White Privilege is Bullshit

Me, whenever anyone uses the phrase white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, or any combination thereof.

Me, whenever anyone uses the phrase white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, or any combination thereof.

 

Unpopular opinion time! It’s been thrown about a lot recently. The term white privilege, also white male privilege or male privilege, has been just about everywhere. Often, it’s heard as “check your privilege.” As a white male, I hate the phrase. Not because I’m being called out for something I have and am jealously guarding, or because I don’t think that women or individuals of some races experience prejudices I don’t, but because it’s attacking the issues the wrong way.

Words mean things.

From the Oxford Dictionary:

Syllabification: priv·i·lege
Pronunciation: /ˈpriv(ə)lij/
Noun
A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people

Beyond just a dictionary definition, though, are the colloquial implications that permeate a word. They don’t necessarily change a word’s meaning, but add connotations that aren’t always intended. In modern American parlance we recognize a difference between a privilege and a right. One is something that is granted conditionally and the other is applied to all. When someone refers to someone as being privileged, the implication is that they’re not only advantaged, but that their advantage is unearned, unfair, or both.

When a woman tells me “check your male privilege” because I don’t have to worry nearly as much about being sexually assaulted, or even just because I don’t have to put up with as many drunk assholes who don’t understand “I don’t want to talk to you”, at a bar, they’re wrong. I don’t have something special, and that’s the implication. That I’m being treated better than I should expect to be. That’s not the case. WOMEN HAVING TO DEAL WITH FEAR OF ASSAULT AND HARASSMENT IS WRONG! (All caps and an exclamation point? That’s some serious stuff right there.) I’m not subject to a privilege, they are being denied a RIGHT.

Police being more likely to use appropriate force against me if I’m arrested isn’t a privilege that I enjoy. It’s a RIGHT that too many black Americans are denied.

A male superior at work listening to my opinion in the workplace isn’t a privilege, but a courtesy that should be extended to everyone at my level. When women’s opinions are ignored because they come from women, that’s the problem.

Too often, what I’m told are privileges being applied to me are rights that others are being denied. The rules are being applied the way they’re supposed to be in one case, but not in another. We’re not competing with each other, so you having a disadvantage isn’t the same thing as me having an advantage. Unless you’re of the opinion that more white people should be shot, men should make less money, or straight individuals should be beaten in the street more often. If so, please get off my blog.

Language is important. I’m gonna’ set up an example here, and hope you’ll stick with me. There’s a foot race, and everyone lines up at the starting line. One person is rich given a head start, allowed to leave the line 5 seconds in front of the rest of the runners. He has an advantage. A privilege. All of the rest of the runners, save one, are told to run at the same time. They start from the same point at the same time. They are your baseline, all with an equal chance to succeed. That person who was held back is allowed to start running 5 seconds after everybody else. That person is suffering a disadvantage. They’re being forced to compete unevenly.

Gay ladies and gents, my ability to walk down a street at night reasonably secure in the knowledge that I won’t be attacked isn’t a privilege, it’s a right. That means that you should be able to do the same! Saying that it’s a privilege implies that I shouldn’t be able to walk down that street by myself. Saying that you’re denied the right to walk down that street implies that the people preventing you from doing so are wrong. Homophobic assholes who let me pass unmolested aren’t doing me a service. When they prey on gay people for their gender preference, THEY ARE THE ONES DOING WRONG. Anyone who disagrees is a shitty human being. Your disadvantage is not my advantage. We aren’t competing.

Here’s where it gets a bit sticky. Activism and rights movements (Rights! Yes! The correct word!). It’s not a fair world, unfortunately. Everybody in that foot race in my example above is just trying their hardest to get to the finish line as fast as they can. That group who started together? The baseline? They probably didn’t even realize that someone got held back and was forced to start later than they were. It isn’t that they’re callous, uncaring, or don’t want that person to have a fair shot. They’re just so wrapped up in their own run, looking at what’s in front of them and trying to keep from being overtaken, that they didn’t even notice when someone was cheated. The person given the head start ahead of them was given special advantage; a privilege. “You all had an advantage!” isn’t the same thing as “I was given a disadvantage!” Don’t demand that the mass of runners be held back to start with you. Demand that you be allowed to start with them. Loudly enough that everyone can hear.

Telling someone they have an advantage makes them want to hold onto it. Saying that someone else is at a disadvantage can make people want to remove it. Yell about it. Scream about it. In 1960 the Greensboro Four didn’t say “Why does that white man get to sit at the lunch counter?” They asked, “Why aren’t we allowed to sit next to him?” If you can’t spot the difference between those two questions, you’re not going to be very effective at bringing problems to peoples’ attention or changing their minds.

Your Music Sucked Too

run_the_world_vs_bohemian_rhapsody-109577

This comparison just doesn’t seem fair somehow.

These kids today, with their hair and their music. It’s all nonsense. Why, back in my day, we had pop music that meant something! Amirite? No deep meaning. Just trash!

No. That statement is wrong. The most popular comparison that I’ve seen pop up on social media has been a comparison of Beyonce’s Run the World and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in the form of an image macro, but it’s not the only one. The point of these memes seems to be that pop musicians created better music than those of today. Let’s take off our rosy glasses, shall we?

Freddie Mercury was one of the most incredibly talented artists of the last century and Bohemian Rhapsody is a freaking masterpiece. It was arguably his seminal work. But, let’s not pretend for a second that Queen didn’t release some disposable catchy pop. The man who wrote “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” also wrote “I want to ride my bicycle. I want to ride my bike.” and “Fat bottomed girls you make the rockin’ world go round.”

Not even the holy cows of popular music managed to release nothing but deep meaningful tunes.

