interpretation. Men bought these trucks because they were compensating, or rather, overcompensating. Behind the pickup truck that requires a step-ladder, sits a man with a big problem, caused by a small member. Dissatisfied with the size of his penis – perhaps considered the most inherent symbol or manifestation of maleness – he had sought to project power, and more specifically, size, in other ways.  
            I was once in her car, as she was giving me and a few others a ride back to school from a class trip to the beach, when she looked over at the man in the Porsche at the stoplight next to us, and she laughed, pointing out his “bald spot and pinky ring,” I listened, even if I was not able to grasp fully what she meant. I saw an old guy, and an expensive car. She was illustrating a timeless truth: that men seek to compensate for deficiencies that lead to insecurities, by using objects as symbols,  ones designed with the intention of connoting your status to the world. Now, in my 25th year, I can safely say this is fairly and consistently true, in the way “California Cuisine” inevitably means menus abundant in avocado, and that places to eat that advertise themselves as having the “best” anything in town are never very good at all.
             But her truth also revealed another. It is unethical to judge a person for something they cannot control. This is the basis for doctrines of the free will in philosophy and theology, and why Kant posits that a just god could only damn us if we are free, and therefore truly accountable. It is unethical to judge someone for the color of their skin, their race, or who they find sexually attractive. None of these things are in our control, no matter what Scott Walker says. This includes bald spots. The clothes we wear, the music we like, both of which are matters of choice, even still are contextually contingent upon what my parents like, or don’t like, as well as my friends, what’s popular where I live, if I’ve taken music classes, etc. As transgender issues have finally come to the forefront in America, we as a society are beginning to take a hard look at how we judge people for what does or doesn’t lie between their legs, and moving beyond defining people based on their relationship to sex. We can no more choose our genitals than we can the color of our eyes or skin. So, it’s unfair to judge. And this doesn’t require tolerance. It simply takes an exercise in rationality, and possibly making an inch of an effort towards empathy.
        It’s not just unfair to judge men for having a small penis. It’s also the secret to peace on Earth. Think about it: We’ve all heard of a Napoleon complex, of how men who are short in stature can be more aggressive, hotheaded. Just look at Tom Cruise, Kanye West, or Joe Pesci. They’ve had to compensate for their height in other ways, like how Floyd Mayweather compensates for being short and not loved enough as a child by boxing, and beating women. This also gives us generations of men ashamed and resentful over a plight they cannot control, who are mocked for it, who have overcompensated in the most heinous of manners. I’ve heard it said that war is the ultimate dick measuring contest, to quote my friend Will Kettler. It is true. I guarantee that if we could dig up Eva Braun and ask her, she’d tell you: Hitler had a small penis. Rumors dating back to the War linger regarding a story about a goat biting and mangling his genitals. Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s impotent hero from The Sun Also Rises, compensated by picking fights with the Jewish character he loathed, Robert Cohn, and eventually getting his ass kicked, and by fetishizing bulls, a creature more closely correlated to testosterone and virility than perhaps any other. Men, in our patriarchal capitalist system, objectify everything as commodities, as signifiers of value, even themselves. And by virtue of hegemonic ideology, we all know how things rank and stand in the popular world. It leads to overcompensation, and degrees in Finance. It’s why Elliot Rodgers, the boy who shot up Isla Vista, near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, was obsessed with how his vehicle fit into what he called “the hierarchy of cars.” He had to have an Audi.
            You may remember the movie Bedazzled, in which the devil, played by Elizabeth Hurley, grants a modern Dr. Faustus played by Brendan Fraser a series of wishes, each of which comes with a catch. Fraser, after previously wishing to be sensitive, to be the kind of guitar playing, kitten canoodling man of many a young woman’s Dashboard Confessional dreams, only to watch the apple of his eye deem him to be too sensitive – read: too feminine – and run off with a fratty, jockish asshole, he requests to be, basically, Michael Jordan. The catch doesn’t come until he’s in a towel in the locker room, being interviewed by the girl he covets, when his towel falls, revealing a very small penis, at which point the girl leaves, disinterested yet again. The lesson here seems to be that you can have all the accomplishments and masculinity in the world, but with a small dick, it won’t matter. But as unseemly as it may sound to ask people to stop body shaming men, after eons of doing it to women inscrutably, our world will be vastly better for it, and devoid of a few more assholes, like Eric.
            Eric was one of the biggest assholes I met in high school. He was a talented, popular wide receiver on the varsity football team, and a year ahead of me. He helped orchestrate one of my most indelible experiences with hazing, in which I was forced / duped into him putting his spread bare ass on my face, through a gimmick referred to as “the impossible sit-up.” I was naïve, embarrassed, and quickly concerned about pink eye. One night, he hooked up with two different girls, neither of which who knew about his foray with the other. They were all in Associated Student Body, or ASB, a club of popular, pretty kids, that was fairly incestuous when it came to sex. I learned from a friend that both the girls had remarked to her negatively on his fairly small, and possibly bent wiener.
            The motivation for the hyper-aggressive, domineering attitude of those who feel the need to efface other men, and to disdain women as objects, has its roots in men’s relationship to their penis. The attitude they develop is a way of anticipating criticism and deflecting it before it can occur. To care about women – and what they think – would mean risking judgment. If he “doesn’t care,” then he can pretend to dismiss their criticism without concern. It’s what Leslie Jamison refers to in an essay in her book The Empathy Exams as “self-righteousness by way of dismissal; a kind of masturbatory double negative.” Small penis paranoia goes hand in hand with the degradation of women, objectifying and demeaning them. It’s a sad mechanism for self-defense. Behind every asshole riding a ridiculously and intentionally loud motorcycle, or sitting behind the wheel of a jacked up truck, tail-gaiting you aggressively and cutting you off, or posing in their Facebook profile picture with an assault rifle, sunglasses and a wannabe tough guy sneer, lies a man insecure about his penis, overcompensating for a self-perceived shortcoming in his masculinity. You know the type. If you look for them as they walk down the street, you can likely spot them without even needing to glance at their crotches. And anyway, science shows that “growers” and not “showers” – men with small flaccid penises versus the opposite – tend to be bigger when erect.[i] But citing science in a locker room doesn’t tend to get you very far. And so it was when Robert was pantsed outside near the football stadium and track, and the size of his flaccid dick revealed, he became a veritable legend, accepted, even though he flipped his long hair, and wore women’s designer jeans. He was, and I imagine, still is fairly secure.
            It is beyond tempting to say that the onus shouldn’t be on us, that men with big issues around their fearfully small dicks need to just get over it. Despite the age old cliché that “size does matter,” many studies show it is more a matter of what one does with what one has. But, in the spirit of a better, more unified, less patriarchal and shitty world, let’s “be the better person” and take the high road. Let’s not judge people for that which they cannot control, especially about their bodies and sexuality. Just as beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, so do dicks, and imagine for one second the world we could live in where men aren’t overcompensating for their perceived deficiency in masculinity: stupid posturing and fights in bars over perceived slights; ozone destroying, road clogging, emission spewing trucks; fortunes wasted on collecting fancy racecars rather than funding charitable organizations; steroids, meat heads, the Jersey Shore – all of it, rendered moot by a small penis friendly world, and that doesn’t even include the big one: gun violence.
            Guns, are, beyond a doubt, the easiest, most obvious and visible means by which men compensate for their “deficient” masculinity, for their feeling of powerlessness in a world they feel has alienated them. This is why they cling to them, and hate Obama: nothing makes them more fearful, and more likely to clench tightly the grip of their gun, than an educated, intellectual, tall Black man who is president, the most powerful man in the world. For some people, this is frightening.
            I may be accused, especially with that last claim, of being overly reductive, of laying the blame for a litany of the world’s problems at the feet, or rather between the legs, of a particular group of men. But if Freud taught us anything – though he knew nothing about women – it is that our primal urges of our id, subconscious and bestial, are at the heart of our civilization’s discontents. Feelings of inadequacy are a powerful source of motivation, especially when complicated by issues of sexuality, identity and gender. It is getting better, but the more we are able to see sexuality beyond a binary of straight or gay, and gender as male or female, the more we see beyond dialectical logic, and can accept truths – those that are beyond absolute, and instead, multiple in their perspective – the better off we all are. Hybridization – like that seen in Donna Haraway’s piece “The Cyborg Manifesto”[ii] – complication, and difference (or différance) are good, and absolute homogeneity is beyond troubling. Male anxiety around the categorical rejection of values and traits ascribed to “the feminine” has too long lead to an iniquitous, patriarchal, polarized world. But we are making progress.
            All that is left for us to do is accept dicks of all sizes. Of course, it would be nice if we didn’t have to treat some men with kid gloves. But in an imperfect world, a little effort and forethought to foreskin might be able to make it just a tiny bit better.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

Guess who's back: On Caitlyn Jenner, Peter Berg, and fighting for "freedom."