  • Paul McCartney wrote “Ob-la-di ob-la-da life goes on bra. La-la how the life goes on.”
  • Madonna had a few, but let’s go with Vogue as an example.
  • Beck’s Loser has been assigned all sorts of deep meaning. It’s mostly nonsense, and the man himself said that if he’d know it would catch on he would have put more work into it.
  • Bob “the-greatest-songwriter-of-the-century” Dylan wrote “Wiggle wiggle wiggle like a bowl of soup. Wiggle wiggle wiggle like a rolling hoop.”

I’m not saying that Ms. Knowles is making great art. I honestly don’t know, because I’m pretty damned unfamiliar with her work past what I hear on the radio in the supermarket or gets put on movie soundtracks. What I am saying is that we (old people) need to put crappy pop music in proper context. My parents panned what I listened to. I’m complaining about what’s popular now.

When I think back about music when I was a teen I remember the good stuff. What gets play on the classic rock station and the oldies station is not at all representative of what got played 20, 30, or 40 years ago. It’s the stuff that didn’t suck. While I was listening to Pearl Jam’s Dissident, Ace of Bass was topping the charts. And I’ll admit that I didn’t change the station when All That She Wants came on.

Let’s be honest, y’all. We listened to some crap. I’m gonna’ go hit play on some Milli Vanilli now.

White Pride is Not the Same Thing as Black Pride

I might need a drink.

Oy! I’m going to try to explain this. Really. Black is an ethnicity. Mexican is a nationality. Muslim is a religion. White is a race.

No. No, it isn’t. In the United States black isn’t just a race. And your meme is stupid.

Attention white people. I’m gonna’ address some things here, and I really hope I manage to be coherent. Because this shit’s important. I think it’s no less important a subject of discussion for anyone of any race, but I really want anyone who has ever said anything to the effect of “Why is it OK for someone to say they’ve got black/Muslim/Mexican/etc. pride, but it’s wrong for me to be proud of being white?” to pay extra close attention. Much of what I’ll be writing about will be simplified, and some readers may think it’s overly so. That’s fair. I’m also going to be using the term racist colloquially to denote prejudice against an individual based on their race.

If you’re someone who’d be classified as white in America, chances are your family immigrated here. While there were plenty of examples of people (mostly, but not exclusively, Catholic Irish and Scots) who were forcibly relocated to the Americas, it was a comparatively short-lived practice. These people weren’t really a good choice for use as forced labor in hot climates where cotton, tobacco, and sugar were being harvested. The heat killed them. So, European colonial powers went a little further afield and started buying people in Africa. Higher up-front cost, but a better long term investment.

Even if your European ancestors were forcibly moved, they maintained their culture. They remembered where they came from and could largely maintain their lineage. Think about it, theoretical white reader. When someone asks your background I’ll bet you answer that you’re German, Irish, Polish, Italian, or identify some other country on the other side of an ocean. Your family kept their traditions and history. They didn’t lose that identity. You’ll find organizations all over the country devoted to these cultures; the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Order Sons of Italy in America, the Polish American Congress. There are festivals for these cultures daily celebrating food, art, dress, and history.

I personally identify as Scottish. My ancestry is primarily Scots, with some Irish and, like everybody that comes from the British Isles or western shores of Europe, no small amount of Norse. I don’t really think of myself as white, unless I’m checking off a form for a government agency. There’s probably less in common between Scots and Ukrainians, historically, than there would be between a Roman Italian and a Turk. But, me and and that Ukrainian are both checking the same box on that form. White.

Black Americans, and pretty much anyone of African ancestry on this side of the Atlantic, don’t have that ethnic background. It was taken from them. Black isn’t just a box on a form for them. It’s their cultural identity, not just race. Their ancestors didn’t come here by choice. They were intentionally separated from family and clan to be grouped with people from disparate backgrounds, often without a language in common. These people created a new culture that was a mishmash of different African traditions and those of the people in power over them. Before they got here and were told they were black they weren’t a single people, and they had the same history of fighting, making alliances, and carrying prejudices toward each other that people of any European nation did against their neighbors. This should all go without saying. Yet, here I am saying it.

Here’s another one for the white folks. Black Americans, Caribbean Islanders, and South Americans are culturally distinct from one another. They’re even MORE different than Africans! You’ll hear black Americans say “he/she’s not black” when someone talks about Idris Elba or Lupita Nyong’o. They’re of African ancestry, so they may be of the black race, but one is English and the other is half-Kenyan. They aren’t part of the black culture in America. Individuals from different African nations are as different as those from different countries in Europe. And, even if they’re from a place with the same name on a map, they might not identify with their own countrymen. The closest equivalent I can think of might be Italy, where you’ll find some pretty deep enmity between Italians; say Sicilians and pretty much the rest of the country, for example. One day a coworker at a former job made a comment to a Kenyan woman in our department about her having warrior Zulu blood. You’d have thought someone called a Paddy a limey!

The only times that Europeans have grouped together and referred to themselves as white people has been when they were separating themselves from another group. Usually so they could kill or oppress those people. It’s’ never been a term of inclusion, but of division from people of other races. It’s not an ethnicity and carries no identity with it. Other than a fondness for mayonnaise and an inability to dance, I guess. Umm… we get sunburned easily?

When someone says they’re black it can refer to two different things. Race or culture (also both). And what that culture actually is can be a hot topic. One that I’m not even going to weigh in on, because I’m not quite that masochistic. A 30-something white guy talking about what it means to be black? I somehow feel less qualified to do that than all the other things that I will expound upon despite my ignorance. That’s saying something.

The next time you hear about a black pride event, don’t immediately think “why is a white pride event racist?”. Think about the “Proud to be Irish” pin you wore on St. Patrick’s day or the “Full Blooded Italian” t-shirt your buddy wore last weekend. There’s your analog.

Now I’m gonna’ address all you theoretical black readers for a minute. First, let me say that I appreciate you not hating me. Now, I want to make sure you get something I touched on above. Most of your white friends don’t think of themselves as white, first and foremost. They generally think of themselves as whatever their national ancestry is primarily. Unfortunately, US history is fucked up (thanks white people!) and whenever anyone says “it’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand” they first think of it in relation to a “white thing” as opposed to an “Italian thing”. Not all white folks are alike. This is related to why you always find it so hard to insult us! Generic insults for white people don’t really bug anybody. Get specific! Mick, wop, sheepfucker, kraut, polak! These are the terms you want to go for. Honky is just silly.

When your cracker friends tell you that Black History month is racist, don’t tell them every other month is white history month. That sort of frustrated reaction might be understandable, but doesn’t really help. Compare it to a festival for a nationality. St. Patrick’s Day, or Bastille Day, or Cinco de Mayo. Whatever. Doesn’t matter. If they look doubtful, or continue to give you shit about it being an entire month, tell them it’s because there are 28 countries on the continent of Africa, and considering the loss of national identity of Americans of African ancestry the decision was made to use the entire month of February. One country for each day of the month. This is bullshit, of course. Africa is made up of about 55 nations. But, don’t worry. White people won’t know that.

Crazy eyes are crazy.

Global Warming? I Dunno’

Crazy eyes are crazy.

Wait! Let me finish!

Here’s an unpopular opinion. Please hold on to your torches and pitchforks until the end. I’m not convinced that global warming is a result of human action on the environment. Or that it’s necessarily even a Thing. I’ve seen a considerable amount of data that indicates our planet’s average temperatures are rising, but not enough to convince me it will be a permanent increase. I personally believe that we don’t have nearly enough information over a long enough period to say for sure. I find it to be entirely possible that our inherent humancentric view of the universe is leading us to blame ourselves for what may very well be completely natural.

Now, here’s the thing. I don’t think it matters. If there’s a possibility that our actions are causing our entire planet to heat up, why wouldn’t we take action? Especially if those actions make sense for our long-term welfare.

The most widely recognized cause of global warming is energy production through the burning of fossil fuels. Predictive models have indicated that our atmosphere will absorb the byproducts of all that burnt fuel and, effectively, cook the planet. Personally, I believe that there are far more variables than we could possibly account for and any predictions generated are incomplete. The closest we have to a solution is to find alternative energy sources.

Whether carbon emissions will have an enduring effect on global climate or not, we should be searching for new ways to generate power. The burning of oil, coal, and natural gasses is dirty. So is their collection, literally poisoning the ground and water where they are mined or tapped. Were we able to come up with a way to extract them from the ground in a 100% safe way there would still be the problem of the limited supplies. These things occur in nature, and we can’t create more for use in power generation. Creating synthetic versions requires energy, which needs to come from somewhere.

When I was a kid, nuclear fission was going to power the World of Tomorrow, at least until we figured out how to sustain a fusion reaction. But, thanks to a few disasters (who could have predicted that building a nuclear power facility in one of the most seismically active areas of the world could end poorly?) public sentiment has turned pretty strongly against the nuclear option.

The other option we heard a lot about was hydro-electric power generation. The problems with this have a lot to do with viability being based on local conditions; you need consistent running water to make it work. Large projects were commissioned and more than a few dams were built, causing new and exciting unforeseen ecological disasters. They’re also extremely expensive both to build and maintain. Anything that’s constantly exposed to water tends to be difficult to construct and rarely lasts very long.

Nowadays we’re hearing almost exclusively about solar and wind as the power sources of the future. Both generate “clean” energy. I use quotes, because the manufacture of the systems, and necessary power storage units, are anything but clean. Batteries wear out. What will our landfills look like in 50 years with half a century’s worth of spent batteries that powered our homes and vehicles buried in the ground? I struggle to think that they’ll be anything but toxic deadlands.

All this negative stuff I’m writing about shouldn’t lead you to believe I support continuing down the path we’re on. Far from it. I just get concerned when I hear people talk about these things like they’re solutions. They’re really not. They’re new stopgaps that will gain us more time to find truly sustainable methods of harvesting power.

Why bring up my doubts about global warming? Because, though I personally feel that current scientific leanings toward carbon emissions being a factor in climate change are correct, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the case. While I remain unconvinced, the greatest reason to move to something other than fossil fuels is the simplest. We’ll eventually run out. If you look at your refrigerator and see you’re running out of food, you don’t wait until it’s empty before going to the supermarket. At least you don’t if you’re a capable adult.

Our economic reliance on fuel, oil in particular, is not to be discounted. An overnight shift to an alternative energy source would shatter the world’s economy into a billion tiny pieces. Make no mistake. That’s not an argument against moving, it’s an argument to plan for that move. It’s an argument to wean ourselves off the teat.

It’s time to change what we’re doing. It’s time to pick up the pace. It’s time to stop arguing about the effects of our current energy usage on the environment and face up to the fact that even if burning oil cured leukemia and smelled like flowers WE DON’T HAVE AN INFINITE SUPPLY. It makes no difference if there’s a 10 year supply, 100 year supply, or 1000 year supply. It’s finite. We are going to run out. Reducing dependence will help, but it’s untenable. Particularly since we use oil for more than just fuel.

Petroleum distillates are used in a variety of applications as solvents and lubricants. In the United States, natural gas is used in the production of plastics instead of oil. The device I’m writing this on and the one you’re reading this on are both made largely of components that contain oil or natural gas. The wires carrying the data from my device to yours were coated in it. Hell, if you’re not concerned about pollution, or think we should wait to find an alternative way to power our world until after we’ve actually run out of our current fuel choices, just think about all the stuff you’ll be missing out on!