This morning, as I scrolled through my Twitter feed, avoiding the inevitable - getting out of bed, working out (god help me) and getting into the shower I share with three other men (not simultaneously) - I came across the aftermath of Caitlyn Jenner having received an ESPY award for courage. There had been quite a bit of talk about whether or not she deserved it, whether her transformation demonstrated bravery (of course it did), and it came from points of view I myself tend to respect, like Bob Costas, he who has on more than occasion spoken his mind, traditionally from a more progressive perspective. I do this sometimes, I follow a lot of Fox News types on Twitter, just to see the otherside, I tell myself, and it's a fairly masochistic process, one in which I deliberately scroll through the comments on Tweets that I know will engender the worse kinds of bigoted, idiotic and hateful responses. Part of it reminds me of where we still have to go in this country, but also, it's nice to see multiple points of view on the same story. When Obama remarks on Bill Cosby, Fox News still finds a way to spin it in a manner that diminishes him (by virtue of the fact that the President, rational and legalistic as always, remarked we don't have the "mechanism" by which to force Cosby to return his Medal of Freedom).

But it was a particular Tweet that caught my eye, one that depicted Peter Berg's reaction to Jenner's award. The story went on to explain that Berg posted a meme of a soldier, sitting in a chair, next to that of a pre-transformation Jenner. The caption went like this: "One man traded two legs for the freedom of the other to trade 2 balls for 2 boobs. Guess which man made the cover of Vanity Fair, was praised for his courage by President Obama and is to be honored with the 'Arthur Ashe Courage Award' by ESPN?" This infuriated me.

While Berg is correct if it is his aim to highlight and publicize the plight of veterans returning to this country with scars, injuries and trauma that few if any of us can even begin to imagine, he is an absolute asshole for playing the game of comparative suffering. You know how it goes. Here, Berg argues that the soldier who has lost two legs has suffered in a manner greater, more worthy, and in some sense more valuable than has Jenner. Despite it clearly being a case of Apples and Oranges, Berg apparently felt in someway justified in making this claim. But think about it: what if we really ran around the world, operating with this kind of logic? In that way, if suffering is a matter of weight and scale, the soldier's plight would pale next to that of the veteran who lost all of his limbs, next to the school girl who was raped, her village pillaged, family killed, and left to fend for herself, toothless and naked. In this logic, the pain and suffering that each of us feel everyday is made ridiculous by comparison. There is always a bigger fish, in this way.

It's like when I was a kid, and I sat at the counter, eating the crappy food my nanny made me. I'd eat as much as I could, but at some point, I'd be full. I wasn't a big eater. So sue me? Where does this moral value in being gluttonous come from? She'd get upset: "You know Nicholas, there are children in Africa who would kill for the food you are making me throw away." My response, naturally, was simple: "Then why don't we mail it to them?"

She didn't like that. It was smartassed, but I was a kid. I meant it, I wasn't being sarcastic.

"You can't mail food, it'll go bad, don't be a smart ass."

"Then why don't you make less food next time?"

Needless to say, the conversation went nowhere, except now it sits in the back of my mind every time I'm full, and don't want to finish the last bite. The logic of her point has stayed with me. If we go around, comparing our situation to those that are significantly, incomparably less fortunate than ourselves, our relative suffering is clearly nothing. This, in many ways, can be helpful. When I played football, and was at practice, going through some stupid god damn drill for the twentieth time, tired, hot, wanting to be anywhere else, I would remember: there are firefighters right now, in a hell of a lot more pain and stress than you; there are soldiers training whose tasks are far more difficult; there's a cop right now...

It was helpful, and it's not a terrible way of thinking. But it does become one when you use it as a means by which to assign moral value points.

Jenner's transformation and struggle are remarkable, inspiring, and wholly unimaginable for the vast majority of Americans, and in many ways, far more difficult to comprehend than losing two legs. We have all, from time to time, in someway, injured ourselves, rendering us less mobile or immobile. We can somewhat imagine - of course, without getting anywhere near the truth of it - what it might be like to lose two legs, a terrible, awful, horrendous plight that few of us would wish upon anyone other than Donald Trump. But to imagine being trapped in the wrong body, of feeling pressured your entire live up to an identity that isn't yours, is one far more difficult to imagine for most men and women. It requires a different kind of empathy.

That's what makes Berg's bullshit comments so frustrating. It's like this ridiculous game of who's pain is more worthy. It is possible for intelligent, functioning children and adults to hold both in our heads, to acknowledge both of their suffering, and respect each of them. But there is of course the matter of an award, one which is wholly arbitrary, and subjective in nature. Berg seems to wish there was an objective scoreboard to suffering, to which he could point, and point out our foolishness.

But there isn't. Zizek, the great Marxist philosopher, once said that the only universal truth, the only truly universal value is struggle. No matter the form, it is something to which we as human beings can all relate. Of course it is different, and surely we would trade the trials and travails of ours for others, but that doesn't make any one's experience less valuable, their perspective less worthy. Unless you live in Peter Berg world.

Peter Berg, who has made his career as of late depicting examples of great American masculinity, doesn't have the ability for this kind of nuance. He holds up the Navy SEALS in Lone Survivor as mythic gods, the football players in Friday Night Lights as emblematic of what Tony Soprano referred to when he asked "What ever happened to Gary Cooper?" One would hope that his latest endeavor, "Ballers" (literally, that's the fucking title) would be satirical in nature, that would deal with the reality of professional football, but a few episodes in, we can already see it for what it is: an excuse to participate in parties in Miami, where nerdy white guys like Rob Cordry snort coke with black athletes and naked models, in a scene little different than Entourage, perpetuating the same old tropes of men as conquerors, competitors, dominators, and women as objects of desire, as ornaments on a yacht.

What Berg's bullshit meme reveals though, is the same argument that crops up all too much, one that, in addressing, I will alienate many, I'm sure, and inspire the hate of plenty more, which is this: That these men and women, coming back from war, suffered and some died, as a result of fighting for our freedom.

It is freedom to which Berg refers, the freedom for Jenner to transform. And what a great country it is, where we have the choice to do such a thing?

But if you really believe that young men and women are being sent to the middle east to die for our freedom, you are sorely mistaken. This does not diminish them, their sacrifices, or their service. Many, if not all of them, believe that what they are doing is in the name of freedom, justice, and the American Way. I agree with my ethics professor when he said that the young person who signs up, who serves, who sacrifices in the name of those high values is probably taking one of the most ethically inspiring positions one can take. However, it doesn't change the reality of the matter.

We sell this bullshit notion to young kids, most without better options, that they will sign up, "serve their country," and protect our freedoms. But let me ask you this?

Are there any out there among you who still believe we went to war in Iraq to protect our freedom?

We all know now - as many did then - that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11, nor did he have weapons of mass destruction. Dick Cheney, Bush, and the cabinet conspired to create a bullshit reason for us to invade another country, not in the name of our freedom, but in the name of our hegemony. And the funny thing is, the lie aside, it didn't even accomplish its goal. We didn't get their oil, nor did we weaken Iran. If anything, we've strengthened Iran by removing its most powerful counterpoint in the reason, and inspired a whole new genre of Islamic terror. And don't you even begin to blame Obama for pulling troops out too early. We should never have been there in the fucking first place.