“But, gas prices are going down!” you cry, oh hypothetical reader. That has very little to do with how much oil is available in the ground. Actually, it has next to nothing to do with it. Oil prices have to do with how much is available right now along with current production levels, versus how much is being consumed. It doesn’t account for tapped out wells, because it can’t. We don’t know a well’s capacity until it stops producing, and by then it’s a little late. The professionals just make educated guesses, and the good guessers are paid very handsomely. (Yes, I know that’s an oversimplification, but I’ve gone 1000 words without being overly hyperbolic. Cut me some slack.) For all we know, every single oil well on the planet could run dry within 5 years. That’s remarkably unlikely (like, holy crap is that unlikely) but possible.

Can we please stop arguing about whether burning oil is effecting the environment? Please? We all admit that it’ll eventually run out. We all know it’s messy and destructive when we pull it out of the ground. No one wants to live next to a power plant and none of us like the smog produced by automobiles. So, let’s just table the human-caused climate change debate. Because it doesn’t matter. We’ve got enough reasons to move on.

The Thin White Peasant

That’s something I’ve thought of myself, when people have compared my appearance to that of David Bowie.

Over the past few days there’s been an absolutely huge amount of conversation about Mr. Bowie. I won’t engage in some sort of revisionist history saying that I was his biggest fan. I grew up with his hits playing on the radio, but didn’t really appreciate his deeper catalog until I was in my twenties. Even then, I wasn’t much more than a casual fan of his music. I was, however, a fan of the man himself.

People have been sharing his music and talking about what he meant to them. About how much his music meant, his incredible sense of style, and how much he changed the industries he touched. I’m going to say something a lot of people probably won’t appreciate. Unless you knew him personally, David Bowie had a greater effect on my life than he did yours.

Put down the pitchforks, torches, and rotten fruit. Please. I know people whose music was inspired by his. That’s amazing. I know people who identify as various flavors of queer who have said Bowie’s lack of concern for public opinion gave them the courage to come out of the closet. That’s touching and wonderful. I know people who can tell me there’s an album or song that gave them hope in a dark time, or that they associate with happy moments. That’s remarkable.

What could he have done to possibly compare to any of those things?

David Bowie got me laid.

I was a weird, skinny, androgynous, geeky blonde kid with bad teeth (who grew up to be a weird, skinny, androgynous, geeky blonde man with bad teeth). The Thin White Duke wasn’t just accepted for his talent like a lot of other artists. He was not Lyle Lovett who caught Julia Roberts for a minute or Billy Joel getting Christie Brinkley with poetry. Nor was he simply an object of desire for those who idolized fame. This man was a Sex God. A man who could, and by all reports pretty much did, fuck anyone he wanted to. He was an object of desire to men, women, and everything in between.

He married Iman, for God’s sake. Iman!

In a world where Brad Pitt was considered the sexiest man alive and the weird girls were fantasizing about Johnny Depp, Bowie was a shining star to a scrawny dork like me. Every time someone told me I looked like Bowie, and I suppose there’s a resemblance, I was shocked. Here was a sex symbol that looked like me. That absolutely blew me away.

And thanks to growing up in a time when an awful lot of the girls my age listed the Goblin King among their first crushes I had a real shot with them!

Thank you, David, for making a slight frame and prominent cheekbones traits that could actually be sexy. And thank you for your incredible variation in styles over the years. I put on eyeliner before the emo kids inspired the term guyliner, and I certainly wasn’t going for a Robert Smith look. Tight shirts and combat boots or a suit with brogues or something that went more than a bit further to the effeminate than the androgynous, any of them were fair game because you got there first.

Thank you for showing me that I could be a weirdo and be wanted. That I could check out that guy’s ass without being a twinky queen. I could ask that girl to dance. I could ask that guy to dance. I could ask both of them to dance and it didn’t matter if they were black, white, Asian, or other. I could tell people what I thought — challenge their ideas — without being combative about it. I could laugh at myself. I could simultaneously be the guy that banged Slash’s mom and starred in a beloved children’s movie. I could try new things and didn’t have to define myself by what I did yesterday. I could be someone new tomorrow. I didn’t have to define myself at all! And I could challenge anyone who tried.  You were David Jones, Tom Jones, David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, the Man Who Fell to Earth, the glam rocker, the goblin king… You were all of those people, but not any single one of them. Someone who made a lot of mistakes who did some good things and some bad — a human being.

Thank you. You proved to me that a lanky blonde weirdo could have sex with Iman. You were a goddamned hero.  If not for that alone, then for influencing my wife’s tastes enough to give me a shot with her.

Echo-Echo-Echo-Echo-EchOHGOD!

The internet’s ability to connect people has further polarized our culture instead of knitting it together. People with different opinions become opponents to our views instead of opportunities to understand someone’s views. Anonymity eats empathy and leaves behind nothing but contempt.
Though I don’t blame those who do so, I don’t block the people in my social feeds who hold to views I disagree with, or even find offensive. If anything, I probably pay more attention. Not because I agree with them, or want to in any way, but because I want to understand. As tempting as it may be at times to call somebody who believes in abstinence education a fucking idiot, to verbally eviscerate someone who thinks that Muslims are all terrorists, or to just tear into the toolbag who thinks that people shouldn’t be allowed to use language that they find offensive, I try to understand where they’re coming from. I think about how I’d react if they were standing in front of me, instead of in front of a different screen connected by some wires and servers.
I’ve learned a lot. The abstinence-only proselytizer likely grew up in an environment where that was the only option and told that those with a differing viewpoint were evil, whether they knew it or not. The Anti-Muslim crusader most likely comes from a place where they don’t interact with any, or at least have never had a meaningful conversation with one, and have only seen them when they make the news. The language police have most often been the victims of some hateful shit and are trying to keep others from being hurt as they have been.
Are they right? I don’t think so. But, neither of us will grow if we don’t interact civilly, and it’s impossible to do that if we’re not willing to consider WHY someone holds their views and accept that they may be valid reactions BASED UPON THEIR PERSONAL EXPERIENCES. We’ll just keep yelling into our own echo chambers and hear variations of our own voices come back at us forever.
Daryl Davis is a personal hero. He’s a black man who owns a closetful of Ku Klux Klan robes that he’s been handed by former members. He was given them by men he sat down and talked to, who he listened to, and who he gave the opportunity to talk with him. Mister Davis isn’t Ghandi, but he didn’t react the way we’re all trained to, and I don’t think he could’ve done it communicating on the internet. He had to be able to look those men in the eye to remove that sense of Other so they could see him as a human being. What he’s repeatedly said was that the men he’d talked to had never sat down and actually spoken with a black man before.
You don’t have to agree with someone’s opposing viewpoint, or even respect it, but disrespecting the individual who holds it and cutting yourself off from them will only hurt you both. The racist becomes more racist when they’re greeted with hurled insults and bottles. When an atheist attacks a Christian’s faith instead of discussing it, you’re just reinforcing their view that you’re hateful. When a white man says #blacklivesmatter is racist, he’s not being petty, he’s being thoughtless. When a black woman says that #alllivesmatter is stupid, she’s being defensive, not dismissive.
Our viewpoints are informed by our experiences and how we relate to what we see and are told. For example, when Eric Garner’s death made the news nearly everyone I knew cried out that he was attacked as he was because of his race. The first time I saw it, I thought it was because of his size. Black Americans have experienced people looking at them askance and seen mistreatment of people like them. When I was a kid I was told that I’d always have to be careful around cops because I’d make them nervous. Though I’ve turned out to be a damned skinny dude, I’ve found it to be true that cops and bouncers watch me and if there’s trouble I’m the first one grabbed, whether I’m involved or not. But, I didn’t tell anyone who said Garner’s treatment was racially motivated that they were a fucking idiot because my personal experience said it wasn’t (though I was nearly crucified for suggesting it might not be). I listened and read and made attempts to understand the reasoning behind people’s beliefs.
Don’t engage in the craziness, but don’t cut yourself off from what you think are crazy beliefs. There are truly crazy and stupid people out there, but if you listen to most folks you’ll find they aren’t. John Doe who’s voting for Donald is an individual who has reasons he thinks are valid. He’s not a mindless construction of the Far Right, no matter how much you may feel he is. If you can keep yourself from belittling or insulting him for long enough you might figure out how he reached his conclusions. And if you can do that, you might — just might — be able to change his mind.
Who would be down for funding a cultural exchange program? We create groups of 2-4 individuals from disparate backgrounds; rich, poor, right, left, black, white, yellow, red, green-if-we-can-find-some, southern, yankee, midwestern, left coast, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Shinto, atheist… All of ’em. We then force them to sit down for 2 hours and drink coffee. We hook up electrical probes to them, and anyone who raises their voice to a yell gets shocked. If any one of those people goes home to their insular group and teaches them something, I think it’d be worth a pretty hefty sum.

Why I March to War

I’ve no idea how many times I’ve been asked about what I do most every summer. Trying to explain the Pennsic War to someone who has never been there, let alone someone without any experience with the SCA, is nigh-impossible. It’s a fool’s errand, but one I’ve taken on more times than I could possibly count. Most often it just sounds like a drunken bender when I try to explain why I go to Pennsic.

Here’s another attempt. It’s a tale of two men, and the magic spell they’ve placed upon me year after year.

There’s a man at the War who goes by the name of Gabriel.  Until recently, he made his trade as a soldier in the world outside. During my first visit he wasn’t there, but serving his country. I heard tales of him, many of which strained credibility.

Close your eyes. Imagine, if you will, a tent city in a forest. Though there are common camping tents and a few trailers, at night there are only torches to see by, and you feel as though you’re in another world. As you wander the trails between camps you come across a tavern, fully lit, with trestle tables and a brass-railed bar. It’s outdoors, but set beneath a large canopy to keep off any inconvenient showers. It is separated from the road only by a rope strung between stakes, but still has an entryway set up, and that is crossed by a red velvet rope.

There’s a smiling gentleman in kilt and tam with a pair of sandals on his feet who will make a joke with you if you stop. If you’re of his acquaintance, are a pretty lass (or are lucky enough to have a pretty lass on your arm), can make a quip that makes him laugh, or simply ask, he’ll invite you into Gabriel’s Landing.

There will be people laughing. Someone, or just as likely several someones, will be expounding at length and making claims that seem dubious at least. They stand in groups or sit on benches at the long tables. They may sit around a fire under the open sky. The best part we’ll get to shortly.

Behind the bar is a row of shelves filled with booze. Liquor of every sort is visible, but there’s a special emphasis on whiskeys. Below are several ice boxes filled with various beers. Between the bar and those shelves is a man with bright eyes lighting a cigar off a torch. He draws a puff of smoke, lets go, and with a wide grin exclaims more than asks, “Eeeeey! Welcome! What’ll ye have?” This is Gabriel. The Messenger.