Take Afghanistan. All of these years later, even after the well intentioned mission we began shortly after 9/11, seeking to kill those who we could blame for the attack in New York City, and we are still spending money, American lives, and killing plenty of innocent bystanders in our fight for our "freedom." Afghanistan is not in a better place than when we began our venture there, nor are we somehow considerably safer, and more protected in our freedoms, by virtue of this truth: the sons and daughters of US air strikes, of "collateral damage," make for excellent future suicide bombers. In our game of middle east whack-a-mole, we've sought to assert ourselves by bombing the shit out of all of the evil doers we can find. But invariably, we miss, we kill innocents - even our own - and create what Chalmers Johnson called "blowback," or the negative unintended consequences of our otherwise "altruistic" or best-intended actions.

Our freedom is threatened when we create enemies, and, while they certainly may hate us for our freedoms - the ability of our women to dress as they wish, for example - they don't decide to suicide bomb us because of this. Islamic terrorists seek to destroy us because of our actions in the middle east, from this unconscionable, absolute support of Israel, to our backing of dictators and strongmen in Egypt, and previously, Libya. But men like Berg don't have an appreciation for nuance. They live in a black and white world, where men are men, women are women, we are the good guys, innocent, and bad guys have to be killed, sparing none of them.

We do a disservice to our young men and women serving in the military when we support this bullshit narrative of absoluteness, of "fighting for freedom." Because here is the thing: we would be a lot, A LOT, less likely and able to send them to die in bullshit wars (especially ones started on false pretenses) if we were honest about the reasons for sending them. When we use this narrative of Freedom and Liberty to perpetuate our constant war-fighting footing, we obscure the truth, and we lead them into harm's way based on lies, like the ones that lead us into Vietnam, or the ones that lead us into Iraq. Furthermore, it takes our eye off the ball, and prevents us from fighting in the battles that truly align with our principles.

But don't tell this to Fox News. There are people in this country who have to believe that America is exceptionally superior to all else, permanently, and always, and that we are never, ever, ever guilty of doing wrong, consistently and certainly always innocent. In this world view, the Native Americans had it coming to them, slavery didn't happen and it wasn't so bad, and the Iraq War and torture apparently didn't happen either, or were wholly and unquestionably justified. I was raised to believe that what makes America exceptional is our ability to dissent in a free society, and that questioning authority, and even our own integrity, is a patriotic act, and that following foolishly and absolutely is not something of which to be proud.

Our founding fathers were rebels and dissenters, revolutionaries even, who critiqued their own country, such to the extent that they began their own. They may have done if for tax purposes, and they may have wanted to continue to engage in slavery, but only a child, naive and foolish, believes in stories or people that are purely one dimensional. Nobody is perfect: Not Obama, not Ghandi, not MLK, not Jared Fogle from Subway, let alone Bill Cosby. But here's the problem, probably, and it's the word on the tip of the tongue of those fucking evangelicals who keep our country divided over their desire to push their religious and social views on the rest of us, who can't be content to simply not abort children if they don't believe in it: Jesus.

If you believe in Jesus - not the person, but the mythic god, the only path to heaven - then you believe in an absolute perspective. If you believe in a truth like this, one that is absolute and unitary - if you believe that anyone who doesn't "Believe" (whatever the fuck that means) in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, that you go to Hell, that you are wrong, and even immoral - then you are perpetuating a black and white world of us vs them, right and wrong, saved and the damned. And it's stupid. Do you really think Jesus would send anyone to Hell, to begin with? How does that comply with a doctrine of universal and absolute love (hint: it doesn't). Also, if someone did everything that Jesus would have them do, but believed in, I don't know, Buddha, Moses, or Mohammad instead, does it really make any sense to deny them the kingdom of God because they chose a different version, another branch of the same essential story, whose lesson is the same: love thy neighbor? It doesn't make any sense.

But then again, neither do people like Peter Berg, who are caught up in binary notions of gender, sexuality, and of right and wrong, worthy of praise, and unworthy. Luckily, I am not alone. Berg is already dealing with the fallback of his stupid comments. But all of us, regardless, are fighting this battle everyday, that of the fascism in our lives, that which seeks us to subscribe to either/or, one or the other, us vs them. It may be how we are wired, to not accept or allow for difference, to identify ourselves and our world in relation to how they are the same, or different, but as our world becomes more and more complex, and hybridization takes precedence over "pure" absolutism, we do have hope.

And it's my hope that in the future, people will see through Berg's bullshit, and others, who are committed to old tropes. The times are a'changing, and someday soon, we won't believe that heroism and bravery are always about fighting, dominating, conquering or risking one's literal limbs. Someday, we will be honest to the young men and women who sign up for our military, and not lead them on excursions around the world in the name of noble values to which our country continues to fail to embody, a nation of proud hypocrisy in the face of criticism. Someday, things will get better, if and only because old ideas will die with the old bodies.

But until then?

Fuck Peter Berg.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Stop Calling Taylor Swift a Feminist, She's Part of the Problem: On Bad Blood.

As Nick’s father on the first page of the Great Gatsby reminded him in his youth, “whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” This came to mind when I began to wrap my head around how to say that which I felt after watching the new Taylor Swift video, “Bad Blood.”

The video comes hot on the heels of what I’m being told by everyone these days is a hot summer box office blockbuster of a feminist film, the new “Mad Max.” Apparently, it’s supposed to be a marker of just how far we have come, that now the same shitty action movies made for Summer and dominated by violence and domination are now filled with female leads, performing the roles otherwise left to men, in an attempt to bridge the gender divide, in an attempt to bring in some of that “Pitch Perfect 2” money into studio coffers, as the value of women’s dollars has become, suddenly, more apparent to these people.

The Taylor Swift video opens with a fight. She and another women engage in hand to hand combat, and we are treated to the sound of a man’s arm being broken as provided by the same shitty sound effect that I’ve heard in shitty violent video games one after another from my misspent youth. He gasps, they all fight, Taylor Swift gets kicked out of a window by a Katy Perry lookalike, into a waiting open top Cadillac. Then, for some reason, we are taken to a montage that includes Lena Dunham, in the first of a cavalcade of cameos, even more than the shitty Entourage movie coming out this Summer. She is, of course, ever the strident feminist, smoking a fat cigar, the phallic significance of which is hard to miss, looking something like Tony Soprano or Jay Z. From violence, to feuding, to choices made to tend to an oral fixation, we have women enacting “masculinity” left and right.

Luckily, we have Kendrick Lamar – for some reason – to rap for us, to provide some kind of “hardness” or “gansta” element to the song, one whose lyrics include “band aids don’t fix bullet holes,” which inspires an irony lost on Taylor and the rest of her crew, which is that the only person in the whole fucking video that can actually, literally relate to such sentiment and violence is the black man whose voice and visage have been rented to substantiate the video in the aforementioned ways. Kendrick grew up dealing with bullets, the real ones. Taylor Swift did not.

We get images of a blade being thrown into a teddy bear for some reason. We watch Taylor Swift and “Frostbyte” (spelling intentional, I suppose? Ev3ryon3 is doing it) duel with a chained blade in a snow filled room, as they are dressed in snow-bunny like outfits with fur hoods. They do that, while other girls ride around on motorcycles, carrying guns, as we are reminded that “you forgive, you forget, but you never let it go.” This begs the question, if we aren’t letting it go, what the fuck is the point of forgiving and forgetting? It’s like a claim to some moral high ground, but leveraged against the kind of animosity and resentment that the forgiver is supposed to be against. But let’s not linger on that any longer, because the video sure as hell doesn’t. It doesn’t make any sense, and it contradicts itself, but that seems to here be par for the fucking course. Apparently, in your face passive aggressiveness is in vogue these days. 

Finally, after spending three minutes of our life watching these so called feminists dance around playing patriarchal action hero, we seriously – SERIOUSLY – watch them walk, the whole Bad Blood clique, towards a camera with guns in hand, while a huge fucking explosion happens behind them, as if it was Armageddon. If we were going to give them credit for being ironic, this moment would be where, if it wasn’t so abundantly clear that satire is the furthest thing from their minds in this piece. They seem to think that being a feminist means just coopting dominating, violent “Male” behavior. The closing montage includes a girl shooting a bazooka, before the two cliques at the end come together, and Taylor and the Katy Perry look alike fight, bringing the video to a close and solving the narrative’s problem, its conflict: Hero gets betrayed, hero gets weapons and friends together, hero goes and kicks ass, and everything ends happily ever after. I dare not ask what the moral of this story is.