As one might guess, Gabriel’s Landing is named for the man himself. They’re what would be considered a smallish camp at the War. They gathered together under their “leader” to offer hospitality. And they do it well. These men and women build the bar I inadequately described above in the middle of the woods. They spend their own money stocking it, and not with swill. They supply a roaring fire to sit around if the air is chill. They open up their camp several evenings of the War to anyone and everyone, asking only that you share in their hospitality in good cheer. And they’ll keep serving drinks until the sun is coming up. Make no mistake, there is a tip jar on the bar, and they are more than happy to take donations to their cause. But I’ve never seen or heard of anyone being turned away for being unable to drop cash into it.

Now, the best part, which I made mention of earlier — the music. Someone will be singing. If you’re lucky, or you know when to be there, it will be someone with Talent. It might even be the second man I made reference to in my opening.

Michael Kelly is a Canadian the other 50 weeks of the year, but we won’t hold that against him. His annual journey to Pennsic is nearly 3,000 miles. He’s a man with a gift; one of those rare voices that needn’t be raised to quiet a room. Or even a group of rowdy drunks in the woods. Spare, and almost-but-not-quite what some might call slight, conversations will stop when he walks in with a reserved smile and opens his guitar case. He’ll sip Irish whiskey or a Guinness between tunes. Some are modern, more are old, a few border ancient, and some are his own. You will see a few ladies, more if you’re paying attention, swooning. Some will barely be old enough to be served a drink. I’ve seen it from at least one with steel gray hair.

If you’re steadfast, and make it to the end of the night, Gabriel and Michael create real, true magic. The host will call that the night is coming to an end, no matter that the sun is coming up so it’s technically morning. I’ve seen it happen for dozens and barely more than a handful. From behind the bar he’ll carry a cup of silver. More a bowl, really, with two handles decorated with knotwork. He’ll fill it with whiskey. This is the quaich.

The quaich will be passed amongst all present until everyone has drank and the whiskey is gone, Gabriel will explain. We drink to those present, those who couldn’t join us, and those we’ve lost. Michael will pluck his guitar, and he will begin to sing A Health to the Company. As the chorus comes round, every voice will sing. Some in quietude and sadly. Others heartily with wide smiles.

“So here’s a health to the company and one to my lass
Let us drink and be merry all out of one glass
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never all meet here again”

I’ve seen tears, particularly when sung the last night Gabriel plays host before War’s end. People, some strangers, will hold hands. Arms go ’round shoulders. Couples hold close. Gabriel’s quaich turns bottled whiskey to a potion. Michael’s voice makes of that song a spell. Combined, it’s a powerful thing. While I am a skeptic to my very bones, keeping no truck with any faith I’ve found, I can describe the experience as nothing other than magical.

All of us who’ve been there, every single one I’ve ever spoken to, wishes for few things more than to fall under that spell, woven of the grace of these two men. That’s why I go to War.

 

If you’re interested, Michael Kelly has a YouTube channel, though he hasn’t touched it in a while. Though it isn’t the same when recorded and played through a set of speakers, go have a listen.

How Much Do You Think About Sitting?

I mean, nobody really thinks about sitting down. It’s just a thing that we have to do. But, I probably put more thought into it than you do. Waaaaay back in my second post to this blog I promised I’d talk more about why it freaking sucks to be tall. So, here it is. This is the one. Hope you’re ready for it.

The venerable C. Montgomery Burns once said “From the lowliest peasant to the mightest pharoah, who does not enjoy a good sit?” Everybody loves to sit down. I mean, it’s the simplest thing in the world. Plant ass in chair. What’s there to think about?

When was the last time you went to the theatre? I’m talking Broadway here. For $100 (the cheap seats) I get to squeeze myself into a seat that is so close to the one in front of me I can’t put my feet on the floor. I wedge my knees against the next row’s seat, and just kind’ve let my feet dangle a few inches off the floor. By the time the intermission comes around I’ve pretty much lost feeling in my toes. If it’s a long show there’s a real possibility my feet will be asleep. While there are very few people who would say that theatre seats are comfortable most people won’t have their movement impeded for a short period after they stand up.

Cinema (ooh, cinema, I’m fancy) seating isn’t much better. Until recently, the stadium seating in most movie theaters was fantastic for me, and the rest of the very tall. You just made sure you got there in time to grab those front seats on the tiered section. You know the ones. Not at the front of the theater, but the bottom tier, with the bar in front that was divided from the floor seats by the walkway. Yeah, you know what I’m talking about.

Anyway, those seats were freaking sweet for giants. You could stretch your legs out without kicking anybody and thanks to the people behind also being above there was no self-consciousness about blocking somebody’s view! Unfortunately, it seems that layout is going away. What it’s being replaced with is a traditional incline floor plan with recliners.

Let’s talk about recliners for a sec here. Recliners are the king of comfy chairs. For normal people. For long people, they’re just another disappointment and reminder of our freakish proportions. Two things interfere with our full appreciation. The first is the height of the chair back. When the average person reclines their head rests near the top of the chair’s back. When someone above a certain height, usually around 6’3″, lays back, their head is too far back and they find themselves looking at the back of the theater. Upside down. It’s not comfortable. We can’t just scoot down, though. That’s because of the second barrier between us and maximum comfy. The leg rests are meant to be pushed down, so they can bear the weight of an average set of legs. Regardless of actual weight, though, physics and leverage can interfere with the intended function. You see, the further past the end of the footrest one’s legs hang, the greater the effective weight on the footrest. I’m a very skinny guy, but if I stretch my legs out on most reclining chairs the footrest immediately sinks. The further I scoot down so that my head isn’t hanging off the chair the more my legs do which drops the footrest and raises my head. I have a choice between lying on my side and half-curling up or leaving myself in a position between upright and reclined that offers the comforts of neither.

That’s sitting we pay for. But what about the sitting we get paid for? Do you think that’s better? No. No, it is not. Office chairs are notoriously uncomfortable. It’s a simple fact of life. But, some of us are lucky enough to work for a company that cares about its employees to make an effort toward seeing that they don’t suffer serious spinal injuries. These angelic employers will purchase more expensive chairs with a magical feature: lumbar support. Fuck lumbar support chairs. Fuck them so hard.

These chairs are designed to fit the contours of a person’s back. Another unfortunate side effect of being tall is that the curve of one’s back doesn’t usually start where most people’s would. It’s a bit higher. So, instead of a comforting support in the curve of our lower backs we get a mound pressing into that spot where your hips meet your back, pushing our pelvises forward while we sit. The only way to get comfortable is to, again, scoot down in the chair, but that is not really a good position to maintain for an 8-hour workday. You’ll find a lot of tall folk will opt for a straight-backed chair when working at a desk.

And oh boy, that desk. The first thing we do when sitting down to get to work is raise the chair to its maximum height so that we can get as close as possible to the standard 90 bend in our knees while we’re sitting. You’ll find a lot of people over 6’5 or so will have a shallower angle because the chairs don’t go that high, but close enough. Now, we can’t fit our legs under your desk. If we can, it’s by the barest margin. And the bottoms of  most desks aren’t empty planes, especially on the cubicle-farm type. They have support struts. Upon taking a new desk it usually requires about 3-4 good slams of a kneecap against a metal bar to imprint exactly where they’re located on this particular desk.

This doesn’t even touch on the height of the actual work surface. Taller folk are usually hunched over their desks when writing and their computer monitors are raised up using whatever’s at hand. If you walk through an empty office and see a cubicle with a monitor perched precariously on an old pizza box and 2 phone books from 1998 you’ve located the office giant’s lair. Tread softly.

I’ve limited today’s entry to a few pertinent examples. I haven’t covered transportation or the toilet yet, so look forward to that!

The Myth of the Citizen-Statesman Pt 2

Now that we’ve covered how voting rights were originally tied to wealth, let’s discuss another great myth: Anyone can be elected to political office. We all heard that one day we could grow up to be president. That’s bupkiss.

How it Works

Before even considering the Executive office, let’s talk about something more down to earth. Only three individuals since Washington have become president without holding previous office, and they were all US Army (Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower if you were curious). To become the president you have to put in some time first. We’ll start with Congress. Made up of the Senate and House of Representatives, each has their own rules regarding who can run. US Senators have to be 30 years old, must have been US citizens for at least 9 years, and reside in the state they represent. Members of the House need to be at least 25 years of age, have been citizens for at least 7 years, and also live in the state they’re representing. Senators hold office for 6-year terms and Representatives run for office every 2.

There were Reasons that this system was designed. The Senate was the Big Picture body, while the House was meant to run for reelection often and have a higher turnover so that it would remain more responsive to and in touch with its constituency. Senators and Representatives in the House were to be voted in from the populace. So long as you met the minimum requirements above, you were eligible to serve.

Unfortunately, the system inherently favors the wealthy. Being elected to anything requires campaigning. Essentially, when you get down to it this means advertising and marketing which require both money and time. Given the right set of circumstances, one might be able to argue it could be possible to overcome a shortage of one of those with enough of the other, but for practical purposes we should accept that someone running for Congress requires enough capital to have signs printed and enough time to get out and kiss babies. This ensures that the poor are not going to be able to mount a convincing campaign. It’s also highly unlikely that a destitute individual would be able to finance their campaign through contributions from a wealthy benefactor.

The Man of the People

We’ll assume that someone who wants to run for the House of Representatives would need to be at least a median-income individual. Let’s say they make $55,000 annually as a retail manager. For the sake of our example we’ll say that they’re 30 years old, male, and married. Because we want to live in an ideal world we’ll assume our candidate’s wife is paid the same amount of money, so they pull in $110,000 a year. Our candidate is an idealist, and doesn’t take a lot of money from contributors, and his  wife is supportive. They drain their savings to finance the campaign. And our idealistic candidate wins. He becomes a member of the US Congress!

Our middle-income junior-congressman gets a starting salary of $165,200 per year. Our average-Joe tripled his salary. Wow! But, he’s not there for the money, remember. He wants to Do Good. And he sets out to do so. In his first year of service he helps to write a bill for Legalization of Good Stuff and Stopping Bad Stuff and wants to introduce it. But, now’s not the time, because he’s up for reelection. Time to campaign again. Someone in his own party wants his spot and then he needs to beat the candidate for the Other Guys. Lucky us, he succeeds, but he had to fight to get there and didn’t make much progress in his quest to Do Good.

The theoretical Congressman now pushes hard and manages to get his bill before the House before he needs to start campaigning again. It receives positive response and passes to the Senate. Wow! His work is done! He can spend the rest of his term Doing Good and then go back to the life of a citizen, secure in the knowledge that he’s served his constituency and the nation.

No. No, he can’t. Putting aside the fact that human beings are greedy creatures, even an ideal individual would have a rough time going back to their previous profession. Our retail manager would now need to find another job. It’s hard to imagine that his previous employer didn’t fill his position. And have you ever tried to jump back into work after a major injury keeps you sidelined for a few months? Imagine if it were 4 years. Especially today, the pace of industry is so rapid that it’s likely your knowledge is no longer applicable.

Where it Breaks Down

Even under the best possible circumstances, our legislative system is designed to create career politicians. Considering congressional income, not to mention benefits, there is no way that they can remain in touch with the average American. No matter how simply they live, there’s a difference between them and their constituents. Even if they grew up poor, they don’t know what it means to be poor today. The only people who can afford to lose office are those who were already wealthy.