This is why I thought of that line from Gatsby: because before I judge Taylor Swift too harshly, it’s important to remember she didn’t go to college. She hasn’t taken English classes, Poli Sci, philosophy, sociology, let alone ethnic studies or theory. She’s been thrust into a position where she has a huge, huge platform, where an entire generation of young people look up to her, especially because she’s supposed to be the classy, put together, sincere and sweet one in our current collection of instagram stars and the YouTube famous. She’s not spreading her legs and rubbing her vagina on stage, or smoking pot. She’s the anti Miley, if you want to think about it that way, but at least Miley is up front and honest, even while she’s coopting black culture as a means of establishing her trademark “edginess.” She throws around the word "homies" in much the same manner as Seth Green's character in Can't Hardly Wait.

It’s all especially troubling when you imagine this, when you put yourself in her shoes: you’re rich, famous, a musician. And you get into a beef with a girl in your same business over, apparently, among other things, a stolen back up dancer, remarks made over twitter. So, you hype a video you made like crazy, and fill it with a passive aggressive fictionalized takedown with you and all your friends and celebrity acquaintances who are desperate to still be considered relevant – Cindy Crawford – and put them together to show up another woman. And, the way you do it isn’t just by talking shit, isn’t just by making snarky remarks: you make a violent video, the gist of which surrounds your desire to inflict pain and maim her. Classy move, T Swift. Nothing like taking your violent daydreams and creating a space to enact them. That’s what all your wealth is for, right?

But then again, Taylor considers herself a feminist.  She herself has said that patriarchy and discrimination against women is a life long issue for her, in a recent interview.

“Misogyny is ingrained in people from the time they are born,” Swift said. “So to me, feminism is probably the most important movement that you could embrace, because it’s just basically another word for equality.”

And here lies the rub. Swift is right when she says feminism is vital, and important, but I think she’s enacting the fallacy of those faithful old words, that “women who seek to be equal to men lack ambition.”

This isn’t to say women shouldn’t be equal under the law, and in pay, and how they are treated socially. However, it seems Swift has taken the equality literally in a way that’s distressing. She seems to think Feminism means just substituting women for men in violent videos and graphic images, that Sojourner Truth would be proud that, all these years later, now little millennial white girls can watch their hero enacting all the terrible tropes of our patriarchal media environment like any other beefed up male sell out actor would. But that’s the problem. Feminism is about rejecting centuries of male dominated thought, including values of domination, aggression, violence, subjugation and commoditization. And Swift is guilty of all of these in her cute little film.

She enacts domination, aggression and violence, clearly. She’s commoditized herself and the violence she engages in, which perpetuates the falsehood of violence as the favorite means by which to wrap up a narrative. It’s an old device, traditionally a masculine one, one that has taught too many young boys that heroes have to be big, physical, hulking and willing to use violence to solve their problems, which is clearly what Swift does here.

We are only years past Newtown, and days or weeks, perhaps even hours away from the next major mass shooting in America. Our biggest sport is a contest between grown men as to who can better concuss each other, and better weather those concussions they themselves suffer. Commercials for Cadillac tell us it’s “ a weak man that seeks compromise.” We’re supposed to covet the cars in these commercials, where some guy drives around town like it’s the fucking Indy 500, in order to feel good about the size of his dick, the brand of his car keys, his status in our world.

Taylor Swift is part of the problem. Shit like this, and then going around talking about how you are a feminist is a problem. She needs to educate herself if she wants to pretend to be serious about her platform, and going around enacting the same bullshit values of our masculine dominated society isn’t helping, it’s actually hurting. And having Lena Dunham there doesn’t change anything.

In her interview, Swift goes on to say that there’s a seeming double standard revolving around the expression of sentiment, feelings.

“A man writing about his feelings from a vulnerable place is brave; a woman writing about her feelings from a vulnerable place is oversharing or whining.”

In what world do we privilege men who share their feelings? Is she completely unaware of the Sopranos? Does she have any male friends? I can tell you right now, after spending many years of my life around men, sports teams and in college, that men who share their feelings are certainly not considered to be brave. In fact, they are often considered “pussies” or “fags,” and if you don’t’ believe me, there’s an excellent film “The Masks We Live in” that I can recommend to you, and to Taylor Swift as well.

Apparently, Swift’s feminism is new thing for her.

“I didn’t have an accurate definition of feminism when I was younger” she said. “I didn’t quite see all the ways that feminism is vital to growing up in the world we live in. I think that when I used to say, ’Oh, feminism’s not really on my radar,’ it was because when I was just seen as a kid, I wasn’t as threatening.”

She still doesn’t have an accurate definition of feminism, but if she’s looking for one, I can provide it. Bell Hooks, in her work Feminism is for Everybody explains just what she means when she uses the word.

“Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression,” and she goes on to say  that she loves that definition because “it so clearly states that the movement is not about being anti-male. It makes it clear that the problem is sexism. And that clarity helps us remember that all of us, female and male, have been socialized from birth on to accept sexist thought and action. As a consequence, females can be just as sexist as men.”

Like it or not, Taylor Swift is sexist, and is engaging in spreading the same bullshit around violence and domination that lays the ground work for oppression. Feminism teaches us that showing our emotions, and being cooperative is all right, and that bottling ourselves us, pursing reason as blind, absolute truth, and engaging in domination is fucked up. But when you watch Bad Blood, you don’t get that message. Instead, you are told that when a girl gets you riled up, talks shit, whatever, the response is to get your posse together, take a shit ton of instagrams to show how cool your clique is, and make a dumb fucking music video where you play with guns, have “cool” explosions and pretend to kick other people’s asses, because that’s just so hip and transformative for kids to see. Like, all feminism was missing was a female lead for a Grand Theft Auto video game. That, friends, is fucking feminism, right?

To quote Jenny Lewis, it seems like Taylor Swift is trying way too hard to be “Just one of the guys.” And that, friends, is not feminism. I don’t have a vagina, I don’t get  cat called, but I have been routinely mocked for being sensitive, non-competitive, and, in a variety of ways, “feminine” most of my life. I played football to prove something to myself, as I’m sure you can imagine. I learned that that shit ain’t for me. I went to college, read some books, had great teachers, and I’m just now getting to a point where I can accept myself for who I am. But when I see shit like Taylor Swift’s stupid fucking music video advertised all over social media, and when I see her giving interviews about how she’s this big fucking feminist in MAXIM fucking magazine of all places, it makes me sick. Luckily, for me, I have bigger fish to fry. I’m broke, in debt, and about to graduate college like every other child of my generation. I’m hoping to go to grad school, got in, trying to pay for it, so I can be taken seriously for writing down my opinions like this. But maybe I should just make a stupid fucking music video about being aggressive, playing with guns… in other words, mimic Dan Balzerian. Because, based on Bad Blood, T Swift and him have a lot in common, along with a lot of money. And those seem to be the only people anyone listens to or cares about these days. I’ve got like four dollars in room on my credit card. Guess I’ll buy a lotto ticket. I'm only 72 hours removed from some asshole in a black GMC Yukon trying to run me off the road because I honked at him after he cut me off, so he swerved into my lane and dared me to hit him, to swerve into a parked car, or slam on my brakes. I questioned him, I guess, and he demonstrated his masculinity through dominance. I'd hate him, but he's just a product of his environment, like all of us. Maybe he'd just seen Mad Max - that would explain it. He needs feminism, as much as anyone. Just as much as Taylor Swift, even.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Fuck Jim and John Harbaugh: on leaving football, masculinity and competition.

In a personal essay that comes on the heels of his brother Jim’s declaration in a recent Real Sports interview, wherein the little brother claimed that football is the “last bastion of hope for toughness in American Men” – much to the chagrin of Bryan Gumbel - today, according to John Harbaugh, “football is under attack.” And we should be worried.