I’ve heard people say that Congress should make minimum wage, or receive room and board but no pay, but how would that help? Then the only people who could afford to live while in office and put something away for the future would be those who were already wealthy. And the argument that raising the minimum wage would resolve that doesn’t address the issue that we want our best and brightest representing us. It would take a remarkably altruistic individual to sacrifice even a middling income for a subsistence wage at a job that (should be to someone with a conscience) is incredibly stressful.

Senators are up for election every 6 years, instead of 2. This means that they are generally able to be more productive, since they don’t have to campaign so often, but also that they’re even more susceptible to becoming a career politician, trapped in Congress, or at least in politics. The same situation occurs at every level of government above a city council, and possibly mayor in smaller municipalities.

Every few years the idea of congressional term limits is put forward and just as quickly shoved aside. While I’m not against the idea, I don’t think it addresses the root issue. It’s a cure that treats the symptom, not the cause, and still leaves us with only the wealthy being able to afford to take office.

The idea that an average individual can be elected to public office is unlikely. The idea that a public official can remain an average individual is impossible.

*I’ve only listed the congressional requirements at the federal level. Different states are allowed to have additional requirements. It should also be clear that the above scenario is incredibly simplified, but I feel that the point stands in reality. If anything it becomes worse (so very much worse) when you consider real world corruption and greed.
*Fun fact: Congress was originally given $6/day in session. Adjusted for inflation, the first Congressional salary (1855) of $3,000/year works out to about $85,000 in today’s money. That’s a nice salary, but not exorbitant.

The Myth of the Citizen-Statesman Pt 1

One of the things I was taught starting in elementary school was that the founding fathers of the United States broke from England seeking freedom and a desire to see the Americas ruled democratically, with the people represented by a vote. Anyone would be able to run for office and could be chosen to represent their peers. As I got older, of course I learned about the inherent prejudices and injustices of the time.

I’ll be talking about our actual constitution itself here and its context at the time, as opposed to what we’ve come to think of it. A mythology has sprung up around it, with its writers being granted near-divinity. While it is a wonderfully written one, it remains simply a document put on parchment and its framers were only human. They were not infallible, they were not necessarily altruistic, and in some cases were self-serving.

We are not, in any way, living in the nation that the founding fathers envisioned. In some ways this is good and in others bad, but the simple idea that we should make their intentions our primary concern when deciding law or policy is foolish.

The Right to Vote

There isn’t even any mention of an individual’s voting rights in the Constitution until the addition of the fourteenth amendment in 1868. Previous to that point, the only mention of how voting would take place was in reference to the electoral college in the twelfth. Everything else was left up to the individual states.

Some voting laws can be understood. Age restrictions were put in place to help ensure that people choosing their leaders were mature enough to weigh the decision. A literacy requirement, in historical context, was meant to keep the process accessible to those who could be informed of the issues in a time before radio and television (this is a “benefit of the doubt” view, as the laws were terribly misused later). A requirement that a voter be a citizen made, and still makes, sense. Then, there are the other laws.

Black men weren’t guaranteed the right to vote by federal law for nearly a century after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, though some states did provide the right on their own. Women did not receive federal protections for their voting rights until 1920, though again there were already some states and territories that recognized women’s votes. Asians, Mexicans, and native Americans didn’t get the right to vote until years later, with Japanese immigrants being the last to be specifically provided the rights of citizenship in 1952 and all naturalized immigrants from Mexico getting to vote in 1975.

I learned about all of those things during my schooling, even if some were only presented as a footnote. Do you know what I didn’t learn until I did my own research? Citizenship and voting rights were tied to property ownership. It took 44 years for the ownership of land to be removed at the federal level as a requirement for the vote. However, the requirement was not barred at the local level.

It’s barely been 50 years since poll taxes were forbidden in the Constitution, and fewer since a federal law was put in place that banned literacy tests. Though neither expressly forbids the requirement of property ownership as a pass to vote, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 effectively barred it by assumption.

Why Does This Matter?

Americans are raised being told that at the root of our system of government is our inalienable right to vote. “No taxation without representation!” was the rallying cry of the American Revolution and every citizen deserved to be heard. We’re told that our system of government was designed of the people, for the people, and by the people.

I submit the above as evidence that that has never, ever been true. It began with only the wealthy being enfranchised. In today’s terms, that means approximately 30% of Americans could not cast a vote based on property ownership. No one you know who is a renter would be heard.

The Continental Congress was made up of old rich white men and they framed a system of government that they could control through voting rights.

  1. Old – one had to be at least 21 years of age to vote. At the time the life expectancy was not yet 40 years. I feel it is important to note that the minimum age for impressment or conscription at the time was sixteen.
  2. Rich – only the owners of property could cast a vote.
  3. White – only white people could vote. Asians, native Americans, and free blacks received no protection of that right under federal law.
  4. Men – if you didn’t have a penis you did not choose your representation.

These truths are self evident. While it had been written that all men were afforded the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, only the wealthy ones were allowed to vote on what those things meant. Instead of nobility, our new nation was ruled by a wealthy elite. The argument that the Congress did not wish to infringe on states’ rights to govern themselves rings hollow when one considers that the first amendment provides the right of all citizens to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” So, the poor were allowed to ask, but the rich were allowed to tell.

I’d like to say that there are innumerable individuals with more knowledge than I on this subject. I claim no expertise on state or federal law or precedent, and this is based entirely on my interpretation of the little I am familiar with.
*http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.html The Constitution of the United States. I nearly didn’t link this, because it can be found so easily. Personally, I have it on my phone.
*http://archive.fairvote.org/righttovote/timeline.htm my primary source for changes to voters’ rights, outside of those in the US Constitution.
*I was unable to locate a solid source confirming the age of conscription/impressment during the Revolutionary War. I found a few references to fifteen-year-olds fighting and being eligible to join the Continental Army, but most stated sixteen.