These brothers have come to embody football in its truest, grittiest, purest sense: they teach two back football, power blocking and aggressive, determined physicality at the point of attack. They are known for their intensity, their will to win and their indomitable spirit. Jim has quoted Hemingway after tough losses, like the one against his own older brother in the Super Bowl, the very pinnacle of the sport, reminding us that “a man can be destroyed but not defeated.” I, myself, have followed Jim’s career especially closely, for reasons personal and particular: he coached the 49ers for years, my family’s favorite team; he coached at the University of San Diego, where I currently go to school. I saw him on campus, once, as they used our facilities to practice before a preseason game against San Diego. I’ve watched his nearly 90 minute video of him at a clinic at USD, explaining the most intricate parts of quarterbacking: apparently, the top hand of the quarterback, when he is under the center, ought to have its middle finger’s middle knuckle right in the asshole – literally – of the man in front of him. That’s a coaching point to remember.

I’ve struggled with my love and passion for the game of football since the Fall of 2012, when news of concussions and their effect began to come out, mostly in articles in the New York Times, like the one on Hockey enforcer Derek Boogard, who lived a sad, lonely life in which he made his living fighting and fighting through fear, abusing drugs and alcohol to numb the pain he felt. I heard about Dave Duerson, I read about “CTE,” whatever that was. I felt uncomfortable about the way in which Americans each Sunday, so soon after attending church, and professing their faith in Jesus Christ, he who certainly would never levy an open field tackle, got together over beer and brats to watch and gamble over – pools, fantasy, etc. – grown men giving each other concussions.

In John Harbaugh’s piece, he claims that football need only adapt, again, as it did in 1905, when Teddy Roosevelt stepped in to change the rules, to reduce the deaths and injuries that were an epidemic. According to John, we need only to find “better helmets” and improve tackling in order to take concussions out of the game, and save football forever.

What many people don’t know is that football wasn’t an organic creation, one spawned from kids playing a rugby styled gaming, and incorporating Yankee ingenuity. Football was very deliberately designed by Walter Camp, the father of the game, for the expressed, explicit purpose of instilling “toughness” and “manliness” in prep school aged boys, in order to assuage the fear that America’s male youth might become less manly as a result of not having a frontier any longer, of not having any wars to fight.

And here we are again, older men worrying about the young ones, fearful they are becoming soft, weak, less masculine, all because they aren’t hitting each other enough, not breaking or delivering enough tackles.

I have been, in my life, as any of you know, an ardent, desperate, loving fan of the game. I played three years of it in high school, three before it. I did the lifting, came to early morning practices. I said “Yes, sir,” and I buckled my chin strap. I hit boys twice my size, and endured the fear and pain that came with it. I saw, many, many, many times, white lights, green colors, blues. I had “my bell rung” plenty of times, and been staggered by contact to my head. I never was diagnosed with a concussion. I never lost consciousness, but on at least three occasions in particular, I sustained blows that affected me, that left me feeling strange. I never saw a trainer to be examined: once, there wasn’t one on the field. Another time, it was before a varsity game I wasn’t supposed to even play in, and I couldn’t be seen by coach being attended to as a sub relinquished to the sideline.

I never had a concussion in the way in which we all thought they exist, when I played. When on the first day of contact freshman year, as a fourteen year old boy, lying there in the dewy grass of an August morning, the coaches read the warning label attached to our helmets on the back – the ones we were never allowed to removed – they, the grown men, and us, the children, laughed. They described the possibility of sudden death, brain damage, paralysis. It was all one big joke. If  weren’t willing to accept these terms, we shouldn’t be out there, stretching and preparing to play this game. We could always, as they might remind us, go play the sport for “fags” and “pussies,” water polo, lacrosse, which ever game they felt threatened by that week.

We always felt special, tough, unique for what we did, what we braved, and as we should. The bond that I feel to those brothers of mine that I shared those fields with is one that I feel to this day, that keeps me retracing my steps through dreams the night before, when I was once again on a sun bleached practice field, hitting a sled, being driven by a coach, a member of the scout team.

But in light of what we know now, how anyone can defend the game in good conscience is absolutely beyond my understanding. We know now that even the subconcussive hits [i] are dangerous. In other words, all those lights I saw, all those colors, even though I never lost consciousness, damaged me. I’ll never know how much the game changed me, or what CTE I could or could not have until my death, and until my brain can be examined. But in terms of the indicators, in terms of a tendency towards depression, drug abuse, rage and moodiness, I know I have all of those. Whether or not football caused them is a slippery slope, as I’m a lot of those things to begin with. But to be fair, I was a different person before 5th grade, when I began to knock heads against other kids, and feel that tell tale sign of contact in my nose, the feeling of water going up in when you jump into the pool, the sensation I thought would go away but never did.

John Harbaugh tells us that “football has saved lives,” but he fails to mention any of those that its irrevocably damaged and destroyed. The Steelers of the 70s are a case study in the cost of playing the game. The 49er linebacker who quit the game after one excellent rookie season speaks to the clear and present danger players of the game face, and the obvious decision anyone would make if thinking logically, sustainably, clearly.

You can change helmets all you want, but you can’t change the inherent violence of the game, anymore than you can change its angles, and that is really what it is about: the angle taken by a receiver on a 45 degree slant route, and the one of the linebacker in the middle cannot be changed. Their point of collision cannot be made any different. The physics of the game are inherent to it, as much as the violence is. Whether you lead with your shoulder, or your helmet, the viciousness of the collision remains. We can legislate helmet – to – helmet contact out of the passing game, preventing safeties from obliterating receivers as our coaches in high school taught us – “helmet underneath their chinstrap” – but it doesn’t change the innate, unavoidable collisions that happen each and every play at the line of scrimmage.

I was taught a technique in high school by a coach, one that I even then tried to refuse to use. It’s called the “butt and jerk.” The coach wanted me to grab the man in front of me trying to block, extend my arms, pull him into my helmet as hard as I could, “stun  him,” and then toss him away. It is not legal, by the letter of the rules, as far as I can imagine or understand. But he demanded we do it anyway, and when I didn’t want to relent, he screamed at me, called me a pussy, demanded that I “man up.” I remember having tears in my eyes as I fearfully and angrily performed the “butt and jerk,” saw the white lights and felt the sting in my nasal cavity. I quit some few weeks later.

I went on to play lacrosse, and it wasn’t much better there. The hitting is much the same, and the helmets, far, far worse, like cardboard, really.

Violence is inherent in both of these sports, at the very base level of the game. And the question we have to ask, is how any of this is ethically justifiable? How can we justify encouraging our kids to commit acts of violence, in the name of a game, of competition? How is it ethical to teach our kids to objectify each other in this manner? Why are we instilling violence into our children, and putting them at the risk of serious damage? Why does “toughness” always have to be about hurting someone, and being able to endure being hurt?

Football serves to perpetuate a masculine paradigm that revolves around domination and violence, and even its biggest fans would have to agree with that. They might cheer it; I don’t know how. America is now watching MMA like it used to watch boxing, and kids by the dozens are signing up to learn how to choke each other out, how to turn each other’s lights off. Why?

What is it about America that makes us love violence so much? How can we praise Christ, turning the other cheek, doing right by our brother and sister, and then watch each other commit acts of violence punishable by law anywhere else except a football field?

Why didn’t someone stop me from playing the game? My dad and step-mother tried to, but I didn’t listen; I wanted to prove myself, my masculinity. I wanted my macho step father to be proud of me, for us to have something to share. I wanted to be other than myself, and I have paid a price for it. But not nearly like others have.

In no uncertain terms, the Harbaugh brothers – two of my up to now favorite coaches – have blood on their hands. It’s a cheap and trite metaphor, but there is no other way to look at it. Every man who perpetuates this bullshit fear about men becoming weak and – though they don’t say it explicitly – more “feminine,” and that football is the “last” or only place to protect it, is encouraging boys to line up and damage each other. You cannot take concussions out of football. You might be able to lessen the number of hits that leave people flat out knocked unconscious, but you’ll never take away the contact that occurs at the line of scrimmage. Even now, NFL running backs still lower their helmets to “protect themselves,” turning their bodies into de facto battering rams, their heads the tip. Adrian Peterson is notorious for this. Does anyone remember Earl Campbell?

We need to stop valuing men for being aggressive, domineering, violent and devoid of sentimentality. Masculinity doesn’t have to mean being a sociopath, one who can at one second deliver a crushing blow to his fellow brother at practice, and the next second be expected to demonstrate compassion, kindness to others, to women. It’s a schizophrenic comprehension of identity. It’s like the male version of Madonna / Whore, but for us, there’s no duality. We aren’t expected to be a lady in the street while also a freak in the sheets, but instead, to be physically domineering, willingly violent, aggressive and unsentimental. We can’t wear certain colors, nor can our clothes fit a certain way without being ridiculed for being gay – as if that were such a thing to be ashamed of (but of course, to many of our followers of Christ, it is apparently a choice, and sinful). Men like the Harbuagh brothers are always full of fear of some dark, encroaching presence on masculinity, but then again, it makes sense. Patriarchy, as we know it, can only exist with its defenders. There are people who benefit from the status quo, and who know nothing outside of it. These boys were brought up to be who they are by their father, and they will never change. They are good Catholic sons, and they believe in the value of suffering. But I don’t think Pope Francis would have a damn thing to do with the Super Bowl, nor would Jesus Christ. In fact, I think we should be able to easily agree that neither of them would ever endorse anything that perpetuates violence, that distracts us from the plight of the poor, that enables us to vegetate on our couches, stuff our faces with unsustainable meat product, drink ourselves into a stupor and avoid the pain of our empty, late capitalist existence. Jesus would weep at the thought of his “followers” going to church each Sunday, decrying gays and difference, hating Muslims, and going home to watch the new gladiators duke it out, most of them from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, little different than the slaves made to fight for the glory and pleasure of Rome.

If anyone can defend the game better than John or Jim can, I’d like to hear it. Because although they constantly remind us that football teaches lessons, and instills values, I’m quite skeptical. What exactly does it teach? What are these values?

I was taught to not cry, to “suck it up,” to fight through injury. I was made to practice with a broken wrist, after the doctors told me I wasn’t cleared for contact. Was this a lesson? Risk permanent damage to my body, for what? Some stupid Spring practice? I was instructed in the art of violence. The value of being able to hit my friend was instilled. I wasn’t supposed to think twice about leveling my friend in practice when he came over the middle. I had my chance to lay Keith Roberts out once, on a ball thrown too high, on a slant. I didn’t. I paused. I couldn’t do it. I always liked Keith. He wouldn’t have done that to me, I think.

Ryan Bautista did, though, in the summer scrimmage we as freshmen had against the JV. It was a “crack block.” I didn’t see it coming, and he had a running start. Apparently, the corner should have called it out, to warn me. I remember being hit hard, going limp, and struggling to comprehend what had just happened. What was this supposed to teach me?

I’m sorry, but I’m so fucking fed up with men like John Harbaugh’s insisting that football is a metaphor for life – an actual quote. What the fuck is that? It’s absolutely fucking ridiculous.

Life is not a fucking game, nor is it a fucking competition. Capitalism might encourage us to think otherwise, but we should have Christ to remind us otherwise. And even if it were a game, some stupid fucking competition between winners and losers, it certainly isn’t one of inherent violence. Hobbes might think it is, and the “realists” like O’Reily might say otherwise, but, and I know I didn’t go to Sunday School much, isn’t the whole point of Christianity to make the Kingdom of God as apparent here as it will be there? Isn’t the whole point that we are supposed to overcome our base instincts, our will to division and strife, in the name of Love? Maybe I missed something.

I’ve heard of a “kiss with a fist” being better than none, but I can’t comprehend how football is in any way compatible with love. I know Tim Tebow might think otherwise, and I truly respect and admire the guy, but the reality is that the violence of the game he loves is diametrically opposed to what his savior taught. Who would Jesus tackle? Who would Jesus lay out? Jesus wasn’t Malcolm X, and he didn’t encourage violence. He was more like MLK. He was into peaceful protest, so don’t give me some bullshit like “Christian warrior,” despite how fucking popular I know that notion is with films like American Sniper being shown at my school tonight.

So, today, I’m writing to say that I’m no longer going to be a hypocrite. I cannot support the game of football. I cannot be a fan of something so vile, so truly incompatible with any thinking person’s values, be they love, cooperation, or sustainability. Football is the great American Vice, and we owe it to our sons and daughters to not perpetuate the game. Life is not a sport, nor is it a place to compete. Life is a place where we are to cooperate together, to bring peace to Earth as close as we can get it, to live in harmony: with each other, and our planet. The only people opposing this are those who believe that life is a game of winners and losers, the chosen and the damned. But I don’t. I will not accept that. Denigrate me as an idealist, as a dreamer, but to accept anything less is certainly not Christian. I don’t go to church, I don’t even necessarily believe in the ethic of selfless love, but when I see so many of my fellow Americans demonstrating this kind of cognitive dissonance, it drives me absolutely crazy.

Football is under attack in America today. As it should be.

The only questions remaining I have are these:

How do you justify the game any more? Whose sons deserve to suffer brain damage in the name of being masculine? And is that the kind of man we want our sons to be?

Who would Jesus concuss?


Sunday, March 1, 2015

on Sean Hannity, ISIS, and the savage truth

“Still, I stay close to the beat,
and even when I was close to defeat,
I rose to my feet.
My life’s like a soundtrack, I wrote to the beat,
Treat rap like Cali weed, I smoke till I sleep.”
-       Dr. Dre

            In the past few weeks, talking heads like Sean Hannity have accused the President of not loving America, being a communist, and failing to call ISIS what “it is”: Radical Islam. The last of these seems to be the most common critique, that because of Obama’s roots (of his rage, Dinesh D’sousa would say) he has a closeness to Islam that precludes him from demeaning and combating ISIS appropriately. To make matters worse, in Sean Hannity’s eyes, Obama also likened ISIS’s actions to the Crusades, in an analogy designed to illustrate how irrelevant which religion is the one committing acts of atrocity. For Hannity, this was wholly – if you pardon the pun – inappropriate. For Hannity, Islam is unique in its violent nature. They argue that violence is inherent to being a Muslim. The real question though is “how does religion metastasize into violence?” I would argue violence is inherent to Christianity as much as it is to Islam, or as to any religion, and this is why:

            Christianity / Islam both operate as interpretations of our existence on this Earth. Each provide narratives that explain why we are here, and for what purpose. In the Christian narrative, for example, God created the Earth in 7 days, as told in Genesis. However, not all Christians believe this. Catholics, for example, do not believe in a literal interpretation of the bible. This is why it was a Catholic scientist who discovered the Big Bang, and why Catholics believe in evolution: they understand the Bible as metaphor, not as a literal statement.

            However, Christians who understand Genesis as literal – also known as Biblical Creationists – have, ironically, much in common with the Muslims they decry and hate: Both read their Holy texts as absolute, and literal. There is no grey area. This is the only way you can hate gays.

            This absolute and literal understanding of the Bible leads to a unitary perspective on Truth: you believe, as Protestants and Evangelicals do that the only way to heaven is accepting Jesus Christ in your heart  as lord and savior, Him and only him. Unfortunately, Muslims – and many others – disagree, which, for one, leads to us vs. them, truth vs. lies, inside vs. outside of the community. Secondly but more importantly, it leads to sexism and homophobia, and this is how:

            If you believe God created Adam and Eve, as in Genesis, gender roles, from the beginning, are pre-defined. There is here no place for homosexuality or non-binary definitions of gender identity to exist; one is either male, or female. This inherent divide of gender roles leads to social conditioning and policing: men must be “men,” women “women.” But, as Nietzsche explains in “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense” we ought to understand “truth” to be less clearly defined…

“The liar is a person who uses the valid designations, the words, in order to make
something which is unreal appear to be real. He says, for example, "I am rich," when
the proper designation for his condition would be "poor." He misuses fixed
conventions by means of arbitrary substitutions or even reversals of names. If he does this in a selfish and moreover harmful manner, society will cease to trust him and will thereby exclude him.” – from the aforementioned source.

            In this sense then, if you understand life to descend from Genesis, that man and woman’s purpose is to multiply and be merry, the “man” who is not the heteronormative, “masculine” male resists interpretation. In this way, he is a liar.

            This homophobia, inherent to literalist interpretations of the Bible, leads directly to sexism, for it forces women to ascribe to the subjective, socially created definition of female, passed off as absolute truth. In this way, a woman who resists her “female” definition is branded a liar and an outsider as well.

            However, if we understand the Bible as metaphor, and science as a gift from a benevolent God – for, in science, we discover just how damn perfectly balanced and rare life and its creation is and was – then things like homosexuality can be explained, for as soon as we throw away the first binary of male vs. female, straight vs. gay, sexuality, then, sexuality doesn’t have to be understood through a productive lens. Instead, sex – and the pleasure it brings – can be understood as ends unto themselves.

            What we end up discovering in this process is the danger of absolute truth, of a unitary true perspective: if I believe there is only one God – historically male, white – then I am forced to divide the world into truth tellers and liars, into the saved and the savage. Only with this perspective can anyone act as a savage, upon people considered to be savages. While men like Sean Hannity decry ISIS and their violent imposition of Radical Islam, they fail to realize the roots of that rage in their very own religion and perspective on the world. Only people who believe in the absolute truth of their position commit acts of barbarism as we have seen on YouTube, or in our history book’s pages detailing the Holocaust.

            What this brings us to is the inherent way in which language leads us to a us vs. them dialectic: if we desire to be understood and accepted by the community to whom we are speaking, we are conscripted into using their words, their concepts. And if they are literalists, words can only mean one thing: man is a “man,” a woman is “woman,” and a leaf is “a leaf.” But there is so much more than that in our world: we have a litany of leaves. But when we say “leaf,” in our minds, already the fascism of language is at work. Which leaf do you see?
             Absolutists like Sean Hannity believe they are always right, because they believe their interpretation of the universe is the only “true” one. How could they believe otherwise, when they believe in only one savior? Men like Hannity hate to criticize or analyze American history in any way that makes people like him – white, male, upper class and Christian – look bad. Hannity criticizes Obama for wanting to “transform America” as if desiring a change in our country somehow equates to a betrayal of it. In this way, Hannity wants American history to be viewed through the flattering light of an Instagram filter, or as a Facebook timeline, one whereupon we can delete our less flattering moments when given the benefit of time and hindsight, where we can simply erase that which we would otherwise like to forget, as if it never happened.
            Not only that, but because of Hannity’s religious dogma, him and his ilk believe everyone is an independent, rational agent in their own life, in which the consequences of their actions are wholly in their control. This doctrine of free will is integral to Hannity’s ability to damn and blame and judge those who don’t live up to his image of America. Without belief in Free Will, Capitalism, as a system compatible with Christianity completely falls apart: In a Capitalist system, there are winners and losers, just as for Christians there are the chosen and the damned.
            This doctrine extends to the GOP doctrine of 2012. “We built it” is the Conservative rallying cry of free-will: unique individuals, wholly responsible for their fates, acted “appropriately.” What this obscures, however, is the falsehood of free will. I did not choose the color of my skin, the wealth of my family, in which nation I was born, my level of intelligence or my body’s health. I did not choose to be born in Newport Beach, anymore than anyone today would choose to be born in Syria.
            The doctrine of free will, and the concept of human beings as rational individuals, thus exist to justify damnation. It is only through this mendacious logic that people who claim to follow Christ can feel justified being wealthy while others suffer. Guilt exists as the feeling of “I could have acted otherwise” and it exists to shame people into submission, and oppression. The poor are poor “because it is their fault.” Child molesters, then, in this world-view, deserve to be executed, because, supposedly, they have free will. But once, through science – that thing Hannity hates – we learn that not only are most abusers victims themselves, but that it is not a rehabilitable condition: in other words, they are born that way.

            We can see now, then, that judgment exists only when we consider everyone to be uniquely individual and as the sole arbiter over the outcomes of our lives, which we all know is clearly not the case. Some believe that everything, from a stop light missed to a touchdown scored, is part of “god’s plan.” But how fucking narcissistic is that?

            The problem isn’t Islam, it is absolute truth, which manifests itself in every religion, but most dangerously in those that are literal and absolute. So, Sean Hannity shouldn’t ask why Obama doesn’t refer to ISIS as Radical Islam, but rather how does what Sean Hannity does for a living relate to and allow for savages like ISIS to exist? In other words, Sean Hannity is ISIS.

            Only with his perspective can hate or violence be used to drive out hate and violence, but we know this is not true: only light can drive out darkness. Hate will never solve hate, only love will do that. But between love and hate, lies and truth, I prefer the middle ground, because, despite what I may think, my perspective isn’t absolute, and neither is Sean Hannity’s, no matter how much he wishes it so .
            All of this brings to bear the problem with trying to interpret our existence: it always assume a “reason.” A reason is the cause for an effect, and frankly, our universe might not be able to be understood in such terms. We are here, and more important than what we think is how we treat others, especially those that are different. Rather than a Holy War, we might want to consider that context and ideology lead to savage terror, and regardless of Mohammed, Jesus or Jerry Springer, being so God damn sure of yourself is the real problem at hand.

            In this way, Sean Hannity and ISIS see the world the exact same way.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

To you, whoever you may be

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. A lot has changed, and is changing in my life. I’ve turned 25, which I assume is the closing of the first act in the 3 act play that is my life, as no grandpa of mine has gone farther than 77. I’ve been framing the birthday, the quarter century mark as a demarcation of my coming maturity, of the point at which I can no longer afford to be the boy that I have been, wandering somewhat listlessly through college and my late adolescence in a cloud of pot smoke, indecision and anxiety over my future occupation. The move to New York City looms, the one I plan to make in June. It’s exciting, the prospect of getting out of this city, to school for writing. It’s been too long since I’ve been in an English class, and been inspired and motivated by the challenge of good books and essays to write.

I’m single again, and once I sell all my shit throughout the course of this semester, and as I move out of the last grossly over priced apartment I ever hope to live in, I will have only the clothes on my back and in my bags, and a storage locker somewhere with my books and old essays to weigh me down, to prevent me from being completely independent and at liberty. Not that a relationship does that, not that it represents an anchor, but it does represent a commitment, and I think I need to be in a position to have as few as possible, with as much time and energy to focus on those few entirely: paying rent in New York City, going to class at Columbia, writing. Rinse, repeat.

It’s disturbing to me how much of my thinking is occupied by thoughts of costs, my conscience forever fluctuating between what I’d like to be doing, and what I should be. Nietzsche says that the ideal man, the super man is one whose needs and his wants are perfectly in balance. I’m not sure I’m there yet.

But I’m getting there. For now, I think I’m going to occupy myself with banishing all those things that dig at and distract me from being confident, healthy. I need to be in as good a place possible when I move to the City. I want to feel good about how I look, not self-consciously adjusting my shirt to cover up what amount to a FUPA, or worrying anxiously over what I ate that day. Exercise has always been a bitch for me, as it is for any inherently lazy and indolent person. I can’t imagine the way the morbidly obese must feel. I wholly understand lap band surgery.

I’ve gone to a school with objectively beautiful people for four years now, and I haven’t once yet felt confident within that sexual economy in all my time there, even when I was working out heavily – relatively speaking – and in pretty good shape. I suppose that speaks to the deeper inadequacies and insecurities I feel, but frankly, I don’t know necessarily that I have some kind of problem. Rather, I think it’s probably a good thing that I doubt myself, as, to quote my favorite junior Masterchef, I only do so “to make myself better.” I think the University of San Diego would be a wholly different, and better place if more people doubted themselves and more often. Then again, the same would probably be said of me if I doubted myself just a bit less often.

I love Spring. And as I squint and stare upwards, as opposed to down and around as usual, but towards the sky and the clouds that slide across robin’s egg blue sky, I’m reminded of the need for perspective. I cannot compare myself, how I look, who I am to others, as if its some vain competition. I cannot, healthily, try and outsleep with and outfuck the frat boys at my school, nor can I hope to look as good as they do in muscle shirts, BMWs or tanks. Nor can I blame them. If there is anything I should have learned in my time at USD, or from my infatuation with Nietzsche, it’s that our enemies, or those who earn or deserve or receive our enmity, are those that we must love the most. Forgive me here for sounding like Jesus, but when we love our enemies, it is because they are the ones who give us occasion to be who we are. You can only have hipster cinema nerds with boobs who see blockbusters, for definition exists in difference. Resentment, more than any emotion I can think of or feel, is to be the most sincerely avoided.

It’s been hard, for me, if I am to admit it, to go to school with such pretty and wealthy people, even despite my relative decent looks and somewhat symmetrical face and fairly comfortable series of trust funds and financial aid. In other words, even someone who has no right to complain, nor to feel as if given a  short stick in life in anyway, still, I have felt wholly insecure and inadequate. As soon as I received a bulk sum of income, before I could watch it wither with $30,000 a semester tuition and insane rent, I spent heavily on clothes that no longer fit nor that I wear, on meals and drinks and ball games, none of which made me feel any better. Actually, when I’ve had the most money in life – despite the security that comes with it – I have never felt worse, and, despite my whole cliché enacting here, I truly was happiest when poorest, when I was riding the bus and taking my favorite college class.

Somewhere in between those two poles now, but definitely closing in on the broke one, I find myself, if I’m able to be honest with myself, fairly happy with where I am, for the most part, at least based on the proximity of my impending future, at my chance at being an aspiring writer attending Columbia and living in New York City.

Part of me will always wonder if I subconsciously blew through money given to and earned by me so as to force myself to be poor-ish, or less than comfortable, based upon some anxiety of being too god damn bourgeois  to relate to the “common man.” I know a great many writers have been middle and upper middle class, and that it is the relative comfort of financial security that enables people to think, reflect and write, not largely any kind of innate talent or gift, at least in my opinion, although that helps. But planned or not, I will not be moving to New York City without having to worry quite acutely about the cost of my living. In other words, I will not be affording brunch. And besides: Brunch is for assholes, like wearing sunglasses in doors and blasting top 40 music at a red light.

To be fair to, to you, the reader, or to myself, if I were to be true to this form, the quasi blog post / journal piece / meditation form that I’ve taken a hold to over the past few years of my college education, I’d write about my family, more about my immediate personal life, but, as reflective of the nature of all writing, of all utterance that goes beyond my musings in an empty room while drunk or comfortable enough to speak in silence to myself, I cannot speak freely, for one never knows who is reading, or could find this. This blog, something that has oscillated from angry rants, to abundantly personal diary posts, to essays and asides, has been a vital part of my college career and experience. It has, and you, dear reader, whoever you are, have been instrumental to me and who I am today. However, in much the manner of one’s instagram, facebook or snapchat story, I am and we are necessarily always aware of who is following, who is our audience, and how they will receive what we are saying.

Ex-girlfriends, former friends, family members and roommates all, and to each of them a different perspective, surely, on that which I am writing. I can be willing to talk about drug abuse, insomnia and sex in one paragraph, but quite unwilling to share those same things with all the same people; one cannot pick and choose so easily who sees what, and when. I can change the privacy options for posts on my timeline when I share the link, but that is no guarantee that my family has not already found my blog, read about me doing shrooms and cocaine, getting lap dances from strippers or finding myself strapped for cash even after inheriting what would be to 90% of the world a small fortune. I am at once a son, a brother, a trust fund brat and a sincere and aspiring artist. I’m lazy and intensely motivated, high and low all at the same time.

I’d love to write to you about what it is precisely that is troubling me, and the way it’s pulled the band-aid off a wound I’d long since fooled myself into believing was healed. Perhaps, however, it’s a good thing that I can’t: perhaps, like visiting a shrink, it’s not good to give away material, to vent it, to get it out before it’s done and due. Perhaps in not being able to blog about it, I’ll be forced to turn it into something long form. Perhaps I’ll finally write something that could be published. Perhaps finally, I’ll turn the consequences of my childhood and life story into something meaningful, into a medium to express how I feel about our world, my life, and where our country is going. Perhaps my narcissism will finally live up to my inaction, my ego to my expectations, which, as always, have been great.

I’ve got essays I’ve been sitting on that I haven’t shared, my first piece of fiction in forever, shit like that I could post and could have posted that I just haven’t, for whatever the reason. I suppose part of it is this same question of you, dear reader, whoever you are. Perhaps I don’t know who is, if anyone, is reading more, if they care, and if it matters. Luckily, I’m not sure that I need to care anymore, because I know I’ve had my fans, and those few have luckily been people I respect and respected greatly.

I doubt I will ever be able to win over much of an audience, based on who I am, where I came from. I’ve been sheltered, spoiled, and pretty god damn blunt about who I am, where I’ve been coming from. I’ve laid bare my excessive indiscretions, my spending, my relative and scandalous perception of my own “squalor.” I’ve bitched indiscriminately about being jaded from friends that jilted me, over ex-girlfriends that I felt wronged me, and said all too many shitty things about God and Christians, whether they deserve them or they don’t – but let’s face it, they do.

I’ve had my moments of imitating Nietzsche, of wanting to be Hunter S. Thompson, of trying to be spare and sparse like Hemingway, of riffing into endless run-on sentences like I don’t know who. And here I am, 25, about to graduate college – finally – and moving on into the next chapter of my life. Until then, I’ve got a few months to take care of myself and my loose ends, to get into better shape, grow out my hair, sell my furniture, eliminate useless clothes and find a home for my library of books and old papers. I’ve got lots of those.

I have friends to say good bye to, old ones to say hello to in a new city. I’ve got memories of my time at USD, ones that would amount to regrets if I truly felt I could have acted or been at the time any different. I could have rushed a frat, I could have not smoked pot, I could have kept my mouth just a bit more often shut. But then again, then I wouldn’t be me. Being me is about all I ought to focus on doing right now, though still I have thoughts and anxieties about being the kind of guy certain girls want to date, as the memory of a certain sorority girl and formerly close friend once said to me after confessing abuse and the horrors of a terrible relationship, that girls don’t want guys who sit on their ass all day. That, despite the flaws of other men and other people, we are still drawn to those that do, whatever it is that means. I think it has to do with working out, running errands and vacuuming ones floor. I’d always hoped those things would just come with age, but I’m finding that for better or worse, I’ve seemingly always had other priorities.

I’ve gone from an 18 year old boy living in a studio apartment in Huntington beach overlooking a dingy CVS and its parking lot, googling how to get girls, seriously considering buying the recommended True Religion jeans and Ed Hardy shirts, to thinking better of it. I’ve spent Saturday nights in Tustin apartments in what I’d consider shitty parts of town drinking shitty beer around people doing shitty things to themselves and each other, and fit in, relatively speaking, quite perfectly. I’ve snorted the coke, I’ve drank the liquor, I’ve had the risky sex and the regrets that come with all of them. I’ve quit smoking cigarettes, started smoking pot, gone Vegan to pescatarian to indiscriminately eating whatever is put in front of me. I’ve been scary skinny and surprisingly pudgy, athletic and otherwise. Single, together, broken up with and too much time on Tinder, I’ve met a variety of girls, most of whom I thought was a savior, none of them who have worked out, ultimately, but given from them the indelible legacy of their perspective, illuminating or otherwise.

From the drag of OCC, bus rides and bellowing bullshit to lazy players of mine to USD, Ocean Beach and another round of bus passes. From ocean front one bedroom apartments to shared houses with roommates that became friends, to debating moving home and commuting just to save money, I’ve lived an interesting past seven years, and one hell of twenty five. I’m excited to see where it’s going, and to see who else will still care, to see if I’ll ever get published, to see if I become the bitter and resentful high school English teacher who never saw his dream come to fruition. Will I get married? Will I have kids? Will I ever stop smoking pot? Will I find success with my writing? Who fucking knows.

But thank you, dear reader, whether you are out there or not. You’ve helped me more than you know.